Books on Film Criticism

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Matt Zoller Seitz compiled a personal list of 14 books on film criticism. If it's good enough for Matt-friggin'-Zolller Seitz, it should be good enough for, well, me.

Of interest:

From Calgari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, by Sigfried Kracauer Princeton / The Monster Show: Revised Edition, by David J. Skal
University Press, 1947 / Faber & Faber, 2001

I put these two books on the same slide because they indulge in similarly bold leaps of critical imagination. Rather than pursue the usual historian’s causal relationship of “A led to B, which in turn led to C,” these authors work more like psychologists, treating entire civilizations as if they were individuals, and looking at how history and culture influence each other, and how in certain cases culture might be able to predict history. Sigfried Kracauer’s book “From Calgari to Hitler” suggests that German Expressionist cinema is a sort of snapshot of the German psyche in the ’20s, prior to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and that if you study it closely, you can see evidence of longings, fears and nightmare disturbances that Hitler and his followers would tap into, then channel. (Dr. Calgari, the character whose last name appears in the book’s title, was a hypnotist.) Originally published in 1993, David J. Skal’s “The Monster Show” is similarly audacious, suggesting, among other things, that the Universal horror films of the 1930s — which were often set in a geographically nonspecific nightmare Europe filled with magic, superstition, hateful mobs and hideous beasts — were a kind of collective premonition of World War II and the Holocaust.

The Art of the Moving Picture, by Vachel Lindsay
Kessinger Publishing (1922)

This 1922 book by poet and sometime cultural critic Vachel Lindsay might have been the first to treat the then-new medium of moving pictures as an art form, one that was potentially as rich, complex, mysterious as far older ones, and whose physical and aesthetic properties were only starting to be understood. The highlight of the book might be “The Motion Picture of Fairy Splendor,” which examines the relationship between film storytelling, magic, myths, legends and bedtime stories.

From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies, by Molly Haskell
Reinhart and Winston, 1974

One of the most original books of film criticism, and easily one of the best-written, Molly Haskell’s “From Reverence to Rape“is a book-length equivalent of that great line about how Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, only she did it backward in high heels. Filling in areas of film history (and criticism) that were often neglected before she published this slim volume, Haskell writes about the image of women — and the screen image and careers of famous female movie stars — from the point of view of a feminist, and a realist.

Negative Space, by Manny Farber
Praeger, 1971

If you’ve never read Manny Farber, Negative Space” is a hell of a place to start. Sui generis, the original of originals, and a rare critic whose work is provocative and engaging no matter what he was writing on, Farber was one of the most important of the postwar American critics — a writer who, like Andrew Sarris, insisted that the subject matter, budget or intent of a motion picture had absolutely nothing to do with its quality — that true art could be concealed within films of off-putting technique, low budgets and disreputable subject matter (‘termite art,” he called it) and that the films that were intended to be respectable, to make people feel like good and noble citizens, could in fact be uninteresting, even morally and aesthetically toxic. He also writes perceptively about the compositions, cuts, music and overall feel of a film, which seems like no big deal until you think about how much film reviewing, past and present, reads like book reports.


VIFF People's Choice Award winner, and Cinemap's winning selections

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VIFF announced its popular choice award today, and it's one more accolade for the Iranian entry, A separation. It's a sure nomination for A separation comes Oscar time, but will it win?

As for me, I've seen a total of 21 films this time around, and here's my own Cinemap list of winners:

Best feature film

A separation (Farhadi)
Runner up: Le Havre, The Kid with a bike

Best directing

The Kid with a bike (Dardene & Dardene)
Runner up: Kaurismäki for Le Havre, Farhadi for A separation

Best documentary

Happy People: A year in the Taiga (Herzog and Vasyokov)
Runner up: The Boy Mir: 10 Years in Afghanistan

Best ensemble

A separation
Runner up: Le Havre, Tyrannosaur

Best performance

Thomas Doret in The Kid with a bike
Runner up: Sareh Bayat in A separation, Peter Mullan in Tyrannosaur, Jean Dujardin in The Artist, Aggeliki Papoulia in Alps

Best cinematography

Le Havre
Runner up: Sleeping Beauty, The Turin Horse

Best script

A separation (Farhadi)
Runner up: Le Havre, The Kid with a bike


Canal+ Commercial

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It's kind of whimsical?


