Last year, film critics in this country railed against two instances of backward thinking. They castigated Ishaqzaade for Parineeti Chopra's quasi-rape, and Cocktail for its retrograde view of Deepika Padukone’s ‘westernised’ character. Yet, in the almost universally praised English Vinglish, hardly anyone pointed out that a film built around a mother who follows her desires ultimately ends with the same character sacrificing it all for her family. In other words, two easy targets hit, one moving target missed.
In this country, there are several writers who can turn a mean phrase, or craft an acid takedown of Salman’s latest. But how many are truly provocative? To truly provoke is to make a reader question his or her beliefs. Sixty years ago, a diminutive 34-year-old called Pauline Kael was published for the first time in City Lights. She reviewed Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight; unimpressed by the film’s pieties, she titled the piece ‘Slimelight’. It was an auspicious beginning. Kael would go on to become one of the most influential, opinion-dividing critics ever. But she wasn’t the first to elicit strong reactions, and she wouldn’t be the last. Here are four great provocateurs of film criticism.
Critics writing for mainstream publications have always been under pressure to make their views more accessible. But Manny Farber, who wrote about cinema from the 1940s to the 1970s, was notoriously difficult to pin down. His compliments were warped, backhanded; like this description of John Wayne: “As he moves along at the pace of a tapeworm, Wayne leaves only a path that is bits of shrewd intramural acting.” His description of Jean Luc-Godard’s Weekend was even more puzzling – “a film which loves its body odour”. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote after his death, “You can’t always be sure whether he’s praising or ridiculing the subject before him. Maybe he’s doing both.” Besides steering criticism away from a thumbs up/down mentality, Farber had a huge influence on the grammar of film writing, coining terms like ‘underground films’, ‘hard sell cinema’ and ‘termite art’.
Kael was an admirer of Manny Farber, but her own approach was anything but non-committal. A couple of lines into any review, you’ll know exactly how she feels about the movie. No other writer was as caustic (“Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head” was her reaction to Da nces with Wolves) or as personal. Cinema for her was an obsession, a come-on, and her book titles – I Lost It at the Movies, When the Lights Go Down – reflected this.
Kael wasn’t the first critic to champion lively B-movies over arty ‘prestige’ films – but she was the most emphatic. “Trash,” she once wrote, “has given up an appetite for art.” Her reviews, most of which appeared in The New Yorker between 1967 and 1991, were instrumental in helping directors like Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma grow an audience. Though she died in 2001, her shadow still looms large over film criticism today. Ten years after her death, her biography was published – something no other major critic can boast of.
A Biographical Dictionary of Film has this to say about John Ford, possibly the most famous director of Westerns ever: “The Ford philosophy is a rambling apologia for unthinking violence later disguised by the sham legends of old men fuddled by drink and glory.” The same book claims that Charlie Chaplain lacks “artistic intelligence, real human sympathy, and even humour”. With provocations like this on every page, it seems unlikely that David Thomson’s 1975 book, which has entries on hundreds of actors, directors and writers, would still be in print. Yet, it’s now in its fifth edition, and was voted the best ever book on cinema by Sight & Sound magazine in 2010. Thomson’s arguments may infuriate, but they aren’t easy to poke holes in, informed as they are by an immense knowledge of and affection for cinema. Now in his 70s, he continues to write busily. Look up his columns for The New Republic: you’ll find something to get you riled up – and a whole lot to think about.
Type the words ‘troll’ and ‘film critic’ on Google, and the first six entries are all Armond White. White’s gained a reputation as a contrarian, someone who shoots down movies that have amassed a critical or popular consensus, just because he can. His blunt pans have earned him enemies across the board, as have his numerous spats – with the New York Film Critics Circle (of which he was chairman), with directors Michael Moore and Noah Baumbach, and with fellow-scribes Roger Ebert and J Hoberman (he accused the former of destroying film criticism and the latter of racism).
Amidst all this, White continues to sling out criticism that’s opinionated and uncompromising. He’ll defend anything he thinks is being unfairly criticised, from Jack and Jill to Taken 2. And he has no problem taking on the fanboys (as he did with The Dark Knight), the general public (his frequent Pixar pans) or the highbrows. Let’s face it – you have to be pretty ballsy to elevate Paul WS Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution over PT Anderson’s The Master, both of which released on the same day last year. It would be interesting to see him review something like Bol Bachchan; instead of slamming it, he might turn around and point out the genius of Rohit Shetty.
This piece appeared in GQ's March issue.