WHAT IS A CRITIC?
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.
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)