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The term "critic" is often applied very loosely, signifying little more than "a person who writes about the arts." It can be defined more precisely by distinguishing it from related terms with which it is often fused (and confused): reviewer, scholar, theorist. The distinction can never be complete, as the critic exists in overlapping relationships with all three, but it is nonetheless important that it be made.


Reviewers are journalists writing columns on the latest releases in daily or weekly papers. They criticize films, and often call themselves critics, but for the most part the criticism they practice is severely limited in its aims and ambitions. They write their reviews to a deadline after (in most cases) only one viewing, and their job is primarily to entertain (their livelihood depends on it), which determines the quality and style of their writing. Some (a minority) have a genuine interest in the quality of the films they review; most are concerned with recommending them (or not) to a readership assumed to be primarily interested in being entertained. In other words, reviewers are an integral (and necessarily uncritical) part of our "fast-food culture"—a culture of the instantly disposable, in which movies are swallowed like hamburgers, forgotten by the next day; a culture that depends for its very continuance on discouraging serious thought; a culture of the newest, the latest, in which we have to be "with it," and in which "trendy" has actually become a positive descriptive adjective. Many reviewers like to present themselves as superior to all this (if you write for a newspaper you should be an "educated" person), while carefully titillating us: how disgusting are the gross-out moments, how spectacular the battles, chases, and explosions, how sexy the comedy. There have been (and still are) responsible and intelligent reviewer-critics, such as James Agee, Manny Farber, Robert Warshow, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and J. Hoberman, but they are rare.

To be fair, a major liability is the requirement of speed: how do you write seriously about a film you have seen only once, with half a dozen more to review and a two-or three-day deadline to meet? One may wonder, innocently, how these reviewers even recall the plot or the cast in such detail, but the answer to that is simple: the distributors supply handouts for press screenings, containing full plot synopses and a full cast list. In theory, it should be possible to write about a film without even having seen it, and one wonders how many reviewers avail themselves of such an option, given the number of tedious, stupid movies they are obliged to write something about every week. What one might call today's standard product (the junk food of cinema) can be of only negative interest to the critic, who is concerned with questions of value. The scholar, who must catalogue everything, takes a different sort of interest in such fare, and the theorist will theorize from it about the state of cinema and the state of our culture. Both will be useful to the critic, who may in various ways depend on them.

Reviewers are tied to the present. When, occasionally, they are permitted to step outside their socially prescribed role and write a column on films they know intimately, they become critics, though not necessarily good ones, bad habits being hard to break. (Pauline Kael is a case in point, with her hit-or-miss insights.) This is not of course to imply that critics are tied exclusively to the distant past; indeed, it is essential that they retain a close contact with what is happening in cinema today, at every level of achievement. But one needs to "live" with a film for some time, and with repeated viewings, in order to write responsibly about it—if, that is, it is a film of real importance and lasting value.

b. 1952, d. 1994

Although his period of creativity (he was the most creative of critics) covered only fifteen years, Andrew Britton was a critic in the fullest sense. He had the kind of intellect that can encompass and assimilate the most diverse sources, sifting, making connections, drawing on whatever he needed and transforming it into his own. Perennial reference points were Marxism (but especially Trotsky), Freud, and F. R. Leavis, seemingly incompatible but always held in balance. A critic interested in value and in standards of achievement will achieve greatness only if he commands a perspective ranging intellectually and culturally far beyond his actual field of work. Britton's perspective encompassed (beyond film) literature and music, of which he had an impressively wide range of intimate knowledge, as well as cultural and political theory.

His work was firmly and pervasively grounded in sociopolitical thinking, including radical feminism, racial issues, and the gay rights movement. But his critical judgments were never merely political; the politics were integrated with an intelligent aesthetic awareness, never confusing political statement with the focused concrete realization essential to any authentic work of art. His intellectual grasp enabled him to assimilate with ease all the phases and vicissitudes of critical theory. He took the onset of semiotics in stride, assimilating it without the least difficulty, immediately perceiving its loopholes and points of weakness, using what he needed and attacking the rest mercilessly, as in his essay on "The Ideology of Screen."

His central commitment, within a very wide range of sympathies that encompassed film history and world cinema, was to the achievements of classical Hollywood. His meticulously detailed readings of films, such as Mandingo, Now, Voyager, and Meet Me in St. Louis, informed by sexual and racial politics, psychoanalytic theory, and the vast treasury of literature at his command, deserve classical status as critical models. His book-length study of Katharine Hepburn deserves far wider recognition and circulation than it has received so far: it is not only the most intelligent study of a star's complex persona and career, it also covers all the major issues of studio production, genre, the star system, cinematic conventions, thematic patterns, and the interaction of all of these aspects.

His work has not been popular within academia because it attacked, often with devastating effect, many of the positions academia has so recklessly and uncritically embraced: first semiotics, and subsequently the account of classical Hollywood as conceived by the critic David Bordwell. These attacks have never been answered but rather merely ignored, the implication being that they are unanswerable. Today, when many academics are beginning to challenge the supremacy of theory over critical discourse, Britton's work should come into its own. His death from AIDS in 1994 was a major loss to film criticism.


