JIGSAW LOUNGE GUIDE TO FILM CRITICS
by Neil Young
My reviews and ratings on this site are very subjective, full of my own irrational prejudices and pereferences, and I make no apology for that. If forced into a debate, I might well concede that Citizen Kane is a greater work of cinematic art than The Fog, but that isn’t the point. My basic criterion is this : which film would I recommend first to somebody who hasn’t seen, and knows nothing about either? That factor is the origin of my entire rating system, which is, a result, as much a snap-shot of my psychology as it is of the history of cinema’s finest hours. I’ve had enough arguments with enough well-informed people to know that I have a rather idiosyncratic view of what makes a good film, but so what – film is all about opinions, and mine are seldom fixed for very long.
As well as watching films, I also like to read – and, as you can see, write – about them. Any decent sized bookshop will have within it a decent sized cinema section, and within that there will often be a bewildering array of titles designed to guide you through the jungle of cinema’s vast output. I thought it might be useful to offer a brief checklist of the most interesting and useful publications, both in and out of print.
By far the most dog-eared book on my film shelf is Danny Peary’s Guide For The Film Fanatic. Peary is better known for his excellent Cult Movies trilogy, but the Guide came after and condenses down the essays in those books into single paragraphs, adding in several hundred additional titles. The edition covers eveything from silent foreign classics to XXX porn going up to 1986, and it is quite simply the best book ever written about films. Peary is punchy, argumentative, partisan, informative and enthusiastic, combining all the virtues of the best critics with very few of their vices. His book flits maddeningly in and out of print, but can occasionally be found in second hand stores.
The only film critic I’d rank above Peary is James Agee, whose out-of-print Agee On Film contains most of his reviews for papers and magazines between 1941 and 1948. Many of these reviews are single-paragraph dismissals of the rubbish that clogged the cinemas those days, and Agee’s work is a rare instance of criticism which turned out to be a greater and more lasting work of art than the material being criticised.
Pauline Kael remains the most revered of all film critics and, although they aren’t cheap to buy new, her collections of New Yorker reviews are the best long-form film writings around. The individual volumes, which stretch from the fifties to the nineties in four-or-five year sections, are all worth buying, especially the 1970s compilation When The Lights Go Down, but they are far from cheap, and economy-minded readers would do well to start with either 5001 Nights At The Movies or For Keeps, which are excerpts from all the books in alphabetical order.
Kael retired a few years ago, passing on her New Yorker job to Anthony Lane, and her mantle as leading active film critic to David Thomson. My personal tastes are much closer to Peary and Kael than Thomson, but there’s nothing quite like his Biographical Dictionary of Film, for all its bizarre inclusions and omissions.
Moving on to those thicker A-Z, Halliwell-style guides, Time Out is easily the best bargain. Most of the reviews are as they originally appeared in the magazine at the time, and the book is as comprehensive a guide to post-war cinema as anybody could reasonably hope, with excellent coverage of foreign-language releases.
The number of film critics on the internet seems to grow daily. Roger Ebert (www.suntimes.com/index/ebert1.html) is always worth a look and is very up-to-date and comprehensive. My own personal favourite is Mike d’Angelo (www.panix.com/~dangelo/index.html), maybe because his reviews are invariably as short as they are abusive. The most surprising review site must be SCREEN IT! (www.screenit.com/search_movies.html), a ‘parental guidance’ site which analyses films in terms of their swear words, sexual content, violent incidents and ‘negative role models,’ and so on, but whose critics are totally independent, thorough and switched-on.
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