“Total Legibility” and the Art of Film Criticism…

There’s a charming anecdote in the middle of Steve James’ documentary on Roger Ebert ‘Life Itself’ in which Ebert explains the plight of the film critic:

"I sit next to the desk of our music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. People are very worshipful of him. [They’ll ask,] ‘Oh, what did you think about [George] Solti’s conducting last night?’ And then he will say [what he thought], and they will nod and go away. And then they’ll come up to me and say, ‘I totally disagree with your review in this morning’s paper’."

Isn’t that just the way it is? Part of the appeal of ‘Siskel & Ebert’ was that they would get into the sort of heated arguments that real people get into over movies they loved or hated. “That’s the way people do relate to films,” Ebert says in ‘Life Itself,’ “that argumentative sort of way in which if [you think] you’re right, nobody can tell you you’re wrong.”

  What's on your DVD shelf? This is less than 20% of mine. (The embarrassingly large remainder is safely tucked away in CD wallets.)

What's on your DVD shelf? This is less than 20% of mine. (The embarrassingly large remainder is safely tucked away in CD wallets.)

As the old adage goes, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, especially in the era of the Internet – the ultimate democratizer of expression. Maybe there are better and worse opinions. Certainly there are more informed or illuminating ones. But at the root of all this is the fact that we each respond to works of art based on our own life experiences, interests, intellectual equipment, the stage of life we’re at (childhood, adolescence, middle age), all of which shapes our emotional readiness, sensitivity or receptivity to a given work. No two people will respond to the same film in the same way, at the same moment, for the same reasons, because they are not the same, nor are they at the same place in their lives.

Another critic I am fond of, Philip Marchand, says that criticism (of whatever sort) is a middle-aged profession because you have to outgrow your youthful enthusiasms. You need to practice passing judgement on works over a long period of time, and see whether your judgements hold up over time. A critic is a kind of futurist, someone making predictions about whether they will feel the same way about a work 10 years in the future as they do today. When you return to a work years in the future, you inevitably ask yourself: “Is this instant masterpiece that I admired 10 years ago still resonant, or does it seem (out)dated now?” Or – “Does that thing I hated, dismissed (or walked out of) 10 years ago actually have a strength and a staying power that speaks to me now as it didn’t then?”

Marchand also says that to read great writers like Shakespeare or Tolstoy and not recognize their greatness is simply to be lacking in taste, period. There are some works of such transcendent quality, he – and many other critics – would insist, that to deny it reflects only on the intellectual defects of that particular reader or audience member, not on the work itself.

I don’t disagree with this. And yet, like a lot of people, I have read works by great authors and seen great movies (like ‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘Chinatown’) that leave me pretty cold. I can appreciate them intellectually, and acknowledge the skill with which they are made, but they don’t speak to me on any emotional level. They don’t illuminate my life or my experience, which I think is what a lot of us enjoy about movies, books, or any sort of narrative art form.

What, then, is the purpose of criticism – amateur or professional? What can it accomplish?

Basically, a critic offers an interpretation of a work, based on all the things he or she brings to their experience of it. They articulate what they saw in the film, the things they were provoked to think about or remember while watching it, the emotional and aesthetic effects it achieved for them, and try to make these explicit for the reader. If they are able, they may illuminate technical aspects of how the film is constructed, and thus, how it achieves those emotional and other effects. In short, they try to make a case for why this film – among limitless other options – deserves our attention, why it matters (maybe), why it is worth your time NOW.

If a critic can communicate very precisely the reasons for their enthusiasm about a work, they will very likely infect you with it – and that is their gift to us: the value of their critique is self-evident in the heightened appreciation we gain when next we experience the work.

  If you haven't seen Steve James' doc about Roger Ebert, watch it now! It's about so much more than just his love of movies.

If you haven't seen Steve James' doc about Roger Ebert, watch it now! It's about so much more than just his love of movies.

I am not Roger Ebert (or Philip Marchand), of course, but I’ve spent a good chunk of my life watching and re-watching films. I am old enough now to have tested some of them against the passage of time, that question of whether they continue to resonate for me at different ages and stages of life. What I hope to do, in a series of maybe ten posts, is to revisit some of these films and express what I think they’re doing that is so special, why it has continued to speak to me over 10, 15, 20 years, and why it might speak to you too.

