Critics On Critics

Film still for Critics On Critics

Sight & Sound asked leading critics to choose the works of criticism which have had the greatest impact on them, inspiring them to become critics themselves, and which make a case for criticism as a minor art form in itself.

Geoff Andrew UK

It's hard now to pinpoint precisely which piece of writing made me want to become a film critic. For one thing, that desire sprang less from reading criticism than from watching the movies themselves. That said, I did read film criticism, and my early hunger brought me to some wonderful writing; this [30 years ago], after all, was the era of auteur-based monographs in series published by Secker & Warburg, Studio Vista and the Tantivy Press. I was very impressed by V.F. Perkins'Film as Film and Peter Wollen's Signs and Meanings in the Cinema. Robin Wood was terrific on Hawks and Hitchcock; Tom Milne was superb on Dreyer and Mamoulian; Joseph McBride helped no end with Welles; Fassbinder was spot-on on Sirk, and Barthes' essay on Garbo proved that one could write revealingly even about actors. In a magazine called The Velvet Light Trap, an article by Mike Wilmington fuelled my love of the films of Nicholas Ray. Then there were the critical dictionaries to bury yourself in for hours: Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema, and the first edition of David Thomson's A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema.

But what to single out? I'm tempted by Raymond Durgnat's chapter on Psycho in his book on Hitchcock, which comes as close to the experience of actually watching and wondering about a film as anything I've read; I'm tempted by Thomson's provocative, insightful piece on Citizen Kane in America in the Dark; and almost anything by Tom Milne, a supremely perceptive and elegant writer, would serve. But in the end, I have to plumpfor a caption review in Time Out. It was written by Tony Rayns, and was about the Joseph H. Lewis B-movie The Big Combo (1955), which was about to be revived at the Electric Cinema Club, where I was then working as manager and assistant programmer. The review Tony wrote literally produced a queue round the block for the first screening. If memory serves, Bernardo Bertolucci and Jonathan Demme were in that queue, the first of many in a remarkable week-long run which kick-started a rediscovery of Lewis that culminated in a 24-film retrospective at the 1980 Edinburgh Film Festival.

Sadly I no longer have a copy of Rayns' paean to Poverty-Row excellence, but its opening - "Almost certainly the greatest movie ever made... everything you always loved about film noir in one movie," and final sentence - "As heady as amyl nitrate and as compulsive as stamping on insects," remain etched on my memory. Tony reputedly wrote the review after a glass or two, and I doubthe expected people to take it very seriously; but some did (I heard them, on the foyer payphone, telling friends they'd just seen the greatest movie ever made!), and his writing helped to bring a forgotten but rather wonderful B-movie back to glorious life.

Michael Atkinson US

When, at the age of 14, I shoplifted my first edition of David Thomson's A Biographical Dictionary of Film (US title), I had no idea that what I had was, fora budding cinephile, the equivalent of a father-son brothel trip, a navy stint or a postgrad degree's worth of film-school classes, lectures and debates. No other volume provides as thorough a vision of the relationship between film history and viewer. As years and editions have passed, the project's gaps and weaknesses have become more glaring, but Thomson seems more than ever to be the Bertrand Russell of Anglo-American film criticism, capable of producing and sustaining a comprehensive saga of the art and business - a cinemiad - and giving us all a mother tongue with which to evoke the artistry in an actor's presence, or the profundity in a hack director's factory work.

The good arguments begin when Chaplin, Fellini and Kubrick feel the toe of Thomson's boot, and concise cases are made for Feuillade, Sirk, Rivette, Keaton and the American-period Lang. At the same time, I've always felt Thomson short-shrifts Wyler as he splooges all over Hawks, that the Arthur Penn, David Cronenberg and René Clair movies he describes must be fundamentally different than the ones I've seen, that his assault and battery on Tarkovsky is at loggerheads with his ardour for Murnau, Mizoguchi and Theo Angelopoulos. But drawing these auteur reckonings out of the flood, contrasting them, seeking out their historical context in other entries, and finally either picking them into feathery pieces or submitting to their ineluctable common sense - that's the BDOF in action.

Thomson leaves footprints on your critical faculties, whether you agree with him or not. All the same, I can hardly understand how any cinephile can still hold the view that John Ford is one of the greatest film-makers after reading this torching:

...Ford's male chauvinism believes in uniforms, drunken candor, fresh-faced little women (though never sexuality), a gallery of supporting players bristling with tedious eccentricity and the elevation of these random prejudices into a near political attitude - thus Ford's pioneers talk of enterprise but show narrowness and reaction. Above all, his characters are accepted on their own terms - the hope of every drunk - and never viewed critically... 'The Quiet Man' is an entertainment for an IRA club night, the cavalry films as much endorsements of the military as the wartime documentaries, and 'My Darling Clementine' nostalgia for a world and code that never existed. The Ford philosophy is a rambling apologia for unthinking violence later disguised by the sham legends of old men fuddled by drink and glory.

Tom Charity UK

Orson Welles made films with his right hand ('Citizen Kane', 'The Magnificent Ambersons', the Shakespeare adaptations, 'The Immortal Story', 'The Other Side of the Wind') and films with his left hand (the thrillers). In the right-handed films there is always snow; and in the left-handed ones there are always gunshots...

