Letting Go of Criticism: Only in America?

April 7, 2010
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The New York Times article referenced in Hector Amaya’s recent blog entry on this website belongs to an ever-expanding lamentation in American film culture. I stress American for good reason.

When Susan Sontag published her “A Century of Cinema” (aka, “Decay of Cinema”) article 15 years ago, I scoffed. I quickly resigned myself to the idea that Sontag had simply lost touch with contemporary filmgoing. Recall, after all, that the article is not so much about the death of cinema as about the death of a certain kind of cinephilia.

Since then, I have come to understand what she may have meant. In the intervening years, film scholars have underscored that writing about movies in a certain way (but also watching, rewatching and debating them) is a crucial aspect of a robust cinephilic culture. See for instance Antoine de Baecque’s seminal study, La cinéphilie: Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture, 1944-1968 (2003). Feeling the need to put one’s thoughts into print– as critics, and perhaps now as bloggers– is central to the intensity that characterizes cinephilia.

Sontag seems to have noticed the waning of this dimension of cinephilia even then. In fact, her career is evidence of it: she wrote less and less about movies. (I survey her film writing here.)

Setting aside de Baecque’s claim that cinephilia of a certain kind ended in 1968, I wonder if this “letting go of criticism” applies to France, or even to Canada or Britain. (I limit this list to those countries whose criticism I know best, although we could certainly cast a wider net to include criticism from other European, Middle Eastern, Asian and Central and South American countries, among others.  In fact, Amaya’s work on Cuban film criticism may illuminate precisely this question.) Perhaps the troubles of American film criticism are unique— the exception. In this sense, the question is not how much money there is to be made from criticism, but how much money is used to support it. In France, Canada and elsewhere, state subsidy permits film criticism to live on. Grants allow magazines to keep publishing. The Québécois film journal 24 Images, to cite but one example, benefits from Canada Council for the Arts moneys to produce its publication and website, which can be found here.

Perhaps this decline in American criticism is yet another reminder of the hard-fought battles other national film cultures have undergone– in France, during the late 40s and early 1950s– to protect their national cinemas from American penetration into their markets. Hollywood’s aggressive approach may have led to policies that now inoculate other film cultures against this decline in criticism.

In a word, perhaps we shouldn’t be talking about “letting go of criticism.” But rather, “letting go of criticism in America.” While American popular criticism may be on life support, is that true elsewhere?  It remains an open question; still, there’s evidence to suggest ‘exceptionalism’ in this case.


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One Response to “ Letting Go of Criticism: Only in America? ”

  1. Hector Amaya on April 9, 2010 at 1:28 PM

    I agree with Colin’s observations that the challenges of criticism are perhaps local, not necessarily global. This challenges go partly hand in hand with institutional support, not lack of talent, knowledge, or quality writers. Popular film criticism, which has survived greatly in the payrolls of newspapers and tv broadcasters, is in crisis partly because the crises of newspapers and broadcasters. Interestingly, Cubans have had their own version of televised film criticism, a show called 24 por segundo, headed (among others) by Enrique Colina, one of Cuba’s most important film critics. You can see a small example of this tv show at youtube.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30iFCpOj_ng