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June 05, 2012


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David Poland

"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."

For me, this was always the central point of discussion. Not being in love with Dave Eggers and/or his work (which for the record... not).

"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."

I agree 100%.

But I guess I am still the asshole, if that's what gets you through the night.

Glenn Kenny

If you'll examine the above, the word "asshole" is never used.

For the record, I don't think Poland's an asshole. I don't even know the man. I know that in my days as a drunk I gave him a lot of crazy shit, and I'm sorry for that. And no, he's not my favorite prose stylist, but I do have some actual respect for him. I do enjoy giving him shit though, even sober. But I don't think he's an asshole. He does project a lot though.

Aden Jordan

Great post, sir. I think you did a very thoughtful job of connecting an on-going debate on what criticism is and what its value is to your own personal and professional motivations and development as a critic.

I recently read "Ranters and Crowd Pleasers", which is a collection of music essays by Greil Marcus. A significant amount of the essays relate social and political trends (particularly during the Reagan years) to the music Marcus covers. None of the pieces in the book are clear reviews, but instead place the different bands and albums in larger cultural contexts. I enjoyed the book, and I'm mentioning it because it strikes the same chord you are talking about- that considerate, in-depth criticism is deeper than more complicated than just knocking off what is 'good' or 'bad' (to the critic) about a piece of media when it first hits the theaters, bookshelves, or cd bins.

Stephen Whitty

Marvelous piece, Glenn.

I do think that many of us have, at one point or another, worked on films, or had scripts produced. And sometimes that's helpful and sometimes it's not.

But it's as equally reductive -- and useless -- to say that only people who have failed at filmmaking become critics as it is to say that only people who have made films can become critics.

You don't have to be a chicken to know when the omelet's overcooked. You don't even have to be someone who ever wanted to run a restaurant. You just have to have eaten omelets before, and have an idea of what they should taste like.

James Keepnews

Yeah, what a shame Manny Farber never worked on a film. Which is why Rex Reed will always be the superior critic.

Tom Block

Scott did okay but I do wish he'd asked Carr to name some damn names. Who--exactly--are these killjoys and mind-control freaks? You'd think that as sure as Carr is of the rightness of his opinions that he'd be able to rattle off a whole string of examples, and not just settle on the two critics who happened to pan his own book.


A side note, but since I'm reading Nabokov's STRONG OPINIONS your skewering the butterfly line made me laugh out loud...

Bill Desowitz

Film criticism was my first love and I had the opportunity to be mentored by Chuck Champlin when I interned at the LA Times. I've evolved journalistically into more of a feature writer, but I still pride myself on my analytical skills. But to me there's nothing more stimulating than being inspired by a movie and articulating a personal response that perhaps has universal resonance. I believe there is a symbiotic relationship between movies and critics and we act as a bridge. But I'll never forget what my father told me when I asked him to define art: He said it taught us something new about ourselves and put us closer in touch with our humanity. That, I think, is what the best criticism aspires to be as well, and it is no less relevant today.


Terrific piece, Glenn, why I like coming to the site.

And maybe I'm giving Mr Carr too much credit because I enjoy his writing and suspect I would like the man personally if I ever met him, but did anyone else think he was saying what he was saying more as a rhetorical stance than anything else? Like he's saying these things because he half-believes them but mostly just wants to kick them around as ideas for the podcast, and see what Scott has to say in response, and all the more grist for the discussion mill.

I don't know. I might be wrong, but it's just the feeling I got. Have you seen the NY Times documentary from last year, the way David Carr shuts down those self-aggrandizing doofuses at Vice magazine? It's hard for me not to love the man for that.

Tony Dayoub

"Have you seen the NY Times documentary from last year, the way David Carr shuts down those self-aggrandizing doofuses at Vice magazine? It's hard for me not to love the man for that."

The flip side is Carr might be one of those guys that approaches every person and every topic in the same manner. That is, he could see himself as the self-appointed guy whose job it is to target individuals or vocations as "self-aggrandizing" and "shut them down."

Given his usual cynicism/snark, I'm not sure this possibility is completely out of the realm.

