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Criticwire Survey: Off-Camera Info

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire October 28, 2013 at 9:21AM

Should critics only review what's on the screen? Or is what goes on behind the camera as much a part of the story as the film itself?
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Lea Seydoux, whose feuding with her director has become part of 'Blue Is the Warmest Color's reception
Lea Seydoux, whose feuding with her director has become part of 'Blue Is the Warmest Color's reception

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Leave your own response in the comments, and send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: The very public feud between actress Lea Seydoux and her Blue Is the Warmest Color director Abdellatif Kechiche has become as well-known as the film itself. Should critics ignore off-screen information in reviewing a film, or do they have an obligation to deal with it?

Robert Greene, Sight & Sound, Hammer to Nail

The main problem is that people tend to (probably conveniently) forget that the cinema is an art form often based on and exploitative of some of our most difficult, kinky, reactionary impulses. Many times, the best films embrace the lurid and unseemly: voyeurism, the desire for revenge, fear of the other, the wish to control via the gaze, etc. These qualities are not just apparent in horror movies or porn, but in many films. That tension that sometimes sparkles and moves you to tears in a great romantic comedy is not innocent. The art is often in the excavation of burrowed, unhealthy desires; it's the most manipulative medium. So when controversies arise over the means of a particular film's production, I tend to be (perhaps overly) dismissive of their importance. The question about whether a critic should consider these issues is complicated because my standards for what makes a life worth living and a movie worth watching are vastly different. No one should be abused, but great art sometimes comes from disturbing places. I think it's probably best to separate the analysis from the reporting and stop pretending this a pretty -- or even remotely humane -- business. Movies aren't nice things, but people should be. 

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Tor.com

The most important thing, no matter what hijinks filmmakers get up to when they unlock Maverick Genius Mode, is whether the movie itself is any good. No one would have really cared how much John Carter cost if it didn't have those wonky introductory and concluding acts, just as the degree to which people care about the Blue Is the Warmest Color kerfuffle is inversely proportionate to their ability to lose themselves in the movie. It's incumbent on the critic to determine how much explicitly textual effect all the background stuff they know about has on the movie. Like, with BITWC, for one example, "Is this a straight male director filming his lesbian porno fantasies or is this a storyteller exploring intimacy through the characters' sexual expression?" It's not possible to unlearn things (if it is, let me know; I need help to stop using the word "ultimately" at the end of reviews and articles), but ultimately the challenge is to establish relevance with a given work. While a civilian might not be able to compartmentalize the knowledge of some awful thing the director or star of a film did, critics need to get past such things as much as they're able, unless there's a direct textual connection.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

This is a tricky question, and I don't have a blanket answer. On the one hand, not addressing some new controversy feels like you risk looking completely clueless, and your reader might presume you just aren't paying attention -- and in fact, you might not be. Offscreen factors can also shed new light on what we're seeing onscreen, making us see things in a new way. Plus, posterity might appreciate it. On the other hand, a movie is a movie (and a show is a show), and many if not most people outside the critic bubble -- aka audiences -- probably won't bump into these controversies. Is it worth the potential distraction from the work itself (especially if the work is good)? I'm not sure. I suppose I'd lean toward the latter, but I'd also have to think about it on a case by case basis. 

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, Linoleum Knife podcast

In a perfect world, I would go into every movie knowing nothing about it. I try not to watch trailers, I don't read Entertainment Weekly cover stories about movies until I've written my review -- heck, I don't even read other movie reviews until I've written my own -- and I do my best to tune out the white noise so that I can look at a film on its own merits. Unless you're talking about the possibility of an actual crime being committed -- like when early viewers of Cannibal Holocaust thought they were seeing a snuff film -- all that should matter is the work itself, not the budget nor the leading man's divorce nor the feud between the director and the stars nor the craft service food poisoning incident. The internet makes it increasingly difficult to ignore all the secondary stuff, but I think it's the responsibility of critics to try. (Writers who double as both critics and entertainment reporters/bloggers get a pass on this, of course, but they should still try to park that stuff in the lobby when they finally get to see the movie.)

