Silverdocs - Doc Talk: Film Criticism - June 19, 2009
June 19, 2009
Photo by Brian Geldin
Silverdocs Director of Programming Sky Sitney introduced this esteemed panel of film critics from top media outlets as well as the man whose blog post inspired the idea for the panel, Thom Powers, Toronto Film Festival documentary programmer and creator of New York's popular Stranger Than Fiction documentary screening series. Thom's posting was a "call to action" for documentary film critics, something Sitney said is not just important for documentary filmmakers, but the state of journalism today in relationship to documentaries. Therefore, this panel was called to address the changes in mainstream journalism that are affecting criticism and the job of critics. All of these issues were addressed in one way or another, but the discussion got particularly juicy when the panelists debated if there needs to be specialized critics just for documentaries. Below are some highlights from this panel.
Phillip Kennicott – Washington Post Culture Critic
Lisa Schwarzbaum – Entertainment Weekly
David Edelstein – New York Magazine, NPR’s Fresh Air
Thom Powers - Toronto Film Festival Documentary, Stranger Than Fiction
Amy Taubin – British Sight & Sound, Film Comment
Kennicott: Were you (Thom) simply saying that we have to put more time and resources and depth into documentary reviews, or were you speaking of the virtues of specialization?
Powers: I think that there's been this growth of documentary film in the last five to ten years. It's grown to a point where the old-style method of covering it, people whose jobs are mainly covering fiction who also cover documentaries if they come along is no longer quite adequate...I have tremendous respect for what each person (on the panel) is doing here...(Lisa in EW) is always making room for documentary coverage....Amy has such a long and venerable career in documentary coverage. In fact, I would use as an example a kind of criticism I'm hoping for is a piece that she wrote for Film Comment in the last year about James Toback's film Tyson...conceptualizing it in comparison to Barbara Kopple's film about Mike Tyson that was made 10 years ago and has sort of fallen out of appreciation and circulation. It took someone with a deep understanding of history of that field to make that connection...When I talk about criticism, I'm not just talking about people to give two thumbs up to documentaries. I'm talking about we need a more rigorous analysis of this important piece of culture that's becoming more a part of the experience of how we perceive the world. Films like Food, Inc., An Inconvenient Truth...Bee Season, these are films that play a role in our culture that was once more played by print journalism. We all know that print journalism is receding. I think that this work is kind of filling its place.
Kennicott: (Speaking before the panel with Edelstein who told him it's more difficult to review documentaries). Can you talk a little bit more what you meant?
Edelstein: I think it depends on the documentary. We can sit here for a long time to discuss the boundaries between art and journalism...When you're writing about a piece of journalism, it's more difficult because you're really in the role of a reporter...You're relaying the facts (and) arguments...It's very different than reviewing a more impressionistic documentary...I did a column this week on Agnes Varda's The Beaches of Agnes and I had a fantastic time. It's a delightfully goofy movie. Very nutty and impressionistic...I had a terrible time writing about Food, Inc., because even though I admire it much more...what I essentially was called upon to do was relay the facts of the movie and kind of get out of the way. I ended up writing much shorter on Food, Inc., and in fact writing, as Thom said, an advocacy piece...which I'm kind of too pretentious to do that. It made for a great ad quote, but I usually think let's leave that to Peter Travers. I make fun of him because he writes in blurb speak, but in fact I have friends who are documentary filmmakers who really appreciate that, not necessarily for his insights, but they can appropriate his language and use it to sell their films. We do have an advocacy rule, but it it's very difficult. You're trying to write in a lively, witty impressionistic style to win readers...make them want to read you.
Kennicott: Do you have time to be a journalistic and a fact checker on the schedule you keep?
Schwarzbaum: That's a fine question and I don't know if any of us have time to be a journalistic fact checker, but it also gets into an interesting question whether that is what we are supposed to be doing. We are looking at the material that is given us. I think David and I both jump on this word 'advocacy'...yes, we want to write about a documentary film we think is good and therefore want people to see it...What we have to do is get the word out for people to see it, but that's not our primary job...that's what advertising is for...We are to look at the work in front of us to put it in the context of what the film is and it so happens that the subject of the film is going to also be a part of this, but if I had to check the facts...it gets into a challenging issue, because how can we?