That's François Truffaut, in his foreword to André Bazin's monograph on Orson Welles (Orson Welles: A Critical View), written, as he signs off with a flourish, "on the plane between Paris and Los Angeles". There may be innumerable observations to be made about Welles, but the poetry in Truffaut's simple construction moves me even as I doubt its veracity. Is there really snow in The Other Side of the Wind? It seems unlikely, but perhaps Truffaut knew better. Not in Othello, surely? Nor Macbeth? It doesn't matter. I'll take a resonant half-truth. There are many sharper, more insightful, more rigorous and sophisticated critics, but allow me to pay hommage (and with two "m"s goddamn it!) to François et les autres, for that fervent, greedy and soul-felt auteurism they preached as gospel from the front-row of the Cinémathèque.

Have any group of critics before or since been more intensely invested in the object of their study - or so profoundly rewritten its subsequent development? It's not just that the Cahiers crowd becomes the nouvelle vague, nor even that their films elaborate their criticism by other means (ideas in action), but those ideas crack open Pandora's box for the rest of us.

This ardent auteurist cinephilia - particularly for American movies - has an aspect of adolescent amour fou, I admit. It was a moment in time, of youthful discovery, intellectual passion and libération... A phase, if you will. You go through it, but you never forget it.

I read Truffaut, Wood, Bogdanovich and Thomson altogether, in a rush, in my own late teens in the early 1980s. In most cases they venerated Aldrich, Fuller, Hawks and Ray before I had seen them for myself. It's a rare and valuable criticism that conveys such excitement.

"What do critics dream about?" Truffaut teases in the opening chapter of his collected criticism, "The Films In My Life" - one of the first film books in mine. Making movies is only one answer to that question. I'd like to suggest so long as we're still dreaming, then the movies have some life left in them. Dreaming of that RKO snow that Orson loved so dearly...

Ian Christie UK

I would nominate any of the following three, which have all had an impact on me:

Erwin Panofsky, 'Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures' - a 1934 paper applying art-historical theory to movies and still one of the best pieces of 'theory' which makes immediate sense to anyone reading it.

Ray Durgnat writing as O.O. Green on Powell and Pressburger in Movie in 1966 (partly reprinted in A Mirror for England). This was a pioneering piece on P&P in Britain and a great inspiration for me, trying to get P&P taken seriously.

But I present here an extract from a piece by the neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio ('How Hitchcock's Rope Stretches Time' in Scientific American), about Hitchcock's distortion of time in Rope, seen from a cognitive standpoint.

The elasticity of time is perhaps best appreciated when we are the spectators of a performance, be it a film, a play, a concert or a lecture. The actual duration of the performance and its mental duration are different things. To illustrate the factors that contribute to this varied experience of time, I cannot think of a better example than Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film 'Rope', a technically unique work that was shot in continuous, unedited 10-minute takes; no other feature has ever been produced in its entirety using this approach. Orson Welles in 'Touch of Evil', Robert Altman in 'The Player' and Martin Scorsese in 'Goodfellas' employed long continuous shots, but none as long as those in 'Rope'. (In spite of the many plaudits the innovation earned the director, filming proved a nightmare for all concerned, and Hitchcock used the method again only in part of his next film, 'Under Capricorn'.)

Hitchcock invented this technique for a sensible and specific reason. He was attempting to depict a story that had been told in a play occurring in continuous time. But he was limited to the amount of film that could be loaded into the camera, roughly enough for 10 minutes of action. Now let us consider how Rope's real time plays in our minds. In an interview with François Truffaut in 1966, Hitchcock stated that the story begins at 7:30 P.M. and terminates at 9:15, 105 minutes later. Yet the film consists of eight reels of 10 minutes each: a total of 81 minutes, when the credits at the beginning and end are added in. Where did the missing 25 minutes go? Do we experience the film as shorter than 105 minutes? Not at all. The film never seems shorter than it should... On the contrary, for many the film seems longer...

I suspect that several aspects account for this alteration of perceived time. First, most of the action takes place in the living room of a penthouse in summer, and the skyline of New York is visible through a panoramic window. At the beginning of the film the light suggests later afternoon; by the end, night has set in. Our daily experience of fading daylight makes us perceive the real-time action as taking long enough to cover the several hours of the coming of night when in fact those changes in light are artificially accelerated by Hitchcock.

In the same way, the nature and context of the depicted action elicit other automatic judgments about time. After the proverbial Hitchcock murder... the story focuses on an elegant dinner party hosted by the two unsavoury murderers and attended by the relative and friends of the victim. The actual time during which food is served is about two reels. Yet viewers attribute more time to that sequence because we know that neither the hosts nor the guests, who look cool, polite and unhurried, would swallow dinner at such breakneck speed. When the action later splits - some guests converse in the living room in front of the camera, while others repair to the dining room to look at rare books - we sensibly attribute a longer duration to this offscreen episode than the few minutes it takes up in the actual film.

Another factor may also contribute to the deceleration of time. There are no jump cuts within each 10-minute reel; the camera glides slowly toward and away from each character. Yet to join each segment to the next, Hitchcock finished every take with a close-up on an object. In most instances, the camera moves to the back of an actor wearing a dark suit and the screen goes black for a few seconds; the next take begins as the camera pulls away from the actor's back. Although the interruption is brief and is not meant to signal a time break, it may nonetheless contribute to the elongation of time because we are used to interpreting breaks in the continuity of visual perception as a lapse in the continuity of time. Film-editing devices such as the dissolve and the fade often cause spectators to infer that time has passed between the preceding shot and the following one. In 'Rope' each of the seven breaks delays real time by a fraction of a second. But cumulatively for some viewers, the breaks may suggest that more time has passed.

