The Critics Said
We all know how the clichés of today flatten the complex, diverse realities of yesterday: how the Dark Ages, or the Baroque, or the Belle Époque, or the 1960s get reduced down to a single, dominant 'narrative image', with just one mood and just one meaning. We all shake our heads and tut-tut at such mediatised, stereotypical nonsense.
So it always comes as a mild shock when a variation on this lazy habit of mind creeps into film-critical discourse. I am talking about that handy condensation when speaking of the reception (positive or negative) of some movie from the past, which begins with three little, ominous words: "The critics said...". And when, in this gesture of history-citation and myth-making, the critics say whatever they are deemed to have said, they always say the same thing, and in one voice. 'The critics' didn't like vertigo on its first release. 'The critics' loved the godfather. 'The critics' trashed lola montès in 1955. 'The critics' went wild for eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. George Romero's night of the living dead, now considered a cult classic, was once despised by 'the critics'. And on and on it goes...
The March issue of Sight and Sound contained a typically hare-brained example of this process. In an otherwise interesting article about François Truffaut's relationship to Britain (and vice versa), we are told that, post jules and jim, 'the critics' in UK didn't much like the director's films. What? Several books about this auteur appeared in the UK during the time span surveyed by the article; Raymond Durgnat devoted 10 finely argued pages of his 1963 Nouvelle Vague: The First Decade to the guy. How could all this cinephile activity be simply missed or skipped in the eye of the historian?
'Reception studies' have become an important part of the expanded repertoire of film analysis these days. We are interested in how tastes are formed or altered, how canons are sedimented or broken up, how fortunes change over time thanks to re-releases and re-evaluations. OK, well and good. But reception study often seems to take the path of reductive point-scoring: those critics of yesteryear knew nothing — or sometimes 'they' got it right. But who are 'they', exactly? How does anybody get to be counted as 'a critic' in this retrospective system?
Alas, this 'consensus critical opinion', boiled down and duly served up, is derived purely from the most mainstream samples. A few key newspapers, plus perhaps a national 'journal of record' (like Sight or Sound is, or its defunct adjunct Monthly Film Bulletin was). Plus Variety for some spuriously 'international' flavour. The lamentable 'Rotten Tomatoes' website is devoted to the instant enshrinement of mainstream consensus, number-crunched into bland senselessness.
I recall Australia in, for instance, 1980. Say you wanted to know what 'the critics' thought of a movie, local or otherwise, in that year. Where would you look? Some rightly forgotten, offensively rearguard guy in The Age newspaper, or a middlebrow, lit-crit bit of waffle in the government-subsidised Cinema Papers magazine. I vividly remember that real criticism, real cinephilia, and a real difference of opinion, was to be found — then as now — elsewhere; in small magazines, subcultural scenes, film festival discussions. Not all of it preserved for posterity beyond the memory-banks of those who — then as now — care.
But unless we try to tell the fractious 'micro-history' of those kind of filmic debates, we will keep pulverising our own pasts, as viewers and critics, into a barren flatland.