Edelstein: I mentioned on the phone...I loved like may other people the film Roger & Me, but I was somewhat shamed by (??? Jacobson's???) expose on the way that Michael Moore had manipulated the facts in the film...Admittedly, he took a long time and did a lot of digging. I should have been a little more suspicious of the film. I still love it, I think it's a landmark. I thought it was extremely vital, but I'm comfortable with the fact that I have to function as a fact checker...Our own politics will inevitably enter in.
Schwarzbaum: That's a huge part of it...What happens when there is a film, the subject of which resonates with us versus a film that we don't care for the subject? When it comes to documentary filmmaking, it's about real things...real people...How did they shape this film?...It's interesting that we as humans can't help but also have our own head in there.
Edelstein: As critics, too.
Schwarzbaum: I think Amy (Taubin's) writing is always driven by a passion that comes through you...with a political passion as well as a critical eye. Am I wrong in saying that?
Taubin: I care about movies. I obviously have politics. I obviously am a human being. I'm a woman and therefore certain subjects move me more than others...I think I write out of a sense of what is a movie, what is film language, what is this thing doing with that? There is a particular type of documentary language. I think that people who write about documentary who write about a range of film, I think yes, you feel nervous about...not understanding something about this film and no critic, I think when they feel ignorant...you get to a very complicated Chinese movie and you can't tell one character from the other and you absolutely do not want to review it because, oh my G-d, they'll know that I couldn't tell these characters apart...With documentary it's the same kind of problem. But I think that's what's missing is that people don't talk about documentary language...what it means to make one type of documentary, an essay documentary as opposed to a journalistic documentary. But also the kinds of things like, he couldn't possibly have gotten that shot unless he had five cameras there and was waiting for it to happen. Why is it trying to tell me that he's a fly on the wall? That's the kind of things that I think you really need specialized critics?
Edelstein: What do you mean specialized?...That should be what we do. I was appalled by that American Teen in which it was very clear that they had manipulated their subjects intending to be a documentary, but it was the same kind of manipulation, you know when you hear about these nature films where the lion jumps on the poor little caribou, and you hear later they pushed the caribou into the frame and had the lion there waiting off camera. That was what that movie was like...It's our job to understand verite. It's our job to bring a different set of tools to a (Chris Marker???) documentary to a verite documentary to an extremely stylizes Errol Morris...that's our job. We don't need specialized documentary critics...We have plenty of time to learn about this stuff and just do it.
Powers: I wonder if someone whose job it is to do be on top of everything that's happening in American cinema...and world cinema...and also has the time to take on the expertise of documentary.
Schwarzbaum: Thom, you're asking for a specialized group? You're asking for a special exception for documentary in a way. You're saying, well this requires very specific thinking. I think what David is saying is right that as a critic, whether it's a Chinese film or documentary...I understand what you're saying about long form and in depth, I do think that's where writing that's being done on a line where there is a tremendous amount of space for people to go on and on and perhaps get to a point. I think that's great.
Kennicott: Do you think it's okay...to rhetorically say if this film is truly good, and then review it from there? [NOTE: Either Kennicott's microphone was on very low or he is a low-talker, ie in a Seinfeld episode, I couldn't quite make out what his question was here, and the above is the best I could make out, so hopefully the panelists answers make sense in relation to this question]
Schwarzbaum: The idea that a subject that seems strong carries the film for many people writing about documentaries is a problem to me...Oh look, they did a story about underappreciated black musicians who did Motown. We're not talking about what the film looks like, how it was put together. Telling truth requires a structure, too. It is an art form that we're writing about...a medium that we're writing about, so it's not just a truth, but how it's presented in a cinematic form that I think is as important to me as a critic, not just whether you're getting a word about An Inconvenient Truth.
Edelstein: (Talking about the documentary Under Our Skin about Lyme Disease that just came out theatrically)...I thought was very fine...It was not a great piece of cinema. It was a great piece of advocacy...an expose. I'm going to put the review online...The publicist of the movie (thought) it's much more prestige for the film if it's reviewed in print oddly enough.