Andrew Wyatt

The "Those Who Can't Do, Critique" canard irks me, not only because it's a non sequitur, but also because it doesn't apply to me at all. I'm not interested in directing or writing or shooting or acting in a film. I'm not a creative type. I don't have a screenplay in me, or a play, or a novel. I don't write criticism because I failed at what I "really" wanted to do. I write criticism because--surprise, surprise--I like writing criticsm, and I am at least notionally good at it. God forbid my writing should be judged on its own merits, for its observations and arguments and analysis. But since I've never done anything "in film" (other than, you know, writing about it for four years, and even getting paid a paltry sum for it now!), I guess I should turn in my Emperor of All Things Good and Horrible badge and go hang my head in shame.

David Ehrenstein

Rex Reed writes criticism on the side. His made preoccupation is producing cabaret (which he's quite good at. See the NYT review of his recnet Ira Gershwin tribute.)

I have met David Poland.

My favorite film critics are Raymond Durgnat, Michael Mourlet, Jean-Louis Schefer, Guillermo Cabrera-Infante, Roland Barthes and Manny.

Manny starred in a documentary by Jean-Pierre Gorin.

Barthes played William Makepeace Thackery in "The Bronte Sisters" wirtten and directed by his boyfriend Andre Techine.

Bill Desowitz

I remember Kenneth Tynan remarking at a Welles tribute that you don't have to drive the car to know the way...

Andrew Wyatt


More to the point, you don't need to have worked as an design engineer at BMV to observe that a car's handling can be sluggish at high speeds, or that the layout of the dashboard is not especially ergonomic. I wonder it this would invite snorting from those engineers, "You don't know what you're talking about. Have you ever even *built* a car?"

Art isn't engineering, of course, but still.

Jim Gabriel

I thought Carr was just being "provocative" too, until he showed his ass regarding the hits he took for "Night of the Gun." It's rich that a reporter who makes his living calling out the powerful and always has the Heat/Kitchen retort at the ready for them would react to criticism of his own work in such a childish fashion.

This line's older than dirt and displays the same cluelessness of the wherefores of craft (and, yes, art) that the accuser levels at the critic! No one would take seriously a person who couldn't tell a lick of difference between Dennis Dugan and, who, *Bergman*, and I don't see why one who is ignorant of the gulf between Cole Smithey and Jim Hoberman should be given anything more than the back of the hand.

Almost forgot - nice back of the hand, there, Proprietor...

Evelyn Roak

These old canards about the underpinning and impulse of criticism get trotted out over and over, and never ring any truer. Then they get momentarily brushed aside by fresh ones (that critics are too enthralled to the past, that even well-argued critique is willfully oblivious to the new for some concocted personal reason) but these conjectures reveal the same failures; a dismissal of criticism as a valid undertaking in its own right. These attacks come from high and low and are as spurious and shortsighted on either end. There is a place for criticism and it isn’t at the kid’s table. It isn’t subservient and a footnote. It isn’t only valid when the critic was already “thinking like a filmmaker.” Criticism is valid in its own right (or in its uniqueness in concert with), in its own mode of thinking, in the voice and tenor of its own, in its very difference. But art isn’t alone, just as criticism isn’t alone.

(Discussing Kant, Stanley Cavell extrapolates one place and purpose of criticism that continues and joins this conversation: “Criticism, which…articulates the grounds in a thing upon which agreement is demanded, after the fact of pleasure, bears a new responsibility for the resuscitation of the world, of our aliveness to it.”)

These false standards and dismissals set up criticism to always be a failure. When the best it can do is second-citizen, when the uniqueness of the thought of criticism is dismissed outright then it will always seem wanting and be brushed aside too easily. What is productive is grasping the difference (though a difference-ness of togetherness not isolation and negation) of criticism from film so as to acknowledge their mutual conversation and that this begets something greater than either may offer in an imposed solitude.
This difference can itself create something new (not simply art vs. criticism or art and criticism). As Deleuze and Guattari write in “What Is Philosophy?”: “Philosophy needs a nonphilosophy that comprehends it; it needs a nonphilosophical comprehension just as art needs nonart and science needs nonscience…It is here that…philosophy, art, and science become indiscernible, as if they shared the same shadow that extends itself across their different nature and constantly accompanies them.”

