I was just wondering whether any of you know of a great (even good) filmmaker who also has written intelligent film criticism. Any recommendations? Most film criticism is barely film-literate. I'd like to read something by someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about.
Well, a lot of the great French New Wave guys from the 50s wrote in Cahiers du cinema, a French magazine published back then. It had some nice work by Truffaut and Godard. I read a few essays back in college, but how you get hold of it nowadays, I'm not entirely sure? I actually think it may still be in publication, but I have no idea of it's current quality.
Or, my second option would be to browse the booklets found in every Criterion Collection DVD (they're online too, I think...?). Most are written by critics, but I've read a few essays from big name filmmakers doing a piece on a classic film, or a film their buddy made. That's also kind of a crapshoot, and hard to browse through, and are very film specific.
Scott Roberts and Tim Wilson right here on the COW write very intelligent criticism
Scott Roberts and Tim Wilson right here on the COW write very intelligent criticism
I second that.
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Thanks guys! Even though I'm pretty sure I don't use semicolons correctly most of the time...
Yeah that; really irritates me when; you do that.
[Hey}}; I re/sent; th;at -rE>ma'rk* ;;
[Scott Roberts] "[Hey}}; I re/sent; th;at -rE>ma'rk* ;;"
Your problem is that you are using the semicolon with words, rather than as a substitute for them. ;-)
It was a bit of a stretch to call me a filmmaker at any point, but thank you anyway. :-) (That's an example of the proper use of the colon, btw.)
There really aren't many people at all who've done both, at least not that I'm aware of. It seems like there ought to be a lot more of them, though. There's the whole generation that went to film school (Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Malick, Lynch, Woody Allen, Zemeckis, Ang Lee), "younger" ones like Kathryn Bigelow (61), Spike Lee (56), Alexander Payne (52) and Christopher Nolan (43) -- none of these guys can write a couple of pages for us?
I'm not saying that these guys are smarter or more articulate than non-film school graduates -- just that they HAD to think and write about this back in the day. Most of them are still famously plugged into film heritage. Not even some old term papers laying around?
In fact, there's a whole crop of hyper-articulate nerds who turned their maniacal fandoms into careers - Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino (both 50) most notable among them, and they happen to also be exceptional writers.
The great American film nerd who became a major critic AND a major director was Peter Bogdanovich. (Okay, one GREAT movie, The Last Picture Show, a couple of really dandy ones, What's Up Doc? and Paper Moon) He was the film programmer for the Museum of Modern Art in the early 60s -- where he also organized the first-ever Orson Welles retrospective in 61 -- and saw hundreds of movies a year, back when that was really, really hard work. His main writing gig was at Esquire, and, following the example of the critics-turned-directors from the already-mentioned Cahiers (Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard), set off to make movies after writing about them. His "big break" was bumping into Roger Corman standing in the same line at a Hollywood event, and Corman already being a fan of his articles.
He's one of the few to return to criticism after he became a famous director, using that as his ticket to access with people like John Ford and Orson Welles, who became a life-long friend. (Welles famously crashed with Bogdanovich for a couple of years of hard times in the early 70s.)
There are a couple of terrific books of his out there. Pieces of Time is a 1973 collection of his writing. This is Orson Welles is a series of interviews spanning a couple of decades - Welles called it his autobiography. Who The Devil Made It is interviews and portraits of directors, and Who The Hell's In It is the same with actors. (Peter studied acting with Stella Adler in the 50s, which also put him in the middle of things early on.) Peter Bogdanovich's Movie Of The Week is just like it sounds -- his introductions to 52 must-see movies. (Not as strong) as the ones I just mentioned, but more than worth its $2.99 Kindle price.)
He's also got a nifty blog at Indiwire that he updates quite regularly. Here's a piece from July on the pre-Hayes Code Design for Living.
These are obviously lighter-weight pieces for popular consumption, but show a breadth of interest over such a long span of time (his The Cinema Of Alfred Hitchcock came out in 1963!) that I think at this point, he may have been doing it longer than anyone alive, and he's only 74! (Actually, Molly Haskell's been at it as long, but she's not a director.) Throw in a couple of Oscar noms, a BAFTA, and other awards including a Grammy for his direction of a Tom Petty longform piece in 2007, and acting starting in the 1950s, and I think he really does stand alone in some very special ways.
