You can go as far as 1896, the year cinema was born, to find the first pieces of writing on film. Maxim Gorki wrote a beautiful text called “The Kingdom of Shadows” where he described some reactions to film still resonant to this day: “You are forgetting where you are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your consciousness begins to wane and grow dim…”
Throughout the history of cinema many brilliant writers and thinkers described what they saw, listened and felt at the movies. They put their opinion down, on paper or screen, so that readers could make plans for date night or family outings. For readers who wanted to know more about a movie, who wanted to find someone who shared their opinion, or someone’s opinion to criticize.
Of those film critics, not many had their writing remain interesting and current in the 21st century. But some of them did.
1. Otis Ferguson
Colin Burnett recently called Otis Ferguson “one of the most quietly influential critics in the history of American movies.”
During the 1930’s Ferguson became a pioneer film criticism in part due to his different approach to film criticism. Unlike his peers, Ferguson’s writing was light-hearted. His prose was colloquial and informal, often-using-hyphenated-word-composites, even changing his voice depending on theme.
This couldn’t have been farthest from the way critics approached film at the time, in no way different from a book review in style and content. In his own words this approach was “obediently dull and uninformative” and “unworthy of so lively and immanent a subject.”
He understood that film was a medium in its early stages and he approached it that way:
“The movies were upon us before anyone had time to grow up and become a professor in them.”
“There are not words enough yet for the different ways in which movies affect us”
Even today it’s hard to find such a paradoxical example of a film critic as him. One of the earliest film specialist and, at the same time, a populist. On one side he studied film extensively and was one of the first critics to understand how movies were made and to exhibit technical acumen when the subject required it.
In the other, he defended slapstick, light comedies and gangster movies. That movies should move. He found there was no place in movies for static images. Plots should be unassuming and maintain a clear line, but leave space for details which don’t serve story.
He revelled in Hitchcock’s details “He loads his set with them without loading down his action; and because everything and everybody aren’t direct accessories to the plot, so many mechanical aids, you get the effect of life, which also has its dogs and casual passers-by who are real without having anything to do with any plot you know about.”
Among his pet-peeves was “Citizen Kane”, which he emphatically took down in two separate pieces and his innovative contempt for movies and authors who relied too heavily on montage: “what we have got to single out is the difference between a picture that catches you up in its movement, and a picture that stammers, stands doubtfully, hammers at a few obvious meanings, and leaves you with a feeling of all the mechanism used to capture emotion, without the emotion.”
Before Ferguson went off to war not to come back, he left this invitation which was taken on by his two successors:
“More people go to good and bad movies than read good and bad books, and surely the top layer of this vast audience is as discriminating of taste and exacting of standards as the top layer of the reading public. . . . There are plenty of young people growing up to whom the films are so natural that they do not have to play the snob about them.”
2. Dwight Macdonald
You’ll find a trend with all these critics that seems to be outdated with the torrent of internet critics, 100 word reviews and rating systems close to replacing words: a good film critic you MUST be a good writer.
At the height of his talents, “Macdonald made modern American English seem like the ideal prose medium.” He wrote transparently and with wit. His writing was conversational and rhythmic. He was able to capture the rhythm of an everyday conversation without falling into vulgarity. Dwight MacDonald was one of the great ists.
Born in 1906, his life contained so much more than film criticism. He was known as a writer, political radical, philosopher, and social critic. As a film critic, his colloquial style contrasted with his highbrow taste. He was a fan of Chaplin, Stroheim, and the Russians of the 20’s, especially early Eisenstein, which later became a matter of politics – Macdonald was a known leftist.
He remembers fondly going to the theatre to watch the Soviets, “One went to the ‘little’ movie houses which showed Russian films as one might visit a celebrated cathedral or museum. In the darkened auditorium of the theatre, one came into a deep and dynamic contact with twentieth century life.”
In 1981 some of his writing was compiled in a book called “On Movies”. You can find these insightful passages there:
(on Doris Day) “She has only one expression besides her usual pleasantly bovine one – she opens her eyes wide.”
(on Otto Premminger) “A great showman who has never bothered to learn anything about making a movie.”
(on “The Last Year at Marienbad”) “Not a masterpiece, but so curiously fascinating that I saw it 3 times in one week.”
(on Hitchcock and “The Birds”) “The only point of interest is that it’s by Hitchcock… background has become foreground… everything looks fake.”
(on the Auteur Theory) “It seems to be no more a precise instrument than a prejudice in favour of certain directors.”
(on biblical epics) “Instead of sex, we get sadism.”
(on the Close-Up) “It’s the most powerful drug in the cinematic pharmacopeia, but it must for that reason be used with moderation.”
