“We're always going to need good critics. Not so much as consumer reporters--now you can get that on the Internet. We need them to keep the discussion going. To help catalyze the reaction between the viewer and the work. To teach by example how to think about what we see--or in some cases how not to think about it. It probably sounds silly to evoke wine, but here it is: A movie doesn't just have an aroma and a taste. It has a finish, and if it's a great movie that finish lasts decades while you weigh all the nuances and components in your mind. Criticism is a living thing. At its best, it's revitalizing. And as we sink further and further into a stupor, we need it more than ever.”
- Slate film critic David Edelstein, from an interview with Aaron Aradillas on rockcritics.com
Good film criticism is always fun to take on, writing that challenges a reader to learn about recognizing one’s own reactions and perceptions and fine-tuning them. That criticism can lean more toward the academic (Jonathan Rosenbaum) or the self-consciously provocative (Armond White), but even in moments of argument or frustration with the writer it’s usually easy to determine which road is best suited to the reader’s own desires and expectations for the criticism. Bad, lazy or ill-informed film criticism, on the other hand, no matter whether the writer’s opinions coincide with the reader’s or not, is just not much fun at all, and almost never edifying in any meaningful way. In fact, in can be downright unreadable (just these quotes provided by ReverseShot were more than enough for me).
And then there is David Edelstein, whose work I admired in the mid ‘80s, the period he correctly characterizes as among the worst in the history of the medium, when he wrote for the Village Voice. Back in the days before the Internet, I had lost track of Edelstein after he left that paper. But a few years ago I reconnected with him on the Internet magazine Slate, where he has been the resident film critic since not long after its initial launch. And it has definitely been a happy reconnection. I’ve always admired Edelstein’s ability to maintain an intelligent, informal voice, a voice that easily connects to the less hoity-toity element of engaging with Hollywood mainstream films, while never losing its edge of credibility, of authority, when dealing with films that are outside that mainstream, whatever their country of origin.
And I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece written by Edelstein that made me feel like he was trying to elevate himself above a piece of work in order to make the reader understand how crummy the work really was. In his review of the execrable Van Helsing, Edelstein made clear that what was wrong wasn’t the fact that the movie had monsters around every corner, as if the very delving into the horror genre made the work beneath contempt—he has never tried to mask his love for the Universal monster films that were Van Helsing’s jumping-off point. The problem Edelstein had was that the movie so desecrated the memory of those Universal horror creations, and the idea of a coherent narrative as well, at the altar of criminally excessive computer-generated imagery and hyperactive editing. Yet he can also turn around and deal with more “serious” work, like, for example, the Dardennes’ film The Son or Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in that same recognizable voice without suddenly making himself sound like your least favorite film professor who has some cinematic spinach he insists on foisting upon you before you sit down to your Hollywood cheeseburger.
I remember seeing Pauline Kael on The Mike Douglas Show when I was a latchkey high school kid back in the mid ‘70s and, of course, being fascinated by her wit and her observations on film. (Is it just my wishful memory that’s to blame for “remembering” a look on Douglas’ face that revealed she was way over his head?) But I never picked up one of her books until I was a freshman in college in 1977. It was Reeling, and that’s how I’ve been ever since I read it—reeling at the worlds of possibility and imagination and creative thinking that book opened up to me (I went through four paperback editions before I finally got wise and found a used hardbound copy a few years ago). But discovering Edelstein amongst all the rigid free-thinkers and auteur theorists at the Voice had some of the same impact on me, as I floundered through my post-college days, facing an uncertain future and week after week of the kind of tepid, uninspiring film fare that would filter down to the cracker box cinemas of Southern Oregon.
I wrote film reviews for the Ashland Daily Tidings, the main newspaper of Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespearean Festival, and more often than not Edelstein’s less-than-reverential tone was one that I found comfortable and tried to find ways to adapt to my own assignments. I can remember my scathing review of a certain “brat pack” epic which I wrote as a parody of a studio executives boardroom meeting charged with coming up with the lowest-common-denominator idea and ending up with, yes, St. Elmo’s Fire; I managed to muster up the balls to submit that piece largely by conjuring impressions of Edelstein’s smart-ass, take-no-prisoners reviewing, which I imagined was founded largely out of boredom with these same kinds of pictures. I don’t recall if Edelstein actually reviewed St. Elmo’s Fire, but I do recall the nasty letters I started getting from irate readers in the wake of that review that, the opposite of discouraging, actually made me feel like I was on the right track. A few years later Edelstein did review the awful Michael J. Fox comedy The Secret of My Success by breaking down its elements into a faux mathematical formula, which spoke volumes (and hilariously) about the kind of mass-marketed, test-screened homogenization of studio filmmaking in that decade, and I’ve held the memory of that review dear, though it’s been a long time since I’ve actually read it. (Edelstein hasn’t yet collected his reviews into an easy-accessible volume so as to ambush an unassuming young film buff like Kael once ambushed me, but I really hope he will someday.)
