Showing posts with label film criticism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label film criticism. Show all posts

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Whither film critics?

Where have all the film critics gone worries a Facebook buddy, citing the herd mentality that seems to come upon otherwise smart folks when they uniformly declare suspect films as "masterpieces". I see his point, that sometimes we who love the craft and honest appraisal of films-as-art as well as entertainment have reason to be dismayed when the judges seem to go from being a Greek chorus committed to telling the truth to a delusional protagonist to a peanut gallery. Time was when if you wanted to read film critics in different cities around the country, you went to the library and read the out of town papers they might be subscribing to. Now, of course, we have the internet, and each is available, every professional critic nearly, not to mention every blogger, content writer, and social media sycophant. It seems, indeed, that everyone who's review can be used in a promotion has read the same marching orders and commits to keeping the fix in place. Honestly, though, I am wondering how much of this is perception, as the sheer glut and easy access to endless reviews make it seem that that unseen hands are controlling the puppet strings. Really, was there ever a glory day when working critics, as a whole, had amazingly unique and significantly insightful thing s to say about Hollywood fare.

Yes, we had our Manny Farber, James Agee, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris, but I'd wager the majority of the print media critics, the newspaper reviewers, that were very similar in style, argument, and range of views. While the cineastes paid attention to the true stylists and thinkers in the big city papers, the rest of the world remained middle brow and pretty much mundane in their judgments on films, yay or nay. You just didn't seem them altogether at the same time, gathered together around at an open bar. Now everything is online, at your fingertips, and the deluge of opinion, pouring on you like wet cement, can have the effect that the incidental sameness of views can seem the result of a sinister corporate force and a decline in critic intelligence. It's my guess that the ration of smart, interesting critics to the hoi polloi remains the same as it has ever been; I read whole reviews on Rotten Tomatoes more than I should,I suppose, but a fair number of the critics are literate and sharp and brandish a fine prose style, and are capable of making an interesting case for their view. And, to be sure, there's a surfeit of the mediocre opinion mongers with stale views and writing skills as rank as the very backwater that might claim them as local taxpayers.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Duncan Shepherd found distinctions

It is not altogether settled, among those who care about such things, whether the retirement of Duncan Shepherd from his post as the film critic of the San Diego Reader after 38 years of service is a cause for celebration or lamentation. The detractors of Shepherd, who are legion, contend, with wearying predictability, that he was a misanthrope who never found a movie to his liking, that he dispensed his black dots with reckless abandon, and that, most daringly, he harbored a deep-seated animus against the very art of cinema. I confess that I was drawn to his writings precisely because he was not easily amused by the offerings of Hollywood–at last, someone who dared to castigate the mediocrity that pervaded the screen–and I find the accusation that he loathed movies altogether to be a symptom of a reader who either skimmed his reviews superficially or failed to grasp his arguments. One of the delights of reading Shepherd was to discover his occasional praise for a movie that would otherwise escape notice despite its modest charm and crafty execution; he had a discerning eye for those filmmakers who could respect the genre they were working in and make it fresh without resorting to grotesque gimmicks. This is what good critics do, make distinctions, find exceptions.

It is hardly astonishing that the movie critics have been unsparing in their dissection of the movie version of Bewitched, given the dismal track record of television shows adapted into cinematic features. The presence of Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Shirley McLaine, and Michael Caine has not mollified the skeptics. It surprises me only marginally more than Shepherd found some merit in it. It is not a matter of someone making fatuous pronouncements for provocation. Shepherd is more fastidious than that; he sticks to specifics and illustrations, and compares the current movie with a host of other recent works by the same participants. It amounts to arguing that the movie is good because it is less bad than its predecessors; it is an inelegant way of making a case for a movie and a nightmare for studio publicists looking for a flattering blurb. But it gives the reader an intriguing glimpse into how one critic thinks popular entertainment should be conceived and executed.

