Film Criticism as Subfield

Andy Horbal is hosting a blog-a-thon on film criticism, which seems to be enlisting a wide and engaging variety of participant posts. Most of them talk about journalistic or other nonacademic critics, but I started thinking about film criticism as an academic practice. From what I understand, there used to be a recognizable division of the discipline of film studies into three distinct subfields: film theory, film history, and film criticism. The latter took place in (naturally enough) Film Criticism, Literature Film Quarterly, and oftentimes Film Form, Jump Cut, or Film Quarterly. Whereas film theory used specific textual study to reflect more broadly on representation, society, and culture, film criticism, at least it was thought, was a distinct practice of textual interpretation.

Something changed, of course. The tripartate distinction only held while textual study - based on models of literary study - was the predominant model for what film studies did. As cultural studies, industrial history, and reception theory have challenged textual-interpretive assumptions and as television, film culture, and new media formats have suggested supertexts that defy discrete interpretation, the disciplinary division of labor itself has shifted. Film Criticism continues on, of course, and university curricula still include courses in Film Criticism. And occasional edited volumes, such as Peter Lehman's Close Viewings or John Gibbs and Douglas Pye's Style and Meaning, try to champion close reading as a middle-level critical practice. But I'm not sure that the discipline still sees criticism as an ongoing concern in the way it once did.

What does remain is film criticism done in nonacademic and quasiacademic contexts by amateurs and professionals alike. On one hand, journalistic critics have become even more professionalized and aligned with academic film studies (in some form) than ever before. On the other hand, the internet has encouraged many to challenge the monopoly : let a thousand film critics bloom!

But as we are speeding forth to a new cultural configuration placing film criticism, I keep looking back, hoping for a solid historical study of film criticism as cultural practice in the twentieth century. When writing my dissertation - and trying to explain the place of popular critics of the social problem film - I had to rely on a couple of dusty Scarecrow press books (Myron Loundsbury's history of early criticism and Frank Beaver's book on Bosley Crowther), both of which are dated at best, and on Raymond Haberski's It's Only a Movie! which still doesn't do the full social history of journalistic criticism that I would like.


Anonymous said…
Chris, I'm absolutely delighted to have you on board! I too have hungered for that solid historical study of journalistic film criticism. I'm grateful to the anthologizers like Stanley Kauffmann, David Denby, and most recently (and arguably most especially) Phillip Lopate for laying the foundation for such a work, but this truly is just a foundation. And as I slowly work my way through the history of American film criticism I find myself with an ever growing pile of questions that no one seems to have any answer for!

Meanwhile, those with an interest in the history of film criticism like Peter Keogh spend their time on what I'm not convinced isn't an imaginary break between the followers of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.

Oh well, if a serious film scholar like yourself is interested in the subject, then I guess there's hope! Thanks for joining in!
Anonymous said…
Chris, I am very much impressed by your encouragement of the burgeoning online film community!

I have to say that often I am daunted by the scholarly knowledge one needs in order to do film criticism. It seems to me that extensive knowledge of film history and theory are almost necessary elements for offering any signifcant contribution to the film criticism. Many bloggers, though classified as "amateurs," are able to do offer valuable additions in film criticism because of their almost omniscient knowledge of film.

What I would ask you is this: What place is there for personal, and perhaps to some extent, uneducated, voices in the study of film? In my case, I took as many film classes as I could in college, but there was no film major, and my return to school for film studies in grad school is a couple years off. I do not really consider myself knowledgeable in key areas where truly assessing the state of film is needed.

At any rate, I want to think that, before really delving into the scholarly side of film when I go back to grad school, that my writing is still valuable, significant, etc. to the wider film community.
HarryTuttle said…
You sound more optimistic than Bordwell's cinemascope piece "Against Insight"...

I'm also interested in a "solid historical study of film criticism as cultural practice in the twentieth century", let us know if you tackle the issue one day.
Chris Cagle said…
Andy - I've been meaning to tackle the Lopate volume - perhaps an upcoming break activity.

Terabin - I tend to resist personal and evaluative writing in film scholarship proper, but there are many venues where that contributes to our understanding of film and the over all film culture - what's inappropriate for Screen (for good reason) is appropriate, possibly, for Cineaste.

Harry- Bordwell's none too optimistic about film scholarship either, at least in that essay. I agree with him that there's probably no equivalent of Sarris, Sontag and Rivette today, but there was something special in the air in 1950s and 60s as people were discovering newer dimensions of a relatively new art. Meanwhile, the median of journalistic criticism has become more film-literate: I'll take A.O.Scott and Manohla Dargis over Vincent Canby and Bosley Crowther.
HarryTuttle said…
Well, even in the NYT they merely comment and analyze the plot and eventually the subtext, rarely do they get into a study of the form or the auteur's stylistic identity...
Anyway, the good critics in the weekly press are the exception. The general consensus is to give star recommendations, and subjective opinions.
I only find substance in specialist revues. It's probably because the deadline is less urgent.

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