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Film Reviewing vs. Film Criticism: Rules Of Engagement

Bernard Hemingway, January, 2012

"In trusting, therefore to the sentence of a critic, we are in danger not only from that vanity which exalts writers too often to the dignity of teaching what they are yet to learn, from that negligence which sometimes steals upon the most vigilant caution, and that fallibility to which the condition of nature has subjected every human understanding, but from a thousand extrinsic and accidental causes of everything which can excite kindness or malevolence, veneration or contempt."

Samuel Johnson. The Rambler, February 1751

If the critic was once regarded as an expert in his or her field, the collapse of the distinction between high and low culture in the dis-establishmentarian 1960s, the end of Modernism in the 1970s, the rise of cultural relativism in the 1980s and the explosion of the internet in the 1990s and 2000s have yielded not so much a level playing field as a heterogeneous, fragmented landscape in which the notion of authoritative critical voices and fixed hierarchies of merit are as dated as manuals of etiquette and beauty pageants. The widely-voiced truism is that, these days, "everyone's a critic".

Or are they? Well, I don't believe so and this is why...

Imagine the film and its viewer as two physically separate wavelengths. Now imagine that when these wavelengths synchronize a harmonic resonance results which is experienced as pleasure by the viewer. Contrariwise when the two wavelengths fail to synchronise there results a pattern of interference experienced by the viewer as displeasure. This is an essentially inchoate, always subjective experience, an ever-changing interplay of emotional and intellectual alignments and re-alignments. All film, I would maintain, whether presenting itself as entertainment or art, affects the viewer in this way. That is, it produces a resonance (or lack thereof) that is roughly quantifiable on a spectrum typically defined by film reviewers as stretching from maximum pleasure (5) to maximum displeasure (0).

The film review is a reflection of this primary internal experience. It is an objectification or re-viewing of the immediate and holistic experience of an actual film viewing achieved through the post-hoc rationalizing processes of analysis, interpretation and evaluation of the viewer's memory of that experience. As such it is an index of a secondary level of viewer subjectivity. Although all post-viewing evaluation of a film can be included in this secondary level analysis, when it is published, whether in print, on radio, television or the internet, it becomes a review, or more appropriately, a "re-view", proper.

In order to substantiate this claim let us consider the main components that are involved in it: the film and the viewer who will eventually review it.

A film is a highly complex combination of writing, cinematography, music composition, costume and set design, sound and lighting, performance and directing, to name only the major inputs, recorded and combined on celluloid in sequential frames which are projected onto a screen at 24 frames per second for some 100 minutes during which, because of the limitations of the human brain in processing information, they appear to the viewer as a moving image.

The reviewer is someone who views the film usually only once, with no ability to rewind and replay, usually with no or limited corollary knowledge of it, and in the case of foreign language films, linguistic ignorance aside, sometimes not even its socio-cultural context. Film reviewers tackle any and all types of film - from horror to rom-coms, literary adaptations to action adventure, of any cultural origin, and may see two or even three widely heterogeneous styles of film in the same day. Needless to say unlike the law or chiropracty, film reviewing is a self-regulated activity with no training or formal qualifications required.

To return briefly to my resonance analogy you can see from the above broad descriptions that what I initially identified as two separate waves are in reality two wave bundles - on the one side, a stimulus carrying complex interrelationships of information and on the other, a receptor absorbing and processing that information through an equally complex system of cross-related receptors - emotional, intellectual, psychological, ideological, aesthetic, moral and so on.

The point which I want to establish here is that the film and its viewer are not two discrete, pre-determined entities but rather morphologically dynamic partners that shape each other. The "film" that will become the ostensible object of the review is not the physical object that that will return to its canister once projected but rather the phantom photoplay whose presentation of information must synthesised into a meaningful whole by the viewer who is at any given moment subject to Johnson's "thousand extrinsic and accidental causes of everything". This constitutive shaping occurs prior to any formal or secondary interpretation and evaluation that occurs in the "re-viewing" process. In other words, and without going into the psychology and epistemology of perception, the "film" as a nominal object is unique to each viewer. Thus we can qualify the film review as a partial re-presentation of an impression of an illusion.