Or, shorter, that famed Manny Farber quote:
"Every time I’m asked that question, about why I don’t make films, I get mad because they don’t think what I’m doing is worthwhile: that it’s unimportant to do criticism or to do painting. And that’s what drives me crazy. I like to write criticism and I like to paint. When, someone asks me that question, that’s the only thing I can think of: Fuck you, I’m doing what I want to do. It seems silly to do something else."

Andrew Wyatt

That's a great Farber quote, Evelyn. It crystallizes my own reaction whenever I am asked if I'm "really" as aspiring filmmaker.

Not to get all Grandpa Simpson here or anything, but it seems as though the Interwebs have served as a double-edged sword. The alleged "democratizing" effect of the Web has undeniably improved access to and platforms for good criticism, but also enhanced the effectiveness of the "That's just, like, your opinion, man" attack on good critics. The "democratization" metaphor creates the illusion that everyone's assessment of a film is equal, like a vote in an election, and therefore the incoherent gushing (or grousing) or a commenter on Rotten Tomatoes is "just as valid" as A.O. Scott's well-crafted and well-reasoned reviews, essays, and so forth. There's no need to actually engage with Scott's arguments, to challenge them or scrutinize them for fallacies of their own. Now one can just impugn his motives, and point out that lots of people like something that he loathes (or is just lukewarm on!), as if that were an argument. The access that the Web has provided for great criticism (and great inter-critic dialogue) is invaluable, but the price is apparently that hefty swaths of the consumer population couldn't care less about actual criticism, and treat cinema like a kind of tribal warfare or sports team rivalry.

Or has this always been the case?


Boy, if you liked what Eggers said about critics, you're gonna LOOOVE what Mamet thinks...

Probably most folks in here, Glenn included, already know what I'm talking about. Being an artistic type myself, aspiring and such, I've always had an uneasy relationship to art criticism (and especially the film variety), although as I get older (and hopefully, wiser & less insecure) I like to think that I've developed into a discerning lover of great criticism, as I think any person who cares about art should be. I always read criticism, but it used to make me feel generally dumb and wrong in my opinions (or right but alone). Now I know better.

Which is one reason why I read this blog. Great piece, Glenn.

FWIW, for me it does seem that criticism is best in smallish doses, and I'm still not as widely read as I probably should be in many of the big names mentioned here. I'll just chime in that for me, DFW was among other things a great critic - his piece on Lynch is one of the best works of film criticism I've ever read. I find that I've come to admire Brody's criticism quite a bit as of late, which has been surprising to me. Kent Jones' stuff is always great. And while he might not have much to say about film, that Shjeldahl is some kind of critic, isn't he?

*Oh, and I think that while his bailiwick isn't exactly criticism per se (it seems to be somewhere in the ether of history, theory, and philosophy) Lewis Hyde writes some of the most staggeringly awesome stuff about art since, I don't know, Aristotle. My two cents.


"which kind of proceeds from Carr's misapprehension that the function of criticism is buzzkill."

Critics just need to be NICER to make Carr happy. Why can't you like more movies, Glenn, regardless of the merits? Seems like a small thing to ask...

David Ehrenstein

Carr is a reformed junkie. Junkies are wildly paranoid about control. Therefore while smack may be a thing of the past for Carr the junkie mentality remains.

warren oates

I am a former child. Children are wildly childish. Childhood may be a thing of the past but my childish mentality remains.

Tom Block

Zacharek laid off from Movieline and her position eliminated. That should make Carr's day.


Tom Carson

I know Carr slightly and like him very much, and I'm reasonably sure he was actually throwing big, fat softballs Scott's way by deliberately playing the yahoo and hitting him with all the stupid things people think criticism is about. I mean, nobody could think Carr "won" that debate, and most likely he had no intention of trying. Very clever man, really.

David Ehrenstein

Not really. Not clever. Just smug.

Noam Sane

Goddamn that was a fun movie. Some lines were clunkers, some action sequences hard to follow, certain plot points were kinda dopey...it wasn't perfect, but it was the most fun I've had at the thee-ater in a while.