Schwarzbaum: You're not doing for them to satisfy prestige for this.
Edelstein: I sat through the two-part distribution panel that preceded that and it was very sobering to hear that so much of their marketing strategy revolves around getting the films to critics because in many cases, we're the only ones who tell the audience and reports what's actually in the film...As I saw the people on the stage, many of whose films I didn't get to...I felt a sense of shame. There's 600-plus films that come out every year. I'm very lucky if I see 300 of them. Sometimes I don't get to these films or I don't treat them in the kind of depth that I should. I want to be better.
Kennicott: Just before the panel, (Amy) said she had 300-some odd screeners.
Taubin: Anyone who wants to send me a screener of course you can, but I don't know when I'll get to it. As a result, I have hundreds...I just want to go back to something that David said about that distribution panel. There was a brilliant piece in the New York Times...about the Hollywood studios and quotes. And critics like Lisa and David and particularly my friend Manhola Dargis hands out a sheet to the marketing people. You may do this, you may not do this with my copy...you cannot change my punctuation, you cannot change my capitalization, because I am not a publicist. That is not what I do. The point of view of this piece is that the studios don't think that they get enough out of book quotes of people like us and they are really looking forward to critics having more prestige so that they can simply take fabulous and sensational Twitter box, name an app, and they think that it will mean more. They think it will mean more to younger audiences...The idea that you got to get in print...I think that time is really about to be passed.
Kennicott: What will tell us that the primacy of print is finally over?
Edelstein: There's brilliant criticism on the web. The question is if these people can make a living doing it. Many of them have day jobs.
Powers: As an independent filmmaker, I'm totally uninterested where the review appears. Of course, it's nice when it happens under a prestigious headline. I get the pleasure of being panned in both New York Magazine and The Washington Post. It was more important to me to read something thoughtful...As much as we hunger as filmmakers to make money off of what we do, we also...want to think that our films are making ripples in the culture...One impetus behind my essay was that there's a lot more happening in documentary that is going unnoticed. (To pick up on something Lisa was talking about)...I think absolutely there is an important place for people who are writing about fiction an documentary, but I think there's a gap missing. I do think that specialists can bring a certain depth of background and understanding and more brain space to think about this.
Edelstein: We should have more brain space…In the Village Voice in 2007 you were saying, ‘I’ve seen 25 documentaries in the last year and they all seemed exactly the same to me.’ And you listed them. Stylistically, narratively or non-narratively everything about them was different. We’re not all like that. We really try…If we establish and audience that likes our voice…we might bring the reader into things that they might not otherwise seek out.
Schwarzbaum: I do think that you will find the in-depth pieces of the future online, just because of the amount of space or lack of space available in print…In general, space is shrinking in publications except for a very specific few. Whereas the Internet and online sites are where you can actually have amazing and beautiful and long pieces.
Powers: (On Food, Inc., which has a larger distributor, and The Line coming out on the same weekend, two thematically similar films)…It’s a real shame that there’s not room somewhere, and it doesn’t have to be in a major publication, it could be on someone’s blog, for the brain power to be applied. Let’s think about these two things together.
Taubin: You said something interesting in the beginning where you listed critics who had made a difference…I grew up reading Sarris…Jonas Mekas. They made an enormous difference in terms of avant garde films. There would not have been an avant garde film movement in the United States…if there wasn’t this person who had an amazing journalistic strategy and didn’t care about conflict of interest. He wrote about these films that he programmed, that he made, that his friends made. And he wrote about it with great passion…You can talk till you’re blue in the face about their being good writers online and for various site until there’s someone who has a real passion for the subject and also knows how to draw attention. This is the place where you go if you want to find about everything about X, Y & Z films, if their documentaries, if they’re American insane movies… (Peter Broderick advises people on)…how to self-market their films. If a documentary filmmaker can make $2 million marketing their film online by getting a good mailing list…then I would think that documentary filmmakers could get someone who is part of their world who can really speak about this in a passionate voice, get all those mailing lists and make a real site that says…this is where you go to find it out. Until that, there’s just a lot of people writing all over the map online.