The emotional content of the material may also extend time. When we are uncomfortable or worried, we often experience time more slowly because we focus on negative images associated with our anxiety. Studies in my laboratory show that the brain generates images at faster rates when we are experiencing positive emotions (perhaps this is why time flies when we're having fun) and reduces the rate of image-making during negative emotions... Perhaps the unpleasantness of the situation in 'Rope' similarly conspires to stretch time.

'Rope' provides a noticeable discrepancy between real time and the audience's perception of time. In so doing, it illustrates how the experience of duration is a construct. It is based on factors as various as the content of the events being perceived, the emotional reaction s those events provoke and the why in which images are presented to us, as well as the conscious and unconscious inferences that accompany them.

Michel Ciment France

'Kiss Me Deadly' is one stage further along the way to a mastery of his craft, and one step downward toward despair in the world he describes.

As an American film-maker, [Robert] Aldrich works within well-defined genres, this time the thriller. But Aldrich being who he is, his film is only 70 per cent thriller, 20 per cent horror film, with a touch (10 per cent) of science fiction, genres which all have something in common. 'Kiss Me Deadly' is in the first rank of film noir masterpieces, a genre which had been in eclipse for a good while. It is on an equal footing with the best films of Huston, Welles, Dassin, and Otto Preminger. Based on a Mickey Spillane novel, which I am told is much inferior to the film, 'Kiss Me Deadly' is the story of a private detective who toils amid some mysterious and long-invisible gangsters, strictly episodic policemen, and an enormous amount of loot, the nature and location of which are unknown, with all of these factors frenetically put into action in pursuit of one or other of them. We find ourselves in this very particular class of thriller, a crime film with a private detective and a romantic streak running through it, a trick used to remarkable effect by Raymond Chandler before Mickey Spillane (and also a few vaguely plagiarized and British-looking pale imitations). However, the master, the Aristotle of this type of noir, is Dashiell Hammett. (Positif, N-16, May 1956, also included in 'Positif, 50 Years: Selections from the French Film Journal' edited by Michel Ciment and Laurence Kardish, MOMA New York, 2002)

When I was a teenager in the 1950s, I was reading fervently Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif. I particularly admired Bazin and Truffaut in the former and Benayoun and Tailleur in the latter. Roger Tailleur had an eye for detecting talent in new directors, a vividness of style that suggested forcefully what was on the screen, an immense knowledge not only of cinema but of literature, jazz, painting; political lucidity, an analytical mind and an interest in actors (all too rare in auteur-oriented criticism). If you add his enthusiasm, he had all the qualities I praise in a film critic.

The excerpt above comes from a 5,000-word essay on Robert Aldrich, then a newcomer, whose Apache, World for Ransom, Vera Cruz, Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife had all been released in Paris in 1956. Tailleur stopped writing after 1968. Truffaut asked him to contribute to the cultural weekly Arts and in 1968 Godard wondered why Cahiers du Cinéma did not print any more pieces of the same quality as Tailleur's reviews of Harper. One of the pillars of Positif, Roger Tailleur also wrote impressive books, on Antonioni (with Paul-Louis Thirard) and on Kazan. Together with Louis Seguin, I collected his film criticism after his death under the title Viv(r)e le Cinéma (Institut Lumière/Actes Sud).

Mark Cousins UK

The writing that moved me at a young age was this famous paragraph:

One can argue against Hawks and for Ray - or the other way round; one can condemn Big Sky in the name of Johnny Guitar or accept them both. But anyone who rejects either should never go to the movies again, never see any more films. Such people will never recognise inspiration, poetic intuition, or a framed picture, a shot, an idea, a good film, or even cinema itself.

It's François Truffaut, of course (from his essay 'A Wonderful Certainty' published in Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s). It was the absolutism of this that fired me.

My next critical crush was on Richard Combs, then Paul Schrader, then Laura Mulvey, then Georges Sadoul. In more recent years it has been Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike. And I went through a big Barry Salt phase.

Hamid Dabashi Iran/USA

Plato's Allegory of the Cave in The Republic (Book 7: 514a-520a) to this day remains a singular reflection on what the art of cinema has been for millions of people caught in a world where liberating fantasies are forbidden. The allegory can be seen as the first philosophical image of the motion picture - with a source of light behind the gathered audience, the cave as a movie theatre, the moving shadows as actors, and the bewildered spectators sitting in amazement and wonder.

Imagine prisoners who have been chained since their childhood deep inside a cave: not only are their arms and legs unmoveable because of chains; their heads are chained in one direction as well so that their gaze is fixed on a wall. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which puppets of various animals, plants, and other things are moved along. The puppets cast shadows on the wall, and the prisoners watch these shadows. Behind this cave there is a well-used road, and upon this road people are walking and talking and generally making noise. The prisoners, then, believe that these noises are coming directly from the shadows they are watching pass by on the cave wall... This... is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of objects. They are thus conditioned to judge the quality of one another by their skill in quickly naming the shapes and dislike those who play poorly. Suppose a prisoner's chains break, and he is able to get up and walk about... Eventually he will be compelled to explore; he walks up and out of the cave. There, he is instantly blinded by the sun. He turns then to the shadows on the floor, in the lakes, slowly working his way out of his deluded mind, and he is eventually able to glimpse the sun. In time, he would learn to see it as the object that provides the seasons and the courses of the year, presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some way the cause of all these things that he has seen.

