Film Criticism: Why Bother?

By Chris Darke

performance-nicholas-roeg.jpgPerformance, 1970

A Compulsion

When I’m reviewing a film, I tend to leave the screening with the pages of my notebook resembling the results of a polygraph test taken by a compulsive liar. Spasms of biro have to be deciphered before being finessed into prose. Life would be a lot easier if I bought a light pen. But, no, I write blind and that’s the way I like it. The only light a film critic needs to write by falls from the screen. After all, scribbling in the dark is quite in keeping with the basic perverseness of trying to put the experience of sound and image into words. And even as it has been processed by journalism and tamed by academe, film criticism remains, in essence, a compulsive activity. It’s not the films you see that form you as a critic – it’s the films that see you that really count.

This is not to say that accuracy and objectivity aren’t desirable, or even attainable, criteria. But these, too, must serve the compulsion which, when fully acknowledged, will reveal what it is about cinema that made you want to write about it in the first place (other than wanting to see films for free and your words in print). Or, to put it differently, if you have a celluloid itch that requires a pen to scratch it, then the chances are that there’s something else at work beneath the need to churn out the words and serve up the instant opinions.

I sometimes wonder if film criticism, in its accepted academic and journalistic modes, isn’t a way of denying the extremely subjective nature of the compulsion that underlies the strange activity of scribbling in the dark; the authority conferred by peer review or newspaper by line definitively quashing the possibility that the writer is too ‘impressionistic’ or subjective.

The recent works of film criticism that I have found the most rewarding are each, in their different ways, exploring the sources of compulsion that make one want to write, hence read, about cinema: Paolo Cherchi Usai’s The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age (2001), an aphoristic meditation on cinema as ‘the art of destroying moving images’; Gilberto Perez’s The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium (1998), a memoir-cum-analysis of the condition of cinema, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret’s 26 Secondes L’Amérique éclaboussée, l’assassinat de JFK et le cinéma américain (26 Seconds, Bloodstained America: the Assassination of JFK and American Cinema’, 2003), an examination of political violence in American cinema. Just as the reputations of Performance or Peeping Tom (with the latter especially vilified on release) have since been critically recuperated, so each of these writers brings his individual compulsion, to write about cinema, to bear on its history in the belief that, having embalmed the 20th century, cinema may have something to tell us about who we are in the 21st. And the film critic is a being whose own memory is formed by cinema. Otherwise, why bother?

Chris Darke writes extensively on all aspects of the moving image (see also pages 14 and 50). This was originally written as a preface to the day symposium A Critical Condition: the State of Film Journalism in the UK at the 24th Cambridge Film Festival, 2004 (