Sunday, December 3


Everybody (in the audience) Is A Critic

I feel a bit presumptious participating in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania blogger Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon. Though I have an inner urge to write about films, I must admit that the few times I've been described with the word "critic" I've had to supress a wince. Not that I feel I'm "above" such a label, quite the contrary. The critics I most admire seem able to carve a deeply insightful (whether I agree wholeheartedly or not) critical response to practically every slice of moving image they come across. I don't feel nearly as able to do such a thing. I strongly identify with something Jonas Mekas wrote about himself: "Maybe I am more a tinker than a thinker." I'm not exactly sure what Mekas meant by it when it was published May 29, 1969 (he proves himself quite a thinker discussing Arnulf Rainer in the very next paragraph) but in my writing I often feel like an untrained dabbler, most comfortable chiselling diligently at a tiny, underworked corner of knowledge. Most times when I feel tempted to make a grand pronouncement on the "big picture" issues of cinema, I feel like I'm just saying something that countless people before me have already said less clumsily. I'm mostly content to let others do the critical "heavy lifting" for me. It's one reason why I try to include so many links in each post I write at this site.

But there are lots of differing definitions of the word "critic". WordNet-Online has three. The first is "a person who is professionally engaged in the analysis and interpretation of works of art" and it doesn't seem like me at all- I earn my living working in libraries, perhaps helping facilitate others' analysis and interpretation, but not doing any myself. Definition #3 is the one the saying I riff on in the title of this post stems from: "someone who frequently finds fault or makes harsh and unfair judgments." Not me at all; I normally err in the other direction. But look at the second definition: "anyone who expresses a reasoned judgment of something." That's me. Not always, of course. Sometimes my judgments come purely from emotion, not reason (hopefully I can at least tell the difference.)

But if that's me, isn't it everybody else in the movie theatre too? I'm not trained in psychology, but I'm not one of those who believes that some, most or any people really turn their brains off when they watch a movie. Of course, people have different tools to help them analyze films at different levels. When I was a young child I didn't have the interest in or the ability to differentiate adult actors' faces from each other; I could only recognize types, which put me at a disadvantage for understanding a film with more than one brown-haired adult male character in it, for example. But I tried to use reason to figure out what was happening based on what I could understand. Many moviegoers may not understand the difference between what a film director and a screenwriter is (some days I'm not so sure I've got as firm a grasp on it as I think I do) but if that limits the types of rational analysis that can be performed when watching a movie, it certainly does not cease such analysis.

And everyone judges films. How many "big" film websites have recognized this and provided anyone happening to stop and look at a film's page the opportunity to rate it? Have you ever asked someone's opinion on a film, only to have them tell you, "I don't know"? Doesn't such a response pretty much imply that a person has too many opinions about a given film, rather than too few? And, of course, these opinions are constantly expressed. Let me for a moment step away from my pontificating to provide a concrete example from my primary area of expertise: the Frisco filmgoing scene.

The setting is the Castro Theatre last night, where the Silent Film Society hosted another highly successful event: a screening of the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille-produced original film version of Chicago (though there's evidence to suggest DeMille actually directed it but gave Frank Urson the credit.) The house was packed tightly enough that I had to find a seat way in the upper reaches of the balcony, where I had a much better view of a couple film cans labeled "the Flowers of St. Francis" than I had of the Baker-Mehling Hot Five providing the flapper-era jazz accompaniment for the film. No matter, I heard the band and saw the screen fine, and from my lofty position perhaps felt a little more prone to pay particular attention to reactions of the audience between me and the screen. It's a fun if occasionally over-telegraphed film and it certainly seems like it could be a pre-code DeMille to me: a morality tale in which the sinners are more irresistible than the saints.

Normally I find I can't stomach trial sequences. They've knocked the life out of many an otherwise enjoyable film from Mutiny on the Bounty to, well, Chicago. I've never been able to get past my dislike of film trials and appreciate what everyone else seems to love about something like Anatomy of a Murder. But the trial scene is surely the heart of this Chicago and its best sequence. I should probably exempt silent film trial scenes from my blanket scorn, as they so naturally rely on visual storytelling that they're more likely to overcome the problems so many talking trial scenes cannot (I'd supply details if it didn't feel like a subject for another post entirely.) the Passion of Joan of Arc and the Unholy Three are a rarely-compared pair that more than overcome, and gloriously. In Chicago, Urson/DeMille play up the scenario's farcical aspects perfectly by having everybody burlesque to a degree rarely seen in even the most overacted silent film. Throughout the film Phyllis Haver's performance as Roxie has been ramped up a notch in intensity over her costars Victor Varconi, Eugene Pallette, etc. But now, wearing a scandalously leggy, virginally white dress, she launches into the realm of parody and brings everyone from the flustered prosecuting attorney to the lecherously leering jurymen to the gumsmacking public along with her. The ludicrous acting styles are all the more effective for being incorporated into a quick-cut pattern of editing helping to give the sense of a courtroom about to explode. When she completes her dramatic testimony as if a beginning drama student hamming for her first audition, the Castro audience broke into a huge round of applause.

