A pantheon of one’s own: 25 female film critics worth celebrating

To mark International Women’s Day, we asked a selection of critics and curators each to nominate a vital female voice in film criticism, with an example of their writing. The results reveal a diverse array of critics, reaching back to cinema’s beginnings.

Miriam Bale , Anne Billson , Mark Cousins , Jemma Desai , Bryony Dixon , Jane Giles , Pamela Hutchinson , Nick James , Violet Lucca , Sophie Mayer , Henry K Miller , Nathalie Morris , Nick Pinkerton , Jonathan Romney , Jonathan Rosenbaum , Claire Smith , Kate Stables , Francine Stock , Isabel Stevens , Matthew Sweet , Ginette Vincendeau , Thirza Wakefield , Ben Walters , Catherine Wheatley , Rob Winter
Updated:

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With depressing statistics about the number of women in the film industry so often the focus of articles, twitter tirades and debates, we decided to take a different approach with this feature: to celebrate pioneering female film critics, as well as uncover those under-appreciated and forgotten voices.

While the number of female film critics in the UK and US has increased over the last few years, male voices still dominate the profession. But women critics have been pivotal to our understanding of cinema since the birth of the medium, and indeed were far more common in its early years, as the excellent compendium Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writings on the First Fifty Years of Cinema attests.

Cinema would be a very different place without seminal figures like Iris Barry, Pauline Kael, Laura Mulvey and Susan Sontag. This collection is a reminder of their importance but it also looks beyond them too. Asking 25 writers and curators to each nominate a female critic and choose a piece of their writing has amassed a surprising array of different voices: from 1920s teenage gossip columnist Nerina Shute to the first regular broadsheet female film reviewer C.A. Lejeune, Sight & Sound’s august editor of 34 years Penelope Houston, zombie-loving trade reviewer Marjorie Bilbow and the feminist activist and author bell hooks, as well as unlikely cinema analysts like novelist Hilary Mantel.

These critics’ subjects are equally diverse: Final Girls in slasher films, censorship in Nazi Germany and guilty pleasures – not to mention detailed analyses of films by directors such as Stanley Kubrick, Marguerite Duras and David Cronenberg.

A note of warning, and rallying cry: this collection only just scratches the surface. It is not meant to be definitive but a sampler. Due to difficulties of translation, it is predominantly anglophone (apart from a rare woman’s voice amidst the French New Wave). bell hooks aside, it is also highlights the lack of non-white female film critics, both writing now and in the past.

We hope nonetheless that this selection will serve as a reminder of the breadth of writing on cinema by women and as a prompt to delve into books and magazines – and visit a library like that at BFI Southbank – to discover more of it.

Isabel Stevens

 

Index

Djuna Barnes on dark theatres and F.W. Murnau
Iris Barry on Hollywood and an all-woman film
Marjorie Bilbow on Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead
Anne Billson on guilty pleasures
Bryher reports on cinema and censorship in Nazi Germany
☟ Carol J. Clover on gender and slasher films
☟ Pam Cook on Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce
☟ Penelope Gilliatt on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
☟ Molly Haskell on The Searchers
☟ bell hooks on Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust
☟ Penelope Houston on Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad
☟ Fannie Hurst on motion picture palaces
☟ Dina Iordanova on the West “discovering” new types of cinema
☟ Pauline Kael on Marguerite Duras’s The Lorry
☟ CA Lejeune on film criticism
☟ Hilary Mantel on Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde
☟ Kathleen Mason on women and the kinema
☟ Laura Mulvey on women and visual pleasure
☟ Dilys Powell on Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fête
☟ B. Ruby Rich on New Queer Cinema
☟ Nerina Shute on women directors
☟ Susan Sontag on Robert Bresson
☟ Amy Taubin on David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch
☟ Claude-Marie Trémois on Brigitte Bardot and misogyny
☟ Judith Williamson on high and low culture

 

1. Djuna Barnes

1892-1982

A self-portrait (left) and portrait of Djuna Barnes

A self-portrait (left) and portrait of Djuna Barnes

“Don’t forget the movies”, the editor of Theatre Guild Magazine told his new columnist, Djuna Barnes, in May 1930. Born in New York in 1892, Barnes became a key member of the literary modernist movement, authoring articles, short stories, one-act dramas, novellas, poems, illustrations and paintings that challenged the very nature of vision in a cinematic age.

Starting her career as a journalist, she was first published by Harper’s Weekly in 1912, and it wasn’t long before her words and illustrations were wrapping themselves sinuously across the pages of publications including the New York Morning Telegraph and Chicago Tribune. Embedded in Greenwich Village’s literary milieu, she developed a highly experiential style of journalism that would inform her later film criticism and written works, particularly when it came to recording the experiences of women. In one of her most famous assignments, she underwent force-feeding to understand the horror faced by hunger-striking suffragettes.

When Barnes started contributing to Theatre Guild Magazine in 1929, she was based on Paris’s Left Bank and was constructing the novel for which she would become renowned. Nightwood (1936) is a semi-biographical account of the turbulent relationship between two women, and one of the earliest published novels by a woman to deal with openly lesbian themes.

An example of Djuna Barnes's Personal Eclipses column and her illustrations, in the Theatre Guild magazine

An example of Djuna Barnes's Personal Eclipses column and her illustrations, in the Theatre Guild magazine
Credit: University of Maryland (Djuna Barnes Archive, Special Collections)

As an experimental modernist, Barnes used her monthly column to crystallise her own thoughts on modes of cinematic production and reception, presenting herself “in rapture” to films as diverse as the pre-code horror Svengali (1931), Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930) and Fritz Lang’s M (1931).

She was also instructed by Theatre Guild’s editor to write critiques of cinema’s stars: “The more personalities, names and personal gossip, the better. I shouldn’t say this to anybody but the like of you, who can be very personal and yet will never be offensive.” Her savagely parodic portraits of figures such as Anita Loos, Greta Garbo, Sergei Eisenstein, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin and Tallulah Bankhead appeared in a subsection entitled Personal Eclipses. 

— Claire Smith

 

Djuna Barnes on dark theatres and F.W. Murnau

In this extract from a 1931 column entitled The Wanton Player, Barnes recounts the general practice of keeping the lights down low for some time after the motion picture has ended:

Out in Hollywood, the managers of picture houses leave the lights off several moments at the close of a sad or harrowing film that the audience – film stars and beauties of all kinds and sorts – may repair the ravage of emotion (if any) without being observed of the vulgar public. I have been puzzled all my life as to why I never wanted to be an actress, and now I know. When I cry, low lights or high, it’s one and the same. Cry I will and let who will be handsome.

In the same column, she laments the death of director F.W. Murnau (only 11 people were to attend his funeral, when it did take place):

And now I seem to be on the subject of death and tombs – it has ever been one of my happiest preoccupations – let me add that the body of Murnau, responsible for Tabu, and who, owing to an automobile accident never lived to see it – still lies in a vault in Berlin awaiting burial for lack of funds, and Tabu one of the season’s best pictures!

His mother who lives in the same town where he lies is too poor to give him that second covering ­– the earth.

 (Both extracts taken from the Theatre Guild Magazine (New York: September 1931). The first is reproduced in Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema (Verso, 2006).)

 

2. Iris Barry

1895-1969

Iris Barry

Iris Barry
Credit: Photo by George Platt Lynes/MOMA

The fast-living bohemian Iris Barry was not, perhaps, a natural fit for the Daily Mail, but during the second half of the 1920s, after making her name on the Spectator, she wrote for it almost daily. In those relatively early years of newspaper film coverage there was no firm division of labour between gossip, news, puffery, propaganda, and criticism, and Barry did the lot, one day trotting out the Mail’s editorial line on government film policy, the next making a set visit, the next reviewing the latest film by Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Victor Sjöström, or her friend Alfred Hitchcock. In the midst of all this activity she helped run the Film Society, founded in 1925 to show the films the censor and the trade conspired to keep out, in 1926 published Let’s Go to the Pictures, a landmark in British film criticism.

In the autumn of 1927 she visited Hollywood, then a far from familiar place to British readers, travelling by train via Albuquerque, where she caught a screening of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Barry had mixed feelings about Los Angeles. “The whole city is laid out like an exhibition and has the same transitory and gay air,” she wrote in her first dispatch, from which my first extract is taken. In the second, she visits Paramount… 

— Henry K. Miller

 

Iris Barry on Hollywood and an all-woman film

To see Hollywood at night is an enchantment. As you come down into it (by car, for nobody ever walks more than two yards here), for miles ahead and below right to the very fringe of the ocean, stretches a great dark carpet over which the hand of civilisation has scattered strings of light. Some of the strings are broken, and the floor of the world seems studded with glittering beads, which are the globe-shaped lamps of this city and its neighbours. There is a strange stillness only punctuated by the purr of cars on the roads: the air is cool now, after the day’s sun, cool enough every night, as one witty actress says, to wear an ermine coat if you have one. There are the lights of pleasure yachts out at sea: the lights of theatres, of the amusement parks on the beach: the shops are open very late, and some never close.

— The Painted but Pretty Flappers of Hollywood, Daily Mail, 18 October 1927

 

Women reign supreme just now in at least one large section of a Hollywood studio. The latest Clara Bow picture is in the capable hands of a regiment of female talent.

The impish pattern of all film flappers, Miss Clara Bow, with her red hair, is romping energetically through her newest role under the direction of Dorothy Arzner, whose first picture,Fashions for Women, demonstrated that the raising of this capable young woman to the rank of film director was more than justifiable. Miss Arzner, regarded as one of the best editors in the business, already long ago herself, single-handed, cut and edited The Covered Wagon – a considerable task.

In the current Clara Bow film her business manager for the production is a woman, her script-clerk a woman, her cutter is a woman, the screen-play has been written by a woman, Miss Hope Loring, and Miss Loring is supervising the production.

As it is estimated that cinema audiences are 75 per cent feminine, the association of so many women in making a picture should be much to the public taste.

— An All-Woman Film, Daily Mail, 9 November 1927

 

3. Marjorie Bilbow

Dates unknown

In the 1980s I became an avid fan of Marjorie Bilbow, who week after week reviewed new releases in the pages of the trade paper Screen International. The publication was aimed at distributors and exhibitors, not buffs and cinephiles, but Bilbow’s witty, perceptive reviews and deadpan synopses were a constant delight.

