Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Life as a Film Lover

Long time film critic Dave Kehr has some interesting things to say about post-studio Hollywood in the introduction to the collection of some of his Chicago Reader reviews from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s in his wonderful When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade (University of Chicago Press, 2011). What particularly caught my eye, and which I think Kehr is spot on about are Kehr's observations on the transformation of Hollywood. Hollywood, Kehr says, after the renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s became a film culture in which the Saturday morning television genres of horror, science fiction, action/adventure were made to give visceral thrills to the juveniles with purchasing power Hollywood had recently discovered and who it now begin to target through saturation radio and television ads and a film culture in which popular cultural references placed in these new Hollywood blockbusters by the movie brats who made them were used to give thrills to pop cult knowing parents who brought their kids to suburban cineplexes to see brave new Hollywood films like Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977).

What was just as interesting to me was Kehr's observations on his métier itself, on film criticism. Kehr, again rightly in my opinion, notes that the era of film criticism beyond the film criticism version of the sound bite is on its last legs. He blames this decline on the demise of the independent free weeklies that were the descendents of the underground counter cultural newspapers of the late 1960s and which, along with mainstream politically and culturally oriented magazines like The Nation, The New Republic, and The New Yorker, gave space for longish reviews of American and foreign films from the 1960s until the advent of the internet and the World Wide Web, an arena, which Kehr notes, is sadly and ironically more attuned to soundbite rather than long form film reviews.

Kehr, like other film critics of the era who have written about how they became cinephiles including Jonathan Rosenbaum, Phillip Lopate, and Robin Wood, talks nostalgically about this era of film criticism and gives readers a glimpse into how he became a cinephile and eventually a film critic. As I was reading Kehr's memories about his journey to cinephilism and film critic in an age in which films and filmgoing were, for many, life, I couldn't help but think of my own journey to cinema love and my own thoughts about film criticism and its influence on me.

Like Kehr the movies themselves were my pathway into cinephilism. It was my father who introduced me to the joys of film. He took me and my sister to see A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964), I was a huge Beatles fan, at the grand Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where we lived at the time. I remember the experience of entering this cinema palace, an experience which seemed to me at the time akin to entering a cavernous grand castle, as much as if not more than I remember the film. Later, when we were living in Dallas he introduced me to the joys of Hitchcock's Birds when it first appeared on television in 1968.

From there it was an easy hop, skip, and jump into film love. As Kehr notes in the 1960s it was relatively easy to watch classic American cinema on local television. In my case I was able to spend my Saturday's and Sunday's watching classic Hollywood films non-stop from late morning to early evening on Channel 4, WTTV, an independent, at the time, TV station that began life in Bloomington, Indiana. Eventually, I was able to get hold of a copy of film historian and film critics Leonard Maltin's Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, probably at a bookstore in the Muncie Mall (Walden's?) which for those of us living in rural Blackford County just north of Muncie was the place which we made periodic consumer pilgrimages to. Maltin's film guide, which first appeared in 1969, listed movies, Hollywood and foreign, and their directors and rated them. It allowed me to begin to classify and categorise films by director and to learn about films that, thanks to Maltin's ratings and capsule reviews, I really wanted to see. Eventually, I was able to occasionally get down to one of those dreadful shopping centre cinemas in Muncie, where I first saw A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), illegally I might add since I was too young to get into a X rated film at the time, The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), and Star Wars, a film that didn't impress a long time film watcher like me.

When I went away to college in the late 1970s my cinephilism expanded. Indiana University and Bloomington, like any typical large college town of the time, gave a film lover like me ample opportunity to see Hollywood films and foreign films. I and the other cinephiles I hung with, went to see classic Hollywood films at the Monroe County Library where the Bloomington Film Society strutted classic Hollywood stuff, at the Ryder Film Society, which showed mostly foreign films at various sites around Bloomington, at an upstairs cinema cafe, whose name I don't remember, which showed classic Hollywood films like Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby (1938), a film I had long wanted to see, and the Princess, Towne, Von Lee, Village, and Indiana Theatres (I avoided the College Mall Cinema like the plague), many of which have long since disappeared or been transformed. I also discovered film criticism, particularly that of Robin Wood and his brilliant Hitchcock's Films, the 1969 edition, and the host of publications on film directors and film history published by Peter Cowie's Zwemmer/Tantivy/Barnes Press, the film journal Movie's Movie Paperbacks, and the BFI's Cinema One series.

Unlike Kehr I was not as influenced by the giants of 1960s film criticism (generational? geographical?): Andrew Sarris, Peter Bogdanovich, John Simon, Stanley Kauffmann, and Pauline Kael. I came to these film critics only after I came to Leonard Maltin, after I came to Peter Cowie's International Film Guide Series, after I came to Movie and Movie's Movie Paperbacks, after I came to the BFI's Cinema One series, all of which were stimulated by the first wave of American auteurism which, in turn, had been stimulated by the auteurism of Cahiers du Cinéma and, though to a much lesser extent, Positif, and after I came to academic film studies classes with James Naremore, Peter Bondanella, and Harry Geduld at Indiana.

At first I was enamoured of the structuralist and semiological approaches to film that were becoming popular in the academy and which was stimulating a healthy academic film criticism in journals like Screen and film studies books coming out of university presses like the Indiana University Press and the University of California Press and academic presses like Routledge. These approaches seemed to me at the time to be the keys by which we might unlock the secrets of culture and its relationship to economic and political realities. As structuralism and semiology morphed into Lacanian film criticism and beyond, however, I began to question not only the lack of historical sensitivity of post-structuralist and post-semiological criticism--I think primary source analysis and interviews, where possible, are essential to the understanding of film production and film consumption--but also the sometimes impassable jargon of post-structuralist and post-semiological criticism, which I now regard as the product of academia's division of labour knowledge and the attempt to control a particular niche of labour knowledge.

It was at this point that I began to move back in time in order to discover the film criticism of Sarris, Bogdanovich, Simon, Kauffmann, Kael, Rosenbaum, and Kehr. I came to admire the often artful writing and the often insightful analysis of these critics, both things often missing from post-structuralist academic film criticism. I particularly admired the historical approach to auteurism of Sarris, Rosenbaum, and Kehr and their attempt to comprehend the differences in artistic quality in Hollywood films. I was not and am not as big of an admirer of Kael as Kehr and Lopate and others. I found and find her criticism far too reliant on ad hominems and far too often grounded in what I think is a major fallacy in so much film criticism, the I can make it better than whoever made it approach to film criticism.

For me good film criticism must begin with what is--the film on the screen and what went in to its production--before it moves on to the second issue, interpretation--what the film is trying to do or say. I have never been particularly fond of film homiletics--this is how I would make the film. I have never really respected those critics who spend their time telling me how they would make a film because I guess I have never really respected armchair filmmakers any more than I have much respect for the armchair ethnologists of yore. I have long believed that historical analysis must be at the heart of film criticism and analysis and have long felt that homiletic film criticism is about as far from the historical analysis of film that you can get. As a result I try to bring a historical and interpretive sensitivity and I try to avoid engaging in homiletic film criticism here on my blog at all costs. I just don't like theology.

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