On advocacy and anticipation

The Soft Skin (François Truffaut) 1964 France/Potugal 113 min

From Melissa Anderson:

A few years ago, a French friend, in introducing me to a new word, helpfully elucidated the distinction between two terms: cinéphile versus cinéphage—a lover of movies versus someone who consumes them voraciously and indiscriminately. Terence Davies recalls such an insatiable appetite in Of Time and the City, his exquisite 2008 documentary about Liverpool, his hometown: “At age seven, I saw Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. I discovered movies and swallowed them whole.”

This kind of gluttony, it seems to me, is a necessary first step to being a film critic: devouring cinema (and being devoured by it), sampling and discovering as much as you can. But eventually you realize that it’s impossible to ingest—or love—it all; after a period of prolonged bingeing, you should know what you really crave and what satisfies you.

Other terms closely linked to appetite remain particularly salient to our topic. Michael, in your thoughtful questions to me—a continuation of the discussion that Kent began so eloquently—you ask, “Can or should we find anything heroic in that heroic strain of cinephilia that lives on, hungry [emphasis mine] for new discoveries, cinematic world hotspots, star auteurs, a moral movie compass for how to watch and how to live? […] Perhaps the problem is that we too often consider ourselves the tastemakers—should we just be the taste-testers?”

That hunger, as you describe it, more often than not manifests itself—in film criticism, at least—as noisy, hyperbolic pronouncement rather than passionate reflection. Kent’s wonderful expression “the adventure of writing” seems to me an ideal to strive for; critics should be devoted to the voluptuousness of words and ideas. Sloganeering (“Greece is the new Romania!”), grandstanding, and, worst of all, scolding and/or shaming dominate a lot of cinephilic writing—and, well, I can’t stomach it. To tune out the din, I return to the film-writing (by critics whose primary affiliation isn’t with cinema) that’s inspired me: Wayne Koestenbaum’s rich appraisals of Warhol’s movies in his terrific 2001 biography of the artist or Kenneth Tynan’s 1979 New Yorker profile of Louise Brooks, a serious piece of film scholarship that’s also an unabashed fan letter.

As for the question of taste-making versus taste-testing, the former strikes me as too grandiose and the latter too dilettantish. As a critic who’s worked primarily for New York–based weeklies (sometimes on staff, usually as a freelancer), I have no illusion about being powerful enough to determine what’s “fashionable.” What I do strive to be is a fervent advocate, especially when writing about repertory offerings; the two outlets I contribute to most frequently, The Village Voice and Artforum.com, devote a lot of space to older works. It’s exhilarating to have a platform to share some of my greatest (and earliest) enthusiasms—like the films of Shirley Clarke, Ida Lupino in the director’s chair, Françoise Dorléac in The Soft Skin—and I try not to squander the opportunity by hectoring readers (“You, ignorant creature, better make time for these movies or else…”).

Of course, that excitement applies to viewing and writing about current releases as well, though, admittedly, being sent to the “thrill department” (to quote Ray Johnson) doesn’t happen quite as often as when one is revisiting, say, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But the key to being a vibrant film critic is embracing not just “the adventure of writing” but the adventure of moviegoing, no matter how exalted or debased the title. For every new film I’m assigned to review—whether it’s the latest Madea vehicle, a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, or 35 Shots of Rum—I remain hopeful that something will surprise or delight me. Sure, often I’m disappointed (or worse). But the day I lose that sense of anticipation is the day I’ll stop writing about movies for a living—and when I cease to be a cinephile. Perhaps it’s this hostility or indignation or moral superiority assumed by too many film critics—often before they’ve seen even a frame of the movie they’re evaluating—that’s made what Kent calls a “just alignment between filmmaking and its critical appreciation” nearly impossible. Daniel, what aspects of filmmaking do you think are most often overlooked—or, conversely, belabored—in film criticism?

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