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

As a journalist, a critic has to know what the story is, and the story often isn't just what appears on screen. You're not fooling anyone if you pretend that widely-publicized re-shoots, or connections between an actor and some off-screen scandal, aren't going to be part of the way viewers approach the movie. But we bring any number of expectations to a movie -- the director's previous work, or familiarity with the source material, or whether it's a sequel or remake -- and it's up to a thoughtful critic to help a viewer process those expectations as part of the review. Any work of art exists in the world, with plenty of strings attached; we can and should point out those strings, while not making the mistake of presenting the strings as though they *are* the work.

Todd VanDerWerff, The A.V. Club

I do my best to learn as little as possible about the people making this stuff, even though it's impossible to do that. I guess it's just not that hard for me to consider the art separate from whatever I might find distasteful about the artist. Like when Dan Harmon called a Community fan up onstage to talk at her about something she'd said on Twitter, no matter how magnanimous he thought he was being, it made me cringe and reminded me why I don't listen to Harmontown regularly, even though I generally enjoy it. I would almost always rather celebrate the art, though I understand that will inevitably spill over into celebration of the artist.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

One of the most poisonous inflictions of academic trends on the practice of criticism is the old idea of "New Criticism" -- of studying works of art without regard to anything deemed external to them, whether historical or personal. Criticism is really just life on the page -- viewers bring everything they know to the viewing of a movie and should bring everything they know to the attempt to write about it. Everything is fair game but nothing is relevant or irrelevant until someone writes cogently that it is so. We decide what is germane; we get to include or exclude reports about the production, historical or political significance, intertextual allusions, and the life stories of the filmmakers and of the cast and crew, depending on whether it enriches our experience of the movie. There are no rules. You didn't say Roman Polanski, did you? He just announced his plan to make a movie about the Dreyfus affair, saying: "There's an aspect that is extremely interesting for me -- it's the insistence with which the media, like the army, don't want to admit a mistake." Supreme chutzpah, perhaps; but the fact that he brought the subject up himself won't necessarily make it more (or less) significant to the experience of watching the film, when it's done. But the mark of good directors is their own ability to imbue and deepen their movies with everything that they themselves know and have experienced ("one must put everything into a film"). Only bad films are flattened out by references to personal motives or social correlates; one of the things that makes good movies good is precisely their infusion with -- and reflections on -- lives and times. 

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

My general philosophy is that you address it if it's affecting the film that the audience is seeing. For instance, the behind-the-scenes drama about BITWC is important, because when you see the film and notice how the sex scenes are overlit and edited in a way that seems stylistically and narratively at odds with the rest of the film, you have to address the controversy over the filming of those scenes (and original creator/writer Julie Maroh's comments about them as well). I would even go further and say that Kechiche's cavalier evasion of a question at the NYFF press conference about the film (regarding queer cinema and whether or not he viewed BITWC as part of that continuum) is also important to evaluating the film. I'd also add in aspects of his previous film Black Venus, and in the review I would say he seems to have an issue with putting his actresses on display in awkward detail. 

But it's also important with something like, say, Alien3. Even before the film's theatrical release, there was awareness of its troubled production and behind-the-scenes drama. The theatrical version of that film is a quilt, so it's certainly worth mentioning in any evaluation that a film is a compromised one. If a film is the product of a tumultuous shoot but there's no anomalies that draw attention to seams, then it's not quite as important. But you almost have to proceed on a case-by-case basis.

Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running, RogerEbert.com

It's (too) easy to give the trite answer about how nowadays it's impossible to shut the chatter out but it wasn't particularly easy to do so back in the day, either; a working critic is/was by definition a media person, and information disseminated via media is gonna get to him or her somehow. The question is what you do with it, and in that respect the new media landscape IS pretty pertinent, because in film journalism as it's currently constituted almost no critic is JUST a critic. A lot of us are more like aesthetic market players, and our Twitter feeds are our stock tickers. So what we learn and what we trade therein is likely to find its way into our critical work somehow. 

That said, we should take care. The critical view has to be primarily concerned with what's going on in the frame, coming through the speakers. By the same token, we can't pretend that the work we're undertaking to understand does not function in the world outside of it. There's a balance to be maintained. The best critics do it, and they can do it in part because they are honest. My mentor Robert Christgau's evolving distaste for certain members of The Rolling Stones as people is reflected in his criticism, but that dislike, which sometimes stems from the lazy and indifferent things they've put on record, is something he can be seen wrestling with through his attempts to get at the gist of a particular album or CD; he never allows his observations to be guided by spite, but at the same time he's entirely upfront about his prejudices. This not only makes for entertaining writing, but deeper and richer criticism. So there's that. 