Jean-Michel Frodon France

My father was a film critic and, though I didn't want to imitate him, he obviously had an influence. As did one of his best friends, Jean-Louis Bory - they wrote for rival news magazines. Jean Douchet taught cinema at my university - I knew several of his texts, including one where he defines criticism as l'art d'aimer (the art of loving). But the major reference was already Cahiers du Cinéma, which I started to read during its so-called hardline period. It was difficult and often puzzling. I sometimes disagreed and often did not understand, but it was also daring and surprising. I always felt there was more in common than in opposition between the 'Bazin era', the 'Rohmer era', the 'Rivette era' and the 'Comolli-Narboni era'. Then came the era I really felt was made for me, with the writers gathered around Serge Daney and then Alain Bergala. I was even more enthusiastic when Daney moved from Cahiers to the daily Libération, and manage to 'reinvest' all the critical work he'd accomplished in a specialisedmagazine into a general newspaper. This was in the early 1980s, just before I started to write film criticism myself.

But by far the most inspiring teacher in film criticism for me was Jean-Luc Godard, especially his work during the 1970s. This is where I found the most convincing promise that, for good or bad, cinema could be viewed as the machinery of power. Godard was analysing it from the inside, with cinema's own tools. It paved the way for what I was discovering about the pleasures of writing. Godard was proving that the way you think about how a film works, its emotional and aesthetic procedures, gives you the tools to understand how the real world works. And thereby to discover, enhance or oppose the active forces that are at play in almost any situation, from war to romance to political action to a football game.

Godard is well known for having said that, since the Cahiers 'Young Turks' had no access to the film studios, they started to make movies with their pens. Writing film criticism, at least in his case, one might reverse the sentence and say that when he finally got access to film-making, he continued to make film criticism with a camera.

Graham Fuller USA

One hopefully seeks low-key enlightenment from a piece of film criticism, but not the self-consciously glib entertainment practiced by most reviewers in the popular press, on TV, and on the internet. To find out how a film operates within its political, cinematic, and pop-cultural context, how its style emanates from its meaning (if it does), and to see all this presented with dry wit, one need look no further than J. Hoberman, for years the senior critic of the Village Voice. Hoberman has few peers at evoking a film's physical world, its psyche, and its ramifications.

But there are different kinds of criticism. David Thomson, author of the still-mesmerizing A Biographical Dictionary of Film, sees further than other critic/historians, and presents ideas, many contrary, that no one else would contemplate. His belief in the notion that movie characters, meshed with the actors who play them, live before and after two hours of screen time was revelatory - so, too, the recognition that fiction can be criticism, and vice versa. In Thomson's film noir novel Suspects, George Bailey of It's a Wonderful Life recalls, or imagines, how the French cabaret singer "Elise" left Berlin for North Africa following the death of the schoolmaster Janrath - a melding of the plots of The Blue Angel and Morocco that comments obliquely on Dietrich's perverse allure and Josef von Sternberg's manipulation of it:

There was an ugly noise in the Berlin papers: Elise's foreignness was to blame; she was called "a depraved nymph" and so on. Pictures of the Janrath wife and children—rather like a soccer team, so many and so glum - were printed in silent accusation, next to Elise's knife of a smile. She did not bother to defend herself. She went by train to Santander, and took a boat for Morocco. During that voyage, she changed her name to Amy Jolly, and elected to be as sinister as the world wanted to believe.

She had come to the land of the Foreign Legion with the same need as many of its soldiers - a new name, a chance to escape, and hardship of service to stand as a rebuke for the guilt she was too proud to acknowledge. The self-respect of the silent and ungiving made a pact between her and the legionnaires. For the first time in her life she was acclaimed but not pursued. The soldiers regarded her as a true myth, someone who would fade into ordinariness if one of them actually had her in love. She guessed the reasoning, and smiled through the loneliness it entailed.

But one soldier struck her. Tom Brown, an American apparently, was a laconic, long-limbed man, secretive yet mocking his own discretion. She felt weak whenever she saw him, grinning back at his grin, and wondering if she would faint. Her desire made her feel she would die without him....

Ryan Gilbey UK

Most critics do an entertaining job of laying into a poor film. Fewer can argue their case vividly and precisely within a cinematic context. Partly this is due to a creeping paralysis of newspaper arts pages, where hyperbole is highly prized. Adam Mars-Jones is the antithesis of this approach. He was film critic at the Independent from 1986 to 1997, and for the Times from 1999 until 2001,and now writes occasional pieces in the TLS, among others. What I love about his writing is that he is both forensic and playful. He is democratic in his enthusiasms too: he can see the good in Pola X and Tank Girl, and the bad in Ulysses' Gaze and Inland Empire. Most importantly, he always mounts a robust, informed case.

As impressive as his 1,200-word analysis of Frantz Fanon; Black Skin, White Mask was his gleeful celebration of GoldenEye, in which he describes the beginning of each James Bond film as "That hallowed piece of montage in which the viewer is shot by Bond while unwisely attempting to hide in a spiral sea shell." Or the refrigerated scorn of his Priest review: "Priest can only really be recommended to people who have never heard the phrases 'piss off' and 'out of my diocese' in the same sentence, and are anxious to rectify the omission." His reviews taught me that you can be serious about film, and still have fun. They inspire me to be a better writer.

