The Role of the Critic

Some years ago, before I was directly involved in the making of films, I had a conversation with a Beijing filmmaker. He was curious about what my film studies education involved and I mentioned the main areas of study were film history, theory and criticism. His ears pricked up at the word criticism. In a derisive kind of way he said the word “critics!” and scoffed.

He was probably suffering from the attitude that many artists have: the belief that critics never create anything, and earn a living by tearing down the work of others. It would be totally unfair of me to perpetuate the belief that critics only have a negative impact on filmmaking. Despite all the hard work and suffering that goes into making a movie, not every finished film is worthy of admiration. Above all else, critics are the ones in the best position to help us understand what makes certain films good.

Certainly there are inherent differences between journalistic criticism and academic criticism. While the film reviewer writes for a mass audience, his work is not that different from the scholarly work that tries to understand why film works, what it means, and what effects it has on people. The deeper understanding of film that professional critics can develop is something the aspiring filmmaker and writer should not overlook.

There are many notable examples of critics turned writer or director. Perhaps most famous of these is François Truffaut, one of the directors at the forefront of French New Wave cinema. François began his film career as critic for the film journal Cahiers du Cinema. In this role he was so outspoken in some of his criticisms of contemporary French films that he was was refused a press pass to the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. In his short career he went on to work as a screenwriter, director, producer and actor. Some of the classic films he helmed include The 400 Blows (1959), Jules and Jim (1962), and Day For Night (1973), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Entertainment Weekly voted him the the 27th Greatest Director of all time, the highest ranking former critic to make the list. He died in 1984 of a brain tumour.

An early American critic turned screenwriter was Robert E. Sherwood, the Oscar winning author of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). As a film reviewer for Life and Variety, Robert’s column was syndicated to hundreds of newspapers nationally. He later served as an uncredited script doctor on innumerable Hollywood classics. Some of his more notable screenplays include The Petrified Forest (1936), Rebecca (1940), Waterloo Bridge (1940), and Northwest Passage (1940). He died of a Heart Attack in 1955.

One of Britain’s most enduring contributions to cinema was Graham Greene, who had a varied career as novelist, travel writer and playwright. He also began his literary career as a film critic. Later on he took stabs at producing and writing screenplays, including adaptations of his own work Brighton Rock (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), and The Third Man (1949). His years as a critic were prolific, and he voiced the opinion that the job of the critic was a compromise. He felt it was the critics job to judge the artistic merits of a film and entertain the reader at the same time. His own writing follows through on this belief as his reviews show clearly there is more to writing a review than telling the reader why a film is bad. The Graham Greene Film Reader is about as excellent a book you can find that that traces the path a critic takes to becoming a screenwriter. It includes an an excellent introduction David Parkinson. Graham died in 1991 of natural causes.

The lives of these individuals are inspirational to any aspiring writer or director. Over and over again one thing is proven: there is no single path to the director’s chair. Even the greatest antagonists of filmmakers have gone on to make films of their own.