6. Pauline Kael
In 1998, at the beginning of his trajectory in cinema, a young director tracked Pauline Kael down and tried to coax her to watch his new movie. A tastemaker in the 70’s whose opinion still meant the world to the King of Quirk – Wes Anderson, apparently “a terrible name for a movie director.”
Her own career started out as the quintessential Hollywood. Almost half a century earlier, the director of “City Lights” magazine overheard her discussing films in a coffee-shop and asked her to review Chaplin’s “Limelight”, thus starting her prolific career in film criticism.
Owen Gleiberman said she “was more than a great critic. She re-invented the form, and pioneered an entire aesthetic of writing. She was like the Elvis or the Beatles of film criticism.
She popularized the personal voice in film criticism. Opposed to the current demand for objectivity in the medium, she incorporated elements of her own life in movies in some of the most remarkable pieces of writing of her time. One of her most well-known reviews features a lover’s quarrel as the background for her description of Vittorio De Sica’s “Shoeshine”:
“(…) after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theatre, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, ‘Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie.’ I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?… Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarrelled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other, and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.”
Such a distinctive voice has the gift to arouse strong supporters and detractors. Roger Ebert described her as having the “more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades.” Owen Gleiberman compared her to the “Elvis or Beatles of film criticism.” From people working today, Quentin Tarantino cites her as a major influence. “I never went to film school, but she was the professor in the film school of my mind.”
On the other camp, Woody Allen famously said that Kael “has everything that a great critic needs except judgment.” William Shawn, usually a mellow fellow complained that with her style she wanted “to see how far she can push us.” Her quarrels with Andrew Sarris became legendary. Despite their similar tastes, they had opposite approaches. According to David Bordwell “Kael wrote for those who dug movies, while Sarris wrote for those who loved cinema.”
Sarris was concerned with the specificity and possibilities of the medium, while Kael tried to view films the way the audience would. And because the audience would see it a movie once, she famously refused to watch a movie twice. Their views became so conflicting, a “cat-and-dog fight,” as Sarris later said, with Kael’s adamant opposition to the auteur theory Sarris defended, that two camps emerged, the Paulletes and the Sarrists.
After her death, when asked who was right in the long run, Sarris responded: “In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes or someone once said, we are all dead.”
7. François Truffaut
Truffaut was a French film director, screenwriter, producer, actor, and film critic, as well as one of the founders of the French New Wave.
In Andre Bazin, Truffaut found both a film father and close to a literal one. After falling under his tutelage at age eighteen, Truffaut became a tenant with the Bazin family. Self-taught, Truffaut learned his craft literally “by seeing, touching and breathing cinema, as if infecting himself through contact with its creators.”
He had started his learning process with “Paradis Perdu”, an Abel Gance movie he saw at age eight. At age fourteen, Truffaut proceeded to watch three films a day and three books a week (or at least aim to do so) and under his film father, he completed that education.
The work he started as a film critic in 1950 took off in 1953 with a review of “Sudden Fear”, for the newly created magazine “Cahiers du Cinema”. In his work on “Cahiers” and other publications, Truffaut managed to interview several directors with whom he developed personal and professional connections. Max Ophuls, Renoir and mostly Roberto Rossellini, for whom he wrote scripts and helped adapt projects.
This close relationship with important directors was crucial for Truffaut to develop probably the most important part of his criticism, the one that assures his place in the Pantheon of film critics, if such thing existed: the “Auteur Theory”. Truffaut defended that the deep knowledge of a select group of film directors through a characteristic style, through a particular conception of cinema.
Among those were Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Abel Gance, Jean Renoir, Jacques Tati and, someone who for him was the quintessential director, Alfred Hitchcock. (It took Truffaut and the other future directors of the New Wave to recognize the value of American directors in Hollywood in the fifties.)
8. Barry Norman
Among his many accomplishments, Barry Norman lost his temper with Madonna and almost fought with Bob de Niro, according to the back cover of his book “And why not? Memoirs of a Film Lover”. But during his five decades as a film critic those certainly weren’t his biggest accomplishments.