Whether she was writing about the latest blockbuster, a heavyweight art movie, or some cut and dubbed slice of Euro-sleaze, her evident enjoyment of all types of cinema shone through the strict requirements of her remit, though she was not averse to taking film-makers to task for their treatment of female characters.

In her review of Jean-Claude Lord’s Visiting Hours (1982), for example, she points to “a particularly distasteful thread of hyped up male chauvinism which implies that Deborah not only suffers for her support of women’s rights but is also forced to stop being a softhearted wet and stain her own hands with blood. All I can say in its favour is that all the male goodies are as bone headed as the females, and are not prototype superior beings.” This, may I remind you, in a trade journal.

But more often than not, she’s clearly having a blast, as can be seen in this extract from her verdict on Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (Screen International, 1 May 1982), with its gloriously straightfaced resumé and perfectly delivered zinger of a sign-off line.

—Anne Billson

 

Marjorie Bilbow on Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead, reviewed by Bilbow in 1982

City of the Living Dead, reviewed by Bilbow in 1982

Nasty things are still happening in Dunwich where the undead priest appears to a courting couple. His gaze brings blood pouring from the girl’s eyes and mouth before she starts to disgorge worms; she and the boy die messily. Emily is found dead and her body is placed in a coffin in a funeral parlour beside that of a Mrs Holden. Later, when the mortician has made them look attractive, he is robbing the corpses when Mrs Holden comes alive and bites his fingers off. Emily’s young brother John-John runs screaming to his parents to tell them that he has seen his sister alive and rotting. Sandra finds Mrs Holden’s corpse lying in the kitchen but the body disappears when Jerry arrives. Eventually, Bell and Mary arrive in Dunwich and encounter Jerry and Sandra to whom they explain the urgency of the situation. All four are conferring when they are deluged by a storm of live maggots; a telephone call from John-John then tells them that Emily has killed his parents. They have just removed the boy from the bloodsoaked house when Emily rips open Sandra’s head. The long-dead are already going on the rampage when Bell, Mary and Jerry enter Father Thomas’s tomb and creep along a passage strewn with bones and alive with rats. Sandra appears and squashes Bell’s skull before Jerry destroys her with a stake. Further along the tunnel he and Mary meet Father Thomas who gives them one of his looks. Just in time, Jerry jabs him with a stake and he bursts into flashes which spread to the undead and destroy them all.

Audience rating: For addicts with strong stomachs.

Business prediction: Good of its type in down market popular cinemas; and in intimate cinemas occasionally catering for Gothic horror buffs.

Critical comment: This has a far more coherent story than the same director’s The Beyond, though it has a similar theme of zombies emerging from an exit from the underworld and either could well be the blueprint for the other. As such gruesome horrors go, it is enjoyably sick, with the shock effects verging on black comedy – such as the coffin-robbing mortician receiving swift and fitting punishment for his crime when his dead victim snaps her teeth into his fingers. Indeed, it is outrageous fun for the viewer who is not nauseated beyond endurance by worms and maggots all-alive-o and the sight of squashed brains oozing from crushed skulls. Given a packed house of consenting adults reacting vocally, a good time should be had by all except those who are throwing up.

— Screen International, 1 May 1982

 

4. Anne Billson

1954­ -

Film critic, novelist and photographer Anne Billson

Film critic, novelist and photographer Anne Billson

Prolific film critic, novelist and photographer Anne Billson is my first choice for accessible, entertaining reviews and articles.

Over the last three decades, Anne has written for a wide range of publications, including Just Seventeen, Boy Zone, Vogue, Elle and Cosmo, the Times and Guardian, her film blog multiglom.com, Facebook and Twitter. She’s less one of the inner echelon of elder statesmen issuing judgement, and more your incredibly well-viewed friend who particularly loves genre movies, but also beer and cats.

I’ve chosen this extract from her 2014 Telegraph article on the guilty pleasure in which she turns her attention to the concepts of “a film I’m too insecure in my own judgements to admit to having enjoyed on its own merits.” Or “a film everyone except me hates.” Or “a film I somehow feel is beneath me, even though I found it a lot of fun, because it’s not serious-minded drama with a redeeming social message.”

—Jane Giles

 

Anne Billson on guilty pleasures

Land of the Pharaohs, Martin Scorsese’s guilty pleasure

Land of the Pharaohs, Martin Scorsese’s guilty pleasure

Guilty pleasure is the most heinous cliché of the 21st century

[Of] all the clichés trotted out in the 21st century, surely the most heinous and overused is “guilty pleasure”. The phrase has history. In 1978, the American magazine Film Comment launched a series of articles called “Guilty Pleasures” in which eminent film-makers or critics listed favourite films that – at the time – fell outside the rigid critical consensus of what were deemed by eminent cultural commentators to be “good” or worthwhile. In the first of the series, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The notion of the ‘good bad’ film has, I think, just about had its day. It implies a kind of apology – as if in an ideal universe all films would be made by Bergman or Herzog.”

Hence, Ebert confessed to admiration for “Russ Meyer’s overlooked masterpiece” Mudhoney, and Last House on the Left, Wes Craven’s slasher reworking of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. A few issues later, Martin Scorsese admitted to liking not just Howard Hawks’s critical favourites, such as Bringing Up Baby or Rio Bravo, but his kitschy (albeit glorious) Land of the Pharaohs (“I watch this movie over and over again”). Today all these films have their apologists – indeed you would be hard-pressed to find a film that didn’t have its defenders. But in the 1970s sticking up for such titles would have raised a few chuckles in high-minded film study circles.

Then in 1983, Film Comment invited John Waters, director of such deliberately tasteless cult favourites as Pink Flamingos, to contribute to the series. And his list blew the entire concept out of the water. “I blab on about how much I love films like Dr Butcher, M.D. or My Friends Need Killing, but what really shames me is that I’m also secretly a fan of what is unfortunately known as the ‘art film’.”

Waters’s secret viewing vices, in other words, turned out to be the films of critics’ darlings Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Marguerite Duras. “Miss Duras makes the kind of films that get you punched in the mouth for recommending them to even your closest friends,” wrote Waters. “Her films are maddeningly boring but really quite beautiful.” But his selection suggested there is no such thing as high or low art in cinema. There’s not even good or bad, let alone “good bad films” or films “so good they’re bad”. Basically, there are films that succeed in engaging your heart or mind (or even both) in some way, and then there are others that send you to sleep. It’s not interesting whether or not you like something – what’s interesting is why.

— Daily Telegraph, 22 April 2014 

 

5. Bryher

1894-1983

Bryher photographed by Carl Van Vechten

Bryher photographed by Carl Van Vechten

British writer and poet Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman) co-founded, financed and was deputy editor of Close Up, the first English language journal devoted exclusively to film as an art form. Independently wealthy, she was able to sponsor the work of writers such as her partner Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and husband Kenneth Macpherson as well as mixing in the highest circles of the cultural elite. Primarily interested in history and archaeology she became passionate about the potential of film aesthetically and as an instrument of social change, probably through her relationship with H.D., an American intellectual and keen cinema goer, who championed the avant-garde filmmaking culture emerging in the 1920s.

The cover of a 1927 issue of Close Up

The cover of a 1927 issue of Close Up

Bryher’s writing for Close Up often took a wide internationalist view of film culture and its socio-political relevance with articles like the anti-Hollywood Dope or Stimulus (1928) or Notes on some films (1932) where she reported from Berlin in the grip of Nazism. Her film criticism is suffused with her interest in Modernism and her view that all films should be useful or artistic. Commercial film rarely came up to these standards with odd exceptions (Hitchcock, for example). British cinema was on the whole despised as a pale imitation of Hollywood’s “tinned goods”.  She was like the other Close Up writers most impressed by the Russians, particularly Sergei Eisenstein, as well as German directors such as G.W. Pabst. Bryher’s writing style was plain and functional having little of H.D.’s flourish although she went on to have a long and successful career as a literary editor and a novelist in several genres. A woman who believed in acting on her principles she also devoted herself to helping refugees from Nazi Germany at her house in Territet, Switzerland.

—Bryony Dixon

 

Bryher reports on cinema and censorship in Nazi Germany

Kuhle Wampe (1932)

Kuhle Wampe (1932)

Notes on some films

Berlin, June, 1932. Berlin is too unsettled, too fearful of the coming winter to care much for cinema. The atmosphere in the streets is only to be compared with that of any large city in 1914 – 1918. After two or three days, the visitor wonders why revolution does not happen, not that there is any specific thing to provoke it apparent to the eyes, but outbreak against this odd insecure heaviness is to be preferred than waiting for a storm that has sometime got to burst. There is trouble as well in the studios. Everyone is going or has left. Even Pabst has gone, he was born in Austria. Only the hundred per cent German will be allowed to work in German films in future. With this about, and election talk, and groups of Nazis on foot or on motor cycles, patrolling the streets in full uniform, is it to be wondered at that for the first time in many visits, the cinema lists are left unopened. After a few days there is some (not much) re-adjustment, business is remembered. The film that interests Berlin most at this moment is [Slatan Dudow’s] Kühle Wampe. Wherever there is a space of wasteland near Berlin there is often a settlement of tents or makeshift huts put up by the unemployed unable to pay rent. Kühle Wampe is simply the name of one of these settlements, and the study of a family hit by unemployment.

[Bryher has seen the uncensored version and continues about a particular censored passage]

Im Namen des Volkes, in the name of the people, the eviction notices are read out. (In the uncensored version this is read slowly the first time, then as more and more papers are picked up, it is repeated more and more quickly, until it rattles on the ears like a despairing and approaching doom. Owing to the political conditions in Germany it was allowed to be read once only in the version for public exhibition.

The film was rejected by the censor and was only released after many cuts had been made. Brecht and Dudov organised a series of lectures after the showing of the film, in which they endeavoured to collect the opinions of the workers about it. When Kühle Wampe was finally released however, it was shown in numbers of cinemas in all parts of Berlin and was certainly the most discussed film of the season.

— Close Up, Vol. IX No. I March 1932, page 196

 

6. Carol J. Clover

1940-

Carol J Clover

Carol J Clover

One highlight of my years as a film student at UEA in the mid-90s was Pam Cook’s class on the Modern American Horror Film. Pam is well-known for her editing of the BFI’s The Cinema Book, a hugely influential text that has arguably done more than any other of its kind to encourage a deeper appreciation of film since it was first published in 1985.