VIFF 2011: Week 3 - You're not ready for pop. (The kid with a bike, Artist, Alps, Michael, Martha Marcy May Marlene)

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Round up reviews of films I've seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival week 3, in order of preference/impact:

1. Le Gamin au vélo (The kid with a bike) (Dardene & Dardene | Belgium)

Impression: VIFF announced the People's Choice today, and if it wasn't for the fact that the Dardene brothers' feature was screened just last night, I'd think that it would've given the eventual winner a pretty good run for its money, judging from the crowd reaction. I distinctly heard a "woot!" and there were tears flowing around me. The moment Cyril (played with so much angst and sweetness by Thomas Doret) unexpectedly clutched for dear life onto Samantha, there was no doubt he got her complete attention, and the audience's (mine) in turn. The child abandonment story tugged at the heart with such ease, no manipulative strings attached could be seen or cared to be found. It was sweet, without the saccharine, tough without the embellishment, and heartbreaking without the melodrama. There was a long, silent, beautiful sequence of him riding a bike after a particularly crushing turn of event that showed off both his incredibly exact performance and the Dardene brothers' master direction. I'm not one to have maternal feelings, but this boy's transparent yearning gave my ovaries a good squeeze.

Reaction: So that's what a maternal feeling is like.

2. The Artist (Hazanavicius| France)

Impression: With The Artist, Hazanavicius made a loving tribute to the silent era in the same zesty, playful manner as many of the era's films. While it ridiculed the arrogance of its silent stars, it also paid respect to the inventiveness and the heart of many artists that drove the industry. The use of sound was clever in a way that really highlighted the shock and awe of its introduction to the screen. The audience ate this up; I could see this film going a long way at the Oscars.

Reaction: How come it took us this long to have this movie made? I want that dog! So. Bad.

3. Alps (Lanthimos| Greece)

Impression: Going to see the film with no prior knowledge of what it was about really added to the uncertain feeling of what was happening to its characters. Alps focused on a group of unlikely grief performers, taking on the role of the departed as family members tried to come to terms of the baggage left behind. There are performances within performances, and after a while, I started to wonder if the real thing was just a performance. The absurdity and odd humourous moments didn't negate the sad state everything was weighed down by. I don't know how this compares to Dogtooth, the director's previously acclaimed film (and surprising Academy Awards Foreign Film nominnee), but it makes me all the more interested in what else he has to offer.

Reaction: Prince is alive! Prince is alive? He is!

4. Michael (Schleinzer| Austria)

Impression: While I was curious about the comparison the film's director had been drawn to Haneke, I was worried about how it was going to turn out, given the delicate nature of child exploitation. Would the young actor be introduced unnecessarily to the reality of pedophilia? How would they handle the sensitive scenes? It's one thing to have adults acting out a scripted horror; it's another to have a kid exposed to such horror, even in pretense. Other than one shocking scene played out in a humourous tone that nevertheless was quite terrifying, the film for the most part spared its audience its most tragic scenes, opting instead to hint at them with pre- and post-preparation by Michael, the unknown sickness that dwell amongst everyday people. Following the modern European clinical, matter of fact aesthetics to approach difficult, dark social underbelly subject matter, the film made no attempt at a cause and effect explanation of what made Michael Michael - he had a presumably loving family (a mother and a sister who cared enough to cry over him, at least), a successful career (he prided himself over not being "one of the four" who'd lose his job in this tough economic time), and a hint of a precocious mind (he purportedly made way for Christmas right after Easter as a child because he was "impatient"). There was something unsettling about him though - one got a sense that his meticulous and methodical way of ordering his everyday activities belied a rigid, contemptuous, deeply insecure boy who never developed a true adult connection with the world. I can't imagine playing a pedophile to be all that easy, but Michael Fuith did an incredible job of acting the part, looking both ordinary and creepy. I can't look at that face the same way again. Sorry, Michael.

Reaction: I can't watch.

5. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Durkin| U.S.A.)

Impression: MMMM had a dream-like flow about it, which was rather typical of an indie flick. The titular character's daze coloured all that we could see. "I know who I am," she said with a slight quiver. Her mouthful of a name pointed out the contrary though - she was as lost as lost can be. She was neither a teacher nor a leader, a dream whispered to her by John Hawkes' cult leader in an attempt to lure the directionless youth into giving herself over to a promised defined, pure life. One could see how the haves - in their glass house and suppressed guilt and hatred - could be held up as a reason not to be for the have nots. It makes seductive the counterpoint lifestyle for those looking to be held in something they could feel with their hands. Martha spouted the same values those with high morales might even line themselves up with, but she parroted them like one would a school lesson. She was but a mouthpiece for the discontent, no more authentic and loving than the world she ran away from. Durkin made an interest point of allowing her two worlds to collide so seamlessly, despite the stark contrast (one that was hinted at as a possible danger with the consequence of one bump in the night with her fellow "housemates"). The only way one could tell the past from the present was the people occupying the scene - cinematically, they were all the same. She was a beautiful vessel (her beauty was commented a few times in the film) for the two sides to impose their will on, not unlike what various groups try to do with our youth. In some ways, the film showed how powerful the desire to belong can be, and that same desire could lead us down a rabbit hole we may not come back from. Unfortunately, the characters felt quite derivative, and Olsen felt a bit too Maggie Gyllenhaal at times even in her manner. It was a solid film, but no greatness here.

