Film Comment in the 21st Century
By Imogen Sara Smith
I come to praise Film Comment, not to bury it. The magazine may not be gone forever—according to the publisher, it is on “temporary hiatus”—but it is yet another thing we are missing in this year when so much went dark. Compared with the loss of lives, jobs, homes, and democratic ideals, its disappearance may seem minor, but for the cinephile community, already deprived of the chance to come together in movie theaters and at film festivals, its absence hurts.
Why do we read film criticism, anyway? As someone who writes the stuff, I should probably have a ready answer for that, but it can be hard to justify an activity when it feels entirely natural and necessary to you. After spending a few weeks rambling through a knee-high stack of old issues of Film Comment, I have a better idea. We read it not just for the light that smart writers can throw on cinema, but for the way that cinema, like a projector’s beam, lights up the minds of smart writers. Also because movies leave us enraptured, enraged, befuddled, betrayed, infatuated, or inspired—and whichever it is, we need to talk about it.
A good issue of the magazine (founded in 1962 as Vision: A Journal of Film Comment, and published since 1973 by Film at Lincoln Center, formerly the Film Society of Lincoln Center) is capacious and eclectic, ranging from ephemera—news, squibs, lists—to exquisitely wrought, darn near definitive appraisals, like Geoffrey O’Brien’s ode to Jacques Tourneur (“Artisan of the Unseen,” July-Aug 2002). You get the feeling of touching down, via time machine, in the lobby of one of New York’s rep houses on a given month and eavesdropping on the chatter of the in-the-know, and at the same time, the sense of being lifted up into an Olympian movie palace in which, as former FC editor Richard T. Jameson put it, “Cinema exists in an eternal present tense.”
Reviews of new releases and features on emerging directors might be considered a first draft of film history, though often a remarkably polished and authoritative draft, as in—to choose just two from a long list of examples—Farihah Zaman’s passionate, incisive appreciation of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (“Song of Myself,” Sept-Oct 2016), or Dennis Lim’s lucid yet appropriately lyrical guide through the mazy films of Bi Gan (“Moving Through Time,” July-Aug 2018). Timely pieces, including “In Memoriam” tributes and annual rituals like New York Film Festival coverage, are spiced with topics redolent of some writer’s long-nurtured fascination, like Nick Pinkerton’s casually erudite and wholly convincing argument for talking about camera lenses (“Field of Vision,” May-June 2019), or deeply digested experience, like Sheila O’Malley’s luminous essay on the difference between watching movies with or without an audience (“Present Tense: Audience vs. Alone,” October 24, 2019).
Over the course of fifty-eight years and six editors, the magazine has shifted back and forth in its balance between new and old, foreign/independent/experimental and mainstream Hollywood, sociopolitical context and aestheticism. In his thorough, insightful history of Film Comment’s first fifty years (Nov-Dec 2013), Max Nelson persuasively argues that one of the magazine’s strengths, and perhaps a secret of its longevity, has been its reluctance to align itself exclusively with any doctrinaire camp of film theory. “General interest” sounds wishy-washy, but FC has steadfastly demonstrated that rigor can go hand in hand with pleasure, appealing to the expert and the curious newcomer. I may be biased, but I would add that Film Comment’s greatest strength has been hewing to former editor Gavin Smith’s un-improvable editorial motto: “It was all about the writers.” And the magazine has had quite a lineup: Andrew Sarris, Raymond Durgnat, Robin Wood, Molly Haskell, Dave Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Geoffrey O’Brien, Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, to name just a few of the heavy-hitters. FC has also boasted the bylines of filmmakers from Ingmar Bergman to Chuck Jones, with regular contributions from the likes of Bertrand Tavernier, Paul Schrader, and Guy Maddin. One of the magazine’s roles has always been to celebrate, as well as publish, the best film criticism, running profiles of critics and ruminations on the always contested status and outlook for criticism and cinephilia.
Despite reflexive film-world nostalgia for a lost golden age of criticism and film culture, usually assumed to be the 1960s-70s, Film Comment, far from declining, flourished in the 21st century under the editorial leadership of Gavin Smith (2000-2016) and Nicolas Rapold (2016-2020), building on its lineage and adapting to radical changes in both publishing and the film industry. Most importantly, FC continued to bring on new generations of writers and finally made real progress in diversifying the overwhelmingly white male cast of contributors. (I was one of the beneficiaries; I began contributing to the magazine in 2016, and wrote the monthly, web-exclusive “Phantom Light” column during 2018-2019.)