Excerpt from The Rock review by Adam Mars-Jones (The Independent, 20 June 1996):

The late Don Simpson, to whom 'The Rock' is dedicated, was by all accounts a person drawn to excess (his obituaries in the press were variations on the theme of 'larger than life'). In the projects that he produced with his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, as well as in his life, the approach was always both/and rather than either/or. You want the steak or the lobster, the red or the white? You want an action sequence, a plot point or a bit of character development? Have them both, on the same plate, in the same glass, in the same scene. Have them all...

...The corresponding weakness of 'The Rock' is that the high mayhem factor breaks the tension that is supposed to run from one end of a thriller to the other. Our longing for tension to be released needs to be played with, worked on, not instantly gratified. When audiences of 'The Rock' are offered disorder almost on a disaster-movie scale early on, with a car chase involving a yellow Ferrari, a super-charged Jeep and a cable car that goes off the rails, they're likely to forget that this is only a sub-plot, and not what the film's about.

What's the film about? It's about these spheres of green liquid, looking a little like the bath globes people used to buy as presents for relatives they didn't know well or much care for. Only these globes aren't good for the skin or any part of the body. They're deadly poison...

Kent Jones USA

A few years ago, Manny Farber and I were walking through a museum in Del Mar, California, looking at a retrospective show of his paintings. We stood in a spacious room with a view of the ocean, and scrutinized a large board called 'Ingenious Zeus' - a field of deep blue layered into the wood, with vegetables, branches, and open art books splayed across the perspectivally ambiguous composition in a rhythm of rising and falling, an ecstatic perpetual motion. "I try to get myself out of it as much as possible, so that the object takes on a kind of religious awe," he said, a last refinement of a line of thinking he'd pursued during the hours we'd spent in the museum. He wasn't thinking of this work in particular. He was describing all of his paintings, as well as his writing and his thinking. And without trying, he was giving me a good, simple definition of critical and artistic practice, which are finally one and the same.

Mark Le Fanu Denmark

It is good to keep being surprised by new writers - or else by wonderful old writers who have somehow passed you by. I had scarcely heard of the American critic Robert Warshow when a few years ago I came across a review in Variety of a reprint of The Immediate Experience, his only published book (he died in 1955 at the age of 37). What an amazing writer he turns out to be. Authority in prose, though difficult to describe, is easy to recognize: Warshow has it. His writing is both sober and passionate. There is no beating about the bush; whether anatomizing the failure of the liberal vision in Arthur Miller's The Crucible or accounting for the greatness of Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, he penetrates to the heart of the matter. In the following extract we come across him "revisiting the Russian classics". Whatever one thinks about his judgement of these films (a judgement, of course, that runs counter to the liberal pieties of our epoch) there's no denying the crackle of the prose.

I had seen most of these movies at one time or another, but none of them for at least fifteen years, and I went this time looking very consciously for the pathos and irony of that enormous historical failure which now weighs so dangerously on us all. Irony, God knows, was easy enough to find; every glimpse of the enthusiasms of that revolution brings forth all at once the whole wearisome joke of human aspiration and wickedness - we shall have it dinned into our ears, in just this form, until we die. There was more irony than the most avid of paradox-mongers could possibly want. Only to see the word "comrades" or the word "workers" in a subtitle was enough. Before I was through I could no longer understand why our age insists on finding the idea of irony so attractive. I would have given up all ironies, and the sense of tragedy and the sense of history along with them, just to have stupid, handsome Nicholas grinding his heel once more into the face of unhappy Russia.

Pathos was another matter. For pathos there must be victims, and in five of these six movies the glare of triumphant righteousness is so blinding that one can't see any victims at all, only a few martyrs of the working class, their lives well expended, and a few bourgeois or monarchist anachronisms, swept properly into the dustbin of history. No death is without meaning; even the baby hurtling in its carriage down the Odessa steps in 'Potemkin' is part of the great plan, and the spectacle is exciting not saddening. Of course it could be said that Eisenstein and Pudovkin and Dovzhenko were the real victims, ultimately betrayed by the revolution they celebrated; but that idea, if it is important at all, becomes important only on reflection. It is hard to feel the pathos of their lives when you see them playing with corpses; if they had got the chance they would have made a handsome montage of my corpse too, and given it a meaning - their meaning and not mine.

I do not say that these films of the famous Russian directors left me unmoved, but what I felt was all the wrong things, anger more than anything else. And it is just the best elements that arouse the greatest anger. When Eisenstein photographs the slow raising of the bridge in 'October', with a dead woman's hair stretched over the crack between the two sides as they come apart, and a dead horse hanging in its harness higher and higher above the river as the bridge goes up, the whole slow sequence being further protracted by the constant cutting in of other shots in 'rhythmic' contrast, these controlled elements that once marked Eisenstein's seriousness as an artist become now the signs of an essential and dangerous frivolity which, one suspects, was a part of what made him an artist in the first place. And when Pudovkin in 'The End of St Petersburg' cuts rapidly back and forth from scenes of fighting at the front to scenes of excitement in the stock exchange, one's anger is mingled with shame: this sequence is mentioned with honour in the histories of cinema.