Reaction: Wow, Elizabeth Olsen is like a cross between the Olsen twins and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Death is love? *rolls eyes*


VIFF 2011: Week 2 - What's wrong is wrong (A separation, Havre, Sleeping Beauty, Ms Bala, Anatolia, Footnote,Like Crazy, Starbuck, Elena, Turin Horse)

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Round up reviews of films I've seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival week 2, in order of preference/impact:

1. Jodái-e Náder az Simin (A separation) (Farhadi | Iran)

Impression: Iran's official entry for Foreign Film Oscar is a sophisticated, nuanced, meaningful portrait of Iran as it wrestles class, religion, gender, and the wheel of modernity in the frontier of its people's home. For an involving, intricate plot, there's barely any excess fat in the film to speak of. Every single character occupying the screen is an empathetic human being - there's no stereotype to be found, not even the usual dictatorial male figure in this deeply patriarchal society. It warmed my heart to see loving, respectful parenting figures in films, however flawed they were in other ways. The cast clearly infused their story with much pride and a deep knowing of their existential condition. There's no easy solution; the struggle between living the truth out loud and managing delicate human relationships can only be negotiated one step at a time. Farhadi captured its subtlety and drama with equal ease and wisdom. This is a rare family drama that works. I know what I'm rooting for comes Oscar time.
Reaction: What beautiful children.

2. Le Havre (Kaurismäki | France / Finland)

Impression: The set up of Le Havre, a stylized retro comedy of sort, was quite ridiculous: a shoe shiner in Normandy went on a mission to help a young refugee avoid being captured by the government and reconnect with his mother in London. It was more whimsical than serious, though there was enough humanity behind the film for us to care. Sometimes, a film is a romanticized version of a dream of a true emotion. This was such a film, and gosh darn what an absolute delight it was.
Reaction: Man, I love this movie.

3. Sleeping Beauty (Leigh | Australia)

Impression: Sleeping beauty is an austere, gorgeously shot fable about, on a literal level, a smart, young girl getting paid to go to sleep while her clients did what they had come for, and on a figurative level, a smart, young girl walk-sleeping her life away. "Sarah" turned herself into an object to be used by others in seemingly endless fashion, from science experiment to server to sex work. Her beauty was her calling card, and she used it like everyone else does: a functional object to act upon (she corrected the woman who would be her pimp that her "vagina is [her] vagina" and not a temple). No one was home; no one was interested. Her only human connection, beyond the veneer of manners, was with the Birdman, whom she would at times enact domestic scenarios with. Gradually, our girl began to take a vested interest in what was happening to her. The revelation was not exactly what she had in mind, and it only enforced the barren life she'd chosen for herself. The film ended at the moment of her realization, and it was a powerful punch of a scene to leave the audience with. And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, Julia Leigh has arrived.
Reaction: Is she serious? Only one rule? I can think of a million things that you'd want to put in that rule book and I have only seen one scenario!

4. Miss Bala (Naranjo | Mexico)

Impression: Mexico's drug war has become a breeding ground for crimes and corruptions. Naranjo anchored his pessimistic observations and damning critiques of the whole bloody affair to Laura, an aspiring contestant in a beauty pageant caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Much like a beauty pageant, the war on drug is a loud, glittery show that masquerades a seedy, ugly underbelly of humanity. The contestants are swallowed in the flow of power and money. The system is rigged - it can crown you a beauty queen one evening and throw you under a bus the next, and no one would bat an eye. Poor Laura's only trying to survive under fire, as she bends to the will and whims of the criminals and the government that fails to protect her. Along the way, she tries to find moments of grace, but they are so ever fleeting. Will the good people take a stand? We keep hoping, but does it matter an ounce if it's all just show and tell?
Reaction: Girl, DO SOMETHING!

5. Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da (Once upon a time in Anatolia) (Ceylan | Turkey)

Impression: I should've taken a hint from the title that Anatolia would be like a bedtime story, with emphasis on it being a story to be told before falling asleep. I went to see it at the end of a very long day, and I did not realize what a bad idea it was until half an hour into the film or so, when I started to drift away in the middle of yet another false body-ID alarm in the dark of the night. Once they hit daylight, however, the sleepiness lifted and I was able to enjoy the film for what it was: a procedural film about truth and discretion, and the shortcomings of a very human system. There were a number of laugh out loud and cringey moments having to do with police and hospital set up. It was a contemplative tragicomedy worth seeing, just not at the end of a very long day.
Reaction: Let there be light!