Cahiers du Cinéma has been mentioned here already, the French journal ("cahiers" being the French word for "books") that laid out the principles behind indie filmmaking (and the indie ethos at studios in the 70s) as we know it today. That generation or two of film school directors? THIS is what they were talking about in film school.
A lot of it was hardcore theory, although some of the authors, notably Francois Truffaut, also wrote for newspapers and popular audiences in general. Some wonderful translations came out in 1992 in the Harvard Film Studies series, with a volume each for the 50s and 60s. (Here's the former.) These were MADE for Kindle, but alas, paperback only, but a steal at $21-ish.
Truffaut was the most famous director to come out of Cahiers -- if also most famous for his role in Close Encounters of The Third Kind (where he played, the, uh, French dude) -- but Jean-Luc Godard was probably the most important. In Sight & Sounds 2012 poll, the critics who participated named him the #3 director of all time.
S&S's methodology is to count the number of votes for MOVIES and ranked directors by the number of votes their movies got -- and the whole IDEA of ascribing a movie to a DIRECTOR actually came from Cahiers. It was only barely done before then...which tells you about Godard's importance as both a film critic and a director.
In the earliest days, some of the greatest directors were also trying to DO something with movies. There are a couple of volumes by Sergei Eisenstein that are really worth a read, some of the most important, and still most influential, essays about film ever written. Start with Film Form: Essays In Film Theory.
He's well known as the inventor of the montage, which meant something different than it means today -- for him, it was more about storytelling through pure editing, and the ways that deeper truths emerge above the literal images on the screen. He's one of the guys who actually invented editing AS a storytelling tool, rather than just a practical one. For him, it was philosophically rooted in Marx and Hegel, but it's a shame that conservatives leave him in that box. He understood cinema in the context of literature -- maybe the first critic to do that -- and his essay "Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today" is terrific as "movie" (as opposed to "film") criticism, literary criticism, AND philosophy. And yeah, he created some astounding movies.
The director/critic that I found the most provocative is Maya Deren. Her earliest movies (the 20s) used dance in a formal way -- ie, interesting shapes. Sometimes she cut the dancers out of their backgrounds, and printed the cut-out negatives as positives on black backgrounds, moving them around in ways that prefigured motion graphics by 70 years.
In fact, quite a few of her first films played with form, ritual, and crumbling the distinction between violence and beauty. (You're welcome, Quentin.) She'd also been interested in trance states, making some of the first film loops in the service of this idea. It seemed natural in retrospect for her to find her way to Haitian Voudoun, where many of these ideas combine. She shot a tremendous amount of footage on several trips to Haiti, and it's still startling to see.
She got a lot of grief for leaving behind the avant-garde for pretty much straight-up ethnography. Not true, but the avant-garde doesn't need much provocation. LOL Ethnographers weren't nuts about her leaving behind "objectivity" in favor of becoming a serious participant in Voudoun rituals, but I'm with her. Go big. My own paraphrase: perspective matters, and trying to hide perspective behind the pretense of objectivity is fraud.
Her 1953 book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, is where I first found her. (I spent more time studying anthropology...and a bunch of other stuff...than movies.) Very much closer to ethnography than film criticism, but much of the same passion she brought to film. She wrote a LOT about Hollywood, which - surprise surprise - she held in contempt, especially its big-budget, mass market mindset.
She also wrote with tremendous love of film more broadly, both as a watcher and maker of movies, including a regular stint at the Village Voice.
An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film was an early (1946), influential piece. I was only able to get my hands on bits and pieces of her original writing besides that (originally published as a standalone chapbook) when I was first looking in the 80s, but it was recently anthologized in a volume I can't recommend highly enough. In fact, I'd put it on a must-read film book list even if she weren't a director - Essential Deren: Collected Writing On Film. Another that should be on Kindle, but isn't, but is a steal at $14.41 in paperback.
Articles of hers like Creative Cutting and Cinema As An Artform are still exhilarating, and should be required reading in every film program. No WAY you'd guess that they're 60 or 70 years old. Heck, you've probably seen those exact titles someplace in the last couple of months. She was so far ahead of her time in almost everything she touched.
Another fun thing about life today is how easy it is to see her work. Bunches of her short pieces are on YouTube, and there was a great documentary about her in 2002, In The Mirror of Maya Deren. You can get it at iTunes as $3.99 rental, and buy for $9.99.