But there are two things I feel personally grateful to Pam for: lending me dodgy VHS copies of Abel Ferrara movies (especially Ms. 45) and encouraging me to read/helping me to unpack American film studies professor Carol Clover’s book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.

Curious about how the ‘motion picture’ functions in its manipulation of and potential harmful impact on the mind of the viewer, it seemed clear to me that horror movies represented the most useful testing ground for the film theories that swirled around issues of identification and power, politics and gender. No surprise, then, that the most interesting contemporary writing on the subject was coming from women. Invariably positioned ‘post-Mulvey’, the likes of Linda Williams, Barbara Creed and Linda Ruth Williams all made me think harder about what I watched and what I felt when I watched it.

Clover's seminal book Men Women and Chainsaws

Clover's seminal book Men Women and Chainsaws

But it was Clover’s book that seemed to nail what was most important: the slasher movie’s ‘Final Girl’ victim-hero scenario; the blending of the folkloric and the psychoanalytic, the open exploration of what ‘feminine horror’ means and the searching beyond the confines of the screen to position our film-fictions in their broader cultural context.

Yes, looking back there seems to be some wilful manipulation of an oversimplified Freudian model of sexual identification and yes, Clover admits in her introduction that she has ‘consigned to virtual invisibility all other members of the audience’ in her bias to the ‘dominant’ male perspective, but it’s still one of the most eye-opening film books I’ve read written by someone who is an elegant pleasure to read.

— Rob Winter

 

Carol J. Clover on gender and slasher films

Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)

Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978)

Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film

The slasher is hardly the first genre in the literary and visual arts to invite identification with the female; one cannot help wondering more generally whether the historical maintenance of images of women in fear and pain does not have more to do with male vicarism than is commonly acknowledged. What distinguishes the slasher, however, is the absence or untenability of alternative perspectives and hence the exposed quality of the invitation.

As a survey of the tradition shows, this has not always been the case. The stages of the Final Girl’s evolution – her piecemeal absorption of functions previously represented in males – can be located in the years following 1978. The fact that the typical patrons of these films are the sons of marriages contracted in the sixties or even early seventies leads me to speculate that the dire claims of that era – that the women’s movement, the entry of women into the workplace, and the rise of divorce and women-headed families would yield massive gender confusion in the next generation  – were not entirely wrong. We preferred, in the eighties, to speak of the cult of androgyny, but the point is roughly the same.

The fact that we have in the killer a feminine male and in the main character a masculine female-parent and everyteen, respectively – would seem, especially in the latter case, to suggest a loosening of the categories, or at least of the category of the feminine. It is not that these films show us gender and sex in free variation; it is that they fix on the irregular combinations, of which the combination masculine female repeatedly prevails over the combination female male. The fact that masculine males (boyfriends, fathers, would-be rescuers) are regularly dismissed through ridicule or death or both would seem to suggest that is not masculinity per se that is being privileged, but masculinity in conjunction with a female body – indeed, as the term victim-hero contemplates, masculinity in conjunction with femininity.

For if ‘masculine’ describes the Final Girl some of the time, and in some of her more theatrical moments, it does not do justice to the sense of her character as a whole. She alternates between registers from the outset; before her final struggle she enjoys the deepest throes of ‘femininity’; and even during the final struggle she is now weak and now strong, now flees the killer and now charges him, now stabs and is stabbed, now cries out in fear and now shouts in anger. She is a physical female and a characterological androgyne: like her name [Stevie, Marti, Terry, Laurie, Stretch, Joey, Ripley], not masculine but either/or, both, ambiguous.

— originally published in Representations #20 (University of California Press, 1987). Revised version in Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton University Press/BFI, 1992).

 

7. Pam Cook

Pam Cook

Pam Cook

1943 –

A key thinker in feminist film theory in the 1970s, Pam Cook will have seeped into the consciousness of many a film student in the last four decades. A critic (whose writing has featured in Sight and Sound) and academic (she is currently the Professor Emerita in Film at the University of Southampton), her intellectual preoccupations reveal a vital approach to criticism, keen to understand cinema in new ways and through different art forms. After teaching an MA in screen costume for ten years, she started her fashion into film blog where she explores the sartorial language of films from Why Change your Wife (1920) to Locke (2013). A fascination with cinema’s increasingly trans-media potential has fed into her audio visual essays, which distil the points in her longer academic writing.

A feminist scholar with Lacanian leanings, in 1978 she wrote Duplicity in Mildred Pierce, an exploration of the overtly gendered and patriarchal conventions of noir and melodrama, exploring Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film. Almost 40 years later, the piece lives on, cited by Todd Haynes as a foundational text for his HBO miniseries in 2011.

Addressing Cook’s observations, Haynes declared his Mildred Pierce an attempt to reclaim the story as a melodrama that returned agency to the female subjects and viewers of the film. Befittingly for criticism of a work by Haynes, Cook took up the self-reflexive baton and recently appraised the sequence of intertextual iterations of Mildred Pierce (novel/film/miniseries). Her essay Text, paratext, subtext: Reading Mildred Pierce as Maternal melodrama proves Cook to be a critic always able to artfully reconsider and reinvigorate both the form and the content of her thinking.

— Jemma Desai

 

Pam Cook on Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce

Duplicity in Film Noir

…The film [Mildred Pierce] does not fit easily into the category of film noir. Although the opening and closing sequences, and two short interruptions during the film, are shot in ‘classic’ noir style, the first two long flashback sequences in which Mildred tells the story of her past are significantly different, more evenly lit, few variations in camera angle, etc., except towards the end of the second flashback when Mildred realises that Monty has betrayed her and she ‘confesses’ to the murder, when noir mise en scene takes over Mildred’s discourse as well. The first flashback sequences are also concerned with different subject matter: the family, sexual and emotional relationships, property, work and investment. Mildred’s discourse is the discourse of melodrama, her story is the stuff of which the ‘Woman’s Picture’ was made in the pre-war and war years when women were seen to have an active part to play in society and the problems of passion, desire and emotional excess articulated by melodrama8 could be tolerated. The difference between the two forms of discourse (Mildred’s story and the framing noir discourse) is marked enough for some account of the function of this marking to be necessary.

It seems that a basic split is created in the film between melodrama and film noir, between ‘Woman’s Picture’ and ‘Man’s Film’, a split which indicates the presence of two ‘voices’, female and male, which in itself is a mark of excess since ‘classic’ film is generally characterised by the dominance of a metadiscourse, which represents the Truth. Mildred Pierce is constituted as a sexually ambiguous film, an ambiguity founded on duplicity which is eventually resolved by the reassertion of the patriarchal metadiscourse.

— from Women in Film Noir, London: British Film Institute, 1978

 

8. Penelope Gilliatt

Penelope Gilliatt

Penelope Gilliatt

1932-1993

Penelope Gilliatt’s work deserves better attention. The London-born novelist, Oscar and BAFTA nominated screenwriter (for Sunday, Bloody Sunday) film critic for the Observer and then the New Yorker was one of the most approachable and perceptive writers of the 1960s and 70s. She died in 1993, aged just 61.

Take this excerpt from her review of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many contemporary critics reacted with amusement, bemusement or downright grumpiness to Kubrick’s dazzling puzzle but Gilliatt doesn’t posture, she simply takes it on – she’s serious without solemnity, her detailed observation laced with humour and humanity. I’ve watched the film many times over the years, yet in a pre-rewind era she was able to capture on an initial viewing or two the finest detail. Discussing the Dawn of Man chapter, for example, she notes the leopard’s “broken-glass eyes”; on the space hotel she describes the armchairs shaped like pelvic bones. Here she deconstructs the Stargate sequence vividly but with insight and aplomb. I like to think she would have been amused to see those sentinel slabs become the smartphones and tablets 21st century folk have woven into their lives. 

—Francine Stock

 

Penelope Gilliatt on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

After Man

The startling metaphysics of the picture are symbolized in the slabs. It is curious that we should all still be so subconsciously trained in apparently distant imagery. Even to atheists, the slabs wouldn’t look simply like girders. They immediately have to do with Mosaic tablets or druidical stones. Four million years ago, says the story, an extraterrestrial intelligence existed. The slabs are its manifest sentinels. The one we first saw on prehistoric Earth is like the one discovered in 2001 on the Moon. The lunar finding sends out an upper- harmonic shriek to Jupiter and puts the scientists on the trail of the forces of creation. The surviving astronaut goes on alone and Jupiter’s influence pulls him into a world where time and space are relative in ways beyond Einstein. Physically almost pulped, seeing visions of the planet’s surface that are like chloroform nightmares and that sometimes turn into closeups of his own agonized eyeball and eardrum, he then suddenly lands, and he is in a tranquilly furnished repro Louis XVI room. The shot of it through the window of his space pod is one of the most heavily charged things in the whole picture, though its effect and its logic are hard to explain.

In the strange, fake room, which is movingly conventional, as if the most that the ill man’s imagination can manage in conceiving a better world beyond the infinite is to recollect something he has once been taught to see as beautiful in a grand decorating magazine, time jumps and things disappear. The barely surviving astronaut sees an old grandee from the back, dining on the one decent meal in the film; and when the man turns around it is the astronaut himself in old age. The noise of the chair moving on the white marble in the silence is typical of the brilliantly selective soundtrack. The old man drops his wineglass, and then sees himself bald and dying on the bed, twenty or thirty years older still, with his hand up to another of the slabs, which has appeared in the room and stands more clearly than ever for the forces of change. Destruction and creation coexist in them. They are like Siva. The last shot of the man is totally transcendental, but in spite of my resistance to mysticism I found it stirring. It shows an X-raylike image of the dead man’s skull re-created as a baby, and approaching Earth. His eyes are enormous. He looks like a mutant. Perhaps he is the first of the needed new species.

It might seem a risky notion to drive sci-fi into magic. But, as with Strangelove, Kubrick has gone too far and made it the poetically just place to go…

New Yorker, 13 April 1968

 

9. Molly Haskell

Molly Haskell

Molly Haskell

1939-

Molly Haskell is no secret. Her book From Reverence to Rape (1974) is one of the most widely read (non-academic) texts about feminism and film. But Haskell’s work outside of that is just as strong. She’s one of the greatest living critics and stylists, with a wide-ranging curiosity and a lyrical depth to her prose. One particular collection of her work to single out is Holding My Own in No Man’s Land, which includes her Ms. magazine article on “rape fantasy” and an article on women’s comedy in the 90s (covering the TV series Roseanne and Absolutely Fabulous) that includes this memorable line: ”Women’s comedy is the continuation of consciousness-raising by other means.”