6. He'arat Shulayim (Footnote) (Cedar | Israel)

Impression: Footnote was a comedy about the fierce competition between intellectuals trying to survive in a world where they want to matter most: the archives of academic history. At its center was an elitist father who spent his life obsessing with the minutiae of Isreali's Talmud writings that he never got around to publish on time, when it mattered. His successful son's fortune exceeded his, and he grew envious of the son's achievements. Meanwhile, the son secretly idolized his father and did his utmost to realize his father's dream of winning the Israeli Prize. His father, blinded by resentment, arrogance and a dogmatic approach to their shared passion, proceeded to sabotage his only fan's effort. Cedar made a very charming Jewish intellectual comedy with Footnote, though it may have been a little on the light side.
Reaction: But isn't that what people have children for? To achieve what they can't in their life time?

7. Like Crazy (Doremus | U.S.A.)

Impression: Like Crazy explored gently the meaning of "can't live with you, can't live without you." A story about an encompassing connection between two people over time and space should've hit a home run with me, but it hit me a lot less than I thought it would. While Anton was sweet and Felicity's teeth were charming, their love was ultimately too precious and thin to make much of an impact. It wasn't particularly compelling, even if it got something worthwhile to say about the unpredictable course of chemistry and how a connection is inherently born between two people in their particular context. Some people are lucky enough to have plenty of meaningful, enveloping connections throughout their life, be it with the same or different partner. Some people don't find or know any at all. And then there are those who spend their lives trying to recapture the magic that came so easy at one time, only to find out that - like the first heroin high - it can not be experienced again, even with the same person. The cast tried their best to lend some heft to the story, and Doremus made an effort to frame them in a nostalgic, intimate postcard hue. Still, it felt a little too cute to warrant more than a cup of tears (tears are how I measure all love stories).
Reaction: *sniffle* when Anton broke up with Jennifer Lawrence. That felt real.

8. Starbuck (Scott | Canada)

Impression: A harmless feel-good Canadian comedy about what you make of a family. It was a true crowd-pleaser so I'm not surprised it was a runner up at TIFF. There's really not much else to write home about though.
Reaction: Oh no, not another emo running joke. But that's kinda sweet.

9. Elena (Zvyagintsev | Russia)

Impression: So, Zvyagintsev's The Return was really good. His new film Elena, Cannes' Special Jury Prize winner, came with high expectation as a consequence. While the film was well made, its principles were a crapshoot of unlikable people going about their life focusing solely on what they could take or feel entitled to. Other than the stark contrast between the lifestyles of the rich and the poor, there was not much that separated the interiors of their life. Elena was the conduit between the haves and have-nots, and the film almost in a cannibalistic way ate up its own titular character. She was an example of someone who didn't think her own crap stink, as she hopped on the high horse when it came to chiding her husband's rebellious daughter, but turned a blind eye to her own moral compromises. There was no sympathy for any class, and unfortunately, that didn't make the film a compelling story one would want to visit again.
Reaction: Gosh darn I want some sliding doors. I really don't like this character. At all.

10. A torinói ló (The Turin Horse) (Tarr | Hungary)

Impression: I wanted a Bela Tarr experience at the theatre, especially since it was going to be his last film. Sometimes, though, things sound better on paper than in real life. The film started out really promisingly, with a prologue explaining how this was the story of what happened to the farmer and the horse that came at a pivotal point in Nietzsche's life. The image of the poor horse trudging along to foreboding music was quite stark and beautiful. However, the harsh, repetitive, poor-in-every-way life of a doomed father and daughter pair (and their dying horse) told in excruciating, laborous details wasn't really something I prepared to spend 3 hours experiencing, however well photographed it was. I spent most of the film actively making up stories about people on screen in order to stay interested and awake. The film had somewhat of a punch line; I just wished it came an hour or two earlier.
Reaction: Ah, more potato munching. From a different angle. Very well. Why doesn't she have it with salt like her dad? Is she protesting? Such a rebel. Who does she look like? She looks like somebody. Shirley Duvall? Hm.