To be honest, I must say that I had come with some hope of finding that the pretentions of the great Soviet cinema were false. Since I had never, in fact, quite accepted those pretentions, it may not count for much to say that these films seemed to me, in aesthetic terms, as successful as ever. But I do mean that they belong with what we are accustomed to call great films, which is to say that they are crude, vulgar, often puerile, but yet full of sudden moments of power. The scene of the Odessa steps, for instance, deserves all the praise that has been given to it and perhaps even justifies a recent attempt by Timothy Angus Jones to establish 'Potemkin' as an 'epic' - especially when one recalls that epic is often an expression of barbarism and superstition. It was not at all an aesthetic failure that I encountered in these movies, but something worse: a triumph of art over humanity.

Adrian Martin Australia

In 1962, the celebrated Cuban novelist-screenwriter Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005) collected his work as a film critic for Carteles magazine (1954-1960) into a book titled, for its 1991 English translation, A Twentieth Century Job. The text is a hall of mirrors, Infante multiplying himself via various literary disguises. All the texts appear in their original form, credited to one G. Cain - with a nod to Orson Welles' Kane - and are introduced by an unnamed editor who at one point declares: "With time I have come to detest these reviews." But all these scurrilous fellows are Infante. He became Cain in print after a censorship incident in 1950 which banned his real name from appearing in print; and he splits into the Third Man in order to carry on a zany dialogue with himself. But there was also a political point to this play: by 1962, Infante had decided that, "in a totalitarian country, the critic can only exist as a fictional entity".

In November 1959, this fictional entity - who refers to himself as the cronista (chronicler) - encountered Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo; the republished review begins with the editorial note laid out like a poem that "Cain/put this movie/among/'the ten best films/he had seen." Over seven pages, titled 'In Search of Long Lost Love', Infante delves into Vertigo: its mood, resonances and literary and mythic sources. He tips his hat to the Hitchcockian exegetes at Cahiers du cinéma whom he read throughout the 50s, and borrows a little of their hyperbolic tone, but his own account of the Master is at once grander, more lyrical and more finely detailed:

'Vertigo' is a masterwork and with the years its importance will become clear. Not only is it the only great surrealist film, but the first romantic work of the twentieth century. Its elements are from everyday and its material is what one sees around the corner, any corner. Nevertheless there is in it a mystery that seemed exclusive to the romantic dramas. He is a detective who pursues a trail armed with logic and reason; she drives a flashy Jaguar. The scene is present-day San Francisco and modern in such a way that one of the characters must lament the flight of the old days of the founding of the city. But when Ferguson searches for her ghost, he clings to the romantic symbols: the bouquet of roses, the golden locks and all the old familiar places.

Infante revels in the details of colour ('the green of memory, the red of passion') and of music (Bernard Herrmann's 'depraved habaneras' and 'fateful castanets' that 'cast a net in the nightmare, to the fainting theme of love'); he comes to terms (after a second viewing) with the mid-way plot revelation that upset so many viewers and reviewers; he appreciates the casting of James Stewart (hitherto the embodiment of 'a very durable American innocence before the onslaughts of evil') and of Kim Novak ('the iceberg whose submerged part is all lava'). But throughout, the Big Picture remains clear: Vertigo is, for him, a profound plunge into 'all our modern mysteries'.

Three months later, in February 1960, Infante was still mulling over the significance of Vertigo, and inserted this remark into a review of one of the earliest films of the Nouvelle Vague, Claude Chabrol's Les Cousins:

The cronista would like to insist on the importance of understanding 'Vertigo' in order to understand the cinema of now and of tomorrow. A cinema that will return to romanticism in frank opposition to neorealism, a cinema that will be served by magic, the subconscious, the sound and the pictures of passion, rather than by the conflicts between poverty and wealth, rather than by the subject that seems concerned with the social destiny of man and is almost always condescending [...]; the opposition to which is as varied as 'White Nights' ('Le Notti Bianche') by Visconti, the French New Wave and Alfred Hitchcock, in 'Vertigo'. It is not an ideal cinema, but a real one: the cinema that is there, in front of one's eyes. The critic who does not see this simply does not see - or does not go to - the movies.

Many people, down the decades, have written wonderfully and reflected ingeniously on Vertigo: Eric Rohmer, Robin Wood, Jean Douchet, Royal Brown, Chris Marker, Ken Mogg, Virginia Wexman, to name but a few. But Infante, writing as an on-the-spot chronicler only a year after the film was first released in the US, saw very far into the after-life of this movie, and sketched almost everything that could be one day said, in greater depth, about it. If there is 'visionary film', as P. Adams Sitney once convinced us, there is sometimes also visionary criticism - and a visionary critic like G. Cabrera Infante.

Olaf Moller Germany

I can't really quite make up my mind about influences - naming them usually leads to misleading looks at one's own work, not to mention that one shouldn't embarrass others by forcing oneself on their attention. Besides, there can be no short quotations from the likes of Helmut Färber or Peter Nau or Hartmut Bitomsky: their brilliance defies such a practice.

But let's talk about something related to yet different from the question of influence: courage.I can gladly quote a few lines from the critic who more than any other made me think and write the way I saw fit, the one person who made me feelI wasn't quite alone: Hans Schifferle, peerless cinephile dandy. This is the kind of writing which made me continue:

In short: 'Denn Das Weib ist Schwach' is more than a nice trouvaille. The movie is a breathtaking, true-to-the-moment exercise in the thrills in the Berlin of 1961 shortly before the Wall was built, an existentialist B-movie based upon a fine slice of 'Reader's-Digest' lit, sporting quotes by Brecht and Klaus Mann. You could even say: Wolfgang Glück's film is a forgotten key workof German cinema, in a style that mixes neorealism with the nouvelle vague the way only one other auteur did here with appealing rigorousness: Will Tremper (from SigiGötzEntertainment, #13, February 2008).

