HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE CRITICS

AND LOVE THE CRITICS
Berlinale Talent Campus 2004

One couldn’t exist without the other, but nevertheless there is some fundamental scepticism between filmmakers and film critics. While the first sometimes feel personally attacked, the latter often believe they are being misunderstood or not taken seriously. How can a film be judged? Are there any “objective” criteria for writing a review? Why do people want to become a film critic and how important is their work for the success or failure of a film? As part of the Berlinale Talent Campus, this public panel discussion brought together the young film journalists of the Talent Press with filmmakers Ken Loach (UK) and Jens Meurer (Germany) and the critics Derek Malcolm (UK), Aruna Vasudev (India) and Chris Fujiwara (USA) to analyse the responsibility of the critic and the ambivalent relationship between the two professions. The session was moderated by the journalist and author Peter Cowie.

Some of the participants of THE TALENT PRESS, eleven young critics and film journalists, wrote about the panel discussion:

All at once and out loud!

The panel discussion “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Critics” sparked off some great discussions among the participants and the Talent Press. Almost all of them, experienced critics as well as most of the young journalists, were more concerned with the dominating discourses in dominant cinema, which is identified with Hollywood. This situation, which is common for each of our national contexts, seemed to be upsetting for all of us. However, we were also convinced that as critics, who are in a position to write and work in a framework including all the different aspects of cinema, it is necessary today more than ever to speak out and to write on what we think of as important. We are living in a time that is far away from being definite; rather, we are facing a fast, newly emerging world cinema scene which is sometimes blurred and difficult to identify. It is interesting to see that contemporary cinema is still largely characterised by the existing relations of hegemony between the mainstream and the independent. However, today’s cinema developments also show us that these realms do not entirely oppose or confront each other. Instead, they might coincide at times, only in different ways, or transgress each other’s acknowledged boundaries, interpreting different aspects of the existing cultural climate.

Therefore, the present situation of cinema needs constant redefinition, even reconstruction on many levels and film critics should play an important role in this task. To be an advocate of alternative or independent film will only be possible by also speaking of the mainstream; positioning one not necessarily against but in relation to the other. This process will inevitably bring the necessity of positioning ourselves as film critics and it will be incomplete without collaborating with people from other fields, like production and academia. Neither of us can afford the luxury of ignoring the others’ voices. Cinema takes place outdoors and it is necessary now, more than ever, to share our knowledge and enthusiasm in order to understand what is really going on, to historicize and to speak out loud. Whatever the obstacles may be in film criticism, film studies or film production, they can be turned into a potential, if they are revealed and turned into a shared experience. We, as the Talent Press, stand as the evidence for this. Övgü Gökce, Turkey

Why are the critics criticised?

Telling people that you’re a film critic will usually elicit one of two responses. The first goes along the lines of ‘Wow, what a great job. You get to sit around doing nothing but watch films all day.’ The second runs something like ‘You complete and utter bastard’ and is reserved for directors, producers and just about anyone else in the film industry that has been burned with a scathing review or barbed comment. Whichever one it is, it shows a general lack of regard for the role of the film critic in the grand scheme of cinema. Are we passionate defenders of the most important art form of the twentieth century or a bunch of egoists leeching off the hard work of others in order to see our name in print?

Certainly, ever since the glory days of the ‘Cahiers Du Cinema’, it’s become progressively harder for film journalism to gain respect. As the space devoted to cinema in newspapers and other outlets progressively dwindles and much debate about film reduced to soundbites from celebrity critics who know little about their subject in the first place, it’s become easy to - well - criticise film criticism. So, imagine my surprise when I found out about the ‘Talent Press’ a programme run in conjunction with the Berlinale Talent Campus and Fipresci. Designed to give young film critics and journalists from around the world the opportunity to hone their craft with the help of experienced critics such as Peter Cowie and Derek Malcolm, it gives young journalists a chance to know that they’re not necessarily working in a bubble and that their job can be both respected and important. The words ‘respected’ and ‘important’ being used alongside film journalism. What a shock.

