Scenes From The Crisis

Film critics face the ongoing death and rebirth of their calling


It’s a gorgeous spring evening in Hanover, New Hampshire, and some of the brightest minds in film criticism are walking back from dinner. German and American academics chat in the twilight. Carrie Rickey, critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer for almost three decades, and Molly Haskell, whose 1973 book, From Reverence to Rape, became a touchstone for feminist film theory, talk and laugh like sisters.

Noah Isenberg, an author and professor, is excited to call his family in Brooklyn and describe the scent in the air, a slight smokiness and the suggestion of trees coming back to life. Criticism is in his bones; he has to cast in words the transportive power of a sensory experience. He is here as organizer (along with Gerd Gemünden) of a symposium on film criticism and scholarship commemorating the legacy of German film journal Filmkritik. It lasted 27 years and had only 5,000 subscribers, but it courted first-rate talent: married critics Frieda Grafe and Enno Patalas, editor Harun Farocki, directors R.W. Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. Isenberg believes that this publication’s rich history might provide a foundation for productive discussion about criticism. Dartmouth’s campus is crawling with luminaries such as Haskell, Rickey, longtime Village Voice writer J. Hoberman, Time’s Stephanie Zacharek (also a Voice alum), and Film Quarterly editor B. Ruby Rich, each eager to consider the history of their calling, and its present.

Dr. Mattias Frey sets the stage in the opening panel, ominously titled “The Permanent Crisis of Criticism.” He shares quotes, stretching from 2008 back to 1927, predicting the demise of cinema and criticism. “In my research,” he says, “I found it was actually difficult to find a period in film criticism where there was not a perception of crisis.”

German critic Claudia Lenssen, who was shaped by Filmkritik magazine, puts the pattern in context: “I don’t think it was ever possible for freelance film journalists to survive just by writing on film.” This is more important than ever for young critics to hear, given that hundreds of writers jockey every day for attention and higher pay online. Everyone in this room knows this well. As critic Stefan Grissemann puts it, “You will not just write reviews. You’ll visit film festivals, talk to industry people, moderate film premieres, write liner notes for avant-garde DVDs.” And that, of course, is the beat of the ones who find paying work. The realities of the job have never been clearer, and everyone in the room knows you can’t make rent through criticism alone.

That may explain the laughter that ripples through the hall when Hoberman stands and introduces himself to the panel as a “recovering film critic.” He speaks about “The Decay of Cinema” — the 1996 essay in which Susan Sontag argued that cinephilia was under attack, thanks to capitalism’s smothering of filmmakers’ creativity and killing of the theatrical experience — as a watershed moment in the history of this crisis. Many present remember its publication like it was yesterday.

“If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too,” Sontag lamented in the piece. But if she was right, then most critics have been taking part in a decades-long Irish wake. Rich says “The Decay of Cinema” always struck her more as a piece of nostalgia for a time when Sontag herself was more influential. Grissemann admits that part of the persistent, perceived problem is that critics “don’t have power to damage a film any longer.” He suggests that this powerlessness could be liberating: Now critics can be, as Frey puts it, “beholden to the object, not the reader.” And of the future? “I’m loath to predict what comes out on the other side,” Frey says.

Looking back is easier, and edifying. Hoberman holds the audience rapt with talk of how, at the Times, Vincent Canby’s love for Fassbinder helped resurrect German cinema in America. By continually praising the young genius’ work, Canby got Americans to reconsider films in a tongue that had been all but banished from screens after World War II. Rickey confirms this when she recounts seeing Wenders’s Kings of the Road for the first time and hearing the words “the yanks have colonized our subconscious” come out of the lead’s mouth. “It was like a bolt of lightning,” she says. “I felt like a sleepwalker shaken awake.” Her consciousness would never again be at rest. If the likes of Wenders and Fassbinder had never been championed by critics like Canby and journals like Filmkritik, many cinephiles might have remained asleep. For similar jostling today, consider Wesley Morris’s use of Fruitvale Station as a way to discuss the shifting images of blackness in the 21st century, or Haskell’s highlighting of the limited space women are allowed to occupy in movies like The Godfather.

Throughout the symposium, nearly everyone talks about Pauline Kael, the famously acidic New Yorker critic who woke up quite a few film lovers with her writing. A professor named Johannes von Moltke even gives an entertaining presentation dedicated to her critique of Siegfried Kracauer. When she died, in 2001, Andrew Sarris, Kael’s soft-touch foil for years at the Voice, wrote about their professional rivalry in The Observer: “I am always being asked to appear on panels bemoaning the state of contemporary film criticism when compared with the supposed golden age of…the Kael-Sarris contretemps…[but] film criticism today is far superior to what it was back in the supposed golden age.”

After the “crisis” panel, as if to prove Sarris’s point, Rich lists websites offering nonwhite critical voices, including Remezcla, and Shadow and Act. Criticism is more varied than ever, even if establishment outlets for it are not. Grissemann warns that it’s important not to look at the time of the public intellectual “high priest” with false nostalgia.

During a panel on feminism and film criticism, Haskell drives this point home. In her regal, lilting drawl, she says, “I loved criticism before I loved film.” When she started her career in the 1960s, women had a chance to review movies only because the art form wasn’t yet respected. Editors figured: Why not give it to the runts of the newsroom? Undeterred by sexism, Haskell saw criticism as a way, she says, to “find ourselves in relation to cinema…[and] our orientation in the world.” That fusion of the self and the art form, the way they nourish each other, is why criticism will persist — even thrive — into the future, especially during moments of crisis.

Warmth radiates among old friends Rickey, Haskell, and Zacharek as they sit talking about formative moments in their careers. “Molly Haskell…made me a feminist,” Rickey declares with pride, and the woman next to me, who has flown from India just to hear Haskell speak, nods knowingly. Neither the ideological nor the personal can get in the way of the closeness we feel when cinephilia welds us together.

When people love the art enough to know its contours and its capabilities, they see the world differently. That’s why Isenberg finds himself keen to call his family and rhapsodize the New Hampshire air, to share an insight only he can deliver. “Criticism will survive as a genre, independent of academic discourse or film journalism,” Lenssen says. As long as there is art, there will be criticism, and whatever form it takes — lists, video essays, podcasts, capsules, social media — it will bring us closer to a more perfect understanding of ourselves.