Britton, Andrew. "Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment." Movie, nos. 31/32 (Winter 1986): 1–42.

——. Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist. London: Studio Vista, 1995.

——. "Meet Me in St. Louis: Smith, or the Ambiguities." CineAction, no. 35 (1994): 29–40.

——. "A New Servitude: Bette Davis, Now, Voyager, and the Radicalism of the Women's Film." CineAction, nos. 26/27 (1992): 32–59.

Robin Wood

The difference between critic and reviewer is, then, relatively clear-cut and primarily a matter of quality, seriousness, and commitment. The distinction between critic and scholar or critic and theorist is more complicated. Indeed, the critic may be said to be parasitic on both, needing the scholar's scholarship and the theorist's theories as frequent and indispensable reference points. (It is also true that the scholar and theorist are prone to dabble in criticism, sometimes with disastrous results.) But the critic has not the time to be a scholar, beyond a certain point: the massive research (often into unrewarding and undistinguished material) necessary to scholarship would soon become a distraction from the intensive examination of the works the critic finds of particular significance. And woe to the critic who becomes too much a theorist: he or she will very soon be in danger of neglecting the specificity and particularity of detail in individual films to make them fit the theory, misled by its partial or tangential relevance. Critics should be familiar with the available theories, should be able to refer to any that have not been disproved (for theories notoriously come and go) whenever such theories are relevant to their work, but should never allow themselves to become committed to any one. A critic would do well always to keep in mind Jean Renoir's remarks on theories:

You know, I can't believe in the general ideas, really I can't believe in them at all. I try too hard to respect human personality not to feel that, at bottom, there must be a grain of truth in every idea. I can even believe that all the ideas are true in themselves, and that it's the application of them which gives them value or not in particular circumstances … No, I don't believe there are such things as absolute truths, but I do believe in absolute human qualities—generosity, for instance, which is one of the basic ones.
(Quoted in Sarris, Interviews with Film Directors, p. 424)


One cannot discuss criticism, its function within society, its essential aims and nature, without reference to the work of F. R. Leavis (1895–1978), perhaps the most important critic in the English language in any medium since the mid-twentieth century. Although his work today is extremely unpopular (insofar as it is even read), and despite the fact that he showed no interest in the cinema whatever, anyone who aspires to be a critic of any of the arts should be familiar with his work, which entails also being familiar with the major figures of English literature.

Leavis belonged to a somewhat different world from ours, which the "standards" he continued to the end to maintain would certainly reject. Leavis grew up in Victorian and Edwardian England and was fully formed as a critic and lecturer by the 1930s. He would have responded with horror to the "sexual revolution," though he was able to celebrate, somewhat obsessively, D. H. Lawrence, whose novels were once so shocking as to be banned (and who today is beginning to appear quaintly old-fashioned).

Leavis was repeatedly rebuked for what was in fact his greatest strength: his consistent refusal to define a clear theoretical basis for his work. What he meant by "critical standards" could not, by their very nature, be tied to some specific theory of literature or art. The critic must above all be open to new experiences and new perceptions, and critical standards were not and could not be some cut-and-dried set of rules that one applied to all manifestations of genius. The critic must be free and flexible, the standards arising naturally out of constant comparison, setting this work beside that. If an ultimate value exists, to which appeal can be made, it is also indefinable beyond a certain point: "life," the quality of life, intelligence about life, about human society, human intercourse. A value judgment cannot, by its very nature, be proved scientifically. Hence Leavis's famous definition of the ideal critical debate, an ongoing process with no final answer: "This is so, isn't it?" "Yes, but …" It is this very strength of Leavis's discourse that has resulted, today, in his neglect, even within academia. Everything now must be supported by a firm theoretical basis, even though that basis (largely a matter of fashion) changes every few years. Criticism, as Leavis understood it (inT. S. Eliot's famous definition, "the common pursuit of true judgment"), is rarely practiced in universities today. Instead, it has been replaced by the apparent security of "theory," the latest theory applied across the board, supplying one with a means of pigeonholing each new work one encounters.

It is not possible, today, to be a faithful "Leavisian" critic (certainly not of film, the demands of which are in many ways quite different from those of literature). Crucial to Leavis's work was his vision of the university as a "creative center of civilization." The modern university has been allowed to degenerate, under the auspices of "advanced" capitalism, into a career training institution. There is no "creative center of civilization" anymore. Only small, struggling, dispersed groups, each with its own agenda, attempt to battle the seemingly irreversible degeneration of Western culture. From the perspective of our position amid this decline, and with film in mind, Leavis's principles reveal three important weaknesses or gaps:

  1. The wholesale rejection of popular culture. Leavis held, quite correctly, that popular culture was thoroughly contaminated by capitalism, its productions primarily concerned with making money, and then more money. However, film criticism and theory have been firmly rooted in classical Hollywood, which today one can perceive as a period of extraordinary richness but which to Leavis was a total blank. He was able to appreciate the popular culture of the past, in periods when major artists worked in complete harmony with their public (the Elizabethan drama centered on Shakespeare, the Victorian novel on Dickens) but was quite unable to see that the pre-1960s Hollywood cinema represented, however compromised, a communal art, comparable in many ways to Renaissance Italy, the Elizabethan drama, the Vienna of Mozart and Haydn. It was a period in which artists worked together, influencing each other, borrowing from each other, evolving a whole rich complex of conventions and genres, with no sense whatever of alienation from the general public: the kind of art (the richest kind) that today barely exists. Vestiges of it can perhaps be found in rock music, compromised by its relatively limited range of expression and human emotion, the restriction of its pleasures to the "youth" audience, and its tendency to expendability.

