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Charles Champlin on Criticism, in an Excerpt From 'Conversations at the American Film Institute With Great Moviemakers'

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire May 11, 2012 at 9:02AM

"I think every reviewer ought to put these words over his desk: 'There is a bad film in every good filmmaker and a good film in every bad filmmaker.'”
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Do you find yourself taking more pains with important films than with Walt Disney films?

In all candor I would have to say yes. I think you go to see some films with a greater degree of expectation than you do others. You go to see a Disney film and you know pretty much what you’re going to get. Disney films are hard to review, because by now they can only be compared to each other. Every critic has some kind of private Walt Disney spectrum. “It’s better than 'The Gnome-Mobile' but not quite up to 'The Parent Trap.'” I think there’s an irony in your question, because the more a film aspires to do, perhaps the more severe the test that the critic puts to it. Such a film invites being taken as seriously as you can, so the complaints you would bring to "Cries and Whispers" will be things you might forgive any ordinary picture for. About those films you say, “Who cares? It’s a formulaic picture.” One really is as thoughtful about films as they demand. 

One of the hardest parts of your job is reviewing the work of a filmmaker you consider to be just terrible, yet somehow you have to separate the film from the fact that you don’t personally march to his or her drum.

I think every reviewer ought to put these words over his desk: “There is a bad film in every good filmmaker and a good film in every bad filmmaker.” The world is really full of surprises, and as much as you might admire "A Woman Under the Influence" you will then confront "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie." As much as you might admire "The 400 Blows" and "Bed and Board" and "Day for Night," you then come up against "The Story of Adele H.," which I find to be a piece of cotton candy, a very disappointing film from Truffaut. There are others who feel differently. There are people you come to recognize as competent craftsmen, who bring their films in on budget without any particular personal signature except a kind of nice, well-lit competence, but given an interesting piece of material can rise to it and come away with a film which is interesting and has a kind of roundness that maybe some of the other work didn’t have. I can think of people whose work I’ve gone to see without any real expectations and have been really delighted to find that because of a kind of maverick script, they’ve produced a maverick film.

In a larger sense what worries me about being a critic is the danger of getting closed off, getting too professional, seeing too many films, running the risk of losing a certain kind of openness to a film which is not what you expect, which violates some of the canons of filmmaking, and being so rushed or tired or jaded that you don’t see it. That really is scary. I remember when I worked in London there was a young art critic for the London Times. He was then thirty-four years old. It was a time of ferment, and the people who were coming out of the Royal Academy were really full of vital juices. He resigned his job because he said that he was no longer absolutely sure he understood what the artists who were ten years younger than him were doing. Of course they replaced him with a guy who was fifty, so his honorable gesture came to nothing.

I don’t know how long a critic should review films. You can read some reviews and say, “Well, maybe they’ve seen too many films.” I think Bosley Crowther today has a diminished reputation. It’s too bad because he did great and noble service for many years when there weren’t a lot of people writing about foreign films. He was very sympathetic to these strange, harsh and abrasive films, but then when "Bonnie and Clyde" arrived he not only didn’t like it the first time, he kept going back to it and still didn’t like it. He was unceremoniously eased off The New York Times. He was, as somebody said, Bonnie and Clyde’s last victim. Maybe the point was that he was by then a little too sure of what he thought movies ought to be and do. I may have to be reminded of that condition in myself later on, but I hope not for a while yet. I think it’s just a problem of being open, of not being certain that a particular director is going to always make good films or that there’s no hope in somebody else. When the critic’s transcendent love of the medium begins to erode, as it sometimes can in the continuing presence of mediocrity, then it’s time for the critic to worry. Maybe he should shift his ground a bit and go into landscape gardening. Some people have been in the chair too long and are unable to be uplifted by anything. I look at my tongue in the mirror every morning just to see if there are any telltale signs of fatigue.

Excerpted from CONVERSATIONS AT THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE WITH GREAT MOVIE MAKERS: The Next Generation by George Stevens, Jr. Copyright © 2012 by George Stevens, Jr. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

"Conversations at the American Film Institute With Great Movie Makers: The Next Generation" is available now.

This article is related to: Charles Champlin


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