By October 28, 2011 1 Comments Read More →

Let’s Get Critical

My wife and I usually go to the movies on Friday night, so an essay at The Millions struck my attention this morning. It touts the new Library of America compilation of the film criticism of Pauline Kael, The Age of Movies: Selected Writing of Pauline Kael. It also argues that passionate debate about films is yet another item in the list of things that are in decline in this digital age. Do you agree? Whether or not you do, it’s a good theme on which to center discussion an upcoming book group.

Changes in the industry have changed film criticism. Movies feature visual effects and media tie-ins more than dialogue and debatable content these days, which makes many of them difficult to discuss unless you’re crazy for pop culture or focused primarily on eye candy.  Independent film seems to be in a lull since the major studios internalized or simply liquidated the smaller production companies that flourished in the 80s and 90s. The audience for films has dispersed into endless online venues and myriad television channels, so we may not have the same common ground for discussion that we once did.

On the other hand, the evolution of Netflix and its various competitors, as well as collections at public libraries that are much larger than they were even ten years ago, have made the archives of cinema past more easily available than they have ever been. We can keep whining about the state of current cinema, but why not spend the time enjoying a classic from the past instead?

The books of Kael criticism touted on The Millions would be great book group selections, even if your participants can only dip into a selection of Kael’s reviews. The essay doesn’t mention two more great entries into film criticism. First, there’s a new biography of Kael, Pauline Kael: a Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow, which in addition to telling her story, also considers the qualities that set one film critic above another.

In the generation of critics that followed in Kael’s footsteps, the most prominent voice has perhaps been Roger Ebert’s, and he also has a new memoir out this fall. Life Itself discusses the critic’s rise to prominence, but also examines his battles with alcoholism and cancer. It makes an engaging read even if you’re not much of a film buff.

I get most of my film criticism these days from Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates the opinion of various critics and the public, providing numerical scores and a representative blurb from each critic’s review. It’s one of my favorite websites. But browsing Kael’s work reminds me of the joys of reading full reviews, not just letter grades or the summary sentence at the end of the review.

Now, Moneyball and 50/50 left my preferred theater before I could squeeze them in, and I’ve already enjoyed Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti in The Ides of March. So what’s the best choice for this evening: Puss in Boots, In Time, or The Rum Diary?

Maybe I’ll just stay home and read a book.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "Let’s Get Critical"

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  1. Shelley says:

    My vote: as a writer, I love Hunter S. Thompson, and I think Depp is devoted to him.

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