Kim Newman UK

A dark street in the early morning hours, splashed with a sudden downpour. Lamps form haloes in the murk. In a walk-up room, filled with the intermittent flashing of a neon sign from across the street, a man is waiting to murder or be murdered ... the specific ambience of film noir, a world of darkness and violence, with a central figure whose motives are usually greed, lust and ambition, whose world is filled with fear, reached its fullest realisation in the Forties. A genre deeply rooted in the nineteenth century's vein of grim romanticism, developed through U.F.A. and the murky, fog-filled atmosphere of pre-war French movies, flowered in Hollywood as the great German or Austrian expatriates - Lang, Siodmak, Preminger and Wilder - arrived there and were allowed more and more freedom to unleash their fantasies on the captive audience ...

And above all, shadow upon shadow... Lee Garmes, Tony Gaudio, Lucien Ballard, Sol Polito, Ernest Haller, James Wong Howe, John F. Seitz and the other great cameramen of the era pitched every shot in glistening low-key, so that rain always glittered across windows or windscreens like quicksilver, furs shone with a faint halo, faces were bared deeply with those shadows that usually symbolised some imprisonment of body or soul. The visual mode was intensely romantic, and its precise matching to the stories of fatal women and desperate men - straight out of The Romantic Agony - gave Forties film noir its completeness as a genre. A world was created, as sealed off from reality as the world of musicals and of Paramount sophisticated comedies, yet in its way more delectable than either.

These paragraphs by Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg - only now does it occur to me to wonder who wrote them, or whether they revised each other's drafts - are from the opening to chapter two ('Black Cinema') of Hollywood in the Forties, published by the Tantivy Press in 1968. When the cinema section in bookshops was most likelya shelf rather than a room, Tantivy put out a range of like-sized books on genres which remain grouped together (thanks to their odd shape) on my shelves to this day.

Even now, most respected writing on film comes in week-of-release criticism or retrospective biography, but I've always liked book-length critical studies which make connections between disparate films, film-makers and cultural trends. This passage evokes in prose the look and tone of a type of cinema (not an easy thing - much writing still treats films as if they were novels or plays rather than a complicated audio-visual medium) while detailing influences, namechecking technicians even aficionados could overlook and making a sharp judgement of its appeal and resonance for 1940s audiences and subsequent film-lovers.

The standing joke among writers is that the impossible question most often asked of them is "Where do you get your ideas from?" In this case, I can actually give an answer: I used this passage as the epigraph of my first novel, The Night Mayor (1989), and the book grew from seeds unknowingly planted by Higham and Greenberg, taking literally the notion that movie genres constitute self-contained pocket universes, and developing the idea that an apparently realist, miserablist form can be seductively pleasurable ("delectable"). Criticism need not just influence other criticism.

Jonathan Rosenbaum USA

From Penelope Houston's review of Last Year in Marienbad in the Winter 1961-62 issue of Sight and 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.

I read this review in my late teens, before I saw Resnais' glorious masterpiece and quite a few years before I ever met Penelope. 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 Raymond Durgnat and Tom Milne) has been allowed to remain out of sight and out of reach.

Sukhdev Sandhu UK

Geoff Dyer is a terrific novelist, a very funny book reviewer and an uncategorisable travel writer who manages to be solipsistic, dyspeptic, and alive to the sublime and transcendental all at the same time. But my favourite piece of writing by him, which I chanced upon while I was a student and which is still pinned up above my desk many years later, is 'Blues For Vincent' (collected in Anglo-English Attitudes). Barely 1000 words in length, it's a four-part essay that begins with his recollections of Zadkine's sculpture of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh; shifts forward to the moment of writing (1989) and a tiny vignette about the homeless guys outside his apartment in Manhattan's Lower East Side; breaks off into his account of phoning his girlfriend who's five hours ahead in England ("the familiar English tones becoming bleak after six rings"); and ends with an account of what for him is the meaning of jazz saxophonist David Murray's 'Ballad for the Black Man':

No suffering is so unendurable that it cannot find expression, no pain is so intense that it cannot be lessened - this is the promise at the heart of the blues. It cannot heal but it can hold us, can lay a hand around a brother's shoulder and say: You will find a home, if not in her arms, then here, in these blues.

To this day, I find it hard to read 'Blues For Vincent' without welling up. If that's an uncommon response to critical writing, well, that's because Dyer writes criticism with the sharpness and the soulfulness of an artist. He creates a form appropriate to the works he wants to discuss, to dramatise. He drifts across forms and historical eras and countries with complete conviction that it's possible to find a tactile, emotional truth that links them. Most of all, like other great English critics - D.H. Lawrence, John Berger - he does not separate art from life, nor head from heart.

Tadao Sato Japan

Itami Mansako (1900-1946) was one of the outstanding film directors in Japan and the most important critic of Japanese film history. He made 20 films between 1928 and 1938 and wrote many scenarios and essays. Among the scenarios were excellent comedy works satirising feudal society. His masterpiece was Akanishi Kakita (1936).

One of his famous essays, 'The Problem of War Responsibility' was written just after the defeat of Japan. In it he severely criticised the Japanese Film industry for supporting militarist propaganda. Many Japanese film people excused themselves, claiming their war leaders had deceived them. However, Itami wrote that their attempt to dodge guilt was itself a deception.