Love and Other Infectious Diseases is a very personal book about her relationship with her husband, the film critic Andrew Sarris, focusing on a terrifying illness that threatened both his life and his mind. It captures the screwball comedy differences between the couple, and also describes in an unvarnished way how love of movies works as an emotional raft, intellectual stimulus, and the glue of their relationship. In one scene in the book she recalls John Ford’s The Searchers (“ ‘our’ movie,” she describes) coming on TV in the hospital room. 

—Miriam Bale

 

Molly Haskell on The Searchers

One of the great attractions of movies, or course, is that they allow us to experience vicariously, through artistically distanced forms and fables, those feelings that are too overwhelming for us to confront directly. The “primal screen,” as Andrew called one of his collections, serves up surrogates for our long-gone love objects, provides a catharsis for feelings and memories that have been lost, distorted, and repressed by time. We are able to transfer onto those monumental figures on the screen some of the intensity of our original relationships, losses we have never come to grips with, longings and desires that have been wrested in terror and shame from their original object. Movies, our collective unconscious, give us back our pasts, plunge us into the wellspring of feeling with images as vivid and artfully disguised as dreams.

What could have been further from our own childhoods and urban lives than cowboys and Indians in a post-Civil War western setting? What could be further from my own ideas of modern womanhood than an Irish-Catholic director’s loving portraits of sacrificially maternal figures? Yet the family feelings that Ford evokes, and the tension between the the solitary adventurer Wayne represents and the community he is bound to serve, speak to the continuing conflicts in all of us, poised as we are between a past—community-minded and obedient to an order that transcends man—and a Godless present in which man/woman is the measure of all things, and there is no context, no healing environment, for the divided and fragmented self. 

When I looked over at Andrew, barely watching, I felt an added frisson as I watched that ending. Heretofore, I had always identified with Wayne, the aggressor-hero, but this time I felt, like the Natalie Wood character, that unconscious pull toward surrender and annexation. In this duet, I was suddenly the reclaimed daughter, embraced and forgiven by a father whom she had “dishonored.” Andrew and I had long defended Wayne against the derisive oversimplification of the Left: he was a quintessential movie actor, his career full of subtleties and tensions, quiet brushstrokes, that contradicted the flag-waving jingoistic image ascribed to him, but I know too that on the instinctual level, I was drawn to him because of his resemblance to my father, with whom he shared that mix, not as contradictory as we would like it to be, of masculine arch-conservatism and an almost feminine gentleness.

— from Love and Other Infectious Diseases: A Memoir, iUniverse, 2000

 

10. bell hooks

1952-

bell hooks

bell hooks

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Kentucky in 1952, bell hooks took a lower case pen name, based on the names of her mother and grandmother, highlighting the principles of black history and community that came to underline her writing. Looking askance as a black woman who grew up under segregation led her to film criticism for magazines ranging from Essence to Z. The Saved By The bell hooks Tumblr, quoting from the writer’s 30 books, reminds us that hooks has always been at the forefront of feminism’s meeting with pop and visual cultures; likewise, her live-streamed conversations with American writer, professor, television host Melissa Harris-Perry and actress Laverne Cox went viral.

Alongside her critique of liberal American cinema’s blindspots, most famously of Tarantino’s ‘white cool’, hooks has developed a unique conversational critical practice highlighting and contextualising experimental and alternative black cinema. Revisiting her exchange with Julie Dash, two decades after Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust became the first fiction feature by an African American woman to receive US distribution, it’s poignant to realise that their shared vision of black mythic memory is still struggling to make its way into the mainstream – but thrilling to listen in on their shared passion for that vision.

— Sophie Mayer

 

bell hooks in conversation with Julie Dash

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991): the first feature film by an African-American woman

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991): the first feature film by an African-American woman

It’s interesting that whenever an artist takes a kind of mythic universe and infuses it with aspects of everyday reality, like the images of women cooking, often the cinema audience in this society just isn’t prepared. So few of the articles that I’ve read about Daughters of the Dust talk about the mythic element in the film, because, in fact, there is this desire to reduce the film to some kind of historical accuracy. It is relevant for moviegoers to realize that you did ten years of research for this film – but the point was not to create some kind of documentary of Gullah, but to take that factual information and infuse it with an imaginative construction…

Yesterday, I interviewed a young black woman, a graduate student, and she said, ‘This was our paradise that we never had.’ And I found that exciting, because she wasn’t relating to the film, as ‘Dash was trying to create this ethnographic memory.’ No, you were giving us a mythic memory… to some extent what you do is create a film where many of the images are larger than life. And the object isn’t to create any kind of accuracy. I was very moved by what you said in the Transition interview about indigo and your sense, as an imaginative creative artist, that you wanted to have something atypical be seen as the scars of black people… I think of Victor Slosky’s [sic] notion  of ‘defamiliarization,’ where you take what may be an everyday image and you present it in such a way that people have to think twice. As a spectator, when I saw that I immediately thought about the permanent imprinting of wounds in flesh. But I didn’t have to pause and ask, ‘But is this real?’ because that isn’t the point…

I mean, very few people have seen this as a political film. Looking at it for the fifth or sixth time – I was thinking about Barbara Harlow’s book on resistance literature… – it struck me that our efforts to decolonize and liberate ourselves as black people, or any oppressed group globally, we have to redefine our history, and our mythic history as well. Because Daughters does this in such an incredible way, it creates a new kind of art film because it clearly can be seen as an art film, but also as a progressive political intervention. There are images of black people in this film, images of us as we’ve never seen ourselves on screen before.

— from Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Women’s Film, Julie Dash, bell hooks and Toni Cade Bambara (New York: New Press, 1992), pages 30-33.

 

11. Penelope Houston

1927-

Penelope Houston, editor of Sight & Sound 1964-90

Penelope Houston, editor of Sight & Sound 1964-90

I read Penelope Houston’s review of Last Year in Marienbad in Sight & Sound (Winter 1961-62 issue) in my late teens, before I saw Resnais’s glorious masterpiece and quite a few years before I ever met Penelope (who edited Sight & Sound from 1956 to 1990). To this day, it’s the most sensitive and sensible review of the film that I know, in English or French, written in beautifully cadenced prose that provided me with an introduction to one of cinema’s least describable – and some would say most intractable – experiences.

Much later, in the late 1960s, I engaged with film criticism more directly by editing an anthology called Film Masters that for various banal reasons was never published, and Penelope’s definitive review was one of its first and happiest selections – eventually leading first to correspondence with Penelope and then to meeting her on one of my first visits to London, a good five years before I joined the staffs of Sight and Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin. To the best of my knowledge, the review has never been reprinted anywhere else – a shocking fact, but maybe not so shocking if one considers how much of the very best English film criticism (eg the collected works of Tom Milne) has been allowed to remain out of sight and out of reach.

— Jonathan Rosenbaum (taken from our Who Needs Critics? feature, S&S October 2008). To read this isssue and countless examples of Penelope Houston’s writing, access Sight & Sound’s digital archive.

 

Penelope Houston on Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad

Penelope Houston's article on Last Year in Marienbad in the Winter 1961/62 issue of Sight & Sound

Penelope Houston's article on Last Year in Marienbad in the Winter 1961/62 issue of Sight & Sound

…And so she goes to the midnight meeting with the stranger, sits waiting rigidly for the clock to strike, leaves with him. But about this ending there is no sense of exaltation or relief. She goes because she has no choice, because for her all the possibilities have narrowed down to a single decision, but she has no idea where she is going. The stranger’s final words offer no comforting clue: “It seemed, at first sight, impossible to lose yourself in that garden… where you are now already beginning to lose yourself, for ever, in the quiet night, alone with me.” The film’s last shot is of the great chateau; and, with its few lighted windows, it no longer looks like a prison but like a place of refuge.

The cover of Winter 61/62 Sight & Sound

The cover of Winter 61/62 Sight & Sound

… “Reality is a cipher with many solutions, all of them right ones.” This is not either of the two Alains, Resnais or Robbe Grillet, in one of the many decidedly gnomic statements they have made about their film, but one of the manipulators of effect in The Flight from the Enchanter, Iris Murdoch’s most cryptic book. Seeing L’Annee Derniere, I was oddly and unexpectedly reminded, at however many removes, of an Iris Murdoch novel. There is a similar setting up of a world consistent to itself, but only contingent to ours. Symbols, in the same way, are suspiciously ready to yield up an immediate significance – Resnais’ statues, his pistol-shots, his matchstick game – while keeping other meanings in reserve. Recurring fantasies of violence play a not dissimilar part; emotions are not only felt but willed to be felt. Comparisons of this kind, of course, should be taken only so far; they are at best no more than marginal. But L’Annee Derniere, if written as a novel, would certainly seem nothing like as audacious or challenging as it does on the screen. Subjective time, recurring time, the gradations of reality and experience, are nothing strange to the modern novel. But the film can accommodate them more easily – or more suggestively; and since its essential ingredients are space and time it can manoeuvre in both at once, make both relative to its own purposes.

— Sight & Sound, Winter 1961-62

 

12. Fannie Hurst

1889-1968

American novelist – and film writer – Fannie Hurst

American novelist – and film writer – Fannie Hurst

Writing about the opening of two small New York cinemas committed to screening “pictures outside the box-office pale”, Fannie Hurst – occasional film critic and author of the twice-adapted Imitation of Life – took her fork to their royal-iced rivals, the more commonplace picture palaces.

Hurst was far from the only female critic afraid for the welfare of cinema upon the introduction of synchronised sound in 1929. That her opining on the talkie (or “toney”), totalling less than the sum of its newfangled parts, becomes opportunistic pommelling of the pâtissier architecture of Main Street cinemas, makes this piece for the Theater Guild Magazine the more unusual.

Manhattan's opulent Hollywood theatre, a showcase for talkies (left) and the Film Guild cinema (right) an example of a "Little Motion Picture Theatre"

Manhattan's opulent Hollywood theatre, a showcase for talkies (left) and the Film Guild cinema (right) an example of a "Little Motion Picture Theatre"

The question it raises of where we watch films is not just a concern but currency today. And one wonders if the commodification of the cinema-going experience – the reclamation or retailing of the showcase space; profit in the pop-up – is response to the deprivation of the opulent edifices Hurst lampoons.