Not as much of a shock as when I found out that I’d got on to ‘The Talent Press’. So, there I was, with ten other people, ready to take on the world (or at least the Berlinale) and show them what film journalism was really about. Of course, our experienced mentors tempered my - somewhat overactive - enthusiasm with sage advice about my writing and plenty of useful tips about where my career was going. It was certainly more useful advice than one well known actor - admittedly after more than a couple of drinks - who recommended that I “get another f**king job.” See what I was saying about a lack of respect…

As wonderful as the mentors were, one of the greatest parts of ‘The Talent Press’ was meeting ten like-minded from countries as wide ranging as Hong Kong, Turkey, Romania and Australia. Passionate discussions about movies, the film industries of our respective countries and everything else under the sun raged long into the night. And, boy, were some of those nights long. But it’s amazing to know that there are people who have the same love and devotion to film that you do - and who know that being a film journalist can be important.

We were told that one of the most important aspects of our jobs is getting people to go and experience movies that they may never have heard of and this is undoubtedly true. With so little of what is made getting an actual distribution deal, there are a number of great films that disappear without trace. To be able to write about something and get people to see it may be something of a dream - as the papers demand a five page spread for the latest action blockbuster - but it is something that is possible.

I would hope that ‘The Talent Press’ is the start of something that shows those who don’t understand, what a good film critic and journalist is. Someone who has a knowledge and a passion about cinema and - instead of tearing it down - wants people to experience good movies no matter where they go. I know of at least ten young film critics who fulfil this criteria admirably. Laurence Boyce, UK

The Creativity of Film Criticism

At the ‘Talent Press’ there was a great deal of debate about the nature and role of film criticism. In particular, the responsibilities of the critic were discussed in relation to cinema-goers and directors, as was the ability of an influential critic to make or break a film. I can’t help thinking, however, that these views which position critiques as stepping stones in the machinations of marketing forces, have the potential to drain much of the vitality from criticism. In stark contrast to this practical, almost socio-economic role, I believe it is possible to detect within the activity of film criticism something deeply creative. For me, this creative activity begins with the simple act of cinema-going. The act of sitting down in a darkened space and watching a series of ephemeral and ethereal images flicker before my retina and impress themselves upon my mind. Some theorists have equated this experience with the act of dreaming, but I tend to equate the space of the cinema with a womb, but a womb always suspended and frozen in time, a womb into which I step, leaving one foot in the familiar universe and the other foot resting on an abyss that attracts me. Balancing with one foot on existence and one foot on non-existence I peer into a film as deeply as I can, and this peering-in is always an activity of heightened or deepened creativity before it is a critical analysis or evaluation.

I’m well aware that the essentially creative role I claim for film criticism runs counter to the conventional view held by many, a view well-articulated by American literary critic George Steiner when he writes, “The critic lives at second-hand. He writes about. The poem, the novel or the play must be given to him; criticism exists by the grace of other men’s genius.” This view positions criticism as inherently parasitic, as something dependent upon the creativity of others. It tends to blind people to the role of the critic as a creator and leaves us with a portrait of them as a reiterater or clarifier. There’s certainly truth in this statement, but my own experience as a critic tells me it’s not the whole truth. When Pauline Kael says, “I regard criticism as an art form”, I take her at her word. If artists can be defined by their desire or need to express their feelings, thoughts and responses to others by finding objects which act as stimuli for, or embodiments of, what they want to express, how is it possible to keep the critic outside this category? How is it possible not to recognise a film as such an object, as the stimuli that awakens slumbering emotions, emotions the critic may desire to put onto the page not simply because it’s his or her job, but because there’s a need to express their personal responses to the universe in which they find themselves. What I’m trying to say is that as I listened to the discussions on the responsibilities of the critic and their ability to make or break a film, I felt that the importance of these things weighed less with me than the feeling that, at the heart of it all, the critic is a person who brings to the darkness of the cinema their own shapeless word, and may, if they’re lucky, find in film a place and a moment where it comes into being. Saul Symonds, Australia