Friday, January 11, 2008

Critics Not There: Atkinson on Kael

So many articles and blog posts now (mine included) tend to focus on films and filmmakers that/who influence cinema, but seldom is the work of the critic examined. While critic profiles shouldn't be nearly as prominent as those for films and filmmakers, they might serve a good purpose if only because critical evaluation can indeed be influential with regards to a particular movement in cinema or film culture; sometimes even pop cultures. Renowed films critics like Sergei Eistenstein, Andre Bazin, and Andrew Sarris come to mind as influential figures who helped to change how movies were looked at.

Today, film critics are more of a collective symbol than anything else, at least in the pop-sense. Other than Roger Ebert, there are no "celebrity critics." The figureheads of academic and journalistic film criticism engage each other on more intimate terms, inasmuch that the dialogue seems to be happening within a critical circle, which includes critics around the country and is followed by a small clan of faithful film lovers; the kind of people you'll find at an arthouse cinema. In this critical culture, there great work is being done by a variety of critics in a number of styles and media: blogs, zines, journals, weeklies, etc. To access much of this material online (and for much of it to be online) is exciting as a hopeful contributor to the dialogue (some day) and as a pure lover of cinema. That's why I like to highlight the work that's done by critics of now and critics of then, even though the landscape for criticism --much like for cinema-- is changing drastically. Because that culture has shifted so much, as there are now numerous levels of critical inquiry in various media, the much simpler time of print film journalism/criticism is now being mythologized. This makes for some fascinating though for contemporary students of cinema and criticism.

Therefore, in an effort to highlight contemporary film criticism in a similar mode of admiration for criticism of yesteryear, I would like to point to at least one film critic represents everything that modern film criticism can be: Michael Atkinson. Though I've yet to read any of his books, Michael Atkinson's work has appeared in print publications of all kinds, from scholarly film journals to daily newspapers. His writing is informed by a strong background in film history suffused with a pop-saavy, but incredibly structured prose that lends itself to all forms of criticism. The simple task of film reviewing, often considered inescapably bland, can be elevated to a formidable art, as evidenced by Atkinson's informed, fast-reading style. His blog, Zero For Conduct, offers everything from quick-thoughts on his recent viewings to longer, more analyitc musings on books or critical and/or cinematic trends.

But the reason I point to Atkinson, and the reason I began thinking about these larger matters of the culture and history of film criticism is because of his most recent post, which is actually something he wrote a long time ago: an obituary for the utterly unique and now legendary film critic, Pauline Kael, whose work I have gradually familiarized myself with over the years. Atkinson writes:

Indeed, Kael’s relentless eminence seemed to have everything to do with her attitude and gender. Face it, a miniature tigress with gray hair and barbed tongue dressing down a male-dominated culture was and still is a richer source for personality cultism than the entire frumpy lot of American film reviewers combined. What if she’d been a man? She might have been less newsworthy, but if Kael remains important, it’s only insofar as her books keep the golden age of filmgoing alive, and insofar as her influence and power-brandishing has either hindered or helped cinema as it stands today. Film criticism is such a mundane project, plopped down upon an endlessly complex entity: movies. That Kael was the first and last true celebrity moviehead may be, in fact, a sign of hope for the future."

Great stuff. I can see why this piece would have stood out a few years ago, and why Atkinson may have been the subject of great scrutiny. But I can also see it's utter importance to film criticism, both in its being and its content.

Kael represents that critic everyone disagrees with, who all critics take issue with on some level. But, somehow, she is a modern goddess of film criticism, embodying everything modern criticss wish they could be. One could say she's the Bob Dylan of film criticism, not to put to fine a point on it. She incited debate, controversy, and thought in her writing, and her relevance to a new generation of film critics seems to be even stronger, especially as contemporary film criticism reaches now reaches the understanding that it can never offer up somebody as resonant or discussion-inducing.

That doesn't mean that criticism has lost something, or that it's slipped from relevance. I would actually argue that good criticism is crucial now more than ever. As cinema moves into a positively digital realm, so too will criticism. Right now, we have more reproductions of reproductions of criticism that a way of making sense of it all via old models is more increasingly difficult. It's becoming very hard to separate bloggers from professionals, the good from the bad, the relevant from the irrelevant. Critical conventions and styles of an older criticism both inform new criticism and continually remind how the criticism of new will never be the criticism of old. Atkinson evokes this hopeful tragedy (if that makes sense) in his analysis of Kael, by highlighting the endurance of Pauline Kael as an image, a symbol, at a time when criticism is neither here nor there. Which, as Atkinson points out, may be the best thing about it.

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