Although circumstantial, before going any further it is worth considering the form of the review. The print review such as it has been established for the past 50-60 years remains the model for all film reviews, whatever the medium. It is traditionally around 500 words, half of which are given over to plot summary, leaving approximately 250 words to perform the key role of reasoned evaluation, usually summed up by the attribution of a star rating. One can readily see that the inadequacy of the review relative to the filmic raw material adds a tertiary level to its constitutive selectivity (or some might say, superficiality and bias), editorial expectations and incursions aside.

Under these circumstance it is easy to explain the seeming anomaly of inconsistent and diametrically opposed evaluations from peer reviewers.

Thus, take at random two views of Michael Rymer's Face To Face (2011). According to Andrew Urban in the Sydney Morning Herald: "The process is just talk but, based on actual resolution transcripts, David Williamson carved out a play that goes straight to the essence of the human condition. Writer-director Michael Rymer has adapted that into a powerful, engaging film that delivers insight and emotional punch". According to Jake Wilson the reviewer for sister Fairfax publication, The Age: "Michael Rymer's functional adaptation of a dreadful David Williamson play offers a view of workplace conflict that seems unlikely to satisfy anyone outside of a high-school English class."

Or take these two conflicting evaluations of Shai Pittman's portrayal of an indigenous woman doing it tough in Here I Am (2011). According to Philippa Hawker in The Age: "Pittman has a wonderfully eloquent presence, particularly when the camera contemplates her in close-up". However, in the view of stablemate Jim Schembri: "Karen is not only hard to like, she's bland, due largely to Pittman's emotionally monotone delivery."

So is Face To Face a "functional adaptation" or "a powerful, engaging film"? Is Pittman's performance "wonderfully eloquent" or "bland"? Clearly we cannot look to film reviewers for a answer. But to do so is fundamentally misguided because "the film" is not an independent, immutable object external to the reviewer. As we have seen by definition any evaluations are post-hoc rationalizations of the individual reviewer's unique primary positive (aesthetically pleasurable) or negative (aesthetically unpleasurable) experience.

The physical raw material, of course, remains identical in both cases but in order to validate their analysis the reviewers are eliding their own role in constituting the "film" or the "performance" that they are purporting to evaluate.

Film reviewing depends fundamentally on this convenient subterfuge and it is more than a little ironic, given this constitutive subjectivity, that evaluation is the end goal of the review. It is as if in the court of film reviewing, not only are the roles of investigating officer, witnesses, jury and judge all rolled into one but there is no process of appeal.

One might conclude that given the inherent bias of the film review that the reviewer might as well take full flight with his or her reflections and ruminations. But there is a kink in the tale here: lying behind the reviewer's work is the implicit assumption that he or she is trying to "get it right".

As much as the film review is grounded in the resonance of a unique experience, at the secondary level the reviewer is concerned with evaluating the film in terms of historically well-established criteria, criteria which, incidentally, are largely shared by the filmmakers who are at one time or another themselves film re-viewers (a connectivity most famously realized in the Cahiers Du Cinema /Nouvelle Vague group). To take a few examples of such criteria at random we might mention: narrative intelligibility, originality of concept, authenticity of performance, technical execution, mise-en-scene and so on.

But if these are normative and one might say, in every sense of the word, disciplinary expectations, the value and significance of any of these aspects and their relationship to each other in any film is fluid and determined in part by the film-maker (conventionally acknowledged in the role of the director) as the organizing intelligence of the raw material and in part by the film viewer as the organizing intelligence of the projected images. So although there is common set of criteria which reviewers implicitly or explicitly are relying upon in their determinations we are still in the realm of the subjective. What is narrative economy to one might be plot holes to another.

