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Why Journalism Should Not Be Confused With Criticism
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Film critics are easy to buffalo. I sometimes give my students a recipe for making a movie that New York critics will champion. First, be sure you work in a well-established genre and wedge in lots of references to other movies. Play games with narrative expectations and genre conventions at every opportunity. That always appeals to intellectual critics, who like nothing better than a movie about movies. It makes them feel important. Second, include a ton of pseudo-highbrow cultural allusions and unexplained in-jokes. Critics love it when they can feel in the know. Third, strive for the "smartest" possible tone and look: as ironic, cynical, wised-up, coy, dryly comic, and smart-alecky as you can make it. It's important to avoid real seriousness at all costs, so that no one can accuse you of being sentimental, gushy, or caring about anything. That's a mortal sin if you want to appeal to a highbrow critic. If it's all a goof, like Pulp Fiction's comic-book approach to life, no one can accuse you of being so uncool as to take yourself or your art seriously. No sincerity. No emotion, please. We live in New York. We're cynical. If possible, make the story blatantly twisted, surreal, excessive, or demented in some way. Make it outrageous or kinky. To these critics, that seems daring. If the average middlebrow viewer would be offended by it, that makes it all the more appealing to this sort of critic, since shocking the Philistine is what this conception of art is about. Finally, glaze it all with a virtuosic shooting and editing style and a certain degree of onrush in the plot. Keep the stupidity moving right along, so no one will stop and ask embarrassing questions about what it all means. Every other interest is abandoned to keep the plot zigging and zagging–psychological consistency, narrative plausibility, emotional meaning.

It all seems pretty adolescent and Spy Magazine-ish to me, but when you're done, you've got Pauline Kael's all-time greatest hits, and the New York and Los Angeles Critics' Circle Awards winners for the past thirty years: Bonnie and Clyde, Mickey One, Clockwork Orange, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, The Fury, Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Blue Steel, Near Dark, Blue Velvet, Heathers, Reservoir Dogs, Red Rock West, Natural Born Killers, The Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Last Seduction, Pulp Fiction. I probably left a few out.

You think I exaggerate? Read David Denby on L. A. Confidential. Read the appreciations of Wild Things in the New York press....

–Excerpted from (and slightly updated) "A Chilly View of Hollywood: An Interview with Ray Carney–Part 1," MovieMaker, no. 13, May/June 1995

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From: "In Praise of Amateurism"
(Excerpts from a review of David Thomson's A Biographical Dictionary of Film and Overexposures: The Crisis in American Filmmaking)

I first came across David Thomson's name six or seven years ago on an overnight trip to Boston when I stumbled on some of his film reviews in a now defunct, Boston-based entertainment weekly called The Real Paper. It was simply some of the best film criticism I had ever read; I put him in the back of my mind as someone to pay attention to in the future. Sure enough, in the few years since then Thomson has risen from cub reviewer to Professor of Film at Dartmouth, published three books, and gathered a loyal following. But even at this late date it's still surprising how little known his work is, to both film scholars and the general public. But, whether the rest of the world knows it or not, the history of film and film criticism is quietly being rewritten by this bright young critic. He is one of the few now practicing worthy of the company of the greatest film critics of our past–Robert Warshow, James Agee, and Manny Farber–and like theirs, his work has that rare depth and richness that can make one momentarily forget the artificial and destructive division between "scholarship" and the general humane response any human being feels towards a film.

Perhaps one of the reasons the general reader may have overlooked Thomson is the stodgy title and format of his major work, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (first published in 1975 and recently revised and reissued). It doesn't make a very sexy package; it's a thick, heavy, blockish book even in paperback. And its nearly seven hundred, small-print, double-columned pages (of almost nine hundred alphabetically arranged entries) aren't exactly calculated to capture the impulse buyer in supermarkets and shopping plazas. But the problem is that Thomson loses the other kind of reader as well, since his one-man survey of all knowledge is just the sort of thing the serious scholar has been taught to distrust. (Where but in the brave new world of film studies would a scholar even propose such a project?) After all, ours is the age of the committee, and we all know that one-man reference works became impossible some time after Diderot and Johnson.

But let none of this scare away the prospective purchaser– scholar, student, or general reader. Thomson's Dictionary is simply the brightest, most intelligent, most entertaining, and most quotable tour of film and film criticism available anywhere between two covers. Indeed, when I'm confronted with that inevitable and unanswerable question of "what is the one book they should buy to learn more about film," it is the one book I've found myself forcing on friends, relatives, and students over and over again. Once they get past the forbidding title they discover a book as interesting and engaging as Thomson's description of it in his high-spirited introduction:

There is no concession to rational policy. I have not asked local experts to take on Sweden, the musical, or public service documentaries. Like a screen, I have dealt with it all myself, and the book is shaped by what I like and dislike.... It is un-ashamedly the work of someone addicted to being . . . carried away, but guilty enough to feel the need for accounts of the journey. It is a Personal, Opinionated, and Obsessive Biographical Dictionary of Cinema.

