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Olivier Assayas on the Difference Between Film Writing and Film Criticism

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by Alec Kubas-Meyer
October 25, 2012 11:35 AM
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Olivier Assayas on the set of "Carlos." IFC Films

[All quotes come from Olivier Assayas' discussion with the New York Film Festival Critic’s Academy.]

It has been said that film critics are nothing more than failed filmmakers. If French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is to be believed, writing about movies is the best film school a person could have. And he should know, because he made the transition from critic to filmmaker himself, and he did so with great success.

When he was younger, Assayas wrote for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, getting his start in the same place as filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Jacques Rivette. There is no modern equivalent to Cahiers du Cinéma (certainly not in the United States), but there are more options for up-and-coming writers than ever before. When Assayas refers to Cahiers du Cinéma as "part of the process of accessing the tools of filmmaking," he is describing something that can be applied to Film Comment, Indiewire, or John Doe’s Movie Blog: 

"When I started writing, I realized that I was learning stuff about films. I was reflecting on cinema, and I was asking myself questions that tried to frame my personal approach to filmmaking, and the more I was writing, the more I knew what I was lacking. The more I wrote, the more I understood that there was a lot that was lacking."

Few things can change a person’s relationship with cinema more than digging down into the films themselves. Whether someone wants to be a filmmaker, a writer, or even just an audience member, there is no downside to developing a critical eye towards cinema. It is perfectly valid to see film as an entertainment medium rather than an art form, but that is a very limiting point of view. There is a middle ground, where films can be enjoyed and considered, and that can only be beneficial to the moviegoing experience.

Fortunately, it is easier than ever to experience all that movies have to offer. Up-and-coming filmmakers/writers are in a much better position than Assayas was back when he was getting his start. His cinematic education came primarily through film festivals:

"I was going to film festivals where I was watching movies that I wouldn’t have time to access. This is pre-VHS days, let alone getting DVDs or finding films online. Paris has always been privileged with a lot of international movies coming there, but still, not every single movie comes, and a huge amount of what was happening in the international film scene was not accessible in Paris, but I could access it through festivals."

Not everyone can live near a city with a big festival, but for those interested in indie and foreign films, geographic locations are becoming less and less important. Netflix streams many excellent obscure titles, and the Criterion Collection's partnership with Hulu Plus singlehandedly justifies that subscription cost. Video on Demand services give a second life to films that would otherwise have never screened outside of a festival. Even within festivals, though, digital innovations are helping films reach broader audiences. Earlier this year, the New York-based Tribeca Film Festival had an online component, which allowed for anybody, anywhere to join in the fun. And when I say fun, of course, I am referring to film writing. Not necessarily film criticism, though; there’s a difference. Assayas explains:

"I always feel a little ill at ease when the difference between film writing and film criticism is not clearly drawn. I did write some film criticism in the sense of rating movies, [but that] was a tiny part of what I was doing. I wrote pieces about films, and I wrote pieces about general film theory. I mean film theory, it’s a big word, but it’s analyzing trends in current cinema. Trying to approach a certain aspect of what cinema is about and was transforming at the time. I also did film journalism, interviewing filmmakers, doing the everyday job of a journalist. To me, this all belongs to the sphere that is film writing."

Criticism and journalism are both sides of the same coin, despite the fact that the title “film critic” commands the most respect. Film criticism can be a great thing, but it’s not the be-all end-all of writing about film. The moment-to-moment information about what’s going on in the industry can be just as important as determining the quality of the twenty-something films that get released in New York City each week. But then again, perhaps these are both considered within the title of "criticism;" the term itself is somewhat unclear. Assayas is right: there needs to be some clarification.

After his five years at Cahiers du Cinéma, Assayas moved on to become a full-time filmmaker, and he never looked back. He took what he had learned about movies from his time as a film writer and applied it to his work. It is an inspiring model for up-and-coming writers and filmmakers as well. While some filmmakers disparage the role of film criticism and film writing, Assayas has a unique understanding of its role in movie culture. He says:

"I know how precious the relationship is between reflection and writing about cinema and the practice of cinema, because that’s where I come from. That’s what’s made me the person I am. I’ve never despised or overlooked anything that has to do with writing on film, because I know it’s an essential part of what creates contemporary filmmaking."

Alec Kubas-Meyer is currently an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence college and an Associate Editor for Flixist. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.

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