5 Things I Learned. (While attempting to read articles on film criticism)

Recently, I learned that there is such a thing as an academic journal for Film Criticism, published by the University of Michigan.

Not only that, but the journal has been rebooted and is now openly available for everyone, online.

I browsed through the articles, attempted to dig through the academic language (I wasn’t always successful). And I made some notes on the way, which I like to present here. So, here is a distillation of interesting ideas about film criticism, as I found in this volume of this journal.

5 Things I Learned.

While attempting to read articles on film criticism.

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  1. Content and platform are now disconnected (Benson-Allott)

Nowadays, we watch films in any kind of medium or on any screen. Digital, analog, large or small. There is no one-on-one connection anymore between film and the medium used to show it. And that forces the critic to rethink how a platform matters in each particular situation.

So, for example, when we say that a story works as a film but not as a television series, we have to remember that television series are no longer necessarily seen on TV. What we actually mean is that a story works as a serial but not as a franchise, or the other way around.

TV doesn’t make TV series. A big screen doesn’t create films. It is the other way around: a medium is defined by what is created for it. Maybe in the future, we won’t associate TV series with TV anymore, and it is ok if we don’t associate films with an actual film medium, or with certain production companies. In an age when Netflix competes with other companies, and some films never reach the big screen, this is important to remember.

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  1. See a film as an end result of problem solving (Buckland)

Last century, there was a split in opinion between film criticism and film makers. Some condemned film critics for their lack of knowledge for how a film is actually put together. At the same time, practical film education disdained criticism and focused only on how the technology of filming worked.

Since the 70s, people tried to ‘heal’ this split, but it never totally disappeared. Film critics are helped if they consider a film as ‘an end result of a complex problem-solving activity’, because the technical and managerial details of actually making a film are an exercise in problem solving. The best filmmakers are the best problem solvers.

A bad film is often a consequence of inexperienced people not solving certain problems, and quite possibly not even recognizing certain problems. A critic can identify a solid film by knowing how film problems are usually and historically solved by good practitioners.

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  1. There is no harder time to be a critic than today (Flaxman)

In the past, critics writing for the newspapers in New York and Chicago had the power to significantly influence the box office success. They were validated through their effect on the capitalist system, and movies themselves were geared more towards adults, so together with that validation came elitism.

Then everything changed. In came IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon algorithms and Facebook likes and today everyone is a critic and no one’s taste can be better than anyone else’s. A main challenge today for critics is to adapt to this world and to bridge the divide between film culture and fan culture.

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  1. Film criticism versus film study. (Gunning)

There is this thing called film study, which tries to look at film in a very academic way. It tries to discover patterns in film making, produces film theories and looks at historical periods. Criticism, on the other hand, is about evaluation of films; it is more concerned with top 10 lists, with what should we watch tonight.

Film criticism seems connected with the specific, individual films, and has trouble expanding its focus to broader trends in historical periods. Film study tries to avoid focusing too much on individual films. For film criticism, this is both a challenge and a power. It has the power to highlight what makes an individual film unique, and the challenge is to show the broader trends in culture that it is part of.

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  1. What exactly is criticism as artistic judgement? (Klevan)

The fundamental aspect of judging a work of art is the experience of it; the encounter between you and the work (like a film). And then, to create a sort of ongoing conversation about the film. This conversation is then about the experience of encountering the film, and not so much about the film itself.

Critics can do many other things, of course, like putting the film in a cultural or historical context, and do all sorts of study and scholarships about a film. But, for describing the artistic experience of encountering a film, there are many interesting things to talk about.

Klevan gives us a large list, but I’ll mention some good ones to keep in mind:

  • Giving a film (or a scene) the right sort of attention, and drawing attention to things that are easily overlooked or discarded by others.
  • Talking about how a film can be understood or experienced in ways that others may not have realized.
  • Detecting the qualities and failures of a film, and sort of guessing the capacity of the film to stimulate us.
  • Detecting the styles and traditions.
  • In what way is the film distinctive; unique. Inside the film itself should be the reason for its existence, and the reason why it is the way it is, and not different.
  • Try to decide what the makers tried to accomplish with the film, and whether they succeed.
  • The ways – criteria – to judge a film usually become clear during the film, and not before.
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3 Responses to 5 Things I Learned. (While attempting to read articles on film criticism)

  1. Remco says:

    Great blog, Jeroen. Thank you for sharing your findings, it made for an interesting read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: 5 More Things I Learned. (While attempting to read articles on film criticism.) | A Sky of Books and Movies

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