Now, who knows just what inspired hundreds of different people to spontaneously begin clapping in the very middle of a film whose creators were long-dead. For many this may have been a mainly emotional response, or a rational one far different from the one I found myself experiencing. There's really no way to tell if, like me, people were starting to wonder to themselves if the filmmakers were making a subversive commentary (criticism!) of silent film acting in general here at the dawn of the sound film era. The film does include a newspaper headline playing off of the first big semi-talkie, the Jazz Singer ("Jazz Shooter"), after all.

What I do know from the applause is that as a group this audience liked that scene. A lot. Almost certainly better than any scene appearing prior to it, and probably better than anything after as well (though plenty of enthusiastic hisses and cheers erupted during the film's coda of comeuppance). Is calling these kinds of mass responses (or the ones described here and here) real film criticism a stretch? Maybe. But if so, does this or this or this still get to be called criticism? How about this or this?

Thanks, Andy, for spurring me to write this piece for your Blog-A-Thon. It turned out better than I expected, and I don't feel quite as presumptuous any longer (though I'm not tempted to re-edit the beginning paragraph at all- sometimes my posts are like journeys through a writing experiment, and I feel like preserving that feeling.)

A final note for the day for my Frisco Bay readers, especially fans of silent films accompanied by top-class musicians: though the Berlin and Beyond festival at the Castro has not released its schedule yet, it seems that on January 15th Dennis James is slated to perform a score to a new restoration of a Bavarian silent called Nathan, the Wise, featuring Werner Krauss (of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the title role and Max Schrek (Nosferatu) to boot.

Hey Brian,

I just wanted to give you a Youtube link to Martha Colburn's video for Deerhoof . . .

By the way, I really enjoy your writing style and how you document the cinema! The most important thing is to document the real cinema in anyway we can! I have been thinking a lot about Jonas Mekas's "Movie Journal." What he does in his essays is so hard! Jonas is able to balance the interior personal poetic sphere with the exterior world. I don't know how to describe it exactly, but he is able to create poetry that works independently of any one movie & yet he constantly documented . . . I'm finding that on my blog, I cannot keep up with this public world of cinema, because my interior realm of consciousness & feeling is being dissipated!!!!

P.S. Have you read Jonas's essay on the subject of film criticism? That's one of my favorites . . .
I like your example of the young boy you were who had a partial grasp of what was going on. The suppression (voluntary or involuntary) of certain informations (like when we watch a foreign film from a culture we can only assume) is a handicap that may turn out to open a new angle of approach to the film. So it's not inherently wrong, only partial. You need to be able to relativize the little details you can spot once you stop paying full attention to the main drive, and figure how crucial these findings are to the overall picture.

Now the critic is one who is expected to figure out his/her own prejudices/limitations and thus reflecting such circumscribed scope in an equally partial review.
That's why I don't believe everyone watching a film can produce a critical judgment. With judgment comes responsability (to be fair to the work done).

Now every form of audience response is a valid feedback, but it's not what I'd call a proper (reasoned) judgment if not accompanied by a contextualization of taste/observation.

Well we don't have to follow the same definitions.

I've never witnessed an applause during a silent movie. I'm curious about what triggered it. I don't know this film, was there a long monologue of intertitles? I can't imagine a visual cue in a silent sequence calling for a spontaneous applause...

Btw, the applause at the movies is an inappropriate reflex (unless the film crew is in attendance), because this mass response can only be heard by the public itself. Thus no thanking anyone in particular, and nobody deserving the ovation anyway. Like if the audience congratulated themselves for being happy at the same time. We don't clap in front of the TV... Applause is for live performances because it goes out to the performers. Sorry for being a party-killer with overanalysis... just dropping my two cents.
Great post!
Brian, as always you find a fertile and fascinating way into the subject at hand. Many of us would have to consider ourselves "untrained dabblers," but the fact that you've found a way to engage with films while not always calling as much attention to yourself, keeping the focus on the words, including those to whom you so (dare I say it) artfully link, just speaks to me that you've found yet another way to define criticism at a time when the whole concept of criticism is experiencing a huge sea change. Your contribution to this blog-a-thon is just more evidence that you're doing things in a style that specifically represents you, and that's what makes it worthwhile and valuable. Like Harry said, great post.

