Sunday, December 3, 2006

Everybody (in the audience) Is A Critic


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I feel a bit presumptious participating in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania blogger Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon. Though I have an inner urge to write about films, I must admit that the few times I've been described with the word "critic" I've had to supress a wince. Not that I feel I'm "above" such a label, quite the contrary. The critics I most admire seem able to carve a deeply insightful (whether I agree wholeheartedly or not) critical response to practically every slice of moving image they come across. I don't feel nearly as able to do such a thing. I strongly identify with something Jonas Mekas wrote about himself: "Maybe I am more a tinker than a thinker." I'm not exactly sure what Mekas meant by it when it was published May 29, 1969 (he proves himself quite a thinker discussing Arnulf Rainer in the very next paragraph) but in my writing I often feel like an untrained dabbler, most comfortable chiselling diligently at a tiny, underworked corner of knowledge. Most times when I feel tempted to make a grand pronouncement on the "big picture" issues of cinema, I feel like I'm just saying something that countless people before me have already said less clumsily. I'm mostly content to let others do the critical "heavy lifting" for me. It's one reason why I try to include so many links in each post I write at this site.

But there are lots of differing definitions of the word "critic". WordNet-Online has three. The first is "a person who is professionally engaged in the analysis and interpretation of works of art" and it doesn't seem like me at all- I earn my living working in libraries, perhaps helping facilitate others' analysis and interpretation, but not doing any myself. Definition #3 is the one the saying I riff on in the title of this post stems from: "someone who frequently finds fault or makes harsh and unfair judgments." Not me at all; I normally err in the other direction. But look at the second definition: "anyone who expresses a reasoned judgment of something." That's me. Not always, of course. Sometimes my judgments come purely from emotion, not reason (hopefully I can at least tell the difference.)

But if that's me, isn't it everybody else in the movie theatre too? I'm not trained in psychology, but I'm not one of those who believes that some, most or any people really turn their brains off when they watch a movie. Of course, people have different tools to help them analyze films at different levels. When I was a young child I didn't have the interest in or the ability to differentiate adult actors' faces from each other; I could only recognize types, which put me at a disadvantage for understanding a film with more than one brown-haired adult male character in it, for example. But I tried to use reason to figure out what was happening based on what I could understand. Many moviegoers may not understand the difference between what a film director and a screenwriter is (some days I'm not so sure I've got as firm a grasp on it as I think I do) but if that limits the types of rational analysis that can be performed when watching a movie, it certainly does not cease such analysis.

And everyone judges films. How many "big" film websites have recognized this and provided anyone happening to stop and look at a film's page the opportunity to rate it? Have you ever asked someone's opinion on a film, only to have them tell you, "I don't know"? Doesn't such a response pretty much imply that a person has too many opinions about a given film, rather than too few? And, of course, these opinions are constantly expressed. Let me for a moment step away from my pontificating to provide a concrete example from my primary area of expertise: the Frisco filmgoing scene.

The setting is the Castro Theatre last night, where the Silent Film Society hosted another highly successful event: a screening of the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille-produced original film version of Chicago (though there's evidence to suggest DeMille actually directed it but gave Frank Urson the credit.) The house was packed tightly enough that I had to find a seat way in the upper reaches of the balcony, where I had a much better view of a couple film cans labeled "the Flowers of St. Francis" than I had of the Baker-Mehling Hot Five providing the flapper-era jazz accompaniment for the film. No matter, I heard the band and saw the screen fine, and from my lofty position perhaps felt a little more prone to pay particular attention to reactions of the audience between me and the screen. It's a fun if occasionally over-telegraphed film and it certainly seems like it could be a pre-code DeMille to me: a morality tale in which the sinners are more irresistible than the saints.

Normally I find I can't stomach trial sequences. They've knocked the life out of many an otherwise enjoyable film from Mutiny on the Bounty to, well, Chicago. I've never been able to get past my dislike of film trials and appreciate what everyone else seems to love about something like Anatomy of a Murder. But the trial scene is surely the heart of this Chicago and its best sequence. I should probably exempt silent film trial scenes from my blanket scorn, as they so naturally rely on visual storytelling that they're more likely to overcome the problems so many talking trial scenes cannot (I'd supply details if it didn't feel like a subject for another post entirely.) the Passion of Joan of Arc and the Unholy Three are a rarely-compared pair that more than overcome, and gloriously. In Chicago, Urson/DeMille play up the scenario's farcical aspects perfectly by having everybody burlesque to a degree rarely seen in even the most overacted silent film. Throughout the film Phyllis Haver's performance as Roxie has been ramped up a notch in intensity over her costars Victor Varconi, Eugene Pallette, etc. But now, wearing a scandalously leggy, virginally white dress, she launches into the realm of parody and brings everyone from the flustered prosecuting attorney to the lecherously leering jurymen to the gumsmacking public along with her. The ludicrous acting styles are all the more effective for being incorporated into a quick-cut pattern of editing helping to give the sense of a courtroom about to explode. When she completes her dramatic testimony as if a beginning drama student hamming for her first audition, the Castro audience broke into a huge round of applause.

Now, who knows just what inspired hundreds of different people to spontaneously begin clapping in the very middle of a film whose creators were long-dead. For many this may have been a mainly emotional response, or a rational one far different from the one I found myself experiencing. There's really no way to tell if, like me, people were starting to wonder to themselves if the filmmakers were making a subversive commentary (criticism!) of silent film acting in general here at the dawn of the sound film era. The film does include a newspaper headline playing off of the first big semi-talkie, the Jazz Singer ("Jazz Shooter"), after all.

What I do know from the applause is that as a group this audience liked that scene. A lot. Almost certainly better than any scene appearing prior to it, and probably better than anything after as well (though plenty of enthusiastic hisses and cheers erupted during the film's coda of comeuppance). Is calling these kinds of mass responses (or the ones described here and here) real film criticism a stretch? Maybe. But if so, does this or this or this still get to be called criticism? How about this or this?

Thanks, Andy, for spurring me to write this piece for your Blog-A-Thon. It turned out better than I expected, and I don't feel quite as presumptuous any longer (though I'm not tempted to re-edit the beginning paragraph at all- sometimes my posts are like journeys through a writing experiment, and I feel like preserving that feeling.)

A final note for the day for my Frisco Bay readers, especially fans of silent films accompanied by top-class musicians: though the Berlin and Beyond festival at the Castro has not released its schedule yet, it seems that on January 15th Dennis James is slated to perform a score to a new restoration of a Bavarian silent called Nathan, the Wise, featuring Werner Krauss (of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the title role and Max Schrek (Nosferatu) to boot.