VIFF 2011: Week 1 - Life has a big gap in it. You don't try to fill it like a fvking lunatic. (Taiga, Waltz, Mir, Tyrannosaur, Top floor, Skin)

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Round up reviews of films I've seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival week 1, in order of preference/impact:

1. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Herzog | Germany/Russia)

Impression: Werner Herzog's abiding interest - human's connection to nature - was once again given the grand stage by way of the vast, beautiful, harsh Siberian Taiga landscape. Propelled along its seasons by the ever charming (if not heavy-handed at times) Herzogian narration, Vasyokov's documentary (edited by Herzog) on the Bakhtin villagers explored the mythical one-man-and-his-dog-versus-the-universe story in all its glory. Although Herzog would like you to believe that our central character - a wise, renaissance man of sort in the form of a seasoned trapper - epitomized the complete self-reliance of ancient "cave men," his snowmobile, riffle, and a supporting cast of women and children at home would beg to differ. In spite of its romanticism, the film worked as a compelling study of tradition's last frontier.

"I want to make that canoe. Right now."

2. Take this Waltz (Polley | Canada)

Impression: There could be very good reasons for you to find Waltz intolerable: its set up was precious, its characters were all a twee bit self-absorbed, and it tread the familiar territory of the ambiguous heart's affairs (Blue Valentine worked in the same vein). Yet, Sarah Polley dotted her Is and crossed her Ts so meticulously and patiently that the film - viewed in an uncertain frame of mind - could gently break your heart, if you'd allow it. The title of this post came from a line in the film that was particularly telling of the direction Polley wanted to take her viewers (the irony of the line spoken by Silverman's character is that it was exactly what she was doing). This was about the heart making decisions in a cloud of unknowns, or as Polley put it: “I wanted to make a film about desire, not a philosophical essay, but to be inside of it, to feel how delicious it is, and how difficult it is for us, as human beings, to either turn our backs on that sensation or to live with the primal gap it creates, one that needs to be fulfilled. I wanted to show the process of someone trying to escape that essential state of being and how it doesn’t always work." The cast felt lived in, with Michelle Williams continuing her impressive acting streak. The two comedic actors (and inspired choices) - Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman - gave their rather unexpected best work here. As the icing on the cake, my home city Toronto never looked better in film as a character on its own.

Reaction: "I need to stop crying. It's only a movie. I need to stop. "

3. The boy Mir: 10 years in Afghanistan (Grabsky | UK)

Impression: Grabsky followed an eight year-old Afghan boy named Mir for one year in 2001, with the hope of capturing "an ordinary life in an extraordinary time." Rather than stopping after one year, he continued to follow Mir for another 10 years, hoping to document the rise of Afghan people along with him. It was a difficult and beautiful, depressing and uplifting picture of an irrepressible spirit, struggling to grow and live on a land people only knew how to fight over and not be responsible for any of it.

Reaction: "That boy never stopped smiling!"

4. Tyrannosaur (Considine | UK)

Impression: If there was a painting suitable for this film, it's Wilhem Freddie's depressing, crushing La Priere (The prayer). Tyranonosaur told a story of two strangers taking turns comforting each other in time of great spiritual needs. While it didn't seem so at first, with one being a drunken angry old man prone to violent outbursts and the other being a married woman of faith, they shared a common beast named anger. It was the kind born from a deep pain accumulated over years of taking it all in stride, hoping that there was a greater purpose for all the suffering, only to realize that even if there was, the damage was done. There was no undoing, only temporary comfort in those offering shelters along the way. As such, the film relied on its small, intimate cast for the emotional heft to override the obviousness, and it got that in spades.

Reaction: "This is not a morning movie."

5. Dernier étage gauche gauche (Top floor, Left Wing, Cianci | France)

Impression: A classic comedy of errors in some ways, Cianci's whimsical, political hostage-taking thriller moved along splendidly like a thriller should, even as it weaved in and out of a couple of family dramas on the way.

Reaction: "Who'd throw a fridge, honestly?"

6. La piel que habito (The skin I live in, Almodóvar | Spain)

Impression: The best way I could describe Almodóvar's latest venture is that it's a horror melodrama, one that paints a very perverse and clinical portrait of sexual violence. Bandaras played a surgeon cum research scientist on skin transplant, who conducted unethical surgeries and experiments in his own lavish, modern lair. While the twist was quite disturbing, the storyline became predictable half way through and it fizzed out like a typical soap opera. As a picture I looked forward to the most at the festival, it disappointed under the weight of expectation. Nevertheless, it was pretty enough to entice me along the way for the most part.

Reaction: "That can't be a good idea."



Recently Seen (out of *****)

  • One night in Miami (King, 2020) ***
  • Mank (Fincher, 2020) ***1/2
  • Coming 2 America (Brewer, 2021) **1/2
  • Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Wolfe, 2020) ***1/2
  • I care a lot (Blakeson, 2020) **

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