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The banality and populism of film criticism

Well… as William Leith of The Guardian asks (and answers) rhetorically, Izgnanie (The Banishment) is the most Russian film ever made. Leith explains it as what it is not — a Hollywood film. Thus, lack of familiarity defines what Russian cinema is.

I saw The Banishment last night – it was really stark and Russian. What do I mean by that? Let’s see. It’s way different from, say, mainstream American films, which seem, by comparison, twittering and desperate to please. But here, things happen slowly, if at all. And the director gives you no easy answers. You have to work things out for yourself. A lot of the time, you find yourself staring at things – and because this is Russia, these are clunky, misshapen things – and thinking. That’s it. Just thinking, really hard.

Though Leith redeems himself by marveling at Izgnanie‘s tedium, his ambivalence towards the film coming out as subtly as a charging rhinoceros :

But I was engrossed. You might even put your cup of tea down and forget to drink it. Yes, it’s a marvellous film. Just very Russian.

What interests me is that review after review (see appendix) masquerades plot description as film review, having fallen for the “empowering” lure of banality and populism. Cineaste addressed this issue in its special issue on film criticism. Some excerpts:

Eduardo Antin of El Amante Cine, Argentina:

In principle, I write for the sake of it, because of the desire to do it. Like any kind of writing, criticism shouldn’t try to reach anyone in particular (not even moviegoers!) nor to “communicate.” That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be read, or that I don’t want people to like my writing. Being more specific, (writing or reading) film criticism is one of the best ways to protect yourself from the irritation brought on by other responses to the cinema (the main sources of this irritation are populist sentimentality and academic authoritarianism) by trying to connect to some mysterious pleasures.

What could a film critique be about?

Discovery, illumination, freedom, elegance, humor, independence, knowledge, irreverence.

True victims of criticism these days are not (at least in Argentina, although I don’t think it’s an exception) national cinemas, which are in general protected by patriotism or chauvinism, but non-American foreign films, increasingly less distributed all over the world and frequently ignored by the major media.

Adrian Martin of The Age, Australia:

Recently in Australia, there have been some insidious moves by film distributors-in the art-house as much as the commercial sector, and in fact even more in the art-house-to try to ‘regulate’ critics out of speaking their mind. An appalling ‘code of ethics for film reviewers’ has been floated at movie industry conventions, suggesting things like: ‘Critics should only review the film in front of them’ (there goes socio-political comment) and ‘A review should predominantly tell the prospective consumer what the film is about’ (there goes criticism, period).

Pedro Butcher, Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil

The practice of using “stars” to evaluate films is the worst plague to hit the media in recent years. In addition, during the last twenty years, all of the big newspapers in Brazil drastically reduced the space allotted to film criticism. A critic is usually forced to express his or her point of view in two or three paragraphs.


Garrett, Diane (2008) ‘Smoke & Mirrors: Opining for the Past’ Variety 409:11 (4-10 February)

Contis, Angelike (2005) ‘International Film Criticism Today: A Critical Symposium: Greece: Angelike Contis: “Athens News”‘ Cineaste 31:1 (Winter)

Appendix: Izgnanie Reviews

Calhoun, Dave (2008) ‘The Banishment’ TimeOut August 14-20 [Online]

Honeycutt, Kirk (2007) ‘Bottom Line: A film that gives the art house a bad name’ Hollywood Reporter May 19 [Online]

Ide, Wendy (2008) ‘The Banishment’ Times August 14 [Online]

Leith, William (2008) ‘Rage, booze, snot and a lovely moment involving a jug: is this the most Russian film ever made?’ The Guardian August 27 [Online]

Weissberg, Jay (2007) ‘The Banishment’ Variety May 18 [Online]

1 comment

1 Keith Brown { 08.30.08 at 12:13 pm }

Yes, that is why blogs are becoming the alternative (and better) sources for film criticism.

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