Film criticism in the digital age

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky says film criticism has endured in the digital age. (Robert Neubecker illustration)

The history of film culture is, in many ways, a history of film books: essay and review collections, reference guides, academic studies, biographies. Since the days of silent film, the subculture of movie obsessives has defined, legitimized and preserved itself through writing, whether professional, amateur or somewhere in between. The cult of the movie critic, which became mainstream in the 1970s lives on. Despite its decreasing viability as a full-time profession, film reviewing remains the most prominent and discussed form of criticism in this country.

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

For the longest time, thick review collections, like the 25 editions of Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook or any of Pauline Kael's doorstopper-sized books, were the most popular kind of film book, serving as totems and entry points for casual viewers and hard-core, four-a-day moviegoers alike. Their popularity was practical. Careers, reputations and whole movements were built on review and essay collections, which preserved the ephemeral — articles written on short deadlines about one-time experiences called movies — for an audience that was often a generation or more removed from the original intended readership.

But what happens now, when a critic's whole career can be browsed online, and when written movie discussion has shifted from magazines to social media? It's hard to imagine any of today's most widely read critics, whether print or online, putting out bound books of their reviews. What are film books without their practical function?

First published in 1915 and then revised in 1922, "The Art of the Moving Picture," by the Springfield, Ill.-born poet Vachel Lindsay, is popularly considered to be the first serious American film book. Lindsay's book is a curio, largely forgotten, but arresting in how it prefigures the century of film writing and film books that followed. The intentional omissions, the aversion to literature, the comparisons to sculpture and painting, the depiction of movies as something both earthier (Lindsay prefers to refer to acting as "impersonation," which sounds more vaudevillian) and loftier than theater, the use of personal preferences in a different medium to qualify films — these attempts to avoid the seemingly obvious, to steer clear of the middle in favor of the very low-brow and the very high-brow, would come to define film culture.

Born in pre-war film clubs and effectively codified in the movie-mad years that followed World War II, film culture distinguished itself from everyday moviegoing — and later, home viewing — by fixating on the non-obvious: the old, the forgotten, the disreputable, the hard-to-find.

Much of how we — and that means all of us, not just the cinephiles — think about movies came together in Paris in the early 1950s. The young men who made up Paris' moviegoing subculture became film critics, translating their enthusiasm into a focus on style over storytelling (hence the proliferation of French terms like mise-en-scène in film criticism and theory) and a fascination with directors and authorship (hence the cult of the auteur — literally, "author" — and the "a film by" credit now common in movies). They then became directors — popular, internationally successful directors, in some cases — and because their styles were rooted in criticism, their films invited critical discussion and dissection.

A film book boom started around this time. The 1930s and '40s had seen the arrival of witty, against-the-grain movie critics — represented in this country by Otis Ferguson, James Agee and Manny Farber — who evoked style with prose, but they were, for the most part, isolated personalities. (Significantly, they wrote for like-minded publications: Ferguson for The New Republic, Agee for The Nation, and Farber for both.)

By the early 1960s, however, criticism was becoming more discursive; critics weren't responding only to films, but to each other. Film books functioned as both guides and manifestoes; focusing on a particular director, or a particular kind of film, meant staking out a position.

The fundamental film books were wide-ranging, if not in their subjects, then in their implications. They included:

→Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson's "The Japanese Film: Art and Industry" (1959), which introduced Japanese cinema, then little-seen outside of its home country, to English speakers.

→"What is Cinema?" (1967, with a second volume in 1971), Hugh Gray's translation of key writings by André Bazin, who in his brief career made a bigger impact on film style and culture than any other critic.

"Hitchcock" (1967), a book-length interview with the director by critic-turned-filmmaker Francois Truffaut.

→Andrew Sarris' "The American Cinema" (1968), as much a canon as a book, which helped popularize the idea of the auteur in America.

→"Negative Space" (1971, expanded in 1998), which was, for decades, the only collection of Farber's idiosyncratic criticism, written in a mercurial, nervy language that only occasionally resembled proper English.

→"Godard on Godard" (1972), a collection of reviews and essays by New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard — who had written alongside Truffaut for Cahiers du Cinéma, the Parisian film magazine co-founded by Bazin — with in-depth commentary by Tom Milne.

→Amos Vogel's "Film as a Subversive Art" (1974), which became an essential guide to avant-garde and underground movies.

Each of these attempted to compress a worldview — a critic's, a director's, a genre's, a nation's — into book form. None were runaway best-sellers, or even widely known in the mainstream, but they became integral parts of a subculture, seemingly as essential to moviegoing as the movies themselves. Because great filmmakers tend to start as great movie buffs, and because, for generations, being a great movie buff meant owning a great many movie books, these overviews and review collections ended up exerting an influence that went far beyond their small readership.

Nowadays, the locus of discovery — of stumbling upon films you want to see and filmmakers you want to learn about — has shifted to the Internet. The film book is no longer the most thorough guide; physically constrained, it has lost its practical purpose. What it hasn't lost, however, is its significance as a gesture, a cultural object and a manifesto.

Take, for example, Jordan Mintzer's stylish, coffee-table-sized "Conversations with James Gray," put out in a bilingual edition by the French publisher Synecdoche in 2012. At the time "Conversations with James Gray" was published, Gray had directed only four features (his fifth, and best, "The Immigrant," is due to be released in the U.S. in April), none of them commercially successful. Nonetheless, Gray has become a cult figure among critics and cinephiles, thanks to his depth, expressive use of style, firm rooting in classic Hollywood tradition and nuanced direction of actors. "Conversations" is not merely an in-depth look at Gray (the title is a misnomer, as the book contains interviews with all of Gray's major collaborators, with the notable exception of Joaquin Phoenix), but also a meticulously arranged tour through his work, gallery-like, illustrated with full-size reproductions of script pages and hand-written scores.