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“How the Critics Saved My Film” Panel

Yesterday I attended the “How the Critics Saved My Film” Film Week panel, featuring the pre-eminent critic for the New York Times A.O. Scott (I discovered with pleasure yesterday that his friends call him “Tony”), critics David D’Arcy and Miriam Bale, and filmmaker Alex Ross-Perry. One subject that wasn’t addressed in the panel, but that is pertinent to all of this, is the quality of writing in film criticism. Since I am a filmmaker (whose films will need to be saved), the way a review is written feels important to me, and it’s not just because I like good writing.

My father introduced me early on to the French New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut and thought it important to tell me that they were critics first, who learned how to make films partly through their masterful dissections of other movies. I grew up and became a filmmaker with less of the typical hatred of critics, and more with reverence that stemmed from those Enfants Terribles at Cahiers du Cinema. As I became a professional filmmaker, I started of course to see the difference between critics who talk about film from an artistic point of view, actually writing about story and meaning within a context, and those who confabulate, dramatize, and write—usually poorly—for the sake of panning or deifying or watching their own bad capital letters streak across a movie poster. As the internet has taken over, the critics that do care about writing have dwindled even further, giving way to the rush of Twitter reviews and blog posts that appear just minutes after screenings. And as we go further into this madness of 140 character reviews, I naturally want to seek refuge in the place where I usually go for that—the late 60’s and early 70’s,  when critics like Pauline Kael wrote reviews that turned into statements about cinema in general, like this nugget from her famous Bonnie and Clyde opus in the New Yorker, October 21st, 1967:

“Our best movies have always made entertainment out of the anti-heroism of modern life; they bring to the surface what, in its newest forms and fashions, is always just below the surface.”

When I was sitting in that room yesterday watching D’Arcy, Bale, and Scott talk so intelligently and sensitively, it made me remember that there is refuge in the present too—in those critics who still care about saying something, and saying it with grace. The critics who themselves are artists. These critics, to me, are “saving” a film on a much smaller scale, just by writing about it with precision and care. A.O Scott, whether in his analysis and identification of the New Romanian Film Revolution or a review of some horrible summer blockbuster, inspires me to be a filmmaker. Helps me be a filmmaker. And as I was sitting there yesterday, I was thinking about the latest and, in my opinion, maybe the greatest example thus far of Scott’s devotion to expressing his opinions in a way that sometimes just makes you ache. This is the fourth paragraph of his recent review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master:

“Our minds sometimes play tricks on us, substituting invention for memory. Movies turn this lapse into a principle, manufacturing collective fantasies that are often more vivid, more real, than what actually happened. The Master, unfolding in the anxious, movie-saturated years just after World War II, is not a work of history in the literal or even the conventionally literary sense. The strange and complicated story it has to tell exists beyond the reach of doubt or verification. The cumulative artifice on display is beautiful — camera movements that elicit an involuntary gasp, passages in Jonny Greenwood’s score that raise the hair on the back of your neck, feats of acting that defy comprehension — but all of it has been marshaled in the pursuit of a new kind of cinematic truth. This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief.”

I may just sound like another filmmaker trying to kiss up to the critics that might save me, but when the great critics write, they stir the same waters that we stir when we manage to make a great film. They too can help us discover those “new cinematic truths.” In the first sentence of her Bonnie and Clyde review, Pauline Kael asked, “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” It is good to know that there are still some critics out there who instead of just coming down right away from that jump with their steel toed boots in your face, will levitate for a few minutes above you, glittering in the glory of some good old fashioned prose, before they descend on your movie to tell their truths.

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