    Hollywood cinema was also compromised from the outset by the simple fact that the production of a film requires vastly more money than the writing of a novel or play, the composing of a symphony, or the painting of a picture. Yet—as with Shakespeare, Haydn, or Leonardo da Vinci—filmmakers like Howard Hawks (1896–1977), John Ford (1894–1973), Leo McCarey (1898–1969), and Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) were able to remain in touch with their audiences, to "give them what they wanted," without seriously compromising themselves. They could make the films they wanted to make, and enjoyed making, while retaining their popular following. Today, intelligent critical interest in films that goes beyond the "diagnostic" has had to shift to "art-house" cinema or move outside Western cinema altogether, to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Iran, Africa, and Thailand.

  2. Political engagement. Although he acknowledged the urgent need for drastic social change, Leavis never analyzed literature from an explicitly political viewpoint. In his earlier days he showed an interest in Marxism yet recognized that the development of a strong and vital culture centered on the arts (and especially literature) was not high on its agenda. He saw great literature as concerned with "life," a term he never defined precisely but which clearly included self-realization, psychic health, the development of positive and vital relationships, fulfillment, generosity, humanity. "Intelligence about life" is a recurring phrase in his analyses.

    He was fully aware of the degeneration of modern Western culture. His later works show an increasing desperation, resulting in an obsessive repetitiveness that can be wearying. One has the feeling that he was reduced to forcing himself to believe, against all the evidence, that his ideals were still realizable. Although it seems essential to keep in mind, in our dealings with art, "life" in the full Leavisian sense, the responsible critic (of film or anything else) is also committed to fighting for our mere survival, by defending or attacking films from a political viewpoint. Anything else is fiddling while Rome burns.

  3. The problem of intentionality. Leavis showed no interest whatever in Freud or the development of psychoanalytical theory. When he analyzes a poem or a novel, the underlying assumption is always that the author knew exactly what he or she was doing. Today we seem to have swung, somewhat dangerously, to the other extreme: we analyze films in terms of "subtexts" that may (in some cases must) have emerged from the unconscious, well below the level of intention.

This is fascinating and seductive, but also dangerous, territory. Where does one draw the line? The question arises predominantly in the discussion of minor works within the "entertainment" syndrome, where the filmmakers are working within generic conventions. It would be largely a waste of time searching for "unconscious" subtexts in the films of, say, Michael Haneke (b. 1942), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (b. 1947), or Abbas Kiarostami (b.1940), major artists in full consciousness of their subject matter. But in any case critics should exercise a certain caution: they may be finding meanings that they are planting there themselves. The discovery of an arguably unconscious meaning is justified if it uncovers a coherent subtext that can be traced throughout the work. Even Freud, after all, admitted that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"—the validity of reading one as a phallic symbol will depend on its context (the character smoking it, the situation within which it is smoked, its connection to imagery elsewhere in the film). The director George Romero expressed surprise at the suggestion that Night of the Living Dead (the original 1968 version) is about tensions, frustrations, and repression within the patriarchal nuclear family; but the entire film, from the opening scene on, with its entire cast of characters, seems to demand this reading.

Why, then, should Leavis still concern us? We need, in general, his example and the qualities that form and vivify it: his deep seriousness, commitment, intransigence, the profundity of his concerns, his sense of value in a world where all values seem rapidly becoming debased into the values of the marketplace. Leavis's detractors have parodied his notion that great art is "intelligent about life," but the force of this assumption becomes clear from its practical application to film as to literature, as a few examples, negative and positive, illustrate. Take a film honored with Academy Awards®, including one for Best Picture. Rob Marshall's Chicago (2002) is essentially a celebration of duplicity, cynicism, one-upmanship, and mean-spiritedness: intelligent about life? The honors bestowed on it tell us a great deal about the current state of civilization and its standards. At the other extreme one might also use Leavis's dictum to raise certain doubts about a film long and widely regarded by many as the greatest ever made, Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles (1915–1985). No one, I think, will deny the film its brilliance, its power, its status as a landmark in the evolution of cinema. But is that very brilliance slightly suspect? Is Welles's undeniable intelligence, his astonishing grasp of his chosen medium, too much employed as a celebration of himself and his own genius, the dazzling magician of cinema? To raise such questions, to challenge the accepted wisdom, is a way to open debate, and essentially a debate about human values. Certain other films, far less insistent on their own greatness, might be adduced as exemplifying "intelligence about life": examples that spring to mind (remaining within the bounds of classical Hollywood) include Tabu (F. W. Murnau, 1931), Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959), Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, 1937), Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948), and Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)—all films in which the filmmaker seems totally dedicated to the realization of the thematic material rather than to self-aggrandizement.