Harry, if, as you say, "every form of audience response is a valid feedback," then how is it that applause inside a movie theater is an "inappropriate" reflex? Is it simply because those involved in the production of the film might, as in Brian's example, be long dead? Or that no one from the film crew is present in the auditorium to hear the applause? How about spontaneous applause as a direct reaction to a particular sequence? Or as an expression of one's positive emotional reaction as the credits roll?

Forgive me, but it seems your characterization of this kind of applause as "the audience congratulating itself for being happy at the same time" is off the mark, at least in my experience. I've often clapped in front of the TV, whether I'm watching a great baseball game, or if I've just experienced something that surprised or delighted me in a film. I don't expect any reward for doing so from the guy who hit the home run or the director who orchestrated the scene that resulted in my delight-- it's simply a spontaneous response, part of the way I enjoy and participate in what I'm seeing.

(And lest you balk at this kind of explanation, I'm fully open to the possibility that I'm an irredeemable rube too.)

This kind of spontaneous outburst--an audience acknowledging that, yes, it was happy together as a group-- happened for me recently, at the end of a particularly rousing sequence in Casino Royale-- I started it, and the entire audience joined in.

I would, however, agree that applause for credits, especially in some of the places where I see movies here in Los Angeles, can be very annoying and self-congratulatory. But then, paradoxically, that's the kind of applause that might very well be heard by someone involved in the film, someone who could be in the audience. Yet I don't think this kind of applause is usually intended in such a clearly appreciative way-- in this situation, it's more often intended as an indicator to everyone surrounding the clapper of his/her high level of awareness of the film's production, in other words, an attention-seeking action-- Look, ma, I know who Emmanuel Lubiezki is! And I think there's a clear difference between this kind of behavior and the kind of applause that can often occur mid-film, whether it's during a silent film or Casino Royale. If a movie moved me to do so, I'd applaud even if I was the only one in the theater-- and as a matter of fact, that happened just last week when I saw the Dixie Chicks' documentary Shut Up and Sing.
Hey Denis, first it was not meant to be a mocking comment. This was a psychological question, not a critical judgement.
I don't remember where I heard this, someone cleverly pointed out to this absurdity that applause is uncalled for in a moviehouse.
But it's not because it's unecesasry that it doesn't/shouldn't happen, or that it's bad. It just seems funny to send an ovation to someone who will never know. That's why I'm wondering what is the (real) purpose of such gesture then (psychological interpretation).

It ressembles a pavlovian reflex that is perpetuated by a crowd who learnt it in live performances, and perpetuate it in another public event, even though the function of this noise has changed. Because unlike theatre, the emotional relationship is unilateral with movies, from the screen to the audience, never the other way round (mainly because applause disturbs from listening to the movie). But you're right, the communication of the audience with itself might be just as important, why not.

I admit I'm being facetious. Mass behavior is something else, and maybe the applause is no longer a way to "thank" but to tune a crowd in unison (synchronized emotion).
Though applause is different from laughter. Or maybe not. I don't know.
Harry: Sorry if I seemed cranky in my last comment-- I think I was up too late last night!

But your last comment made me think of something else I've noticed, particularly on late-night talk shows-- in these situations, I think applause very often is used as a substitute for laughter, especially when the crowd senses the material the host/comic is proferring isn't really up to snuff. So rather than groan or sit their in silence, we hear the smattering of giggles and then a round of applause.

(I remember being in a very small comedy club once, when I would have given anything to be able to laugh at the comic onstage, who became increasingly hostile and violent when we, the audience, simply didn't respond to his bits. There was no heckling on our part, just silence, and that freaked him out to the degree that he actually started yelling and throwing things.)

Of course, that really would be weird hearing an audience in a movie theater applaud every joke instead of laugh!
These are live performances though. So the interaction of the public with the host/comedian makes sense in this case. I guess what I meant earlier is that applause is meant to boost/cheer the performer, to say "we like it, keep it up", and the performer might improve the show as a result by feeling a warm feedback. A movie screen however doesn't feel the warmth and the show will not align to the positive/negative attitude of the audience.
Then again, there is The Rocky Horror Picture Show... a communal experience of the audience with itself. An event rather than a projection.
Brian, you pose an interesting question in wondering if audience reaction is a form of criticism. I would say no, that its fodder for film reception studies. As for whether or not you yourself are a film critic, again I would say no. I think you're much more than a film critic. It's that noun/verb thing again. At times you criticize film, but more often than not you facilitate and comment upon film culture, which is why I frequent your site. It's more in league with my style and, perhaps, more in league with a Bay Area style. Just an idle thought. Besides, your personality comes through in your writing. That's what I like. I'm not much interested in knowing how much film theory you have a firm grasp on, but, I love reading your personal take on film activities in the Bay Area. As film blogging is going to become more and more populated in years to come, especially since press accreditation is now offered, personality is going to become more and more important I think. You're way ahead of the pack here.