There was also a jaw-dropping 1985 collection of her Haitian footage that went by the same name as her book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. You can watch that for free on Amazon Instant, but unless you have a strong interest in Voudoun itself, I'd start with the other.
In fact I'd actually start with In The Mirror before diving too, too far into her standalone shorts on YouTube either. She's an artist who's worth the time to put in context: "Fellini and Bergman wrapped in one gloriously possessed body," says the iChoonz blurb, and I think that's putting it mildly.
But Divine Horsemen was the first flowering of a revival of interest in her work, which (among other things) led to the American Film Institute creating the Maya Deren Award to honor independent filmmakers the following year.
Other than Eisenstein, she's the one I think took both directing and writing into the realm of greatness. Of the two, I *enjoy* her more, even if I think it's a little hard to push Eisenstein into second place on any list he's on. But I also think she's very, very applicable to the art of filmmaking today (Eisenstein, beyond theoretical underpinnings, not so much), and understating the relative states of indie and Hollywood movie making. Actually, even more applicable today than when she wrote it, because both making and watching movies are accessible to a lot more people, so her writing MEANS more.
Looking at the treasure trove from these folks, including the pop writings of Bogdanovich, it really pains me that so few filmmakers since then have bothered to write down anything AT ALL about their lives as makers or even watchers of movies.
For that matter, I'd love to hear from a bunch of TV impressarios: Vince Gilligan, Whedon, Abrams, Weiner, or back to James L. Brooks, Norman Lear -- shoot, I'd almost rather read Woody Allen's TV criticism -- NONE of these guys even talk in interviews about anything more interesting than the movies they liked as kids. And mostly only about their most recent project. Really? That's the best you've got?
This one isn't film criticism, but one of the lions of the 70s golden age who made a BUNCH of great movies - The Verdict, Twelve Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network - was Sidney Lumet. He also wrote a terrific book called Making Movies, which covers everything from choosing scripts to visual storytelling. Even a little bit on project management! I think it's especially rewarding for creatives, but ANYONE who wants a look at movie making from one of the undisputed heavyweight champions is going to enjoy this.
I have to give an honorable mention award to editor Walter Murch, though. The single best thing to come out of the wake of Final Cut Pro is his re-elevation, thanks to using FCP to edit Cold Mountain. He was a god in the 70s - THX 1138, American Graffiti, the two Godfathers, and The Conversation all came out in 4 years!!! 71-74, with Apocalypse Now in 79, and then he faded from view.
In The Blink Of An Eye is a justifiably famous little book, although a harder read at 150 pages than you'd think. It's mostly the transcript of a lecture that I imagine would have been great to attend, if you know what I mean....but still, definitely worth a read, and one of the few contemporary examples of a filmmaker talking aloud about filmmaking.
Even better is The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient and many other novels. With a little bit of a push from a great storyteller in another medium, Murch stretches his thinking about great movie storytelling. He also has a chance to spin a few yarns about a whole bunch of great directors and movies. Especially recommended for anyone who couldn't get through Blink of An Eye. LOL Kidding aside, just a wonderful book, even just for movie fans in general.
There are a ton of other books of interviews, btw, "Scorsese on Scorsese" kind of things. A ton. Most are barely worth your time, but this one with Murch and Ondaatje, and Bogdanovich's interviews with Welles, stand out because of how hard the interviewers press over so many pages, instead of one good interview or insight sprinkled here and there that you see in other such collections.
But directors actually writing criticism themselves, whether movie reviews/overviews or theory? I'd love for somebody to point me to some I've missed, but this is about it for me.
Thank you Tim. This was a great response, and I really appreciate your taking the time. I also appreciate that you shared my sense of the strangeness of the silence from the great directors.
I'm going to use this post as my book list for the next year or two.
An update to this old thread: I just ran across the film reviews, on video, of Tony Zhou. I recommend that you look at his commentary-through-compilation approach.
Using actual clips, he is able to show patterns that I hadn't noticed. Not that film critics who write essays are obsolete, but this type of film criticism will give them a run for their money! The vagueness of a New Yorker piece, for example, with the implication that YOU SOPHISTICATED READERS MUST KNOW what I'm talking about (so I don't have to be too declarative), really falls flat, when you compare it to the evidence-based approach that Zhou takes.
I'd be curious what you think.