You may have noticed that I have assiduously confined my attention thus far to film reviewing. This is because my aim has been to disentangle the regularly conflated roles of the film reviewer and film critic. There is no hard and fast distinction between the two, indeed one person may perform both roles and both are exercising the subjectively-determined processes of interpretation and evaluation, but there is a distinction nevertheless.

If the film review speaks to the internal experience of the film viewer, who is essentially concerned with film as a once-off experience, film criticism is concerned with film in relation to broader considerations.

Unlike the film review, film criticism is not exclusively concerned with the viewer's unique experience of a single film. It is often dependant on multiple viewings and the critic's special interpretive interests, it looks at any single film in relation to other films. It is concerned with meaning and significance within some specified frame of reference such as genre or auterial style and, with a much larger word count, it is more thoroughgoing in its analysis and arguments. Above all, unlike the film review, it is systematic, articulating its interpretive criteria and justifying its evaluations comparatively. It is this comparative aspect in particular which makes film criticism an ongoing discourse as opposed to the essentially ephemeral practice of film reviewing.

Film criticism as a discourse that permutes in time and space shapes the filmic landscape by regularly re-visiting and re-evaluating its features in the light of both intra-filmic and extra-filmic considerations. Thus, it is only through the processes of critical evaluation and re-evaluation that Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), which was not regarded particularly highly by critics on its release, has come to enjoy its present status. Similarly Hitchcock enjoys his auteurial standing today thanks to re-evaluations of the Cahiers Du Cinema group of critics. Going in the opposite direction, Petulia (Richard Lester, 1968), which was regarded by the leading critics as one of the best, and in some cases THE best, film of the decade 1968-1977, rubbing shoulders with The Godfather, Nashville, Annie Hall, Mean Streets, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wild Bunch, has now disappeared from the critical radar.

Whilst I am attributing greater value to the deliberations of film criticism this is only because its evaluative criteria are more specialized and discursively connected as opposed to the ultimately solipsistic opinings of the film review. This however only implicates it in another pre-disposing set of values.

Thus, according to both the British Film Institute's poll of the Greatest Films of all time and the American Film Institute's Top 100 of All Time (American films only), Citizen Kane is the best film ever made. But whilst according to the BFI, Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) is the second best film ever made, for the American Film Institute that encomium goes to Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). With a different constituency, one less enamoured of French critical opinion, the Americans put Vertigo at No 62. If this kind of discrepancy can be attributed to many causes at least some are attributable to cultural bias and the influence of peer group pressure and all that that implies. In other words, film criticism is still always dependant on the individual's particular priorities.

So does this mean that even with film criticism we are simply drifting on the tide of opinion? I do not think so. Although the preoccupation with "the best" is unfortunate (a claim that Picasso's Guernica is the "best" painting ever painted or that Bach's 'St Matthew Passion' the "best" choral work ever written sounds rather ridiculous in its aesthetic irrelevancy) and is perhaps a spillover from the rankings-oriented evaluations of film reviewing, there is a sense in which criticism is aspirational - generally speaking it aims to determine the highest achievements of film as a cultural artifact and most importantly to perpetuate those achievements beyond the vagaries and manipulations of the market place which is only interested in promoting its newest product, a state of affairs to which film reviewing is ineluctably bound.

Whilst there are no filmic equivalents to the Platonic ideals or Kantian categories that transcend the subjective there are well-argued reasons that Bergman and Bunuel, for example, are considered "great" directors and Persona (1966) and The Exterminating Angel (1962) "great" films and it is due to the work of criticism that these works stand as benchmarks of film as art.

So whilst there always will be a dialogue between the internal and the external, the personal and the normative in criticism we can return to Samuel Johnson and endorse his conclusion that: "...the duty of criticism is neither to depreciate nor dignify by partial representation, but to hold out the light of reason, whatever it may discover, and to promulgate the determinations of truth, whatever she shall dictate."