In place of the sober, even-handed, and invariably irrelevant displays of scholarship, and compilations of facts that make up the other film dictionaries and encyclopedias that gather dust on my shelves (as if the very experience of film weren't in itself the best argument against sober-sided, even-handed, scholarliness), Thomson offers a series of audacious and provocative film chats, biographical sketches, and critical evaluations.

His energy, enthusiasm, and iconoclasm alone would be enough reason for me to recommend him over his dry as chalk dust competitors; the difference should be apparent to the most casual of readers. But what my friends can't possibly realize when I refer them to him is how much more than a breezy Cook's Tour he is: that takes living with Thomson's big book. The virtue of his one-man approach is that one entry in the book necessarily affects the understanding of another. So the more the articles are read and re-read the more interesting each individual one becomes. Furthermore, the eclecticism of Thomson's procedure, confined by no one method, school, or ideology, allows him to shift his approach from entry to entry, or even within one extended entry, to allow him to succeed in placing figure after figure in its full bureaucratic, technological, artistic, social, and personal context with a finesse that seems absolutely definitive, and with a freedom and comprehensiveness a less excursive or eccentric book could not aspire to.

But Thomson offers more than a brilliant series of individual "placements" and critical analyses. Between the lines of this chronicle of the achievements and failures of classic and contemporary film, is an impassioned meditation on the moral and human significance of film. Thomson sketches the possibility of a humane, moral, socially responsible criticism vigorously opposed to the hermetic complexity and human triviality of so many films and so much writing on film today. No critic sees more clearly, for example, the extent to which visual and structural ingenuities, far from being cinematic ends in themselves, can pass themselves off as substitutes for complex human experience. Thomson never allows his readers to forget that every cinematic style is also a limitation and betrayal of the full range of human experience, that the necessary simplifications of style are tolerated insofar as they can make other moral, psychological, and social complexities more visible. No critic is harder on the merely stylish or more morally outraged by the irresponsibility of the tour de force. In a series of interrelated essays Thomson brilliantly analyzes the picture postcard prettiness of Days of Heaven, the cartoon characterizations and conflicts of Star Wars, the visual gaudiness of DePalma's films, and the smug stylistic tendentiousness of Kubrick's; he shows how such superficially attractive work can actually be an evasion of deeper and more humane involvements with narrative, and how stylistic brilliance, far from being a positive accomplishment, may actually reveal a fundamental failure of interest in more daring explorations of characters, motives, and relationships.

It is no accident that Thomson's own critical style is at points forced to become as loose and baggy as the films he is discussing. (And this may be the real reason his writing is looked on askance by academics eager to dignify film studies with the mantle of Serious Criticism.) His essays offer not foot-notable film journal "purity," but messes of reference that can glide in one piece from the harsh realities of film financing, through a revealing biographical anecdote about a leading actor, to speculations about the health of contemporary culture. In place of "well made" works of art safely ensconced within the ramifications of their own patterns of significance Thomson offers a recognition of the imperfections of collaboration, the compromises of bureaucracy, and the ways the medium itself resists the best intentions of its performers. It is not for nothing that he deliberately avoids easier, tidier, and more obviously "scholarly" forms of organization in his book, choosing to organize his entries around the zig-zags, inconsistencies, and incoherences of personal biography. The eccentric irregularities of his own essays are an implicit reply to (what he calls elsewhere) "the simpleminded notion of 'pure film,' detached from consequence, life, society, and the profoundly impure personality of an author."

It isn't surprising that what Thomson finds in the performers he most admires is their own refusal to take refuge within a "world elsewhere" of aesthetic relationships–their willingness, on the contrary, to perform their meanings into existence with and within the irreducible clutter, complexity, and responsibility of human experience. Rossellini, Warhol, Hawks, Renoir, Rivette, Mizoguchi, and Dreyer (to name the central figures in Thomson's directorial pantheon) have that in common. They offer us not static, hermetic systems of closed signification, but an exhausting, exhaustive, and invariably exhilarating series of cinematic corrections, adjustments, and refocusings in time. While other critics are still sitting through Hawks's work and looking for stereotypical patterns of male camaraderie, Thomson can see that these values are only the scaffolding from which Hawks and his actors launch their true performances–"acting as a constant audience to the film, commenting on its passage" (as Thomson describes them in The Big Sleep). While other critics are still trying to tidy up Renoir's work into a list of his cinematic "rules of the game," Thomson chooses instead to emphasize his "hesitations" and "uncertainties":

Renoir asks us to see the variety and muddle of life without settling for one interpretation. He is the greatest of directors; he justifies cinema. But he shrugs off the weight of "masterpieces" or "definitive statements." The impossibility of grasping final solutions or perfect works is his only "rule."