(Dwight Macdonald will always be remembered at least for what Trotsky said of him: “Every man has a right to be stupid on occasion but Comrade Macdonald abuses it.”)
3. James Agee
Born in 1909, James Agee was a multifaceted writer. He was an author, worked as journalist, poet, screenwriter, and film critic. Contrary to what most people think, it wasn’t Roger Ebert the first film critic to receive the Pulitzer Prize. James Agee beat Two Thumbs to the prize by 20 odd years.
Granted, it was awarded posthumously for his novel “A Death in The Family” and not for his film criticism, but that just serves as a testament to his prose and literary prowess. Dwight MacDonald praised that prowess by saying “he had the poet’s eye for detail … He could get magic into his writing the hardest way, by precise description.”
The poet W. H. Auden called his regular column in the liberal weekly publication “The Nation” a “newspaper work of permanent literary value” and “the most remarkable regular event in journalism today.”
Garnering respect and admiration even outside of the film criticism spectre, his reviews were read by people who hadn’t even seen the movies discussed, and appreciated nonetheless. His writing provoked on his most dedicated readers awe and respect. Envy even. Writers to this day wish to write as well as he does. As well as someone “The Saturday Review” called “the best movie critic this country has ever had.”
In 1958, three years after his death, “Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments” was published. It popularized the long thoughtful piece about movies, becoming a model for similar collections by critics like Kael, Sarris, Macdonald, Kauffmann and others. It came at a time the status of film criticism in the USA was changing, with a rise of interest in movies by intellectuals, and it was a crucial part in it, a stepping stone for the ascent of film criticism into the world of letters.
James Agee became also know for writing “Night of the Hunter,” a movie you either love or hate.
4. Manny Farber
In early 1942 Farber, at just 25, he took up the position of Otis Ferguson as the house critic for “The New Republic”. He stopped writing for 2 years and in 1949 he took up James Agee’s position in “The Nation”. Good critics seemed to orbit in smaller circles in the 40’s.
Much like his predecessors, Farber held in high regard Griffith, Chaplin, and the remainder of the silent film canon. Movies should seek “the idea in the visual world of action and movement, which is the more suitable, and so more emotionally vital, manner for the movies.”
In part due to his celebrated work as a painter, Farber emphasized the importance of framing, staging, cinematic space, the geometry of pictorial composition; if those components are weak, “there is nothing in the people, costuming or acting that will intrigue your eye enough to keep it focused on the story,” Farber argued.
David Bordwell talks about the way he had to distinguish himself from Agee and Ferguson. He argues he did it through his style. “Every paragraph is a freewheeling adventure in slang, mixed metaphors, and yoyo syntax.” Curiously enough, Farber cited the sportswriters of his time as an influence, often using sports-related metaphors.
In 1977, looking back at his career as a film critic, he described his work as an attempt “to set out the movie before the reader’s eye in as much completeness as I could, in that topography.” He adds that his work was to “pull the audience in and give them these sights without their realizing it, and which would divulge the landscape of the film as accurately as I could get it. That involved a lot of colour work in the language and in the insights—colour work in the sense of decorative quality.”
He coined the term “underground film” as the work of directors such as Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh who “played an anti-art role in Hollywood.” He was their early supporter, as he was of upcoming directors like Werner Herzog, Anthony Mann, Andy Warhol, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, among others.
5. André Bazin
Bazin is one of the only two theorists on this list. Incidentally, the other one (Andrew Sarris) developed his ideas when he brought them from France along with two baguettes and a croissant.
Bazin started to write on the subject of film in 1943 and 8 years later he co-founded the revered magazine “Cahiers du Cinema”. Most of his work was published there and compiled posthumously. Some of the best were compiled in a two part book called “What is Cinema?” His work was also compiled in books about Orson Welles, Chaplin, or Jean Renoir.
The impact of Bazin is anything but neglectable. He started the conversation which lead to two of the big theories of film: auteur theory and realism.
Bazin described the auteur theory as “a way of reading and appraising films through the imprint of an auteur (author), usually meant to be the director.” It was Truffaut who coined the phrase politique des auteurs, but it was Bazin who started to differentiate movies through the world view and style of particular directors and with “Cahiers” he created the ideal environment for the growth of the theory.
His input on the realistic predilection was much bigger, being a fierce opponent of montage and manipulation of the image, like Eisenstein’s or that of the German Expressionists, which calls attention to itself. Long shots, deep focus and shot-in-depth are artifices which better reveal what Bazin called “objective reality.”
There’s another concept defended by Bazin which, if adopted by other critics, would deprive us of words like these “To call it an anti-climax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes” (Ebert on “The Village”). Such concept is “appreciative criticism”, the notion that only critics who like a film should review it, thus encouraging constructive criticism.