I’ve had my disagreements with Edelstein over the years, and as much as I enjoy the validation of a shared opinion with someone I respect, I’ve come to appreciate those occasional disagreements more for the opportunity they provide to clarify and strength my own critical perspective. It’s a reader/writer relationship I’ve come to enjoy not only with him, but with Stephanie Zacharek (Salon), Charles Taylor (late of Salon, and hopefully coming soon again to a weekly venue, headed up by a smart editor, near you), Matt Zoller Seitz (New York Press), A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis (the New York Times) and Walter Chaw (Film Freak Central), all excellent writers and fertile, independent thinkers whose weekly contributions to the navigation through and understanding of film culture in a particularly reticent time, politically and creatively, cannot be undervalued. (Every one of these writers, and many, many others, by the way, can be accessed with a click of the mouse on the sidebar to the right.)
A click of that same mouse can also take you to rockcritics.com where one Aaron Aradillas has been on a bit of a tear bringing a series of very entertaining interviews with various film critics to that Web site. Among Aradillas’ subjects over the past year have been USA Today critic and long-time Leonard Maltin associate Mike Clark, Entertainment Weekly senior film critic Owen Gleiberman, former New York Times film critic Janet Maslin, New York Post film critic Jami Bernard and Premiere magazine’s garrulous film critic Glenn Kenny. It’s a series of talks with folks who are not often heard from in this particular format, and the reads are very refreshing ones indeed. I hope that Aradillas can continue his series long enough to get to some of the other worthy scribes mentioned in this piece. (I came to my appreciation of his efforts only after having passed through an initial wave of jealous rage that I hadn’t thought of it first.) Recently Aradillas landed a lengthy session with Edelstein as well, and I was again both excited to read the interview and perturbed that it wasn’t me who was posing the questions.
The Edelstein interview is indeed a good one—the critic, friendly and forthcoming, occasionally parries with some of the assumptions within his interviewer’s questions and leads him (and us) on a very interesting journey into the relevance of film criticism in an age when a lot of people would rather not read, and if they do it’s largely to have their own point of view confirmed, not challenged. That said, it’s most gratifying indeed to notice the many similarities in taste the critic and I shared, particularly in the realm of horror films—Edelstein’s mentions of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Dark Shadows and Count Yorga, Vampire were even more satisfying to hear expounded upon here than they are to see mentioned glancingly in his own reviews. It’s also fascinating to read about how a writer develops into a film criticism career—everyone has his story, I’m sure, and Edelstein’s accounts of being lucky enough to come up amongst the ranks of some of the writers listed above will be worth a look to anyone who’s ever wondered how to get his own writing read by the right people at the right time. And, yes, his fortuitous meeting and subsequent friendship with Pauline Kael is touched upon in surprising ways, especially when the nasty term “Paulettes” rears its head yet again, as it has so many times since Kael’s recent death. Most tellingly, in regards to his background and sensibility, here’s Edelstein, from the interview, on acting, actors and the temptation and tendency of critics to trash people in print:
“It was also useful to watch real actors up close, which I did when I apprenticed at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard. Believe it or not, I used to enjoy reading John Simon on theater in the '70s, right up until the time I started seeing the same productions he did. There was an actress he described over and over as masturbating in public, and I had a chance to work with her at the A.R.T. She was a total sweetheart, and I did see that expression on stage that enraged Simon. It appeared when she was momentarily unsure of what she was doing and became self-conscious. So Simon had called it exactly wrong and had used his misperception to bludgeon her. To write about actors well you have to have some empathy. You can't sit there measuring their features with imaginary calipers.”
Those who want a cogent expression of the medium’s possibilities, and its failings, on a weekly basis have few options that are as consistently delightful and enlightening than checking out David Edelstein’s column on Slate. He’s not always going to confirm your thoughts, your hopes for a certain movie, or your idea of how a film critic should approach any given subject. But where’s the fun, and the value, in reading someone as predictable as that? Sometimes he’ll drive you nuts; sometimes he’ll feel like your smartest buddy. If you can find a writer like that in your travels through journalism and literature, you’re a lucky reader, and you should stick with that writer and keep discovering the surprises he or she undoubtedly has in store. That’s what I’ve done with David Edelstein off and on for 20 years now, and I’m unreservedly glad that I have.