Gavin Smith, who joined the Film Comment staff in 1987, shaped the magazine’s now familiar form during his editorship. The relatively stable format was flexible enough to house wide-ranging content: departments at the front (e.g., valuable columns on nonfiction cinema, the first written by Paul Arthur, later by Eric Hynes, or “Scare Tactics,” managing editor Laura Kern’s lively and intrepid exploration of horror films); a main body of features and interviews, with occasional thematic midsections; and reviews and festival coverage at the back. Smith boosted articles on world cinema and brought on more international writers, such as regular columnist Olaf Möller; the “Journal” department featured dispatches from various parts of the world by local experts. This effort to combat the provincialism enforced by poor distribution of foreign films—a situation that has happily improved since—included the launch of “Film Comment Selects,” an occasional series programmed by magazine staff and presented by the Film Society. Smith’s ambitious aim for the magazine to “cover the entire continuum from arthouse to multiplex” led to features on everything from Star Wars to Bollywood to Chris Marker to Djibril Diop Mambéty, and while covers were sometimes given over to mainstream fare, the driving goal was to turn attention on the overlooked or undervalued.
Nicolas Rapold joined the magazine in 2005, and before taking over as editor was responsible for building up the website into a vibrant platform that allowed for both more rapid and extensive coverage of new releases, and space for writers to range widely over areas of personal interest, as in Reverse Shot editor Michael Koresky’s decade-hopping “Queer Now and Then” column. In 2016, the magazine launched a weekly podcast, originally hosted by Film Comment’s then digital producer Violet Lucca and later by Rapold; alongside an increasing number of live panels and events, the podcast strengthened Film Comment’s position as a community hub, not just a publication. When Rapold took over as editor in 2016, the magazine got a refreshed look from its longtime art director Kevin Fisher—its beauty both making the case for the print issues as objects of lasting value, and honoring the visual nature of film through its evocative use of images—and some new departments, such as the revelatory “Art and Craft,” whose guest writers included gaffers, costume designers, and archival researchers; and others focusing on screen performance, music, and literary adaptation. Rapold’s vision for Film Comment was to offer “something you can’t find anywhere else that’s in touch with the past, the present, and the future of cinema.” (Editor’s letter, Nov-Dec 2018)
This was not just a matter of proportioning coverage of new movies, emerging trends, and reconsiderations of older films; it was about employing writers who could bring familiarity with the past and curiosity about the future to any subject, drawing on their own well-stocked mental film libraries. It should go without saying, but may be worth saying anyway, that the value of having a diverse slate of writers is not some abstract notion of “representation,” but that people who bring different backgrounds, experiences, and sets of references make it far more likely that the reader—any reader—will learn something new. As assistant editor Devika Girish put it, in the Jan-Feb 2020 end-of-decade round-up, with its best-of lists and overviews, “Any accounting of the past decade of cinema must start with the question: whose decade? And whose cinema?” She provides a salutary reminder “that to write about movies is to write about our encounters with them.”
Transparency about the personal experiences that influence how we receive movies may be a particularly 21st-century approach to film criticism, moving away from assumptions of authority and universality. Done well, this can be both effective and affecting: for instance, Girish Shambu opening his magnificent essay on films about the immigrant experience (“A Double Life,” Sept-Oct 2017) by connecting his own experience of lonely, dismal holidays as a new immigrant with Jonas Mekas’s Lost, Lost, Lost (1976); or Shonni Enelow writing brilliantly about the tradition of maternal melodrama through the lens of her experience as a new mother: “The cataclysmic stakes of psychic turmoil; the bleed between personal drama and monumental categories of right and wrong; the conflicts between an ideal and a fallen reality, duty and desire, independence and loyalty—the first days of motherhood were a melodrama.” (“The Greatest Love of All,” May-June 2018). And, indeed, Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay on Breathless at 50, which foregrounds his own intimate history with the movie (“I don’t so much recollect my first reactions to Breathless as find myself involuntarily possessed by them”) persuaded me that, although the film has always left me cold—give me Classe tous risques any day—I would probably have felt differently if I’d come upon it at the right moment. (“An Ideal for Living,” May-June 2010)
One of my own touchstones for the craft comes from a 2003 article by Kent Jones, who recalls Manny Farber (whose last articles appeared in FC) telling him “that the idea behind his writing was to get himself to disappear, and to get the object in question to shimmer with its own, unique sense of awe.” But whether or not a writer turns the mirror on him or herself is not really the point: as Farber’s own unmistakable prose illustrates, the writer is always present. What makes a difference is something else Jones writes in that same article (“Eyes Wide Shut,” Jan-Feb 2003, a devastating, I’m-telling-you-this-because-I-care-about-you profile of David Thomson), “Beware how much you talk around a movie in proportion to how much you confront it head-on.” If Film Comment has had a house style of late, it has favored writers who stay close to the subject, and put themselves in service of clarifying it, rather than using it as a prop for a critical stance.