For what it's worth, I thought Shutter Island and Inception both sucked eggs, so it's nice to walk out of a presumed blockbuster, smiling.

Seriously, though, Scott shouldn't talk up his films before they're released? An artist shouldn't get excited about his or her art? Caveat emptor and shit.

Cole Smithey

It's embarrassing as a critic to watch Carr and Scott savor the smell of their own farts. You can't really tell who's the most insufferable of the two—they're both just atrocious human beings.


A pull from David Poland's response on the linked "Must Read: Dave Eggers etc."

"I read it as a call for critics to understand that they are writing about someone’s good intentions, not an abstraction."

This line of reasoning makes my brain scream. I have no idea how one is supposed to write about a creator's intentions. Not in a realistic way. It's fun to guess at what someone "meant by" this or that. It's even a path that can get you deeper into a work, as long as you realize that the motives which you are ascribing are exactly that, your own, projected. But if we are to judge the intentions of the film maker (and not the film that they have made) does that mean that the most passionate creator made the best work?

As an aside, I can guarantee that it does not. I have seen people literally set themselves on fire for no budget B-movies. I have seen people brave snake infested swamps for a walk on role in a slasher film. I have seen actors show up, after working a "real job", act literally until dawn the next day on mumblecore dramas, and then head back into the office. If "good intentions" meant anything, all of these people would have Oscars.

I say "bullshit". If I work my ass off on a project that sucks, I want to hear about it. It's understood that the creator had "good intentions". We all understand that no project is started by someone who wants to fail. By someone who wishes to poorly communicate with their audience. But, if someone takes the time to truly engage with a work, and they lay out their own biases, and then they tell me why the piece didn't speak to them? That is invaluable, that helps me understand my work, myself, and how those two things relate.

Evelyn Roak

Spartickles: which leads to this: "Criticism is, at best, contacting the spark, the idea, the inspiration, the creative moment, the inner life from which the work arises, followed by working outward to see how the work became that which it is—in effect, re-living the artist’s creative process.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2011/11/redeeming-criticism.html#ixzz1y3vEpAtC? "

I think this dovetails just perfectly with the following post about the same author (and is essentially an extrapolation of, one of, Carr's position (s)).

I think the above concept of criticism is phony baloney. I believe I have further thoughts on the matter on that very post, so you can see them there, but suffice to say it exemplifies the issues I stated above about degrading criticism by denying it its own qualities.

That Fuzzy Bastard

Well, I guess if one believes "There’s no such thing as 'bad acting' or 'sloppy blocking' or 'bad lines'", then it makes sense to approve of Clint Eastwood's movies.

But more seriously---it's hard to say if Brody means one tries to attain imaginative sympathy with the artist as in "the person who grew up in such-and-such and met so-and-so and was on set every day", more the artist in the auteurist sense, the necessary fiction of "the mind that created this picture". Entering into imaginative sympathy with why each decision was made is a big part of criticism, though of course it has very little to do with what most critics actually do on a day-to-day basis.

Evelyn Roak

But, in what way is a productive criticism's Platonic end "re-living the artist's creative process"? I grasp the auteurist directive but even in that model the focus is not simply on discovering and explicating intent (though it is in the parody of auteurism). As I tried to detail, this necessarily makes criticism subservient, it's best function to explicate and not converse. And why the "working outward"? This prioritizes a certain myth of artistic inspiration, neglecting a multitude of other factors. Of course I believe in a criticism that engages with the creative mind, but not one that is bowled over and merely translating it. Simply working inward is not the answer either, as it still is a search for an earlier moment of thought, though it does at least take as a focal point the work itself, not simply the process of creation. Is grasping how the thought came to be really more important than the thought itself?

Further, in the longer work, Everything Is Cinema, there is a dangerous drawing out of this method in which the entirety of an oeuvre is read as and reduced to autobiography, and all too often focused on the physical and libidinal, neglecting the more amorphous thought, finding romantic longing when the meaning is philosophical or political (working outward leading to an avoidance of confronting thought). Imaginative sympathy here ends up belittling and dismissing analysis and the actual (otherly productive) work of criticism (and evidence), the search for the kernel of creation butting up against and contradicting what is actually there.

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