So for some reason or other the "film criticism, que-est-ce-que c'est" question is heating up again, in venues far and wide. First it's the topic of discussion between the ever-insouciant David Carr and my screening-room buddy A.O. Scott at the New York Times' new kinda-video-podcast series "The Sweet Spot," which kind of proceeds from Carr's misapprehension that the function of criticism is buzzkill. Mr. Scott strives mightily to correct Carr's misapprehension, to very little avail, if the cutaways to Carr squinting in apparent disbelief are to be believed. "You're just defending your posse," the intelligent but querelous Carr parries, and it's a measure of how much film critics in particular are disrespected that Carr seems so much more willing to buy Roberta Smith's rationale for the existence of criticism rather than Scott's. Never mind that seven minutes and change is hardly sufficient time to really begin to address the question of what criticism actually IS, its ideal form, its history, how it both interesects with and differs from the practice of "reviewing" and so on.
The video spurred some social-media rumination from the ever laid-back and relaxed and terse movie blogger and entertainment journalist watchdog David Poland, who, on discovering a further rumination from my friendly acquaintance Michelle Dean, which quoted the infamous "Don't be critics, you people, I beg you" screed from Saint Dave Eggers, jumped on that shit like he'd just dug up a new Dead Sea Scroll (the Eggers piece in question is over a decade old, but no matter), and wrote up this commendation of it. Which in turn led to a really quite fascinating and ongoing comments thread which features, among other things, a lively exchange in which writer and scripter Drew McWeeney presses Poland to name the movie he actually worked on that apparently gives him, David Poland, the Sacred Dave Eggers Dispensation To Write Movie Criticism Because He's Actually Worked On A Movie. (In case you'd like more than just an inference, by the way, I'll come right out and say it: I have a lot of friends and colleagues in common with Eggers, etcetera, but I think that riff about critics and criticism is one of the bigger barrels of horseshit I've ever fallen face-first into, and it's pretty damn hippy-dippy horseshit at that. Examination and or analysis, which I figure to be the two key features of real criticism, do not amount to the same thing as sticking a pin through a butterfly's innards. Of course examination and or analysis don't really figure in a lot of stuff calling itself criticism these days, but that's hardly the point. The assertion that the critical impulse derives from the worst part of the self is itself absolutely despicable and nothing but a glob of Egger's own phlegmy resentment, of what I have no idea I'm sure.)
What comes out most plainly in this particular wash (and what a messy wash it is) is Poland's own aiding and abetting of an old myth about critics, that is, those who can't do, criticise. And, more specifically in this field, that every film critic is somehow a failed filmmaker. Poland actually comes out and admits that he "ended up in journalism and criticism, which I never wanted." He hastens to add "but I loved the idea of what would become The Hot Button." Yeah, me too. While Poland's admissions are apt to confirm the prejudices of critic-haters everywhere, I should like to say that, speaking strictly for myself, I did not enter criticism as a failed filmmaker.
Or did I? See this post for some background. And savor again the immortal line "There's nothing wrong with getting a hard-on in a movie theater." (And, if you're wondering how Danny Amis is doing, well, he's better these days; see here.) The Beach Movie experience was instructive, but did it sour me off the film business? I can't say it did; a move to L.A. was something I never considered, then or ever after. Before it, and after it, I was an avid reader of criticism and a spotty writer of material that I thought aspired to criticism. My heroes were Lester Bangs (whose band I saw a few times at CBGB; one of said bands had Billy Ficca on drums; Billy now plays in Gods and Monsters with my great friend Gary Lucas), James Wolcott, and Robert Christgau, among others. While I dicked around with making music in the late '70s/early '80s (and am currently dicking around with music again, and with the same group of dicks, or at least some of them), my biggest ambition at that time, I'm not kidding, was to write about rock and roll, in the Village Voice, and have Robert Christgau as my editor. And in 1984, at 24 years of age, I fulfilled that ambition. I wrote about the album The Naked Shakespeare, by Peter Blegvad (whose now-adult daughter, Kaye, a wonderful artist in her own right, who was not yet a gleam in Peter's eye when Shakespeare was made,I'm having coffee with tomorrow); a record Bob Christgau didn't like too much but which I had hectored him into allowing me to review over a correspondance beginning in the summer of 1983. Having thus acheived my ambition, I somehow had to fill out the rest of my professional life. Sigh. I did a lot of work as an editor, but criticism was something I always held as sacred even as I never really believed I was practicing it. To be entirely honest with you, I think in all the years I've been publishing, there's maybe two dozen pieces of mine that I could point to and say, "Yes, this is actual criticism." (One of those pieces is in this upcoming book.) I don't think reviewing and criticism are incompatible; indeed, they can't be. But reviewing, or deadline criticism if you want to call it that, has its own set of demands and stresses. To me, "real" criticism needs temporal and mental space to clear the field for a thorough examination OR, to go back to Eggers' imagery, to follow the "butterfly" on the path it takes. Or the work in question's pattern of reverberation if you will. This is not a realm where reviewing necessarily has the ABILITY to go.
But I love criticism, always have, and I love it as it was practiced by Baudelaire and I love it as it was practiced by David Foster Wallace and, well, and so on. I love it as it was practiced by Nick Tosches, even when he was writing about albums he never even listened to. I often tell people that I would have been happy to have aged into the Stanley Kaufmann of Premiere, had the magazine lasted. I am in complete concurrence with Manny Farber: "I can't imagine a more perfect art form, a more perfect career than criticism. I can't imagine anything more valuable to do, and I've always felt that way." SO in case you wonder why I tend to take the pulings and mewlings of pseud jagoff opinion-mongerers calling themselves "critics" so personal-like, well, it isn't JUST because I'm a reactive sorehead lunatic.
The current logistical irony is that, in the contemporary environment, I'm compelled to explore making a living in other forms of writing. One of which, as it happens, is....well, I imagine you can guess.
UPDATE: David Poland is, as you'll see in comments below, not thrilled with my characterization of him. Seriously, while I admit that I'm quite prone to going overboard when making sport of other writers, the point of this piece was not meant to be "David Poland's an asshole," or any such thing, and I regret having given the impression, if I did. I have my differences with Poland on a lot of things, including modes of expression, but I'm not in a position to make real judgments on the guy, and I do believe that if nothing else that his heart is in the right place, integrity wise. But as another man once said in a not-entirely dissimilar context, these are the jokes, people.