Shepherd is, in my estimation at least, a masterful if idiosyncratic prose stylist, a peerless historian of film art, and a refreshing breeze of honest opinion when he renders judgment on a feature. He has an aesthetic he will not compromise, and the endless tide of grueling gimmickry has not worn him down. I am less exacting in what it takes to entertain me at the movies, and I am usually more charitable than Shepherd tends to be. That may only mean that my standards are more relaxed and that Shepherd’s love of the movie art is such that he deplores seeing the medium squandered on plots that would not satisfy the requirements for a dime novel. Yet I read him all the same, given that he is the sort of critical contrarian who makes a case instead of pontificating about what aesthetic absolutes are being violated. He is not a critic who bemoans the death of the movies; it is one movie at a time, wryly observed, and judgments rendered in witty and incisive fashion. He is the sort of man you dread to see on the opposite side of a debate since it would mean that you would need to shore up your argument to a sounder foundation.

Three decades into his job, and his reviews are as brutal if elegantly phrased as ever. He does catch you surprised, though, and finds sensibly lovely things to say about films other critics have attacked like packs of hungry dogs. He gave Prince’s star-writer-director vehicle Under The Cherry Moon three stars out of his five-star rating system, appreciating the film’s look and measured style and the director’s ability to create a fantastic sense of place without making a mess of the art he’s trying to create. Likewise, he awarded five stars to Walter Hill’s seriously under-estimated Streets of Fire. Among other comments, he cited that virtually every other critic missed or chose not to discuss, that the ostensible rock and roll fable was actually a Western with its narrative conventions set in the mid 20th century America. Shepherd’s discussion of the Hill film is more nuanced than I’ve given here, but let it suffice that he was right about both films.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

When Reviewers Attack.

Josh Board, film reviewer for, does an amazing job of regurgitating 38 years of proletarian complaints against the retiring Reader film critic Duncan Shepherd. The thrust of Josh's argument seems to be that DS is a bad critic because he didn't like the movies he thought were the cat's pajamas.

He concludes that DS hates movies. We must note that Josh does not deal with the substance of Duncan Shepherd's critiques; he reminds me of the sort of guy who would listen to a reasonable criticism of a movie he thought brilliant and would respond with the old fallback "Oh, yeah, that's just YOUR opinion." 

True as that cliche maybe, it does not diminish the four decades of Duncan Shepherd's film appraisals, since the unspoken addendum to that tired saw is that NOT ALL OPINIONS ARE CREATED EQUAL. Josh as well cannot seem to get his head around the fact that you can regularly read someone you usually disagree with on a particular subject. I don't know why this is hard him to fathom, but it does get back to the "Not all opinions are created equal" remark from two sentences ago--Duncan's wit, knowledge, and elegance as a writer made his opinions worth keeping up with.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

So Long, Duncan Shepherd

San Diego Reader So Long

Duncan Shepherd is leaving his spot as The San Diego Reader's film critic after thirty years of imposing the hardest standard on new movies; I've read him continuously since the mid 70's , when I wrote occasional concert and record reviews for the reader, his prose , more than his knowledge, being the attraction.

 I was on a rather long journey to get something of the critic's tone and elegance--Shepherd and the late Steve Esmedina, another Reader critic, were my local stylistic models.Duncan's departure is a loss for film criticism ; there was something sublime about The Reader, one of the largest alternative weeklies in the country, having the single most "un-blurbable" film critic . 

His style and his nuanced, formalist arguments of movies, favorable or otherwise, were so that it was literally impossible to extract a single quote from them for a newspaper ad. That suited him fine, and it suited his readers.I left these words in the comment stream following his last column:

I am sorry to see you leave the pages of the Reader, web or otherwise. You've been one of the few  refusing to be swayed to the chorus of fluctuating fashion. Although I have to say that I disagreed with your judgments more than half the time, I respected and looked forward to your knowledge, your wit and the elegance of your prose. It was a good bet that if I wanted to defend a film you found wanting, I would have to "up my game". You have my gratitude that you kept up the good fight as long as you had; I hope someday soon I might again be able to read you again, on  terms that suit you, about what you find engaging.

 Good luck , Duncan.