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Film critics as filmmakers: a natural transformation

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“When you summarize a script in ten sentences, you see both its strengths and its weaknesses. ”

François Truffaut

The role of the film critic is an important one in developing and enriching the global cinematic community. Foremost, the responsibilities of any film critic are to provide assessment, interpretation and evaluation of individual films; paying close attention to its filmmakers, generic conventions, the period and milieu in which it is made, and so on. In the words of film critic-turned-filmmaker, Olivier Assayas: “I know how precious the relationship is between reflection and writing about cinema and the practice of cinema, because that’s where I come from. That’s what’s made me the person I am… I know it’s an essential part of what creates contemporary filmmaking.”

Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart

In order to do this effectively, film critics must possess a great wealth of knowledge of the cinematic medium and of its colourful and plentiful histories. The prerequisite skills required to be a good critic, as well as the skills regularly exercised in the course of critical work, mean that film critics often make good filmmakers.

This is a claim that is hardly universal or infallible. Famed film critic Roger Ebert penned a number of screenplays for director Russ Meyer in the 70s. The films – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (for which he wrote the story), Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens and Up!, were panned by most critics for being sleazy and quasi-pornographic. In a 1978 review of Beneath the Valley, Variety dubbed the film “for very simple people.” Ebert never dabbled in screenwriting again.

Roger Ebert and Russ Myers

Though, to focus only on such transitionary failures is to ignore those who have found success as filmmakers. And many more as screenwriters – including Paul D. Zimmerman, Jay Cocks (who both worked with Martin Scorsese), Frank S. Nugent and James Agee.

The most remarkable achievements, undoubtedly, have been made by auteurist writer-directors, including, but not limited to: Rohmer, Rivette, Assayas, Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard, Schrader and Bogdanovich. This mode of filmmaking presents great opportunities for control and freedom: as writer-directors are unconstrained to shape their films, they are enabled to realise their cinematic visions to a most practicable degree. Consequently, their schooling in the cinema – provided through rigorous criticism – is best displayed and implemented by such practice.

Nick Nolte and Paul Schrader on the set of Affliction

Unlike attending film school – where attendees usually exclusively watch landmark or superlative films – critics are regularly subjected to bad, hyperbolic, money-grabbing films. Critics have no choice about it; they must watch a great many inane films and then write on them. Despite the short-term pain inflicted by such viewing, there are notable long-term payoffs: principally, the power to avoid commonly made narrative and characterisation mistakes and mistruths.

Simultaneously, critics are also exposed to many of the great films of both past and present. Their writing on such films, surely, consolidates the how and why of what constitutes memorable and truthful decisions on narrative and characterisation.

These lessons taught through, and by, film criticism have not eluded those names mentioned above: Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is the definitive film on youthful waywardness; Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show a resonant portrait of a dying rural town; Schrader’s Affliction a poem on the irreparable damage exacted by patriarchal abuse. The truthfulness firmly embedded in each of these films is their defining and uniform characteristic, what makes them so intellectually and emotionally compelling.

But it isn’t just an understanding of how narratives should run and how characters should be constructed that makes these former critics great filmmakers. A profound and acute sensibility to the formal elements of cinema have been integral to their successes. And it is likely that their cinematic literacy came about through processes of watching and commenting upon film and its very specific language: cinematography, lighting, editing, staging and so on.

At any rate, one need only look to the films and filmographies of Chabrol, Godard, Schrader et al. to understand the extent to which their mastery of the filmic form has characterised their output. That is, their manipulation of form, in and of itself, evokes ideas, feelings, themes, settings. No doubt, the enduring of The Last Picture Show is predicated on the cinematographic control exercised by Bogdanovich – as the black and white images, as well as the slow, plodding, focused camerawork – work together to evoke the dismal fate of Anarene, Texas. The same is true of Assayas’ latest film, Personal Shopper. Assayas use of editing, particularly at the beginning of the film, is sparse; the lighting dim and muted; and the camera movement is characteristically slow and calculated – giving off an impression of a cat carefully stalking its prey by crawling through labyrinthine hallways and rooms. This has the effect of rendering Personal Shopper a contemplative, meditative affair. Similar analyses apply to Charbol’s The Cousins, Godard’s Contempt and Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s.

A New York Times review of The Last Picture Show

Most crucially, these writer-directors were all operating in new, exciting cinematic movements and spaces (other than Assayas): the French in the ‘Nouvelle Vague’ and the Americans in ‘New Hollywood’. Unquestioningly, both periods represent pinnacles in the cinematic production in France and America, respectively. These former film critics helped to define and pioneer a different way of making films. In the case of the French critics – they created and almost solely sustained the Nouvelle Vague – while the American critics embraced, and profitably carried on the practices of New Hollywood. It raises the question: how valuable was film criticism to the French and the Americans in renavigating and remaking the cinematic landscape?

Albeit more of a theorist than a critic, the great Sergei Eisenstein still warrants discussion. In the 1920s, Eisenstein wrote prolifically on a style of editing known as ‘montage editing’, whereby specific shots are edited together to produce a desired conceptual and intellectual effect or impression. Eisenstein then went on to make a number of ground-breaking, if not propagandistic, films, such as Battleship Potemkin, October: Ten Days That Shook the World and Alexander Nevsky. The three films put his thoughts and writings into glorious practice.

In a similar vein, Truffaut and Godard converted their theoretical work into cinema practice. The auteur theory – that the director is the arbiter of the meaning of a film – established by Alexandre Astruc and André Bazin was further developed by Truffaut and Godard in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Soon after that, both men ventured into the world of filmmaking; creating films that were, above all else, expressions of their own thoughts, feelings and ideas on the world and the nature of existence. To provide one good example of this, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character, Antoine Doinel, is closely modelled on Truffaut himself.

While it isn’t true of all film critics, a link can nonetheless be made between extensive and thorough film criticism and the ability to make good cinema. This is presently evident in Assayas work, even if Schrader and Bogdanovich’s work has been of underwhelming quality of late. Ultimately, the greatest testament to this argument is surely the myriad of critics-turned-filmmakers working within the Nouvelle Vague.

Or perhaps the argument is without basis, and merely put forward for my own hopeful and self-serving purposes.

Nick Bugeja