To the Tower Again: A Film Critic Reflects on Academia

By Michael Joshua Rowin

As a film critic I’ve always rued having missed out on one particular professional rite of passage: a single revelatory, life-changing encounter with cinema. One constantly hears of such experiences from people deeply involved with movies, whether it be directors, actors, critics, programmers and scholars who profoundly remember the initial eureka moment that got them hooked on the art form: a Lubitsch retrospective that warmed them during a particularly harsh and lonely winter; an apparent act of divine intervention in a midnight airing of The Night of the Hunter on local TV; a pirated VHS copy of Scorpio Rising lent by a friend, subsequently horded and never returned.

In contrast, my own interest in movies bloomed slowly over many seasons. Granted, a few seminal films marked my adolescence, the time when one usually starts to watch and think about cinema with intellectual, artistic, or emotional purpose. Slacker was the first film I strongly related to for its eccentric cultural vantage point (I was 15 and, though half an hour from New York City, dying to find my own private Austin) and unconventional narrative; 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first film to transport me through vast imaginings of time, being, and human destiny; Eraserhead was the first film that simply—yet powerfully—showed me you could create something like that.

But it wasn’t until taking an introduction to a film course taught by D.N. Rodowick in my freshman year at the University of Rochester—included in the syllabus were Ballet Mécanique, M, The Magnificent Ambersons, Mouchette, and The Birds—that I really got excited about the medium. Perhaps the vague curiosity that made me register for the course proves my deep interest in cinema had long been brewing. But the fact remains that rather than a pure love affair with moving images, my eureka was finally reached in an academic setting and via academic instruction. It was like being taught the ways of love by an experienced older woman rather than falling instinctually into it with a younger one as naïve as myself. There’s ample reward in understanding something thoroughly after provocative but incomplete inklings; yet I wonder what a magnetic coupling—the pure combustibility of unforeseen coup de foudre!—would have felt like, and how it might have altered my relationship to cinema.

Once I started working as a film critic, I had to unlearn much of what I’d been taught as a Film Studies major (and, later at NYU, pursuing a Cinema Studies MA)—first and foremost a certain style of writing. Coming to film criticism from an academic rather than a cinephiliac background put me at a disadvantage in this regard. Academic writing requires considerably different skills than a work of criticism no matter what the format (personal essay, in-depth article, festival summary, etc.), and I had to go through some necessary growing pains before I fully absorbed at least one valuable lesson: don’t be so damn uptight. Whereas academia teaches one the intense rigors of research and theory, criticism calls for that ever-mysterious “personal touch,” an idiosyncratic voice expressing an idiosyncratic passion and concern for cinema. When we speak of Francois Truffaut or Pauline Kael we speak of their unique styles of writing in tandem with their unique acumen. Likewise, the critic—or, at least, the serious critic—is expected to not just explain a film, the context in which it was made, and what it “says” as a product of art and culture, but also to perform all these tasks with a certain amount of flair.

When I started seriously thinking and writing about movies in an academic setting, my analytical skills hypertrophied while my literary ones—the development of voice, of readability, of style—received less attention. Thus in addition to learning to write by consistently writing (the best way to do so), in recent years I’ve learned more about the craft of film criticism by reading the non-fiction work of brilliant prose writers like William Carlos Williams and Norman Mailer—as well as peers I look to for their seemingly second-nature ability to pen criticism as entertaining as it is enlightening—than works of film scholarship or study. In fact, out of concern that it might seduce me back into the academic approach to thinking and writing that was engrained in my university years, I made the conscious decision at a certain point to only dip into such scholarship at select and strategic intervals.

But a film-studies background hasn’t hindered my career as a critic. If anything it’s shaped my approach toward thinking and writing about movies in subtly profound ways. As with criticism, academia taught me at least one valuable lesson: intellectual meticulousness. Even when writing a 250-word review on what will likely be a blink-and-miss-it release, one must do his homework. This involves familiarizing oneself with as many filmographies, national cinemas, technological advancements, cultural trends and, of course, film histories as possible. Being precise, original, fluid, and playful with one’s writing is half the battle, but all of that is absolutely worthless if you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Of course, in criticism the application of one’s knowledge involves methods that diverge widely from the application of knowledge in academic writing. Space and word-count considerations for critical pieces often require a deft balancing of background information, detailed descriptions of the film’s visual qualities and narrative strategies, and comparisons, considerations, and analyses. This is the critical trapeze act hardest to master.

This fall I’ll be returning to academia, on the PhD track, and will be approaching cinema from an angle at once familiar to me yet also, due to having spent the last eight years writing film criticism, entirely new. Adjusting to criticism after academia, as well as incorporating what one has learned from film studies into the critical realm, seems to be easier than the other way around. Part of the reason may lie in what Chris Fujiwara has explained in this symposium as one of the differences between film criticism and film studies: “There is probably no professional sphere in which the lack of desire to write and the lack of interest in writing are more endemic than academia.” I’m not sure if I entirely agree with the reasons Fujiwara cites for this phenomenon—ivory-tower obscurity and “publish and perish” may haunt academics, but there are just as many indignities (low or no pay) and pressures (multiple, rapidly approaching deadlines) on critics that can contribute to bad writing and writers. Nonetheless he seems to be on to something: surely the Library of America won’t be publishing volumes of film studies papers as it has the work of Manny Farber and James Agee. Simply put, academic writing is not considered literature. Film criticism is.

How can someone re-entering film studies bring with him the creativity and passion he has learned from working in the critical world, at least at the level of writing? The answer lies in another point on which I disagree with Fujiwara, his point that “Criticism can only be writing.” Godard once explained to an interviewer that he considered his films the natural extension of his criticism. This doesn’t demean or devalue criticism but treats it as an attitude translatable across potentially limitless spheres of influence. Film programming might also be considered a form of film criticism, and so too film discussions (on podcasts, for example) and video essays (as with podcasts, the video essay proves that possibilities afforded by the Internet have expanded criticism into areas heretofore unknown). Criticism, it seems to me, is more an approach than a medium, and in this sense can be carried over into academic work, informing one’s sensibility and insight in observing, thinking, and, above all, writing about cinema. Fujiwara and I are in agreement here: “Criticism doesn’t look for causes to explain some effect of the film, but seeks to heighten the effectiveness of the effect.” Academic writing may ask for greater formality and “objectivity” than criticism (and may take as its greater aim the explanation of a film’s various effects) but if one wishes to engage in such writing vitally, as an act that can lead to the discovery of oneself and one’s relationship to cinema, then criticism can—and maybe should—be a great model and teacher.

Michael Joshua Rowin writes for The L Magazine, Cineaste, Artforum, LA Weekly, and Reverse Shot. He lives in New York City.

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3 thoughts on “To the Tower Again: A Film Critic Reflects on Academia

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