In a 8.7 interview with Time‘s Eliza Berman, Nicolas Cage (The Runner) is quoted as follows: “I think that there was a period in film commentary where it was like the gold standard — I would cite someone like Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert or Paul Schrader — where they were really determining based on the work itself, the film itself, the performance itself. And now, with the advent of this kind of TMZ culture, it sadly seems to have infiltrated the vanguard of film commentary. I see these reviews sometimes where I think…well, you have a right to say whatever you want about my work, and I will listen whether it’s good or bad and see if there’s something that I might work with, but personal issues don’t have a place in film commentary.”
Wells to Cage: Indeed, the era of classic film criticism is more or less over. None of us can go home again. But you’re wrong about “personal issues” having no place in the discussion. The fact is that in today’s digressive, multi-stranded realm movies have to be grist for all kinds of mills. There are too many links and digressions available to readers. There’s obviously nothing wrong with putting on your Dwight McDonald hat and assessing “cinematic merit” but there are many other ways to skin a cat, and one side-aspect of the new reality is that every actor (especially the meta-eccentrics like Cage) appearing in a new movie is like a dead frog in a high-school biology class.
I’m comforted that staffers for the Guardian or the N.Y. Times of L.A. Times or The New Yorker are still doing it the old-fashioned way — sharp, scholastic, knowledgable evaluation the way Kael or Sarris or Canby or Bazin or Agee used to. But it’s a new ball game out there, and you can’t say this or that association is invalid. I can mention any damn impression that I’ve gotten from a film any damn way that I choose. That’s the only way to go these days — say anything, feel anything, live free or die. Compare a film to anything and then take that thought and riff on it like Pharaoh Sanders.
I decided a long time ago, in fact, to be completely open to writing about films from three vantage points, depending on my mood at the time.
One, the above-described classic way. Opening assessment, plot/genre description, whether or not the film “brings it home” or succeeds emotionally or according to the rules of whatever genre it belongs to, comparison to similar films, assessments of direction, acting, cinematography, editing, etc., and then a closing kicker. Honestly? I’m almost putting myself to sleep just writing this because we’ve been reading this kind of review for 80 years now. You can’t just write about movies while sitting inside the same old box. 21st Century film reviews have to be looser and kind of Otis Ferguson-on-acid-like…or the writer will eventually die. We obviously don’t want to lose traditional criticism, but it’s not enough any more.
Two, assessments of narrative films as documentaries in the Jean-Luc Godard sense (“Every film is a documentary of its actors”), the Martmut Bitomsky sense (“Every feature film is a documentary about Hollywood”) and/or Jacques Rivette sense (“Every film is a documentary of its own making”). Following a Rivette or Bitomsky vein will always feel like a side-door approach, but a Godard-like review can be fascinating in all kinds of ways. Discussions of how an actor looks, his/her spirit or history, how their gradually aging or expanding features have enriched or diminished what they had going before, etc. Anything is fair, and if you write well enough this stuff can be just as interesting as classic assessments, and sometimes more so.
Three, discussions of the personal echoes and ping-backs that a film (or an aspect of a film) has triggered within yourself. This is an HE thing, of course, and as far as I’m concerned any personal side issue is fair to discuss as long as you do it with an ample amount of fairness and thoroughness. As long as you’re telling the open truth, you’re on more or less sold ground. Because all aspects of all films are metaphors that speak to all kinds of things. Everything is everything, baby.