There are of course whole areas of valid critical practice that Leavis's approach leaves untouched: the evolution of a Hollywood genre or cycle (western, musical, horror film, screwball comedy), and its social implications. But the question of standards, of value, and the critical judgments that result should remain and be of ultimate importance. One might discuss at length (with numerous examples) how and why film noir flourished during and in the years immediately following World War II, its dark and pessimistic view of America developing side by side, like its dark shadow, with the patriotic and idealistic war movie. But the true critic will also want to debate the different inflections and relative value of, say, The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), The Big Sleep (Hawks,1946), and Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947). Or, to move outside Hollywood and forward in time, how one reads and values the films of, for example, the German director Michael Haneke should be a matter of intense critical debate and of great importance to the individual. A value judgment, one must remember, by its very nature cannot be proven—it can only be argued. The debate will be ongoing, and agreement may never be reached; even where there is a consensus, it may be overturned in the next generation. But this is the strength of true critical debate, not its weakness; it is what sets criticism above theory, which should be its servant. A work of any importance and complexity is not a fact that can be proven and pigeon-holed. The purpose of critical debate is the development and refinement of personal judgment, the evolution of the individual sensibility. Such debates go beyond the valuation of a given film, forcing one to question, modify, develop, refine one's own value system. It is a sign of the degeneration of our culture that they seem rarely to take place.


Surprisingly, given its prominence in world cinema since the silent days, none of the major movements and developments in film theory and criticism has originated in the United States, though American academics have been quick to adopt the advances made in Europe (especially France) and Britain.

A brief overview might begin with the British magazines Sight and Sound (founded in 1934) and Sequence (a decade later). The two became intimately connected, with contributors moving from one to the other. The dominant figures were Gavin Lambert, Karel Reisz (1926–2002), Tony Richardson (1928–1991), and Lindsay Anderson (1923–1994), the last three of whom developed into filmmakers of varying degrees of distinction and who were regarded for a time as "the British New Wave" (though without the scope or staying power of the French Nouvelle Vague). The historic importance of these magazines lies in the communal effort to bring to criticism (and subsequently to British cinema) an overtly political dimension, their chief editors and critics having a strong commitment to the Left and consequently to the development of a cinema that would deal explicitly with social problems from a progressive viewpoint. British films were preferred and Hollywood films generally denigrated or treated with intellectual condescension as mere escapist entertainment, with the partial exceptions of Ford and Hitchcock; Anderson especially championed Ford, and Hitchcock was seen as a distinguished popular entertainer. As its more eminent and distinctive critics moved into filmmaking, Sight and Sound lost most of its political drive (under the editorship of Penelope Houston) but retained its patronizing attitude toward Hollywood.

Developments in France during the 1950s, through the 1960s and beyond, initially less political, have been both more influential and more durable. André Bazin remains one of the key figures in the evolution of film criticism, his work still alive and relevant today. Already active in the 1940s, he was co-founder of Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951, and acted as a kind of benevolent father figure to the New Wave filmmakers (and almost literally to François Truffaut [1932–1984]), as well as himself producing a number of highly distinguished "key" texts that continue to be reprinted in critical anthologies. Bazin's essays "The Evolution of Film Language"(1968) and "The Evolution of the Western" (1972) led, among other things, to the radical reappraisal of Hollywood, reopening its "popular entertainment" movies to a serious revaluation that still has repercussions. Even the most astringent deconstructionists of semiotics have not rendered obsolete his defense (indeed, celebration) of realism, which never falls into the trap of naively seeing it as the unmediated reproduction of reality. His work is a model of criticism firmly grounded in theory.

Bazin encouraged the "Young Turks" of French cinema throughout the 1950s and 1960s, first as critics on Cahiers (to which Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and Truffaut were all contributors, with Rohmer as subsequent editor), then as filmmakers. Would the New Wave have existed without him as its modest and reticent centrifugal force? Possibly. But it would certainly have been quite different, more dispersed.

The Cahiers critics (already looking to their cinematic futures) set about revaluating the whole of cinema. Their first task was to downgrade most of the established, venerated "classics" of the older generation of French directors, partly to clear the ground for their very different, in some respects revolutionary, style and subject matter: such filmmakers as Marcel Carné, Julień Clément, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Jean Delannoy found themselves grouped together as the "tradition de qualité" or the "cinéma de papa," their previously lauded films now seen largely as expensive studio-bound productions in which the screenwriter was more important than the director, whose job was to "realize" a screenplay rather than make his own personal movie. Some were spared: Robert Bresson, Abel Gance, Jacques Becker, Jacques Tati, Jean Cocteau, and above all Jean Renoir (1894–1979), another New Wave father figure, all highly personal and idiosyncratic directors, were seen more as creators than "realizers."