Another reason Film Comment has been so enjoyable to read is that so many of the features sprang from a writer’s passionate interest in a subject, with the result that snark and showy performances of outrage or disdain were at a minimum. Any honest approach to criticism has to include negative reviews, as well as hype-deflating arguments like Amy Taubin’s even-handed, unsparing demolition of the mumblecore “movement” (“Mumblecore: All Talk?” Nov-Dec 2007). But I must admit that in today’s toxic and dystopian climate, where so much discourse has all the nuance of a flame-thrower, it is a balm to read work that springs from enthusiasm or even adoration, for instance Andrew Chan on Aretha Franklin, or Taubin on Marlon Brando. What’s more, such pieces demonstrate—this is going to sound very sentimental—that love, because it makes you want to pay minute and obsessive attention to something, can produce the most intelligent observations. What I most want to read now are pieces like Bertrand Tavernier’s deeply felt, moving, and illuminating profile of director Delmer Daves (“The Ethical Romantic,” Jan-Feb 2003), which is packed with off-hand insights that expand in your brain like those little pellets that blossom into flowers when dropped in water.
Film criticism in the 21st century has had to spend a dispiriting amount of time defending its value against charges of irrelevance and elitism. Film Comment, in recent years, stood its ground and, while never ignoring larger trends in commercial cinema, found the best way to dismiss this silly debate, simply by passionately advocating for the films it believed in. If serious film criticism has little to say about the releases, “a better name for these coordinated marketing events than movies,” that dominate the box office, it is not criticism that is irrelevant, but the “buffet of juvenilia” manufactured by risk-averse media conglomerates. (These quotes come from a succinct, unsigned broadside against multiplex fare tucked into the opening pages of the Sept-Oct 2016 issue.) That anyone complains about critics denying respect to films that will earn billions regardless—or would, pre-COVID—seems rather comical. When the brouhaha erupted over Martin Scorsese’s remark that comic-book franchise movies are not cinema, the wounded outrage of fan-boys and Disney executives reminded me of a favorite line from Children of Paradise, when Arletty’s character says to her aristocratic lover: “Not only are you rich, you want to be loved as if you were poor.”
Cinephilia has always been prone to gloomy foreboding and mourning over loss, and with good reason. The physical fragility of film and the indifference of corporate behemoths that wound up owning studio libraries mean that vast numbers of older films are either lost or effectively buried. And as Scorsese pointed out in his earnest explanation of his comments in The New York Times, challenging cinema—and even movies with the widespread appeal of his own—now struggle for funding and exposure. Film criticism similarly exists in a tenuous, turbulent state: while the amount of writing has exploded, and there is plenty of gold among the dross, the shift to an online world has made it ever harder to earn anything like a living as a critic. Throughout its history, Film Comment has had a brush with cancelation at least once a decade, often resulting in the ousting and replacement of the editor and some retrenchment in terms of scope and mission.
With so much writing about film online, why do we still need a magazine? For one thing, a well-curated issue provides a manageable and satisfying repast instead of the drinking-from-a-fire-hose experience of trying to keep up with the Internet, or the empty calories of social media. This is true of print and digital, though I still like to have something I can set down a coffee mug on; being forced to turn the pages to get to the articles I’m interested in often results in my reading others I wouldn’t have clicked on—just the way being forced to meander through every department of IKEA invariably results in your making twice as many purchases. For another, Film Comment has long played a vital role in New York’s film culture, providing a foot in the door through its internships and a way of connecting writers in a shared, if virtual, space. Lacking even that has deepened the feeling of isolation during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Journals such as Film Comment are best understood as stewards of film culture, along with archives, museums, repertory theaters, and distribution companies, as well as individual critics, programmers, and—not least—the people who watch movies and read about them. Good criticism is vital to a thriving ecosystem, and it is past time to stop imagining that it can function on a profit-based model of subscriptions and advertising, and to accept that arts writing, like the making and preserving of art, needs to be subsidized—by supporters, grantmakers, and institutions—as a public good. In an editor’s letter reflecting on the closure of the Village Voice, Nic Rapold urged readers to see that “cultural institutions like this are irreplaceable, that their loss is not inevitable, and that regarding it as an inevitability is a choice.” (Nov-Dec 2018) The sentiment is, sadly, more relevant now than ever.
Special thanks to Gavin Smith and Nicolas Rapold. In email exchanges with the author, both expressed gratitude and appreciation for their teams, which “with very limited resources and great dedication” (Rapold) managed the “small miracle” (Smith) of getting the magazine out.
Editor’s Note: Reverse Shot co-editor Michael Koresky worked in editorial positions at Film Comment and Film at Lincoln Center from 2001–2005 and 2016–2019, and was a frequent contributor to the magazine; Reverse Shot co-editor Jeff Reichert was a frequent contributor to the magazine as well.