A photo and programme from the Little Carnegie Playhouse, one of the first arthouse cinemas in Manhattan and what Hurst called a "Little Motion Picture Theatre"

A photo and programme from the Little Carnegie Playhouse, one of the first arthouse cinemas in Manhattan and what Hurst called a "Little Motion Picture Theatre"

We have in our duplicate art-house her alt “Little Motion Picture Theater” – now (almost) everywhere, ‘esoteric’, middle-class. But neither it nor the multiplex is the one-size-fits-all social asylum of the palaces they replace. The sell-out popularity of Secret Cinema, and ticket prices for screenings on rooftops and pool-floats, are proof that our stock options cannot be fulfilling all the promising potential of the exhibition space. Audiences want magic, glamour in locale and will pay for that augmented atmosphere Hurst called “ooze”.

— Thirza Wakefield

 

Fannie Hurst on motion picture palaces

New Films for Old

Frankenstein now has a set of vocal chords. And they work! Frankenstein can squeak. There remains little doubt that in an astonishingly short time the remaining mechanical difficulties of the Frankenstein voice will be conquered, just as the mechanical difficulties of the his arms and legs were overcome. But in all the hullabaloo, nobody has had time to bother much over Frankenstein’s soul.

And he needs it more than he does his voice.

But as if to cover up the embarrassing, the tiresome, and the fundamental fact that the motion picture, soulless, is a bunch of elaborate junk, higher, finer, and more rococco are becoming the motion picture palaces which present these adventures in mediocrity.

To venture into one of the “toney” picture palaces of New York today is like forging your way through the marshmallow heart of a gigantic wedding cake. Atmosphere flows like marshmallow ooze. Gilt icing ripples and twists. The patisserie auditorium punctures space and repose with stalactites and drowns you in fauteuils of marshmallow plush.

One city block from where you are seated, beyond a double symphony orchestra, three organs, foliage and illuminated pillars, lurks the motion-picture screen. From behind ornate overtures of orchestra, ballet-dancing tableaux, singers, dancers, violinists, whistlers and tumblers there finally emerges, drenched in the odor of Hollywood, pretty as bisque and all dolled up, the kind of motion pictures which it is the function of the Little Motion Picture House to reject as so much junk.

The gross, over-dressed strumpet, which in so many ways the motion picture feature film has become, is not un-understandable. Here is a new-born art happening along at an immense interval after her last sister and with an appeal so wide it is practically limitless. It has none of the more precious exclusiveness of paining or music or drama. It combines all three. It must span the entire octave of human response. It must cater to the man in the street, the man who laid the macadam, and the man who dwells high above the street.

…The average programme picture that unwinds itself across the silver-plated sheets of this country is Dime Novel standard. All dressed up and no place to go. Superb photography, expensive actors, mawkish sentimentality, tinned emotions, fear-of-truth, fear of box-office. Frankenstein put together so skillfully that he even says “Ma-Ma, Pa-Pa,” but in the soulless voice of a poll parrot.

— from Theatre Guild Magazine, January 1929, pages 11-13. Reproduced in Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema (Verso, 2006).

 

13. Dina Iordanova

Film studies professor Dina Iordanova

Film studies professor Dina Iordanova

1960-

The great critics write about things the rest of us don’t see or know. In the extract I’ve chosen from Dina Iordanova (which I’ve edited from a much longer article), she shows that when we in the West are discovering new types of cinema – in this case, banned Soviet films, and Chinese movies of the 80s – we’re discovering less than we think. We find in the new movies what we want to find. We’re less interested in the real Russia or real China than we imagine. To use her words, it’s the difference between the “producing end” and the “perceiving end”. 

Iordanova’s writing gives me new insights and overviews. She ice skates between what she calls “ideological precincts”. I’m hungry for such writing. Life’s short, and so I don’t need to read about James Dean again, or film noir again. I want a writer to take me beyond the Mercator projection. Iordanova does that. Everyone should read her. Publishers should be lining up to commission her.

— Mark Cousins

 

Dina Iordanova on the West ‘discovering’ new types of cinema

Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (Monanieba, 1984), discussed by Dina Iordanova in the context of the West’s discovery of foreign films

Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (Monanieba, 1984), discussed by Dina Iordanova in the context of the West’s discovery of foreign films

Glasnost and perestroika were supposed to shape a process of re-set, one that would allow for new beginnings. Censorship and its eradication had a big part to play. And international film festivals had a special role – one of actively uncovering and honouring censored works. All large mainstream festivals in the West made their contribution to this process in the 1980s. Some curated programmes that revisited anguished or hushed episodes of Soviet history. Others focused on the films tackling the throwaway Soviet incursion into Afghanistan and the traumas inflicted on a whole generation of young war veterans, who came to be known as Afgantsy and became an emblem of the terminal decay of communism. Soul-searching post-utopian tales, such as Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (Monanieba/Pokayanie, 1984) provided hot material for international festival programmers. Films showing vulnerable protagonists, spiralling into poverty and descending into madness, were preferentially shown, thus precipitating the development of the chernukha series (narratives of doom and gloom), which was to become the first new genre in the cinema of the post-communist period. 

…It was a context set up for welcoming Russia’s remorseful ‘arrival’ (or possibly, ‘return’) into the ‘free world’, and for celebrating the great promise of perestroika (restructuring) – from the rueful lows of communism into the luminous embrace of consumerism. Yet films about commonplace non-suffering Russians, those who would form the base of the coming consumer society, were not of particular interest. Somehow the attention remained preferentially focused on the Soviet repressions and the control.  

…The West was interested in the opportunities that opening up could have provided; it was not interested in Russia and its soul-searching in films. The opportunities did not materialize, so the interest in the culture dissipated. 

…Looking at Chinese cinema at the festivals nowadays, I cannot help but have déjà vu. Having started around the time of perestroika, in the early 1980s, but being put on hold by the Tiananmen Square upheaval, the ‘discovery’ of Chinese cinema by the West invites a comparison. 

…One has to ask oneself – when it comes down to the transnational flow of cinema that spans ideological precincts – is it more about what one can make at the producing end or is it more about what one chooses to see at the receiving end? Back then, Russia opened up but not sufficiently and China started opening up and then closed. In line with these developments, most of the trailblazing directors of the Fifth Generation, like their Soviet counterparts, disappeared from the roster of haute couture festivals. It is not that they stopped working.

 

14. Pauline Kael

1919-2001

Pauline Kael, film critic for the New Yorker 1968-91

Pauline Kael, film critic for the New Yorker 1968-91

I have read Pauline Kael’s writing longer than I have consistently read that of any other film critic. What this means, among other things, is that I have had more and longer sustained spats with her work than I have with any other critic’s, so by now her digressions into amateur sociology or diminishing of even work she admires with the appellation “fun trash” is enough to make me want to chuck whatever well-thumbed volume of hers I’m holding across the room.

Born in 1919, Kael spent her early years in Petaluma, California, on a chicken farm run by her parents, Jewish immigrants from Poland. After a stint at university and an intellectually promiscuous bohemian period, she began programming the Berkeley Cinema Guild in 1955. Her popular radio reviews for local KPFA led to print assignments, and the bestselling collection I Lost It at the Movies (1965). In 1968 she joined the staff of The New Yorker where she remained, save for a brief tenure in Hollywood, until her retirement in 1991, hastened by the onset of Parkinson’s disease.  

Like most people who only find professional success in middle-age, Kael took nothing for granted, and she left everything on a mat—like Norman Mailer, she gave her every dispatch the character of heroic performance. She didn’t stop with a movie until she’d wrung everything that she could out of it, and such excess made her a duck-in-a-barrel target for a more skeletal stylist like Renata Adler, author of the most prominent of the innumerable demolition jobs that have been launched against the Unsinkable Kael.

Nevertheless, Kael abides, in no small part because she could write a blue streak when on a roll. In excerpting her, I was tempted to go for something that plays to her universally-acknowledged strong points, screen comedy and the description of actors, something like the epic assessment of Cary Grant, The Man for Dream City. Instead, I’d like to draw from a personal favorite, her September 26, 1977 review of Marguerite Duras’s The Lorry (Le camion), by turns incredulous, half-mocking, and overawed. Kael is much criticized today, not without reason, for ducking the heavyweight European formalists of her day, thus denying them the spotlight thrown by her celebrity-reviewer status, and here is cause to regret that she didn’t step outside of her wheelhouse more often. Though their modi operandorum could not have been more different, if I am not mistaken, I believe that Kael perceived in Duras a kindred spirit.

— Nick Pinkerton

 

Pauline Kael on Marguerite Duras’s The Lorry

Gérard Depardieu and Marguerite Duras in Duras’s 1977 film The Lorry

Gérard Depardieu and Marguerite Duras in Duras’s 1977 film The Lorry

Contrasts

“Small and bundled up, her throat covered, her unlined moon face serene, half-smiling, Duras reads aloud the script of a film… Hers is the only performance, and there has never been anything like it: controlling the whole movie visibly, from her position on the screen as creator-star, she is so assured that there is no skittish need for makeup, no nerves, quick gestures, tics. The self-image she presents is that of a woman past deception; she has the grandly simple manner of a sage. Unhurriedly, with the trained patience of authority, she tells the story of her movie-to-be about the woman hitchhiker… [The Lorry] is spiritual autobiography, a life’s-journey, end-of-the-world road movie; it’s a summing up, an endgame. The hitchhiker travels in a winter desert; she’s from anywhere and going nowhere; in motion to stay alive. Reading the script, Duras speaks in the perfect conditional tense, beginning “It would have been a film—therefore, it is a film.” And this tense carries a note of regret: it suggests that the script is to be realized only by our listening and imagining…

…The stillness provides resonance for her lingering words—those drifting thoughts that sound elegant, fated—and for the music, and for her cinematographer Bruno Nuytten’s love-hate vistas of bareness and waste, like the New Jersey Turnpike in pastels. The foreboding melancholy soaks so deep into our consciousness that when the director yanks us back to the room, you may hear yourself gasp at the effrontery of this stoic, contained little woman with her mild, Chairman Mao deadpan…

…When [The Lorry] opens at the New York Film Festival this week, there’s likely to be a repetition of the scene in May at Cannes. After the showing, Marguerite Duras stood at the head of the stairs in the Palais des Festivals facing the crowd in evening clothes, which was yelling insults up at her. People who had walked out were milling around; they’d waited to bait her. It might have been a horrifying exhibition, except that the jeering was an inverted tribute—conceivably, a fulfillment. She was shaken: one could see it in the muscles of her face. But Robespierre himself couldn’t have looked them straighter in the eye. There can’t be much doubt that she enjoys antagonizing the audience, and there is a chicness in earning the public’s hatred. [The Lorry] is a class-act monkeyshine made with absolutely confident artistry. She knows how easy it would be to give people the simple pleasures that they want. Her pride in not making concessions is heroic; it shows in that gleam of placid perversity which makes her such a commanding camera presence.”

