Monday, January 24, 2011

The Role of the Film Critic

We [critics] can talk about composition and cutting and long takes vs. short takes and video vs. film endlessly; God knows I have. And we can put movies in context of the industry or TV or the Internet or wider trends in the arts. And we should; we absolutely should. But it's also important for critics to remind themselves daily of the fact—the fact! not opinion, fact!—that most viewers don't give one-hundredth a damn about any of that stuff.

They should give a damn. One of the reasons mainstream movies are so generally mediocre to awful is because the ability of the average viewer to read images is only slightly better than their ability to read text. And the system likes it that way; it's much easier to crank out variations on cheeseburgers than to challenge moviegoers' aesthetic palates and expand their range of acceptable cuisine. But viewers won't give a damn about the aesthetic, political, and social components of filmgoing if we don't open the door of personal response—emotion, minus the whithers and wherefores and qualifiers, the wearily above-it-all routine—to lead them to a consideration of films outside their comfort zones.

How can we critics do this? By starting at the core and working our way out; by talking first about the heart of the film—what the movie is saying about the characters and world it depicts; whether or not what's on screen bears the slightest relation to the truth as we have experienced it; the feelings the movie evokes in us and why and how it evokes those feelings. Emotion is the gateway drug to all cinephilia—and I don't just mean the "That movie rocked!" variety or "Dude, that blew!" variety. I mean real cinephilia, which is endlessly curious and always on the search for the next innovation, the next curveball, the next epiphany. That comes from feeling—from personal response. Nobody falls in love with movies because some director framed a shot in a particular way or slyly quoted F.W. Murnau. That stage of appreciation always comes second or third or tenth in a cinephile's evolution. No, people fall in love with movies because they speak to them honestly and directly and with eccentric conviction, like new friends they really didn't expect to make—people who just sort of came out of nowhere and made them realize, "Oh my God … I'm not alone! Somebody else gets it."

excerpted from Matt Zoller Seitz's "Emotion is the Gateway Drug to All Cinephilia" on

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