But first, a few words about my approach…


Have you ever seen a film you didn’t quite get, but you had a hunch that something was there? Maybe you stopped watching it, or finished it and just left the theatre scratching your head. But something of it stayed with you. Maybe you went back to watch it a year, two years, ten years later, and suddenly everything snapped into focus. You got it, and you loved it.

Now, have you ever had that experience of complete understanding the first time through, with no barriers, feeling moment for moment, scene-by-scene, “Yes, yes, yes – I know exactly what this film is doing, and it is genius!” That, for me, is the experience of “total legibility.” It’s the greatest aesthetic thrill I know.

The faith of the critic is that he or she can equip another viewer – by giving them some information, some things to pay attention to, some context – to heighten their sensitivity to what the film is doing and appreciate it more fully, simply by explaining what he or she saw in it. It’s probably an absurd faith, given how different (and how differently prepared) we all are. But it is that amazing feeling that carries us out of the theatre from time to time and makes us want to tell others - “You have to see this movie!”

(It’s also, I suspect, what makes people want to be amateur or professional critics.)

Let’s step back a moment, and think of all the things you bring to your viewing of a film:

  • All your life experience to that point, whether you are a child, an adolescent, a young adult, middle aged, or older
  • All your previous movie-going experiences
  • All your education, your casually and formally acquired knowledge of the world, the arts, other cultures and periods of time, etc.
  • The mood you are in that day, your reasons for going to that particular film, the expectations you carry, the things you are hoping it might do for you
  • The company you are in (did someone drag you to it? or did you drag them?), unless you are seeing it alone (and all the personal and social factors that have led you to seeing it alone)

Then think of all the things that are happening while you watch:

  • You’re responding to faces and voices that are familiar or unfamiliar and judging their performances, perhaps being made to think of other performances, or real people
  • You’re identifying, sympathizing or empathizing with certain characters and not others; you’re taking sides, judging their actions morally or ethically
  • You’re thinking about other similar movies, responding to genres and story structures that are familiar and comparing them with other examples, making predictions about how the story will progress and end
  • You’re thinking about things in the movie that connect with your own life
  • You’re being thrilled or distracted (or not) by the style of the film, the things that jump out at you (positively or negatively) as very filmic, rather than realistic or life-like, or you’re submitting to the illusion that this is very much like real life
  • You’re being moved (often subliminally, automatically) by music, images, moods assembled by the filmmaker in order to do so

To a greater or lesser extent, the filmmaker is trying to control all these elements, to anticipate the combined effect they will have on the audience, to produce a particular overall effect. But that’s extremely difficult to do, which is part of what makes film such an exciting – and potentially disastrous – art form. If we assume that ‘unity’ is one of the goals of any work of art, there is so much that can go wrong in creating ‘unity’ when so many people and elements are involved in the finished work.

But imagine that the filmmaker has done his or her job well in skilfully controlling all those elements, and then – miraculously – it turns out that you, as the viewer, are exactly the kind of viewer the filmmaker has anticipated. You know the things they need you to know, you are sensitive in the ways they require you to be sensitive. It’s as if you, your intellectual and emotional reactions, are like a musical instrument, and the filmmaker is playing you perfectly. And you can feel it. You know it’s happening, and it feels wonderful.

Every once in a while, I see a film that gives me this feeling. Somehow its themes and subject matter, the realm of ideas in which it operates, its visual strategies and techniques, its characters and situations, are all recognizable and resonate for me in the moment. That is the rush of what I’ve come to think of as “total legibility” – being able to interpret (I think accurately, but perhaps that’s just an idiosyncratic delusion – so be it) what the filmmaker is doing in real time, while still being absorbed in and moved by the story. It’s an incredible feeling. And you can’t come away from such an experience without wanting to share it with others.

The most recent film that gave me that feeling was Maren Ade’s brilliant ‘Toni Erdmann’, which I will discuss in a separate post. Perhaps I – along with many established and amateur critics – am guilty of crowning it an “instant masterpiece,” and my opinion might change in 10 years, but I am confident ‘Toni Erdmann’ will still delight me, move me and speak to me in a decade or more, as so many other films have.

I hope you’ll join me as I begin to share a number of them with you here.

Click here to read the first in the series: 'Toni Erdmann: An Appreciation'