New Yorker, September 26 1977, page 123

 

15. CA Lejeune

1897-1973

C.A. Lejeune

C.A. Lejeune

Caroline Alice Lejeune, known as CA, was one of the first newspaper film critics – very probably the first British woman in the profession. In 1922, when Lejeune started writing her “Week on the Screen” columns for the Manchester Guardian, there were few women working in newspapers, and the “kinema” was not considered a desirable pastime for a middle-class Englishwoman. Further, film reviewing was almost entirely confined to the trade press, designed to advise cinema-managers rather than viewers.

For four decades, Lejeune addressed the public, in witty, sharp weekly despatches first for the Guardian and then the Observer. She loved European art films, and embraced her sentimental side, but was resistant to slapstick and wary of films that tried to exploit the audience.

Her passion was expressed both in her joy at a well-crafted picture and her scolding of film-makers who fell below her expectations. She was an early champion of Hitchcock, and his friend too, but she reprimanded him in newsprint whenever she felt he promoted his cleverness at the expense of his humanity.

Now sadly misremembered as a philistine who preferred opera to films, Lejeune resigned her pen in Christmas 1960 – famously sickened by Peeping Tom and Psycho. She signed off her last column with the words “Thank you for having me”.

In this striking Guardian column dated 3 December, 1927, Lejeune addresses her own weaknesses as a critic in the form of an astringent open letter to herself. She would have been 30 years old, and had been writing The Week on the Screen for five years.

— Pamela Hutchinson

 

C. A. Lejeune on film criticism

An Open Letter to C.A.L

Dear C.A.L., –

…It has been my best endeavour, since first a handful of clever men in Sweden, Germany, and America gave me the excuse, to trace the course of art in the kinema, small and meandering though it may be – to follow it here and there, now to Hollywood with Chaplin, now to Berlin with Lang, now to Moscow with Eisenstein, picking out the details of unconsidered genius, praising the crude and the crazy and the experimental so long as it carried any stamp of imagination and truth. I have tried to emphasise, week by week, the finer qualities of the kinema, and to establish a real perspective in my view of the screen. But week by week – maliciously, as I am beginning to suspect – you push in and under me, just as you have always hindered me since the days when you tried to make me believe that Mary Pickford and the young John Barrymore were the greatest assets of the film.

I am very much afraid that you neither know nor care anything about art. I have seen you smile secretly many a time when the stylised acting, the expressionist movement, the baroque decor of some clever film have been pointed out in your presence, and I am tolerably certain that I have heard you maintain, when my back was turned, that there never has been and never can be an art of the motion-picture screen.

I have noticed with astonishment that, after ten years of almost daily film-going, you sill find an angle from which a bad film looks entertaining, and still represent a public which, by its tolerance, indolence, and light thinking, constitutes the chief menace to any progress of development on the screen.

You are not altogether without discrimination; you can distinguish as well as any of us the good films from the bad. But with you judgment and enjoyment seem not to go necessarily hand in hand, and I have caught you many times whispering to my readers to leave the clever stuff alone, to come round the corner with you and have some fun. You agree with me that Hitchcock is the best director in England, and L’Herbier the best director in France, and Wiene one of the best directors in Germany, but you have never displayed, to my knowledge, any intimate pleasure in their films.

By what measure can we anticipate the good things you will love and the good things you will hate, the trifles that delight you and the other trifles you will push away?

I wish I could understand your thoughts, or make you understand mine. For I feel that the barrier between us is, in little, an image of the barrier between the potential and the actual supporters of the screen today; and the destruction of it the only method possible of endowing the vitality of a modern industry with the creative imagination of the ancient arts. – I am, yours, &c., C.A.L.

— the Guardian, 3 December 1927

 

16. Hilary Mantel

1952-

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

Who knew that long before Hilary Mantel rehabilitated Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, she spent four years as a film critic for the Spectator? And that all of her weekly reviews from 1987 to 1991 are available to read in the magazine’s free digital archive

Mantel stands in a long tradition of authors writing on cinema, which includes Graham Greene, Virginia Wolf, Zadie Smith to name a few. She is, as you might expect, a critic you read for her prose (not always her assessments) – and in particular her descriptive passages of films and characters: Richard Griffith’s Monty in Withnail and I is memorably “pink and squashy, a foam-rubber hippo with priapic ambitions”.

She firmly saw the role of the critic as “giving advice” and her reviews have a very personal and confessional bent. She often wanders away from the fim at hand to consider wider concerns: her (questionable) loathing of all animation – “the mere sight of Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and the rest put me into a fever of misery and boredom”; the sorry rise of computerised  ticketing: “These ‘systems’, when a cinema is almost empty, squash the customers into three rows…They are also the slowest way of issuing a ticket; where are those ladies with perms and upswept glasses, who gave them out fast and would listen to your preferences?”; or simply to put a “holly-sprigged boot into the festive releases”, for at Christmas “there is no point in going to the cinema unless you have or can arrange to borrow a child”.

Intelligent is a word she frequently employed and the highest praise she could bestow (such as on Paul Cox’s Vincent) But she wasn’t precious or sniffy about entertainment: Robocop provides “a stimulating evening for those who can jettison the ‘cultural baggage’; and a pure delight for those of us who have never had any culture at all.” Indeed it’s hard to read her praise of that film and not see something of Cromwell in Paul Verhoeven’s killing machine: “a great success on the mean streets… eventually he will turn on his corrupt masters, and they will turn on him.”

She didn’t fret about screen violence, a subject that regularly engaged her. On David Green’s Buster (1988): “If the Prince of Wales had not changed his mind about attending the premiere, he would have seen very little of the violence that worries him; indeed he might have said, let us have more blood, more gore, let’s see what crime is really like.”

— Isabel Stevens

 

​Hilary Mantel on Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde

Cobra Verde (1987)

Cobra Verde (1987)

It is received wisdom among cineastes that Werner Herzog is mad as well. That is to say, his notions are grandiose, his feats of filmmaking spectacularly difficult of execution, and his themes monomaniacal. Here, he must have employed half the population of Ghana as extras – and one wonders what the daily rate is for trotting around in shackles, impersonating other people’s unlucky ancestors. The film is like some frightening edition of a child’s picture book, highly coloured and highly illogical. It is under fire because it does not ‘confront’ the ‘issues’ of slavery; but why on earth should it? They have been confronted comprehensively elsewhere. Not every film need be a tract. It is not as if the director is indulging in some shifty relativism. Herzog has an eye for the grotesque, and a way of turning the grotesque into a moral statement. His macabre closing scene is an example of this.

…Recalling it from the book, one looks forward to the scene where Francisco is dipped in indigo to turn him black; but no doubt Klaus Kinski has suffered enough in his career with Herzog. His face has now collapsed into such an idiosyncratic set of folds that, if it assumes an expression, you cannot go by the ordinary rules in telling what it means.

Preposterous is the word for this effort. But in a year when Hollywood cuteness is to the fore, it is a good deed in a twee little world.

— Spectator, 29 April 1988, page 42

 

17. Kathleen Mason

Dates unknown

In 1921, the trade paper Kinematograph Weekly launched a regular column called Through a Woman’s Eyes. Penned by Kathleen Mason, its purpose was to review the latest releases “from the standpoint of their appeal to women”, thereby giving exhibitors insight into how to please their many female patrons. Research into audiences conducted at the time estimated women to make up nearly three-quarters of the cinema audience; the introduction of this column was a strong indication of the British industry’s recognition of the importance of women as cinemagoers.

Mason had taken a degree at the University of Manchester and had worked at the Pelman Institute (an organisation devoted to mind and memory training) before moving into the psychology of cinema audiences. Her articles offer an intriguing mix of astute critical analysis and an interest in the formal qualities of film with sweeping statements and often wild generalisations about the hopes, dreams and desires of women.

She felt that the influence of the female audience would increasingly affect the types of films being made and the methods of telling stories on film, leading to greater subtlety of theme and characterisation and less reliance on heavy-handed subtitling. Her column ran for ten months before she was headhunted to work at a flagship London cinema venue. Although the Kine stressed the success of Through a Woman’s Eyes, it was another five years before it instituted another regular female-authored column devoted to women as cinemagoers.

— Nathalie Morris

 

Kathleeen Mason on women and the kinema

The appeal of the film is very complex. It has been analysed by many since the kinema came to play such an important part in our national life.

Much has been said about its influence, good or bad, as the individual critic may argue, on the child mind of the country, but its greater influence in moulding and colouring the minds of the women of the great middle and working classes who bring that atmosphere into the inner circles of their homes and proceed to adopt their lives accordingly has been neglected. The psychology of the public mind, of the men and women who compose the great kinema audiences, is therefore no less a complex thing than the psychology of the film being submitted to them.

It is possible now to say very definitely that one can differentiate between the films that appeal most directly to men and those which stimulate and hold women. The line of demarcation should be made the pivot on which the discrimination of both producer and exhibitor revolves.

Women compose the bulk of the habitués of the kinema houses, especially in the great Northern industrial centres, and their point of view, differing in almost every essential from that of men, just as the whole of their unconscious mental life differs should be recorded and analysed in a careful manner.

It would then be possible to exploit this knowledge to commercial advantage. The greatest craving in the heart of a woman is for Romance, for the glamour and tinsel of Life, with shaded lights, jewels and beautiful clothes.

The drab, uninteresting life which most women are forced to lead, working at home amidst commonplace conditions not killed this emotion: it has merely dammed it up. The kinema has provided an avenue along which it can be released. It has compensated for the dreary monotony of life, and has fanned into flame the slowly dying embers of creative desire. In men these longings are sublimated into the many ceaseless activities in which their lives are passed.

