I had this friend in college, Andy, who possessed a unique gift for clarity. He did this thing, you see, that consistently amazed friends and classmates alike. An example of what would happen time and time again is this: I'd be arguing with someone on a given topic, any topic, it didn't matter. We could be arguing for or against a particular movie, a politician, a foreign policy stance or some matter of historical minutiae. The argument would get heated, we'd dig in our heels and any possibility of a middle ground would grow more and more remote. Then Andy would show up.
"What are you guys talking about?" he'd ask. We'd tell him. Then he'd say, "The way I see it, ..." and proceed to deliver three or four sentences, at most, that would completely, totally, utterly, and absolutely end the argument. There would be silence, my friend and I would stare at each other, and stumble through sentences like, "Well... yeah... uh... I mean... yeah... that... I guess that pretty much settles it." He did it enough that fellow classmates joked about it, made reference to it and said in the midst of heated arguments, "If only Andy was here."
I lost touch with Andy years ago but had an Andy-like moment on the Scanners blog the other day. After Jim stated he wasn't the person to review Sex and the City commenters went back and forth about it. How could he say that? How could someone be the person to review Se7en? Isn't that a cop out? And so on. Then Andy, oops, I mean, Larry Aydlette showed up and wrote,
"How many times do critics feel that way about lots of movies and yet they never let the reader know? And do they owe them an explanation? All criticism is
subjective in the end, of course, but does this make a valid argument for movie critics to have specialties? Book critics who like mysteries tend to focus exclusively on their preferred genre. As do many art critics. And music critics, obviously. Movie critics, however, are expected to be great generalists,appreciative of every type of film. Why?"
Thanks Andy, er, Larry. In studying art criticism in college, where I was introduced to the criticisms of Roger Fry among others, it was made clear that there were experts in separate fields. Painting, sculpture, architecture and literature all had critics who were well versed in one style or period and that's what they wrote about. I knew that but never applied it to film criticism because no one ever asked (hence the title of the post).
To answer Larry's question of "why" I would say it's because the cinema is still so very new. It's periods are defined by decades, not centuries, and the definitions themselves are fuzzy. As for style, cinephiles are still arguing over what a genre even is. What makes a movie a Noir? Does it have to have a femme fatale? What makes a Screwball Comedy? How about Horror? There's monster horror (vampires, werewolves), slasher horror, ghost horror, serial killer horror - wait a minute - some are serial killer horror but some movies about serial killers are Police Procedurals. By the way, what makes a Police Procedural? Is it just an updated version of the Mystery genre? My guess is that a thousand years from now people won't care, or even see the difference. There will be 19th century film (the earliest and shortest period), 20th century, 21st century and so on. Perhaps they will have names. The 20th Century period might be the "Montage" period of film, in reference to the editing techniques that began to define the form in the teens, expand it in the twenties with filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and now has reached saturation point with rapid fire, quick-cut mini-montages accounting for 90 percent of the content of most action films (although to be a stickler, they are not really using disconnected images to create a coherent new text so maybe pure montage is already dead).
But hey, that's a thousand years from now. What about the present? In the present, I see the change already taking place. As bloggers and online critics continue to write without editorial control they naturally take themselves in one direction or another. They self-specialize. For now, it's those short ten year periods or those fuzzy genres. In the future, it will be whole centuries of cinema styles that will be their specialty at which point no one will feign shock over a critic saying, "I'm not the person to review this movie." It will be expected.
Which brings me back to the idea of who reviews what. I started thinking about what movies I am the reviewer for and which movies I am not. As far as specialized genre is concerned my favorites are science fiction, adventure and horror, though oddly many of my favorite films are low key dramas and always have been, but I guess I don't think of "low-key drama" as much of a definable genre. As far as period goes, my favorites are the thirties, especially the early thirties when the industry was re-learning the craft after the introduction of sound, and the late sixites to the mid-seventies.
Now I don't know nearly as much about horror as do notable bloggers like Kimberly Lindbergs, Stacie Ponder or Arbogast Von Gingersnap (I'm just assuming that's his full name). I'd call myself a fan but not an expert.
Then there's adventure. I love adventure movies, especially those in the mold of Gunga Din or The Man Who Would Be King but again I'm more of a fan than an expert.
But Sci-Fi. Yeah, I could review Sci-Fi. I've loved Sci-Fi since I was but a tot and have seen voluminous amounts of it. Now I'm not into Sci-Fi literature, at all, but I love Sci-Fi movies and television. I love them to the point where I'm one of those people you run into from time to time who gets visibly annoyed when someone thinks Star Wars is science fiction. It never turns out good. I try and explain that it's an adventure story, a fantasy story, a story steeped in the traditions of mythic heroes only to get, "Yeah but they got ray guns and fly around in space." That's usually when the twitch sets in and I start making audible verbal ticks.
So I'd have to say if I were part of a staff that reviewed movies or wrote about them historically, and all according to preference, I'd be the sci-fi reviewer and the thirties Hollywood historian. Those would be my gigs. We'd all share Drama I suppose.
I even started thinking about where I would place my fellow bloggers and commenters but came up empty most of the time. Larry for instance. I have no idea. Tough guy movies? You know Burt Reynolds stuff,or hard boiled detectives or streetwise dames. I'd definitely trust my instincts with putting him in charge of concert movies. But for the most part I don't know. I do know that while people naturally specialize their interests they hate being pigeon-holed and I understand. As much as I love Sci-Fi I wouldn't want to be thought of as "that Sci-Fi guy." I want people to know that I am well-rounded and have varied interests. I want people to know that I am not beholden to one particular genre or period for all of my entertainment. Maybe that's why film critics attempt to be generalists in this most popular of art forms. With only a little over a century of product available, no one wants to be limited to only a few years or a few movies.
So it will be quite a while before film criticism starts fully specializing itself into large century long periods. Until then, if you don't mind pigeon-holing yourself in public (as long as it's legal in your state) please do so. I'd love to know your position on the staff.