We’ve all heard the magical tale of Quentin Tarantino, as a young boy, falling in love with cinema through reading Pauline Kael’s film criticisms. Or we’ve seen the name Roger Ebert pop up when looking for reviews on a movie. Or, we’ve heard other filmmakers praising Leonard Maltin’s movie guides as the equivalent of the Bible when they were growing up. Film criticism, when intelligently written, is an integral part of cinema and the filmmaking process all around. Having a number of well-respected voices who can voice their dislikes or their compliments allows for filmmakers, those who currently are and those aspiring to be, to learn what works and what doesn’t, to ultimately understand films on a deeper level.
While film criticism can be a great thing, in the last decade or so, like with many things in our culture and society, there has been a shift in the way that films are crtiiqued and there has been a notable decline in classic Pauline Kael-esque voices. But, first, to understand where film criticism has gone, we should establish where it started.
Film criticism can take on two main forms, either a journalistic or a scholarly approach. Journalistic film criticism is what one would see in a magazine, a newspaper, or on TV. These film critics are more simply writing reviews of films, giving an opinion of whether the film is good or bad, and why. On the other hand, scholarly or academic film criticism, which is often found in the form of a book or academic journal, uses film history and film theory, looking at things like the auteur theory or gender studies to evaluate the undertones and deeper meanings of a film.
The history of film criticism begins near the beginning of film itself, around the late 1800’s. At the beginning of the 20th century, The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal and a little later the Bioscope, became the first papers to deliver on journalistic film criticism. Not surprisingly a lot of the most prominent and early film critics came from Europe, Two of the original film critics were Ricciotto Canudo of France and Bengt Idestam-Almquist of Sweden. At the time, film criticism less resembled what we know of it today, rather it was a way for writers to argue that film, like painting, music, and literature, is an artform too. Early film critics were fighting for film to be taken seriously as an art just as prestigious and intellectual as any other. Later into the 20’s and 30’s, as film evolved, film criticism became more and more popular and film reviews evolved as well. No longer were critics fighting for film, rather they were discussing the merits and values displayed on screen and analyzing the impact that specific films could have on their audiences. Mainstream media sources also began publishing film criticism, whether in magazines and newspapers in the early 1900’s or later in online platforms or on television networks as technology became more advanced.
Academic film criticism was more popular for those studying film or filmmakers themselves, but nonetheless an evolved process. This kind of film criticism is more linked to the earliest forms of writing about film and why it should be taken seriously. Academic film critics like David Bordwell, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Sergei Einstein (the three latter of which were also famous film directors), discussed cinematography, lighting, sound, narrative film, montages, genre, as well as things like gender, politics, historical influences. This is more similar to the analysis of literature than of what we often think of film criticism to be today.
Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard
Journalistic film criticism, in contrast, became a somewhat standardized practice in the later 1900’s, and film critics became household names. Whether it be James Agee, Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Pauline Kael, Peter Travers, Leonard Maltin, or Joel Siegel, these critics were well respected in the film industry and mainstream media and people trusted their reviews as well as found them entertaining. The standard practice is, the critic would begin the review with a brief synopsis of the premise of the film, then go into discussing the positive and negative attributes, and finally conclude the review with a rating, like 4 out of 4 stars or 5 out of 5 (different for each critic). Television programs like Siskel and Ebert at the Movies or Leonard Maltin’s segment on Entertainment Tonight, became a daily part of people’s lives and film criticism was at the peak of quality and popularity.
Around the turn of the century, however, things began to shift. With the rise of the internet came the creation of websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which aggregated reviews from all people, not just respected film critics, and an associated score. With this, people were now reading movie reviews from fellow mundane people, not just the high and mighty film critics who made names for themselves through intellectual and entertaining analysis and evaluation. With that, although not ridding the media of cultivated critique, film criticism as it was before began to decline and, like many things in our world today, be replaced by quicker and more immediate sources of film review.
Today, on top of the film critics who have outlasted and websites like Rotten Tomatoes, film criticism through the pipeline of social media and media sharing platforms like YouTube have become more mainstream and leaped in popularity. Whether it be amateur film critics reviewing or reacting to films and uploading it to YouTube, your neighbor from across the street typing up what they thought about the new Dune movie on Rotten Tomatoes, or one of thousands of Instagram film accounts sharing their favorite movies and why they love them so much. Like the film industry itself, the rise of social media and other internet-based media sources has shifted and changed film criticism and the way that we consume movie reviews and movies themselves.
Do you think this is for the better?
Do you think this is for the worse?
I’d love to know, how do you feel the adaptation of film criticism has affected the way we watch movies, if at all?
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