As for that paragraph with all the heres and thises, I feel compelled to speak up; though my preference is to tackle this and that. First, to thank you--as ever--for whenever you plug The Evening Class. I consider this a quality essential and peculiar to online film criticism and commentary: this kind of interstitial interaction, this cross-pollination, unique to the medium. When I gauge an audience reaction, it's primarily to set an experiential tone. Case in point: yesterday I saw APOCALYPTO twice. I rarely do that, but, considered it a unique opportunity to do that because the first audience was composed of local Bay Area critics and what I have found is those guys are bitchier than hell when you get them together as a pack and often too busy making mental notes while watching a film to participate on cue. The second audience at the Landmark Shattuck word-of-mouth screening was composed of raucous students and I found myself, having seen the movie already, free to make mental notes of the audience reaction. They laughed and gasped on cue, it was amazing. You could say in effect that Gibson had completely achieved what he set out to do. But then they qualified their own reaction by vehemently booing the film upon its completion. Something I've rarely seen done. When I measure these things, it's not necessarily as criticism against the film as much as simply a notation of how the film is received. They're separate realms of inquiry and interest. Like some people are fascinated in box office accounts, or award lists, the first which bore me to tears and the second which I indulge now and then primarily to instigate discussion. People love lists.

As for your thises, #1 is not criticism; it is a blurb. #2 is not criticism; it is a broken link. #3 is a PR capsule followed by links to film reviews. The set-up itself is not criticism but it contains criticism. Like Rotten Tomatoes or any other compendium of film reviews. #4 is again a compendium. #5 is an RSS feeder which randomly selects fave raves from among its memberships.
Thanks everyone for the comments and praise! Please let me know if I ever start to go off track and fail to live up to what you know I'm capable of. And I'm sorry I haven't been able to take the time to write back (on my own blog) until now.

Jen. Thanks so much for the youtube link. I finally got it to work today. I'd heard great things about that video, and now I see why!

I agree with you about Mekas. I can't even fathom trying to follow in his footsteps. I just have to do what I have to do, and if some inspiration from him seeps into me somehow, it will be a fortunate accident! I'm not sure which of his pieces you refer to, though, he has so many with a similar title (May 10, 1962's "On Film Criticism", June 28, 1962's "On Film Criticism and On Myself", May 28, 1964's "On the Status of Film Criticism in New York", etc. They're all great!

Harry, I like what you say about the lack of information not being inherenetly wrong. I do think that sometimes having certain knowledge we bring to watching a film can prevent us from thinking about it on the level that the filmmaker intended. An obvious example that comes to mind is a remake of a film or a literary work that the target audience is not expected to be more than vaguely familiar with. But there are other examples too, I'm sure.

My guesses as to why the audience applauded the silent film: perhaps they were applauding the excellent jazz band performing a live musical score in accompaniment (though at that moment the music did not seem any more flashy or complex than at any other moment in the film). Perhaps they were applauding the festival programmers and staff for making the event happen, or the archivist who had introduced the film by telling us how much easier it was to restore this film than most films he's worked on (he got the restoration done in 10 hours because it was in such good shape alreadt). But again, why at this moment? It really must have been an that the audience was experiencing a mass "cinephiliac moment" (if I can borrow girish's term). Why this moment? I think because the testimony Roxie gives, so exaggeratedly comic, so over the top in its lusty innocence, ended with such a dramatic flourish. It's a wonderful scene; though wee know she's guilty, we buy that the courtroom is buying her lies. She manages to make every man in the room (especially the 12 male jurors) feel that she's never sinned before in her life, but that she'd probably be happy to start with each of them, if only they'd help prevent her from getting locked away where her beauty and innocence would go to waste. At the end of the testimony, I almost want to say she takes a bow, but honestly I can't be sure if she does or if my mind made it up in retrospect. I'd like to see the film again to make sure.

Dennis, isn't that weird with talk show comedy and applause? What's probably even weirder is that I've never even considered how odd it is until you brought it up.

Michael, I guess it's all about definitions; I trotted out a dictionary definition of "critic" and found to my surprise that I measured up, as did everyone in the theatre. But I think you're fundamentally right, that this is really the realm of audience studies (something I ought to learn more about for myself through the existing literature, since I so often catch myself being intrigued casually).

For some reason, I'm now reminded of one of my favorite contributions to this Blog-A-Thon: Chris Stengl's, especially the last part, where he says: "Everybody is a critic, but they are not all good critics. They are not all smart critics. Everybody is certainly not a writer," but ends with "The critic must say the cruelest thing, the extreme thing, the strangest thing, must contribute that thought which only he is qualified, and able to give: opinion flanked by brain and gut. Everyone else is just a reviewer. May they all be eaten alive."
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