No such outlet presents itself to women, hence their complete surrender to the influence of the film.

— Through a Woman’s Eyes, Kinematograph Weekly, 4 February 1921, page 94

 

18. Laura Mulvey

1941-

Laura Mulvey

Laura Mulvey
Credit: Rafal Placek

I sidled into film reviewing with motivation about as complex as Being There’s Chauncy Gardner: “I like to watch.” What made me wonder why I liked to watch was Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey’s seminal 1975 essay on spectatorship and ‘the male gaze’. It was distinguished fixture of the theory landscape for decades before I was lucky enough to study with her, but one whose cool clarity of perception has aged not a jot. Read it in the original, not a fuzzy Film Studies 101 overview, and marvel at its theoretical audacity, the acuity of its close readings, and those bracing sections where political radicalism bubbles up through the critical crust (“It is said that analysing pleasure or beauty destroys it. That is the intention of this article”).

Mulvey even put her camera where her mouth was, creating with Peter Wollen a series of critically crunchy counter-cinema pieces, culminating in the 360 degrees of revolution (both literal and metaphorical) of Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) that shook the gender-grammar of cinema till it rattled. Patriarchy remaining as ubiquitous as popcorn in cinema, Mulvey’s polemic and its hunger for change continue to inspire this critic. As useful to parry a Sucker Punch (2011) as for filleting the Farrelly Brothers’ multiplex misogyny, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

— Kate Stables

 

Laura Mulvey on women and visual pleasure

Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combined spectacle and narrative. (Note, however, how in the musical song-and-dance numbers break the flow of the diegesis.) The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative. As Budd Boetticher has put it:

“What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.”

— from Screen, volume 16 (Autumn 1975), pages 6-18

 

19. Dilys Powell

1901-1995

Dilys Powell

Dilys Powell

Dilys Powell had a gift for the perfectly formed short review. Like her favourite kinds of films – American silent slapstick, French lyric comedy, “a well-composed Western” – Powell’s simplicity of style belies the richness of her insights. Who else would evoke an entire oeuvre with this most seemingly prosaic of sentences: “People in films by Alfred Hitchcock are always falling off things”?

Hitchcock had a special place in Powell’s affections, as did Chaplin and Tati: directors who made cinema to look at, not to listen to. But Powell was a glutton for film, for all film, watching five films a week right into her nineties. “I enjoy nearly everything in the cinema”, she wrote, before admitting that there was one exception: the Biblical epic. It is inexplicable, she admits, it is inexcusable. And it is inconvenient, “since as a result I find difficulty in being fair to this class of cinema”.

This combination of Catholic taste and scrupulous fairness lends Powell’s its particular appeal for me. As lead critic for The Sunday Times for over forty years, Powell was one of the rare reviewers who held the power to really sway potential audiences, and one senses she wielded her pen with care.  It would have been so easy to be glib, but Powell’s writing is unshowy, seldomly shrill, and never, ever cruel. Powell could be very funny (as when pulling Gone With the Wind apart piece by overwrought piece) but she resisted easy targets and frequently revisited films she didn’t like to form a second opinion. She has a voice that makes you feel that she’s – well, perhaps not your friend – but someone you know very well, and that her personal response is precisely that, personal. Not the final word on a film, but the opening gambit in a conversation with her readers.

— Catherine Wheatley

 

Dilys Powell on Jacque Tati’s Jour de Fête

There comes, I imagine, in the experience of every cinema critic a moment when he says to himself: this film may not be made with much technical polish; it is not progressive; it won’t be a landmark in the history of the cinema; but it gives me more pleasure than any film for the last five years. That is what I feel about Jour de Fête.

The piece has the slightest of themes: the visit of a travelling fair to a sleepy village and the local postman’s attempt to catch up with the new age of speed. I have searched the story in vain for what a revered pen has called a meaningful relation to the world. I can find in it no comment on social disintegration; it is not about democracy; it doesn’t, as somebody at the Press show remarked dejectedly, make you think. It does something in my opinion far more difficult. Any fool can make you think; it takes talent to make you laugh.

I have now seen Jour de Fête three times, and each time I laughed afresh. The fact is that the jokes have been worked out to the last fraction of a second; the gags double back on themselves; at a second look you see some quirk which escaped you the first time. The slapstick has the precision which one recalls in the best work of Chaplin and the other great comics of the silent cinema. And M. Tati, who plays the postman as well as directing, is funny from the word go: funny demonstrating how to erect a flagpole, funny chasing a wasp, funny doing no more than ride a bicycle.

This brilliant comedian has restored something almost lost from the screen: the joke made to your eyes; you don’t need a French vocabulary to enjoy Jour de Fête. And indeed the whole film with its village setting, its village characters and its village laughter (and, let me add, Jean Yatove’s entrancing music) takes us back ro the cinema’s age of innocence. Whether or not people in this country will like the piece, it is not my business to say. But if they don’t, I give up.

— Sunday Times, April 1950

 

20. B. Ruby Rich

Dates unknown

B. Ruby Rich

B. Ruby Rich

Sometimes a critic is in the right place at the right time, armed with the experience and insight to identify and articulate a tectonic shift whose ramifications she can continue to trace for decades afterwards. In 1992, a Sight & Sound article by American critic and cultural theorist B. Ruby Rich christened the New Queer Cinema – the irascible, irrepressible, iridescent film movement that emerged from the battleground of Aids campaigning and whose initial contributors included Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki and Sadie Benning.

Rich’s article first appeared in the Village Voice but the New Queer Cinema tag emerged from conversations between Rich and Philip Dodd, Sight & Sound’s editor at the time, who reprinted it as the centrepiece of a special section in the magazine. The name stuck, as did Rich’s engagement with the terrain the article mapped out. Already well versed in screen depictions of alternative sexualities, Rich formulated her idea of a new constellation of queer expression while on the festival trail in late 1991 and early 1992, with Sundance as the catalytic site.

As this extract shows, Rich was able to identify distinctive characteristics of this new category, locate it within its immediate and wider contexts, and highlight problems its success might provoke among its creators and limitations the market might place on connecting its full achievement with audiences. During the two decades and change since then, Rich has gone on to trace New Queer Cinemas triumphs, misfires and mutations across generic and geographical boundaries.

— Ben Walters

 

B. Ruby Rich on New Queer Cinema

New Queer Cinema

Try to imagine the scene in Park City. Robert Redford holds a press conference and is asked, on camera, why there are all these gay films at his festival. Redford finesses: it is all part of the spectrum of independent film that Sundance is meant to serve. He even allows that the awards last year to Poison (1991) and Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1990) might have made the festival seem more welcoming to gays and lesbians. He could just as easily have said: these are simply the best films being made.

Of course, the new queer films and videos aren’t all the same, and don’t share a single aesthetic vocabulary or strategy or concern. Yet they are nonetheless united by a common style. Call it ‘Homo Porno’: there are traces in all of them of appropriation and pastiche, irony, as well as a reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind. Definitively breaking with older humanist approaches and the films and tapes that accompanied identity politics, these works are irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive. Above all, they’re full of pleasure. They’re here, they’re queer, get hip to them.

All the same, success breeds discontent, and 1992 is no different from any other year. When the ghetto goes mainstream, malaise and paranoia set in. It can be ideological, or generational, or genderational. Consider the issues that might disturb the peace. What will happen to the lesbian and gay film-makers who have been making independent films, often in avant-garde traditions, for decades already? Surprise, all the new movies being snatched up by distributors, shown in mainstream festivals, booked into theatres, are by the boys. Surprise, the amazing new lesbian videos that are redefining the whole dyke relationship to popular culture remain hard to find.

— Sight & Sound, September 1992 pages 30-34. To read the full article and more in Sight & Sound’s, access the digital archive here.

 

21. Nerina Shute

1908-2004

Before her death in the autumn of 2004, there was one person who remained as a guide to the jungle of British silent cinema.

In the last years of the 1920s, as production boomed, new studios rose on the edges of London and the final generation of wordless movie stars went under the klieg lamps, Nerina Shute became the gossip columnist of the glossy fan mag Film Weekly. She was 19, bisexual and a force of nature.

Rebecca West said of her: “Miss Shute writes not so much badly as barbarously, as if she had never read anything but a magazine, never seen any picture but a moving one, never heard any music except in restaurants.” Her employers then ballyhooed her as “the girl with the barbarous touch” and took it on the chin when her columns obliged them to print an apology, or appear in the libel courts.

The director Dinah Shurey sued when Nerina declared her career as evidence that women couldn’t make films. The actress Elissa Landi was appalled when Nerina suggested that she had spent an afternoon with her talking about “music, and almonds, and Elinor Glyn, and chocolate cakes, and sex”. When the director EA Dupont banned her from the set, Nerina sneaked back, disguised as a rabbi.

“People were frightened of me,” she told me, as we looked over her cuttings books in her flat in Putney, “and I was glad about that.”

— Matthew Sweet

 

Nerina Shute on women directors

Can Women Direct Films?

It is pathetically obvious that women can’t produce films. In England only one lady has had the temerity to try. Dina Shurey (who will go to heaven by reason of her great courage) has created several appalling pictures. Critics have bowed with sad courtesy to the gentle creator of such films as The Last Post. They can’t fail to admire her good intentions, and yet…

In American the situation is very nearly as distressing. There are, perhaps, three women directors in existence, but no one of them has made an outstanding picture. 

— Film Weekly, 10 June 1929, page 12. Reproduced in Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema (Verso, 2006).

 

22. Susan Sontag

1933-2004

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

For any budding autodidact of my generation Susan Sontag was a first port of call when wanting to better understand the cultural phenomena of the moment. When I was at art school, amongst people toying with provocative notions of ‘Camp’ and ‘Fascinating Fascism’, Sontag was a must-read to get such seemingly complex propositions under my punk belts and buckles. One relied on her precisely because she wrote piercingly, without jargon, with great rhetorical authority and was so obviously admiring of austere modernists such as Brecht at the very moment (the early 60s) she was advocating his very opposite: a sensual anti-interpretive erotics of art. That she was such an erudite supporter of equally rigorous arthouse films and filmmakers such as Bresson, Godard, Resnais’s Muriel, Bergman’s Persona is something I came to understand later, after her short lament-cum-obituary ‘A Century of Cinema’ caused so much debate in 1995. A true cinephile who carried the burden of seriousness through times that often despised that quality, Sontag remains someone with whom I feel a cultural affinity because for me the tug of war between direct sensuality and the coolness of a reflective art remains at the heart of all that’s best in cinema. Since the Sontag criticism I know is all in the form of long essays, I’ve linked together here several observations from her early piece ‘Spiritual style in the films of Robert Bresson’. 

