In the ongoing dialogue about what we, as a community, need to do to advance the Asian American film movement, the talk usually centers on the role of the artists (improving the quality and quantity of our filmmakers) and the audience (the need for our peeps to more fully support the work of our artists), but there is almost never any mention of the critic.
So what? I hear some of you thinking. Who cares about critics anyway? They’re just frustrated artists who think they’re intellectually superior to the masses. Besides, they’re going the way of the dinosaur. No one really listens to what critics have to say anymore and their influence is quickly diminishing with each new Adam Sandler flick that tops $150 million.
But before you dismiss the significance of the critic, let me add this thought into the mix: a truly vibrant Asian American film movement will never exist without the contribution of “real” critics. They are just as vital and necessary as the artist and audience.
Let me explain what I mean by a “real” critic. I don’t mean a movie “reviewer” whose job it is to simply tell you the plot of a film and sprinkle in a few opinions so it doesn’t read like a press release. I don’t mean an academic who may be fully qualified to speak about Asian American cinema but whose work is of interest only to other eggheads. And I certainly don’t mean all the haters out there whose critique of their fellow Asian Americans is fueled more by jealousy and negativity.
No, I’m referring to individuals who have a genuine understanding of both the history of cinema and Asian American issues/culture (but aren’t full-blown filmmakers themselves so as to maintain “objectivity”) and can make their points in a way that is understandable and relevant to the masses, not just the aforementioned eggheads in their ivory towers.
If you look at the history of cinema, you’ll see that any large-scale movement involving “outsiders” most likely could not have been possible without the critic. Let me focus on two such movements—the French New Wave that came out of the Cahiers du cinema in the late 1950s and the American New Wave of the late 1960s/1970s that produced such masterpieces as The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Chinatown. Both were movements comprised of outsiders: The French by sheer geography and lack of access to Hollywood and the Americans by their counterculture status and lack of membership in the established system.
In the case of the French New Wave, most of the key filmmakers—Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Cabrol and others—started their career as critics for the influential film magazine Cahiers du cinema under Andre Bazin. Their goals were slightly different in that their plan was to become filmmakers all along. The criticism was more of a means to an end—it was their film school in a way. But it was through their collective work as critics that these artists developed the tools and language to understand and make films—they found a way to marry their love for the big, glossy Hollywood movies to the low-budget aesthetic they had to embrace by necessity and created the template for modern independent cinema in the process with movies like Breathless, The 400 Blows, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Claire’s Knees. Without their foundation as critics, these filmmakers could not have created a true artistic community that seemed to come out of nowhere to change the course of world cinema.
In the case of the American New Wave, young filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Robert Towne were trying to break into Hollywood at around the same time that young American critics like the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael and the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris were climbing the ranks themselves to champion these denizens of the “new” Hollywood. Many people refer to this era of American filmmaking (late 1960s/1970s) as the last Golden Age of Hollywood. Indeed, both the artists and mainstream audiences of that time were ready to embrace intelligent and challenging films that would probably be relegated to the art house today.
Part of the success of this movement was due to young critics like Kael and Sarris who were also pushing the boundaries of their art form as their filmmaking counterparts were doing with theirs. Whether you agreed with these critics or not was almost beside the point—they were able to speak to their readers with as much clarity and insight as the filmmakers were able to speak to their audiences.
Take Kael, for example. When Bonnie And Clyde was released to the world in 1967, much of the old guard, including the still-influential veteran critical community, found the movie to be too redundant, too violent, too exploitative—they didn’t get it and many of them took issue with the film. But Kael got it. She was cut from the same artistic cloth as the filmmakers and understood that a change was afoot. Her support was key to the success the film would go on to have despite its (mostly old guard) naysayers.
She went on to champion now classics like M*A*S*H and Last Tango In Paris when those films looked like they were initially headed for critical and/or commercial limbo. She provided a context for those movies so the audience could “get them” better and served up the whole package with a healthy heap of her own passion. Check out her full review of Last Tango In Paris here. I personally think she goes overboard in her praise for the movie, but you can clearly see the power in her words (FYI, this review is still considered one of the most brilliant pieces of film criticism ever written).
These critics made the filmmakers better. They praised them when necessary, challenged them constantly and scolded them when they lost their way. But most of all–they understood and they cared. It’s unlikely that this era would have produced such a consistent slate of amazing works had its critics not served as the gadflies to push the artists to greater and greater heights.
Like the members of both the French and American new waves, Asian American filmmakers are definitely outsiders to the system. That’s why we also need critics who can claim the same outsider status as us, who can provide the context and guidance for audiences to better experience our work, who can push our artists to do superlative work and, most importantly, who understand and care. So much of the popular dialogue around Asian American cinema is still on such a basic level (“this is positive” vs. “this is negative”) that if our movement is making any progress at all, it’s only baby steps. What a strong critical community can do is help accelerate that process because Lord knows we need it.
I realize we live in a different world now and the influence of the critic is at the lowest it’s ever been. Traditional media is on its deathbed and the internet has further dissipated any genuine centers of power. But I see this as an exciting time where the future is wide open for our community. We have the opportunity to create a new model; to really use the technology and resources available to us to kick start a real movement. But we can’t forget a key component of that. We need to create and develop our critics alongside our artists and audiences. Only then do we have a shot.