But it is significant, and Thomson is fully aware of the fact, that his cinematic heroes are now, almost without exception, dead, retired, or only sporadically active in film. In fact a nostalgia pervades the whole Dictionary, and the unspoken lament of the entire volume might well be expressed as "Where did it all go wrong? What has happened to the current generation of filmmakers?" Thomson's anxious worryings of the work of Altman, Mazursky, Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick, and other contemporaries (in essays in which, true to his critical credo and honesty, Thomson doesn't conceal his own critical hesitations, uncertainties, and confusions) form one of the most disturbing and important strands in the overall argument of the Dictionary. For something has indeed gone seriously wrong with contemporary film. And as if he knew that even the beginnings of an adequate analysis of what a statement like that means deserved a fuller treatment than it could ever get in the Dictionary, deserved a treatment all to itself, it is to that subject that he chose to devote his most recent book.

Overexposures is another deceptively organized volume. It looks like it is merely a collection of pieces that couldn't be worked into the Dictionary–miscellaneous pieces written over the last six or seven years for The Real Paper, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and American Film. But appearances are misleading, and Overexposures in every respect fulfills the promise of its subtitle to be an analysis of "The Crisis in American Filmmaking;" its individual pieces one after the other take up the mechanics and financing of modern studio productions, the techniques of shaping and holding a mass audience, and the responses of particular major directors and producers to these imperatives in the last two decades (featuring pieces on Hitchcock, Rafelson, Beatty, Coppola, Lucas, and Kubrick, among others).

While other critics alternate between panegyrics for the isolated creative artist, and fulminations against the corrupt System, Thomson takes us behind the scenes, behind such easy dichotomies, to examine the unavoidable collaborations in this most bureaucratically, technologically, and commercially top-heavy art. Instead of trying to wish away the collaborative aspects of a production, Thomson, like a Levi-Strauss of film culture, immerses us in the necessary interrelationships of individuals and bureaucracies, the difficult but inevitable interactions of directors, writers, producers, and audiences that make any film–good, bad, or indifferent–possible.

But the most important aspect of Overexposure is Thomson's attempt to go behind the symptoms of contemporary failure that he describes in the Dictionary: he tries to trace the causes and dimensions of our contemporary "crisis." It is impossible to summarize Thomson's argument in a brief review, and he himself deliberately avoids offering a crude summary, so I can only refer the interested reader to the book at this point. But for the curious, suffice it to say that in a series of essays at the center of the volume, Thomson establishes the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock as the central, dominating presence hovering over the last two decades of American film. That's a claim that has been made before by Hitchcock's fans and supporters. But Thomson significantly inverts their argument and locates in Hitchcock not the genius, but the seeds of self-destruction in American film. As he argues in the book's two central essays, "Alfred Hitchcock and the Prison of Mastery" and "Psycho and the Roller Coaster," it was as a result of Hitchcock and his strange blend of commercial and critical success that American film "turned its back on human richness and enlightenment" in favor of anecdotal excerptibility, shallow manipulativeness, and impoverished inventiveness. It is, according to Thomson, Hitchcock's timid indifference to human motives and responsibilities, his "fear of life, spontaneity, and the viewer's free mind," his fear of failure, mistake, and human mystery that are his true legacy to contemporary film and film criticism. The wit, structural cleverness, and cinematic "purity" of the Master are indeed seductive; but to David Thomson's credit and the great fortune of his readers, it is a seductiveness that this most humane, moral, and impure of critics is never taken in by.

–Excerpted from "In Praise of Amateurism," The Chicago Review, Volume 34, Number 1 (Summer 1983), pages 117-123.

For a related statement, see: "Writing in the Dark" in this section.

For a positive view of the functions of art and criticism, see the Independent Vision section.

To read more about fads and fashions in criticism, click on "Multicultural Unawareness" and "The Functions of Criticism" in the Carney on Culture section, the essays "Sargent and Criticism" and "Eakins and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics" in the Carl Dreyer section, "Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, all of the other pieces in this section, and the essays "Skepticism and Faith," Irony and Truth," "Looking without Seeing," and other pieces in the Academic Animadversions section.

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text of this piece as well as the complete texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.