It was a relatively minor figure, Alexandre Astruc, who invented the term camera-stylo, published in 1949 in L'Ecran Français (no. 144; reprinted in Peter Graham, The New Wave), suggesting that a personal film is written with a camera rather than a pen. Most of the major New Wave directors improvised a great deal, especially Godard (who typically worked from a mere script outline that could be developed or jettisoned as filming progressed) and Rivette, who always collaborated on his screenplays, often with the actors. Partly inspired by Italian neorealism, and especially the highly idiosyncratic development of it by one of their idols, Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977), the New Wave directors moved out of the studio and into the streets—or buildings, or cities, or countryside.

As critics, their interests were international. Would Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956) be as (justly) famous in the West without their eulogies? Would Rossellini's films with Ingrid BergmanStromboli (1950), Europa 51 (1952), Viaggio in Italia [Voyage to Italy, 1953]—rejected with contempt by the Anglo-Saxon critical fraternity, ever have earned their reputations as masterpieces? Yet our greatest debt to the New Wave director-critics surely lies in their transformation of critical attitudes to classical Hollywood and the accompanying Duvivier, Rene formulation of the by turns abhorred and celebrated "auteur theory."

Anyone with eyes can see that films by Carl Dreyer (1889–1968), Renoir, Rossellini, Mizoguchi, and Welles are "personal" films that could never have been made by anyone else. On the other hand, one might view Red River (1948), The Thing from Another World (1951), Monkey Business (1952), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) without ever noticing that they were all directed by the same person, Howard Hawks. Before Cahiers, few people bothered to read the name of the director on the credits of Hollywood films, let alone connect the films' divergent yet compatible and mutually resonant thematics. Without Cahiers, would we today be seeing retrospectives in our Cinémathèques of films not only of Hitchcock and Ford, but also of Hawks, Anthony Mann, Leo McCarey, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Sam Fuller, and Budd Boetticher?

For some time the Cahiers excesses laid it open to Anglo-Saxon ridicule. What is one to make today of a (polemical) statement such as that of Godard: "The cinema is Nicholas Ray"? Why not "The cinema is Mizoguchi" or "The cinema is Carl Dreyer" or even, today, "The cinema is Jean-Luc Godard"? Many of the reviews are open to the objection that the readings of the films are too abstract, too philosophical or metaphysical, to do proper justice to such concrete and accessible works, and that the auteur theory (roughly granting the director complete control over every aspect of his films) could be applied without extreme modification to only a handful of directors (Hawks, McCarey, Preminger) who achieved the status of producers of their own works. And even they worked within the restrictions of the studio system, with its box-office concerns, the Production Code, and the availability of "stars." Nevertheless, Cahiers has had a lasting and positive effect on the degree of seriousness with which we view what used to be regarded as standard fare and transient entertainment.

Outside France, the Cahiers rediscovery of classical Hollywood provoked two opposite responses. In England, Sight and Sound predictably found it all slightly ridiculous; on the other hand, it was clearly the inspiration for the very existence of Movie, founded in 1962 by a group of young men in their final years at Oxford University. Ian Cameron, V. F. Perkins, and Mark Shivas initially attracted attention with a film column printed in Oxford Opinion. With Paul Mayersberg, they formed the editorial board of Movie; they were subsequently joined, as contributors, by Robin Wood, Michael Walker, Richard Dyer, Charles Barr, Jim Hillier, Douglas Pye, and eventually Andrew Britton. Of the original group, Perkins has had the greatest longevity as a critic, his Film as Film (deliberately contradicting the usual "Film as Art") remaining an important text. Movie (its very title deliberately invoking Hollywood) must be seen as a direct descendant of Cahiers. Its tone, however, was very different, its analyses more concrete, tied closely to the texts, rarely taking off (unlike Cahiers) into headier areas of metaphysical speculation. The opposition between Sight and Sound and Movie was repeated in the United States, with Pauline Kael launching attacks on Movie's alleged excesses and Andrew Sarris (Kael's primary target since his 1962 "Notes on the Auteur Theory") producing The American Cinema in 1968, with its ambitious and groundbreaking categorization of all the Hollywood directors of any consequence. It remains a useful reference text.

The British scene was complicated by developments within the more academic journal Screen, which, in its development of structural analysis by (among others) Alan Lovell and the introduction of concepts of iconography by Colin McArthur, in some ways anticipated the events to come. But all this was about to be blown apart by the events in France of May 1968 and the repercussions throughout the intellectual world.