It was also deeply interesting when, in 1940, he published a 10-page essay on acting theory. It was an instruction pamphlet on how film directors should help actors and actresses. It argued over practical problems of film direction and, at the same time, it considered highly philosophical aspects of communication between directors and actors and actresses. It was especially impressive in the way it criticised Japanese directors with deep-rooted feudal attitudes.

David Thomson UK/USA

Early on, as I watched films and tried to read about them, I found that I valued broad comments on the medium (often written by inspired 'outsiders') more than intense and reverend scrutiny of particular films composed by critics who treated a Nicholas Ray film as if it might have been a sculpture by Bernini, or Hamlet. I am old enough to recall the great battles fought in Britain and America (in academia and outside) as to whether films could be works of art. And I am young enough still, I hope, to feel sure that they were something far more interesting or challenging - artlike? (sometimes); lifelike (usually); but vitally corrupted by clashing elements such as ideology, politics, money, technology and sociology - by which, I mean, the public's estimate of what film is or might be.

That last area has been crazy with change, and I daresay we are in the early stages of another spasm that may leave talk of 'art' sounding foolish. So I want to stress the impact of two things I found around the same time.

One is Norman Mailer's A Course in Filmmaking, which I found in a 1971 paperback that included the script of Maidstone and the story of its making. Now, I have never been a big fan of Mailer's films, but this passage from the Course has had an enormous influence on me:

Film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long. An emotion produced from the churn of the flesh is delivered to a machine, and that machine and its connections manage to produce a flow of images which will arouse some related sentiment in those who watch. The living emotion has passed through a burial ground - and has been resurrected. The living emotion survives as a psychological reality; it continues to exist as a set of images in one's memory which are not too different, as the years go by, from the images we keep of a relative who is dead. Think of a favorite uncle who is gone. Does the apparatus of the mind which flashes his picture before us act in another fashion if we ask for a flash of Humphrey Bogart next?

In other words, film excites me now less as art and more as a force in time and memory. So I keep Mailer's words crosscut with John Berger's haunting insight that photographs evoke not just the presence of the dead - of strangers or ghosts - but their absence, too. There is always a cut between us and what we see, and the cut joins us and separates us at the same time.

Kenneth Turan USA

My favourite critic, the patrician Edmund Wilson, wasn't fond of the movies, and I'm far from being a diehard auteurist myself, but the critic that had the biggest influence on my own work is inevitably the erudite and encyclopaedic champion of the auteur theory, Andrew Sarris. It's been 40 years since I became aware of Sarris' The America Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, but there are still passages I can just about quote from memory, especially the opening of the section on Sam Fuller:

Fuller is an authentic American primitive whose works have to be seen to be understood. Seen, not heard or synopsized.

I'd been a fan of Fuller's since childhood, but Sarris' thoughts made me sit up and take notice. Not only did he contextualise the director's work in a way that was completely original and exactly on target, this acuity of judgement was conveyed in a wonderfully elegant writing style.

Though Sarris has become famous worldwide for his passion for the director, that was not what drew me to him or influenced me the most. Rather it was his zeal for the medium itself. Sarris' writings showed me the movies were a subject that could handle serious thought; that could be looked at deeply in ways that actually increased the enjoyment of what you were seeing. He demonstrated that movies could be written about as lucidly and intelligently as books, that they definitely would have been worth Edmund Wilson's time if he'd been so inclined. I still think that's true, and whenever I manage a successful stab in that direction,I feel myself in Sarris' debt.

Armond White USA

Can one demonstrate that trash desensitises us, that it prevents people from enjoying something better, that it limits our range of aesthetic response? Pauline Kael, Going Steady: Film Writings 1968-69.

Pauline Kael's basic question in her 1968 essay 'Trash, Art and the Movies' ended with the line, "Trash has given us an appetite for art." She stood on a solid foundation of traditional Liberal Arts education while railing against its stodginess. But in the 40 years since - after Star Wars, Flashdance, Pulp Fiction, Titanic, Lord of the Rings - it's apparent that trash increasingly gives movie audiences a taste for more trash. And film producers as well as film critics and their editors, have responded accordingly - praising top grossers, tallying weekend box-office results, championing hits not artists; gimmicks not vision.

In the world of criticism, cinephilia has been replaced by hysteria: the quiet hysteria of those who defend personal passions against the inexorable drive of the marketplace. Hysteria that is the result of the triumph of capitalism and the changes it has wrought in the ways people use film to ease their anxieties. There is no more dialectic between the idea of cinema and commercial convention (what Kael preferred to call "the movies"). That's the reason Jean-Luc Godard resorted to making video auto-critiques in the 1980s. Since there was no longer a community he could address by making new films, he wound up talking to himself, as serious critics must.

But most criticism these days simply does the work of the film industry. It's advertisement. Not the work of the thinker, the scholar or even the discriminating fan. "Loving" movies (a diminishing of cinephlia) is now the approved pop impulse and the adolescent response - unconnected to adult intelligence, adult experience - rules. Contemporary audiences don't have vision of art or a high ideal to which they can aspire. The 'entertainment" rubric has superseded the expression of ideas and feelings that past generations of filmgoers - weaned on Griffith as well as Renoir and Welles and Godard and Truffaut - once appreciated. Critics have forsaken films' humanist tradition in the service of a new sensation-hungry audience - generations who only know elitist-nihilistic art-films or thrill rides and big grosses as the object of filmmaking.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012