Born in England, in the early 30’s, Norman reached fame through BBC’s “Film Programme”. He was its sole presenter from 1973 until 1998, almost uninterruptedly. The way he talked in that program, was the way he wrote. According to the Irish Times that was “with enthusiasm, humour and honesty,” while it could easily be added that he wrote incisively and, most of all, with wit:
“Schwarzenegger (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is not an actor, he’s a human special effect.”
“Cold War thrillers might seem a bit archaic nowadays, although the way Putin carries on who knows whether the good old days might not be coming back.” (which feels like a premonition these days)
In the 1998 edition of his book “100 Best Films of the Century” he made no distinction between “E.T. – The Extra-Terrestreal” and “Laurence of Arabia”, “Bambi” and “The Battleship Potemkin”, “The Godfather” and… “The Godfather II”. That just goes to show the eclecticism of the writer.
9. Roger Ebert
In the recent documentary “Life Itself”, Thea Flaum, the producer and creator of “Sneak Previews,” said of Ebert that “at his heart he was a populist. He believed everyone should be able to get to a movie.”
Roger Joseph Ebert was born in Illinois where he started his writing career early on as a sports writer for “The News-Gazette” and as a scifi fanzine commenter. He became class president and editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper.
He also won a championship for “radio speaking” showing the public speaking ability who accompanied him until cancer took his voice. His impressive academic and professional path culminated with the Pulitzer prize in 1975, during his tenure with the Chicago Sun-Times.
With “At the Movies” Roger with the help of Gene Siskel, helped democratize film criticism. They brought the big screen to the small. And sometimes helped bringing the big screen to the big screen. Defying producers they talked at length about movies no one had heard about and got them exposure to prick their viewers curiosity. “Hoop Dreams” (from the same director of “Life Itself”) and “Gates of Heaven” were two of them. In print, Ebert did just the same.
Of course it wasn’t the only thing he did. His movie putdowns have become classics:
(on Armageddon) “No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”
(on “The Brown Bunny”) “I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than The Brown Bunny.”
(on “Godzilla”) “Going to see Godzilla at the Palais of the Cannes Film Festival is like attending a satanic ritual in St. Peter’s Basilica.”
When he died in 2013, the list of people who mourned his death is a testament to his influence in movies. From foreign correspondents of his blog, co-workers and fellow critics, to film directors he supported, from the general population to the president Barack Obama, who said “The movies won’t be the same without Roger.”
10. Andrew Sarris
If you had to pinpoint a single thing Sarris did as a film critic, it would have to be his import of the “Auteur Theory” to the US. After spending some time in France and meeting people like Bazin, Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, and others, he published an called “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” In that work, Sarris tried to explain the “Auteur Theory” and adapt it to an American audience.
His take differed from critics and theoreticians who viewed the evolution of the medium of cinema as a technical progression. Editing with Méliès, Griffith, and the Russians. Sound explored by Clair or Hitchcock, and later colour. Sarris didn’t accept this concept of film history as an agglomerate of technical evolution.
Instead he viewed it as an “opening outward to accommodate the unpredictable range and diversity of individual directors.” His auteurism defended that evolution for evolution sake was less valuable than the use of resources to create works who showed a distinct conception of human life:
“Griffith, Murnau, and Eisenstein had different visions of the world, and their technical ‘contributions’ can never be divorced from their personalities.”
In his most influential work, “The American Cinema” Sarris lists fourteen directors whose work in the US earned them a spot in his pantheon of film directors: Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D. W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, Max Ophüls, Josef von Sternberg, Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jean Renoir.
In 2001 Sarris sums up his own legacy like this:
“After more than forty years of polemics, I have reached the state where I am regarded as too much of an academic for the journalists and too much of a journalist for the academics. […] I have no idea anymore where I belong on the critical scene, or where I want to belong. What was for me an outlet in the fifties and an obsession in the sixties has become a time-consuming profession in the nineties. I would like to think that I have evolved both as a critic and a human being, and that I have kept an open mind on the cinema.”