The student and worker riots in France in May 1968, hailed somewhat optimistically as the "Second French Revolution," transformed Cahiers almost overnight, inspiring a similar revolution in Godard's films. The massive swing to the Left, the fervent commitment to Marx and Mao, demanded not only new attitudes but also a whole new way of thinking and a new vocabulary to express it, and a semiotics of cinema was born and flourished. Roland Barthes, Christian Metz, and Jacques Lacan became seminal influences, and traditional criticism was (somewhat prematurely) pronounced dead or at least obsolete. A distinguished and widely influential instance was the meticulously detailed Marxist-Lacanian analysis of Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) produced collaboratively by the new Cahiers collective; it deserves its place in film history as one of the essential texts. British critical work swiftly followed suit, with Peter Wollen's seminal Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969, revised 1972), which remains an essential text. Whereas Movie had adopted many of the aims and positions of the original Cahiers, it was now Screen that took up the challenge of the new, instantly converted to semiotics. The magazine published the Young Mr. Lincoln

b. New York, New York, 31 October 1928

Eminently sensible and perennially graceful in the articulation of his views, Andrew Sarris has been one of the most important of American film critics. His influence upon the shaping of the late-twentieth-century critical landscape is inestimable—both for his hand in developing an intellectually rigorous academic film culture and for bringing the proselytizing auteur theory to popular attention. The acumen and resolve of his writing set a benchmark for the scrupulous and cogent close analysis of cinematic style.

Among the pioneering voices of a new generation of self-proclaimed cinephiles—or "cultists," in his own terms—Sarris began his professional career in 1955, reviewing for Jonas Mekas's seminal journal, Film Culture, where he helped develop one of the first American serial publications dedicated to the serious critical investigation of film. After a brief sojourn in Paris in 1960, he began writing reviews for the fledgling alternative newspaper, the Village Voice, in New York City. His polemical reviews generated considerable debate and helped secure Sarris a position as senior critic for the Voice from 1962 to 1989.

As an intellectual American film culture exploded during the 1960s, Sarris was able to provide a newly professionalized critical establishment with two enormously influential (and controversial) concepts imported from the Cahiers critics in France: the auteur theory and mise-en-scène. His development of a director-centered critical framework grew out of a dissatisfaction with the "sociological critic"—leftist-oriented writers seemingly more interested in politics than film—whose reviews tended simplistically to synchronize film history and social history. While his attempt to establish auteurism as a theory may not have been entirely persuasive, it generated considerable debate regarding the creative and interpretive relationships between a director, her collaborators, and the audience itself. Further, in his own critical analyses, Sarris was one of the first critics to focus on style rather than content. This reversal was not an apolitical embracing of empty formalism, but rather a unified consideration of a film's stylistic and mimetic elements in the interests of discerning an artist's personal worldview. For him, a film's success does not hinge on individual contributions by various creative personnel, but on the coherence of the auteur's "distinguishable personality," made manifest in the subtext—or "interior meanings"—of the work.

Along with his sometime rivals, Pauline Kael at The New Yorker and Stanley Kauffmann at The New Republic, Sarris was among the first of a new generation of critics dedicated to elevating the cultural status of film, particularly American cinema. In his efforts to promote film as an expressive art rather than a mere commercial product, he co-founded the prestigious National Society of Film Critics in 1966 and offered a new auteur -driven history of Hollywood in the canonical American Cinema (1968), in which he mapped and ranked the work of all the important directors ever to work in Hollywood.


Levy, Emmanuel, ed. Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema, Directors and Directions, 1929–1968. Revised ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1996.

——. Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema, 1955–1969. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970.

——. The Primal Screen: Essays on Film and Related Subjects. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973.

——, comp. Interviews with Film Directors. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

Aaron E. N. Taylor

article in translation, and it was followed by much work in the same tradition. In terms of sheer ambition, one must single out Stephen Heath's two-part analysis and deconstruction of Welles's Touch of Evil (1958).

Semiotics was expected by its adherents to transform not only criticism but also the world. Its failure to do so resides largely in the fact that it has remained a dauntingly esoteric language. Its disciples failed to bridge the gulf between themselves and a general readership; perhaps the gulf is in fact unbridgeable. Its influence outside academia has been negligible, though within academia it continues, if not to flourish, at least to remain a presence, developing new phases, striking up a relationship with that buzzword du jour, postmodernism. Its effect on traditional critical discourse has however been devastating (which is not to deny its validity or the value of its contribution). "Humanism" became a dirty word. But what is humanism but a belief in the importance for us all of human emotions, human responses, human desires, human fears, hence of the actions, drives, and behavior appropriate to the achievement of a sense of fulfillment, understanding, reciprocation, caring? Are these no longer important, obsolete like the modes of discourse in which they expressed themselves? Semiotics is a tool, and a valuable one, but it was mistaken for a while for the ultimate goal. Criticism, loosely defined here as being built on the sense of value, was replaced by "deconstruction," debate by alleged "proof." It seemed the ultimate triumph of what Leavis called (after Jeremy Bentham) the "technologico-Benthamite world," the world of Utilitarianism that grew out of the Industrial Revolution and was so brilliantly satirized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times (1845), which in turn was brilliantly analyzed by Leavis in Dickens the Novelist. During the reign of semiotics Leavis was, of course, expelled from the curriculum, and it is high time for his restoration.