As for Kechiche, I like his movie and I'll certainly go see the next one he makes. I wouldn't want to get stuck behind him on a line at a coffeehouse or anything, though. Yeesh.

Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal

I'd like to say it doesn't matter and works of art deserve to be treated as entities unto themselves removed form hyperbole and gossip but Twitter makes that more impossible to attempt than ever. If you count yourself a journalist as well as a critic then you really do have to at least nod towards such matters. To what degree is a matter of judgment. I mean, one of the most fun chats I had in the past couple of years was quizzing D.A. Pennebaker (or, rather, rolling tape while Donn unspooled one of his always colorful anecdotes) about the infamous "hammer" scene in Norman Mailer's Maidstone, in which The Great American Novelist was mercilessly kabonged on his stubborn noggin by Rip Torn in the climactic, and obviously unscripted, scene. I mean, that's the whole enchilada. How do you not talk about that in all its gory, brawling minutiae? On the other hand, the 24/7/365 collective gusting gasbag that is social media doesn't discriminate between a genuine Cultural Moment and celebrity stuntwork. That's up to us. Overall, I think the extracurricular fuss over Blue has probably brought some extra zest to a healthy conversation about the film's themes and its representation of women, as well as the physical and psychological risks of onscreen realism. At least, there was no blunt head trauma.

Michael Sicinski, Cinema Scope, Nashville Scene

I think that one has to tread lightly with such matters. I'm a formalist at heart, and I try to commit myself very doggedly to the object onscreen before me. But I also think other matters cannot simply be bracketed out. For instance, if the filmmaker is someone of note, I tend to place the film in question within the context of his or her overall career, to see where it fits in or if notable stylistic and/or thematic changes have occurred. As for production controversies, actor-related tittle-tattle and the like, I try to avoid it. However, I also realize that no film exists in a vacuum, and all those matters may well influence how the film is received. That is, the film-object becomes part of an expanded hyper-text (of which its reviews are still another part). So if certain extra-textual matters are inevitably on people's minds (e.g., Mel Gibson's bad behavior, the Kechiche kerfuffle), there's no sense pretending there's no elephant in the room. Better to contextualize the elephant as best we can, and move back to the film, which presumably matters enough to prompt our writing in the first place.

Carrie Rickey, various outlets

The critic should fcus on what's on the screen, not the making-of gossip or how the audience reacts. This said, When I remember what Maria Schneider said about how Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando manipulated and exploited her on Last Tango in Paris, I retrospectively like the film less.

Bilge Eibri, Vulture

This is one of the toughest things for me to deal with, as a critic. Many critics like to pretend that there's some kind of objective standard -- that outside knowledge of things like how a director treated his actors or what terrible things he did in his spare time, or even on set -- should not matter. But I'm not sure I buy into that mentality. Everything we do is ultimately subjective, and based on human interaction and communication. So if you happen to know something about the means of production, and it affects your view of the film, I think it's your honest duty to address it. (Presumably, it will be something that's actually  relevant to the film itself, and not just some random detail like the fact that the director has a fondness for wearing women's shoes in his spare time or whatever.) And it should be up to the reader to ignore it, or compensate for it, or to accept it.

That said, sometimes outside knowledge can color one's response to a film in ways that aren't exactly clear, or direct. For example, the fact that Victor Salva was a convicted child molester really wound up affecting my view of Jeepers Creepers, which is a very scary film made even more disturbing and hard to watch by that knowledge, and definitely not in a good way. Is that, however, ultimately unfair to the film, and to the dozens of other people who worked on that film? Perhaps. But to try and reduce it to an either-or, "either it matters or it doesn't" choice is, I think, at odds with the basic idea of why any of us write in the first place. Otherwise, why even bother with the messy and very personal act of writing? Just give your "objective" rating and be done with it.

That said, do I think we should actually seek such knowledge out? Not really. In other words: I'm perfectly happy not knowing that John Ford was a sadistic asshole. 

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey


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