Film Theory, Film Criticism, Film History and Where I Stand


Someone posits the following question: Are you interested in critical film theory?

My first response is what even is “critical film theory?” And I know in academic terms they are probably talking about film theory or film studies and the many strands of thought and analysis that have come out of academia in the post-war years. That’s good and fine but I would say that I am not a steadfast adherent to film theory and I’m hardly a disciple of any singular dogma, but it got me thinking at least a little bit of where I’m coming from and what my influences are.

I’m educated but hardly an academic. If I’m a critic then some would undoubtedly criticize my less than critical style. As far as film history goes, I love it! If I had to choose between any of these three entities I think I would easily take the mantle of a film historian first and foremost, although in that discipline I am an amateur. But I am a passionate amateur, self-made, self-taught and the last half dozen years or so I’ve amassed a great deal of film knowledge cramming so many cinematic facts in my head, it sometimes amazes me that I can remember most of them.

But I love the way that film is both a historical and visual medium. It can act as a time capsule taking us to different eras, places, and worlds. Introducing us to every type of person imaginable involved in every type of story. And the beauty is that even when those stories are not exactly planted in reality, they have a backstory. Actors, directors, the historical backdrop. All that plays into the film no matter the subject matter. It’s that context that fascinates me. So yes, I would probably consider myself a historian.

However, in order to get others to listen, even if it was only a very few, the need to take on the role of a film reviewer and, dare I say, a critic seemed necessary. As I said before I am self-taught so my reviews are hardly analytical in the academic sense. More on that in a moment.

In passing a few critics that I’ve admired over the years are certainly Roger Ebert, James Agee, Francois Truffaut, and more recently Alissa Wilkinson and Justin Chang. From time to time, I’ve read Kenneth Turan, A.O. Scott, Richard Brody, Anthony Lane, Matt Zoller Seitz, Eric Kohn, Leonard Maltin, Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, Vincent Canby, Andrew Sarris, Kenneth Morefield, Jefferey Overstreet, Brett McCracken, Joel Mayward, Dennis Schwartz, Jefferey M. Anderson, Tim Brayton, and some of the other prolific Rotten Tomatoes reviewers who take the time for lesser-known films.

But going back to my point of view. There’s not one perspective that I feel attached to because that’s precisely why I enjoy writing. I can put on different lenses based on the context and what I want to say. I can be formalist in my admiration for a film’s structure and composition. I can take a more contextual or cultural approach which ties into my appreciation for history, but perhaps most important to me in the progression of my own writing is what might best be described as a humanist approach. I hesitate to use this term because I would not necessarily consider myself a humanist in the generally accepted sense but I believe this lens informs my own often spiritual perspective.

Because my baseline for watching films is ultimately what they can tell me about humanity and more exactly what a film can tell me about myself, broken and confused as I am. It becomes obvious that it’s easy to criticize this perspective as being emotional and unfounded in rational thought. But I would interject that this is why I try and temper this sort of approach with the aforementioned strategies, namely formalism and historical context.

Furthermore, if I had to tie myself down to one sort of thought I guess I would have to admit paying a debt to the auteur theory which indirectly ties back to formalism. Some people might scoff at this point and that’s alright. I never admitted to being an academic or a professional critic. I just love movies and I love writing about them.

But I would say that I was influenced by the auteur theory without realizing it at first. On a practical level, it’s easy to begin cataloging and categorizing films based on their directors. You begin to take mental notes and draw up distinctions. Certainly, there are not always clear lines drawn up since a film production is made up by a lot more entities than just a director. I am astute enough to know that the director being everything is simply not the truth.

However, I would concede that in general the director, more than the screenwriter, cinematographer, or even the actors, can be the author of a film if that is their impetus. Because film is a visual medium and as the orchestrator of that process it makes sense enough that the director can utilize the script, the camera, his actors, the editing etc. to realize a certain vision. This might be artistic, commercial, or simply for entertainment but such a quality is evident in many of the most noteworthy directors. Once again, it’s easy to grab hold of a director that we like because we see certain qualities or themes or even collaborators who we really appreciate.

Another thing about the champions of the auteur theory at Cahiers du Cinema and namely Francois Truffaut is that they seemed to be attempting to put film on equal ground with other classical arts. I’m not sure what I think about that or whether that even matters but I will say that film has been and still is a powerful outlet of artistic expression.

Furthermore, the fact that these men championed underappreciated directors but also those movies and genres that might be dismissed in other circles really intrigues me. It’s this idea that no film is inherently better than another whether an Oscar winner, a foreign film, a comedy, a drama, a black and white flick or a modern blockbuster. The fact that they are different makes them interesting and they can all have merit or weaknesses on their own. So I’m allowed to appreciate a pulpy B Film-Noir as much as a prestige picture. Whatever that means.

Still further, rewinding a bit, it is the formalist theory that allows us to appreciate the work of an individual director because we can begin to pick up on and decipher themes, styles, and the like which become pervasive in their oeuvre. For instance, Hitchcock always had cameos, maintained a droll sense of humor, worked in the thriller genre almost exclusively, was concerned with innocent men on the run, crammed his plots with psychological tension, and almost always cast icy blonde actresses. On top of that, he was always one to experiment with inventive techniques and gimmicks. It makes him almost instantly recognizable. In other words, it doesn’t take a genius to latch onto his genius.

But going back to the boys at Cahiers du Cinema, I think I appreciate them not simply because they formed the backbone of the cinema-shattering Nouvelle Vague but because they put their money where their mouths were in a sense. The fact that they went from being mere critics to actually creating on their own seems to lend some credence to their words. Francois Truffaut is a striking example of this because out of all the men who came out of the movement he is probably my favorite. His films are personal, entertaining, and accessible. He loved movies too and he left his mark on each picture.

So does that clear up anything on where I stand with Film Theory, Film Criticism, and Film History? Probably not but all I ever claimed is that I really appreciate movies and that I get the privilege to write about them. Even if that writing is only for myself. That’s quite alright because I believe that I have been allowed a God-given passion for film, history, culture and the like. It’s this joy that I want to share with others to cultivate relationships and dialogue with all sorts of people. Because each one of us has worth, despite our very shortcomings. Once more, that’s once and for all why I watch movies (Side Note: This is also why I write humanistically).

Thanks for listening to me pontificate on this seemingly arbitrary topic. I promise this will be one of the few times. After all, that’s not what I want my modus operandi to be. Soli Deo gloria.

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