— Nick James

 

Susan Sontag on Robert Bresson

Spiritual style in the films of Robert Bresson

Welles, the early René Clair, Sternberg, Ophuls are examples of directors with unmistakable stylistic inventions. But they never created a rigorous narrative form. Bresson, like Ozu, has. And the form of Bresson’s films is designed (like Ozu’s) to discipline the emotions at the same time that it arouses them: to induce a certain tranquillity in the spectator, a state of spiritual balance that is itself the subject of the film…

The emotional distance typical of Bresson’s films seem to exist… because all identification with characters, deeply conceived, is an impertinence – an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart… Bresson’s attempt is to insist on the irrefutability of what he is presenting. Nothing happens by chance, there are no alternatives, no fantasy; everything is inexorable. Whatever is not necessary, whatever is merely anecdotal or decorative, must be left out.

— from Against Interpretaton and other essays, New York: Picador, 1966

 

23. Amy Taubin

Amy Taubin

Amy Taubin

1939-

There’s a certain spirit to Amy Taubin’s criticism – clear, deeply knowledgeable, and resolute in feminist politics – that never fails to captivate me. It’s tempting to connect the precision and surety of her arguments with her former career as actress, appearing on Broadway and in the films of Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow, drawing a parallel between to the need to project to the back of the house and having a strong critical voice.

Less fancifully, it’s obvious that the gestalt of her experience of living and working in the Lower East Side’s art scene that most informs her line of critical thought: aside from filmmaking, contributing to two great alt press weeklies during their prime (Soho Weekly News and the Village Voice), and serving as video and film curator for The Kitchen from 1983 to 1987, she engaged in the radically important act of discussing a performance or opening with colleagues and/or the artists themselves. (Something that, thanks to the ease of DVD screeners and streaming links, is increasingly less an option for film critics.) Currently, Taubin teaches at the School of Visual Arts (Jared Leto is a former student) and serves on the New York Film Festival Selection committee.

I chose this particular piece about Naked Lunch because it’s part of her longtime championing of David Cronenberg, and because her engagement with his work points to her knowledge and love for another discipline of creativity: psychoanalysis. In this section, discussion of Burrough’s writing, Cronenberg’s adaptation, gender, and sexuality effortlessly flow together—and dismiss public outrage.

— Violet Lucca

 

Amy Taubin on David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch

The Wrong body

…Yet while sexuality is polymorphous and definitely perverse in the work of both Burroughs and Cronenberg, the trajectory of desire and the specifics of representation is homosexual in the former and heterosexual in the latter. Thus The Advocate, a major American gay weekly, cautioned against expecting much from “the heterosexual Cronenberg”. The irony is that the gay critics who’ve attacked the film would have great difficulty recuperating much of Burroughs — the terroristic goings-on in ‘Hassan’s Rumpus Room’, for example, which are among the pages of Naked Lunch most vividly inscribed in the collective cultural memory — within their politics of essentialism and positive imagery.

Cronenberg responds to the criticism as follows: “It wasn’t as if there were a dozen directors vying for the rights and they gave it to the heterosexual”. Indeed, when Cronenberg acquired Naked Lunch, no one else was interested. “If Naked Lunch were a gay book and that’s all, you would have an argument. I wouldn’t do The Wild Boys [the Burroughs novel that’s high on Gus Van Sant’s agenda]. But the sex in Naked Lunch is beyond gay. It’s sci-fi sex; it has metaphorical meaning every way”. Yet when I ask Cronenberg what he thinks of Kubrick’s Lolita (1961), an adaptation fraught with similar problems, he answers that although James Mason’s performance is perfect, he didn’t like the film very much when he first saw it. “The actress who played Lolita was too old. She’s supposed to be a child, not a teenager. To shift that shifts everything”.

The shift that Cronenberg makes in Naked Lunch is to wind it around the body of a woman. He takes as his premise Burroughs’ statement in the introduction to Queer that if he hadn’t killed his wife Joan, he would never have become a writer. Burroughs, however, goes on to say that he put up a writer’s block around her death; women barely exist in his work. Cronenberg, on the other hand, structures Naked Lunch as a bare bones, but not unconventional, noir narrative. The film is driven by the repetition- compulsion of its protagonist William Lee – his need to save and destroy his wife Joan over and over again.

To lift a metaphor from The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch is less a case of Cronenberg adapting than absorbing Burroughs. That the experiment is not totally successful is proof of Burroughs’ stature both as a writer and counterculture myth. Nevertheless, the first half of the film is nearly as intellectually inventive, mordantly witty and visually stunning as Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Pristine and putrid, the decor encompasses every shade of shit and glows as if it were radioactive. Erupting from this controlled, though repellent, visual surface is a diarrhoeic flow of language, think with puns, threats and obscenities.

— from Sight & Sound March 1992, pages 8-10. Read the full article and more in Sight & Sound’s digital archive.

 

24. Claude-Marie Trémois

1930-

Claude-Marie Trémois

Claude-Marie Trémois

Paris at the time of the New Wave is rightly celebrated as the birthplace of cinephilia and of post-war film theory and criticism.

However, both love for, and writing on, the cinema were at the time unambiguously conceived and practiced from a male point of view. In his book on cinephilia, Antoine de Baecque describes it accurately as ‘fetishistic erotomania’, in a chapter called, without irony, ‘Love of women, love of cinema’. Indeed, from the hallowed pages of Cahiers du cinéma to the mainstream press, film critics were overwhelmingly male and it is rare to find women writers, and even rarer to find them addressing women’s issues in the cinema.

One major exception is Claude-Marie Trémois at Télérama, a popular publication with a notable section on film, despite its title. Trémois started writing for Télérama in 1951 and she has published several books on film, including the first study of the ‘Young French Cinema’ of the 1990s (Les Enfants de la liberté, published in 1997).

I picked this short Télérama piece, In Defence of B.B., on Bardot in Louis Malle’s Vie privée, because of its exceptional mention of misogyny (in pre-feminist mainstream criticism). Her criticism of the film is virulent and, while I would personally nuance Trémois’s vision of the film (which also celebrates B.B.), she is spot on in her account of the hypocritical, contradictory reactions to the star at the time and the film’s contemptuous attitude to her. Her defence of Bardot also confirms the fascination Bardot exerted on women writers and feminists then (Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras also wrote, appreciatively, on her), as she continues to do today.

— Ginette Vincendeau (author of Brigitte Bardot (BFI Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and Brigitte Bardot, The Life, The Legend, The Movies (Carlton, 2014))

 

Claude-Marie Trémois on Brigitte Bardot and misogyny

In Defence of B.B.

Louis Malle’s film [Vie privée] could have had the merit of revealing to the wider public the real Brigitte Bardot problem, of an unfortunate young woman catapulted in the limelight, a prisoner of her celebrity, both idolized and hated. But all he has done is give ammunition to B.B.’s enemies. And because the film claims to rehabilitate her, it is twice as unpleasant and twice as harmful. This is a hypocritical film. As hypocritical as the industry people who take B.B. for a ride but use her to ‘make money’. As hypocritical as the spectators who ogle her on screen and then shamelessly insult the myth they have themselves created. The fact is that Brigitte Bardot is a symbol of our hypocrisy.

This film could have been an opportunity to dignify her as a human being, to remember that she has a soul, yet Louis Malle only manages to make a misogynist film, worse, a condescending film. He shows contempt for her, yet he too uses her.

Brigitte Bardot recently appealed on television to protest against the cruel methods used in abattoirs. But she is hardly better treated than these poor animals.

— Télérama, 18 February 1962

 

25. Judith Williamson

Judith Williamson

Judith Williamson

1954-

In the 1980s Judith Williamson wrote on cinema for Time Out and City Limits before becoming the New Statesman’s film critic in 1986. Her book Deadline at Dawn: Film Criticism 1980-1990 – which gathers together essays, reviews, television introductions, programme notes and other material – is an exemplary collection, with a superb opening essay on the importance of resisting complicity with the culture supermarket.

Williamson wrote this piece at a time when it was still possible to say that film writing in the British press was dominated by a ‘high culture’ position; her book came out a year before Pulp Fiction fuelled the general critical swing towards pop culture orthodoxy). But Williamson warns equally against the populist stance which – no less than elitism, she argues – denies people the wherewithal to make their own critical judgments. With its lesson in reading the ideologies at work within cinema, and within the viewer’s own responses, this introduction is an inspiringly direct and lucid manifesto for criticism.

One of Williamson’s points is truer now than ever, at a time when criticism is increasingly pressured by commercial and editorial forces into supporting a spurious consensus in the matter of assigning values. This is the general point Williamson stresses, and it’s one that all critics should regularly remind themselves of: the greatest enemy of thought is fear.  

— Jonathan Romney

 

Judith Williamson on high and low culture

Introduction: Film criticism

The dominant feeling about culture in our society is still that there is a ‘High’ and a ‘Low’ culture and these are still seen as roughly dividing into ‘Art’ and ‘Mass Media’. Most ‘serious’ film critics in our national press still have a vague notion of artistic worth that fixes more happily onto, for example, a Bergman film than a Hollywood blockbuster. It is interesting that the one piece of film theory absorbed into general critical use is the auteur theory, which views directors as ‘authors’ of films, thereby admitting them to the approved rank of artists, alongside the ‘high cultural’ figures of the past.

The same division works in reverse with a more populist approach, which will ridicule anything supposed to be ‘arty’ or pretentious, and thereby rules out taking seriously any more experimental or unconventional attempts at film-making. Anti-intellectualism is one of the strongest strands in British cultural life, and it takes a great many forms, from the snobs who disdain to discuss or explain an ‘artistic’ judgement, to the rabble-rousers who dismiss anything remotely ’difficult’ or demanding on an audience. To side with one or other of these positions is to miss their complicity in denying people – audiences and readers – access to intellectual structures whereby they (the audiences and readers) might make their own critical judgements and decisions.

— from Deadline at Dawn (Marion Boyars Publishers, 1993)

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