The massive claims made for semiotics have died down, and the excitement has faded. In addition to the articles mentioned above, it produced, in those heady days, texts that deserve permanent status: the seminal works of Barthes (always the most accessible of the semioticians), Mythologies (1957, translated into English in 1972) and S/Z (1970, translated into English in 1974), with its loving, almost sentence-by-sentence analysis of Honoré de Balzac's Sarrasine; Raymond Bellour's Hitchcock analyses (though it took most readers quite a time to realize that Bellour and Heath actually loved the films they deconstructed). And, more generally, semiotics has taught us (even those who doubt its claims to supply all the answers) to be more precise and rigorous in our examination of films.

Out of the radicalism of the 1970s there developed not only semiotics but also a new awareness of race and racism and the advent of radical feminism. Laura Mulvey's pioneering article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975) rapidly became, in its concise few pages, enormously influential, opening a veritable floodgate of feminist analysis, much of it concerned with the exposure of the inherent and structural sexism of the Hollywood cinema. It was impossible to predict, from Mulvey's dangerous oversimplification of Hawks and Hitchcock, that she would go on to produce admirable and loving analyses of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Notorious (1946); but it was the very extremeness of the original article that gave it its force. Mulvey's work opened up possibilities for a proliferation of women's voices within a field that had traditionally been dominated by men—work (as with semiotics itself) of extremely diverse quality but often of great distinction, as, for example, Tania Modleski's splendid book on Hitchcock, The Women Who Knew Too Much (1988, with a new expanded edition in 2004).


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the world is beset with problems ranging from the destruction of the environment to terrorism and the ever-present threat of nuclear war. The Hollywood product reflects a culture beset by endless "noise," the commodification of sex, and the constant distractions of junk culture. In such a scenario, the modest and marginalized discipline of film criticism might yet again play an active role.

What would one ask, today, within an increasingly desperate cultural situation, of that mythical figure the Ideal Critic? First, a firm grasp of the critical landmarks merely outlined above, with the ability to draw on all or any according to need. To the critics mentioned must be added, today, the names of Stanley Cavell and William Rothman, intelligent representatives of a new conservatism. As Pier Paolo Pasolini told us at the beginning of his Arabian Nights, "the truth lies, not in one dream, but in many": Bazin and Barthes are not incompatible, one does not negate the other, so why should one have to choose? We must feel free to draw on anything that we find helpful, rather then assuming that one new theory negates all previous ones. And in the background we should restore relations with Leavis and "questions of value," but accompanied by a politicization that Leavis would never have accepted (or would he, perhaps, today?). The value of a given film for us, be it classical Hollywood, avant-garde, documentary, silent or sound, black-and-white or color, will reside not only in its aesthetic qualities, its skills, its incidental pleasures, but also in what use we can make of it within the present world situation.

SEE ALSO Auteur Theory and Authorship;Genre;Ideology;Journals and Magazines;Postmodernism;Psychoanalysis;Publicity and Promotion;Queer Theory;Reception Theory;Semiotics;Spectatorship and Audiences;Structuralism and Poststructuralism


Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Edited and translated by AnnetteLavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

——. S/Z: An Essay. Translated by Richard Miller. New York:Hill and Wang, 1974.

Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Edited and translated by Hugh Gray. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967–1971.

Graham, Peter, ed.The New Wave. Garden City, NY:Doubleday, and London: Secker and Warburg, 1968.

Heath, Stephen. "Film and System: Terms of Analysis." Screen16, nos. 1–2 (Spring/Summer 1975): 91–113.

Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. New York: New York University Press, 1963.

Leavis, F. R., and Q. D. Leavis. Dickens, the Novelist. London:Chatto and Windus, 1970.

Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Translated by Michael Taylor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Modleski, Tania. The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. New York and London: Methuen, 1988.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen16, no. 3 (1975): 6–8. Reprinted in Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Perkins, Victor. Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies. Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968. New York: Dutton, 1968. Revised ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

——, ed. Interviews with Film Directors. New York: Discus, 1969.

Wollen, Peter. Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, revised ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, and London: British Film Institute, 1972.

Wood, Robin. Hitchcock's Films Revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Robin Wood


