Everyone's a Critic, but James Baldwin May Be the Greatest American Movie Critic Ever
Critics: to some filmmakers, they're a dirty word. To others, they can be career-makers. In the past, a critic's basic role was one-part help the average person decide what movie to see that evening, one-part reflect on society through film theory. In today's landscape of user ratings on IMDB and Netflix, is there more room to focus on the latter? In a breakdown below of his recent article, Noah Berlatsky of the Atlantic suggests that future film critics (and filmmakers) look to the author behind The Most Powerful Piece of Film Criticism Ever Written for ideas on elevating criticism itself to a form of art.
Maybe you've read Manny Farber; surely you know Siskel & Ebert. But of all the critics to have carved careers out of their work, Noah Berlatsky suggests one person who he sees as the greatest American movie critic: James Baldwin. A renowned essayist, in 1976 Baldwin published a book titled The Devil Finds Work about film, race, and America. As Berlatsky describes it in the Atlantic article:
It's a critique of the racial politics of American (and European) film. And it's a work of film theory, with Baldwin illuminating issues of gaze and identification in brief, lucid bursts. The dangerous appeal of cinema, he writes, can be to escape—"surrendering to the corroboration of one's fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen" And "no one,” he acidly adds, “makes his escape personality black."
In his time, Baldwin's book was met with mixed reviews. (How fitting!) A 1976 New York Times review characterized it as having "an anger that is unfocused and almost cynical." Written in an unorthodox (read: not academic) style, The Devil Finds Work covers films like In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Exorcist. Baldwin may not had been the only one to identify the racial subtext in the film, but he may have been the first. An excerpt included in the Atlantic from Baldwin's book:
The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks -- many, many others, including white children -- can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.
Berlatsky goes on to explain why he thinks excerpt above transform a film for the better in the full article.
When I was younger, I made the mistake of equating the writing of blustery, annihilating reviews as proof that you, indeed, had a good sense of what "real cinema" should be about. (I chalk part of this to the influence of reading Truffaut: A Biography where I decided that good filmmakers should start off being harsh critics and bandying about the word "cinema" a lot.)
Then of course, I actually endeavoured to make a film, and revised my stance. Perhaps some of you have similar experiences? Berlatsky's article brought to my attention a critic who I hadn't heard much about, and brought up the idea that criticism can be more than just coming up with a review, it can be art! If you're interesting in looking at one end of film criticism spectrum, or thinking about film theory in the USA, The Devil Finds Work is worth checking out.
Are you familiar with James Baldwin, or have other critics you admire? What do you think the role of film critic should be today?
[via Filmmaker IQ]