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Film Criticism as a Parasitic Art Form

As I was going through the notes I took during Jean-Michel Frodon’s masterclass on film criticism I realized that… I can’t understand half of them. I mean literally, I have terrible handwriting. Hooked yet? Because this is the first thing that comes to mind from his lecture: captivate your audience from the start, the first sentence you write has to be more than an introduction.

I have attended a fair share of film criticism masterclasses/ workshops/ presentations, and they have all helped to shape (or reinforce, or destroy) my views about this profession. Some lectures were more interesting than others, some speakers were annoying but brilliant, others were charming individuals and even excellent critics, but what they managed to share with others was not very consistent. Jean-Michel Frodon was the only film critic that I heard say something that I also find particularly true: film criticism is an art form (a parasitic one, but nonetheless art). This is not an out of the blue theory, but I found it reassuring to hear it from a former editor in chief of Cahiers du cinéma, especially in an age where the old saying appears to be more true than ever: everyone’s a (film) critic.

What I enjoyed most about his lecture were exactly those thoughts that sounded like my own (only better expressed in words). This may sound condescending but, in fact, is the exact opposite. Maybe things get better over the years, along with experience and peer/ public recognition, but I feel that the good film critics are also the ones that doubt themselves the most. As a sort of an artist in his/ her own right, the film critic is also subjecting himself to public scrutiny, putting his work on display (Was I right? Was I witty enough? What if all the other critics say the opposite?). Hearing Frodon speak about the process of writing a critique was one of the highlights of the lecture. Like him, I also don’t know what I’m going to write when I start writing. “Writing clarifies what I feel about the film” he says, it is not a mechanical process and it’s not just about literary skill and good rhetoric (my colleague Mariana Hristova makes and interesting point about fast writing festival critics here) Writing in itself is a second reflection on the work of art you want to criticize (the first is when you actually see the film). Taking this a bit further and connecting it with the first idea: the art of film criticism is firstly a written art.

Because it is (or can be) art, film criticism is also highly subjective, and this subjectivity concerns the context surrounding the actual film. Frodon identifies three categories of subjective factors: the moment of viewing (“maybe you have a bad mood, maybe you saw another film before”), life experience and the moment of writing (“drunk, in love, tired”). The implicit advice (meaning the way he does it, but this doesn’t have to work for everyone) is to know as little as possible about a film before going to see it: don’t read about, don’t watch trailers, don’t look up the director’s previous work. “There is the promise of art in every film” Frodon argues, and, subsequently, there is the promise of art in every critique.

I didn’t agree with him when he said that one of the four bad masters of film criticism is the professor, because those kind of film writers focus on analyzing the components and not the film as a whole. In a way I still don’t agree, and I think a distinction is necessary here. Academia can approach films from two different perspectives: the aesthetic approach and the social science approach. Of course there is always some sort of overlapping, but the main idea is to acknowledge film as art first and then as a social product. The other thing is of course to acknowledge writing about film as art. And here laid my problem: I was only to eager to accept the latter, but I wasn’t willing to let go of my analytical tools and concepts. After the workshop ended I decided to take his advice: analyze less and focus more on how the film made me feel, then explain that connection through writing. Jean-Michel Frodon is definitely one of the good masters of film criticism.