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104. Criticism

See also 249. LITERATURE ; 312. PHILOSOPHY

a review or critique.
Aristotelian criticism
a critical theory, doctrine, or approach based upon the method used by Aristotle in the Poetics, implying a formal, logical approach to literary analysis that is centered on the work itself. Cf. Platonic criticism .
Rare. a critic of Homeric literature who claims the Iliad and the Odyssey had different authors.
a school of literary criticism that focuses on the work as an autonomous entity, whose meaning should be derived solely from an examination of the work itself. Cf. New Criticism . contextualist , n., adj.
the type of criticism whose aim is the reduction of knowledge to descriptions of pure experience and the elimination of such aspects as metaphysics. empiriocritical , adj.
a detailed criticism of a book, dissertation, or other writing.
a critical interpretation or explication, especially of biblical and other religious texts. exegetic, exegetical , adj.
formal criticism
a critical approach, doctrine, or technique that places heavy emphasis on style, form, or technique in art or literature, seeing these as more important than or even determining content.
a critical emphasis upon style, arrangement, and artistic means with limited attention to content, formalist , n. formalistic , adj.
the application of the theories of the personality developed by Freud to the development of characters and other aspects of artistic creation. Cf. psychoanalytical criticism . Freudian , n., adj.
genre criticism
a critical approach, doctrine, or technique that emphasizes, in evaluating a work, the genre or medium in which it can be placed rather than seeing it entirely as an autonomous entity.
the practice of unreasonable or unjustly severe criticism; faultfinding. hypercritic , n., adj. hypercritical , adj.
Jungian criticism
a critical approach, doctrine, or practice that applies the theories of Jungian psychology to works of art and literature, especially with regard to Jungian theories of myth, archetype, and symbol. Cf. mythic criticism .
an imitation, used in literary criticism to designate Aristotles theory of imitation. mimetic , adj.
mythic criticism
a critical approach or technique that seeks mythic meaning or imagery in literature, looking beyond the immediate context of the work in time and place. Cf. Jungian criticism .
New Criticism
a critical approach to literature that concentrates upon analysis and explication of individual texts and considers historical and biographical information less important than an awareness of the works formal structure. New Critic , n.
new humanism
an American antirealist, antinaturalist, and anti-Romantic literary and critical movement of circa 1915-1933, whose principal exponents were Babbitt, More, and Foerster, influenced by Matthew Arnold, and whose aims were to show the importance of reason and will in a context of rectitude and dignity. new humanist , n., adj.
Platonic criticism
a critical approach or doctrine based upon and applying the ideas and values of Plato and Platonism, implying a literary analysis which finds the value of a work in its extrinsic qualities and historical context, as well as in its non-artistic usefulness. Cf. Aristotelian criticism .
practical criticism
a practical approach to literary criticism, in which the text is approached in universal terms with little recourse to an elaborate apparatus of reference outside the text. Cf. theoretical criticism .
psychoanalytical criticism
an approach to criticism or a critical technique that applies the principles, theories and practices of psychoanalysis to literature, both in the analysis of the work and of the author. See also Freudianism .
in criticism, rigid or strict evaluation of a work of art or literature in terms of a code of standards of the critic or of a school of style or criticism related to or distinct from the critic, artist, or writer. See also 23. ART ; 236. LANGUAGE ; 249. LITERATURE . purist , n., adj.
the action of finding ones own faults and shortcomings. self-critical , adj.
textual criticism
the close study of a particular literary work in order to establish its original text. textual critic , n.
theoretical criticism
a critical approach or doctrine that examines a literary work in the light of certain theories of literature or uses the text as a support for the development of literary theory. Cf. practical criticism .
the practice of making bitter, carping, and belittling critical judgments. Zoilus, Zoili , n.


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141. Criticism

  1. Blackwoods Magazine Scottish literary magazine founded in 1817, notorious for its Tory bias and vicious criticism. [Br. Lit.: Benét 111]
  2. Bludyer, Mr. a slashing book reviewer with savage humor. [Br. Lit.: Pendennis ]
  3. Bolo, Miss looked a small armoury of daggers at those who made mistakes. [Br. Lit.: Pickwick Papers ]
  4. Dutch uncle strict elder who scolds and moralizes. [Br. Slang: Lurie, 122123]
  5. Edinburgh Review influential literary and political review, founded in 1802, inaugurating new literary standards. [Br. Lit.: Barnhart, 375]
  6. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar rebuke Job for his complaints. [O.T.: Job 431]
  7. Essay on Criticism didactic poem on rules by which a critic should be guided. [Br. Lit.: Pope Essay on Criticism in Magill IV, 287]
  8. Joab admonishes David for ingratitude to troops and servants. [O.T.: II Samuel 19:18]
  9. Michal Davids wife; castigates him for boyish exulting. [O.T.: II Samuel 6:20]
  10. Monday morning quarterback football spectator who, in hind-sight, points out where team went wrong. [Am. Sports and Folklore: Misc.]
  11. Sanballat and Tobiah jeered Jews attempt to rebuild Jerusalems walls. [O.T.: Nehemiah 4:13]
  12. Theon satirical poet of trenchant wit. [Rom. Lit.: Brewer Dictionary, 1073]
  13. Zoilus malicious and contentious rhetorician; Homers scourge. [Gk. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 1175]


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crit·i·cism / ˈkritəˌsizəm/ • n. 1. the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.2. the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work. ∎  an article, book, or comment containing such analysis. ∎  the scholarly investigation of literary or historical texts to determine their origin or intended form.


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critic XVI. — L. criticus — Gr. kritikós, sb. use of adj. f. kritḗs judge, rel. to CRISIS; see -IC.
So critical XVI. f. L. criticus. criticism XVII. criticize XVII. critique criticism, esp. a critical review XVII. later form of †critic(k) XVII, alt. after F. critique, the orig. source, which is based on Gr. (hē) kritikḗ the critical art.


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crit·ic / ˈkritik/ • n. 1. a person who expresses an unfavorable opinion of something.2. a person who judges the merits of literary, artistic, or musical works, esp. one who does so professionally: a film critic.