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December 02, 2006

Film Criticism and Films, Criticized

This is my minute contribution to Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon, which has otherwise yielded an appropriately unprecedented number of excellent contributions over the past two days.

I'm going to hopefully be writing (and/or conversing) in the near future about the lopsided game of tug-of-war I've created for myself by trying to develop some level of skill on both sides of the silver screen. It's a risky conflict of interests. For all the Godards and Truffauts and all those other cahier writers, there's a critic who makes the "descent from inviolate analysis to the humiliating trials of craft" (as David Denby wrote of Susan Sontag last year). Meanwhile, at the Berlinale two years ago, Peter Cowie suggested in a panel on film criticism that aspiring filmmakers with an eye towards stepping on as few toes as possible might consider limiting their critical writings to retrospectives.

I haven't exactly followed that advice - partially because I don't believe good criticism has to step on any toes. Which leads me to the brief admonition at hand. I don't believe a critic is beholden to any proprietry towards a filmmaker, save for the one they also their readers: write well.

And by well, I supposed I include being considerate, if not necessarily nice. I remember getting the first really negative review of Deadroom, which also happened to be our first review, period. It was derisive, it was snide, and it was frustrating, mostly because it was printed on the eve of our premiere and could have curbed attendance; but also because we couldn't dismiss it. It was the best and worst of slams, because it was pretty smart. The author presented a perspective on our film that we hadn't yet considered, didn't want to consider, but which was too well put to ignore - or to really be upset with. In other words, it engaged us, which is precisely what good criticism should do, regardless of the polarity of the piece, and regardless of who it is reading it.

And what marks bad criticism, from my filmmaker's perspective? It's any work by a writer who's forgotten that his or her form is just as much an art as mine. Which of course leads me back to the fact that I've been put in a somewhat tricky position by straying back and forth between those forms. But that's another post for another day in the not too distant future; for now, I'll just say that being a filmmaker has given me an invaluable perspective on criticism, but that the mutuality pretty much ends there.

Posted by David Lowery at December 2, 2006 10:42 PM


David: I love your Denby quote. Sometimes when a critic gets much too snide for no good reason other than to indulge the Roman ease of thumbs-up, thumbs-down perspectives, I want them to become a filmmaker--not in another life--but in this one; to be on the other side. I admire the breadth of your sensibility and your practice of being both filmmaker and film critic. Good luck on the dance.

Posted by: Maya at December 4, 2006 02:59 AM

I like your insight from both side of the fence! humble and lucid.
What is this Berlinale panel? Have you got a reference, a link or a transcript? I'm always interested to read such roundtables on film criticism.

Posted by: HarryTuttle at December 6, 2006 08:33 AM

The panel was one on film criticism at the 2005 Berlinale Talent Campus. I think there used to be some video for it online, but I can't find it now. Joining Cowie in the discussion was Michel Ciment and a Chinese critic whose name I now forget. It was one of the better panels I attended there.

Posted by: Ghostboy at December 6, 2006 11:59 AM

Cool! Thanks for the infos, I'll look it up.

Posted by: HarryTutte at December 8, 2006 04:41 AM