A wide-ranging conversation with Kieron Corless, Deputy Editor of Sight and Sound on the magazine itself and issues that arise from it: What is film criticism? What is good criticism? What is the changing function of criticism? How has the digital turn affected not only what cinema is and how we see it but also what film criticism is and how it is now done? How has the eco system or matrix in which audio-visual work is produced, distributed and exhibited changed over the years, with galleries and museums displaying moving image work on one end; and perhaps Netflix on the other.
We talk about cinephilia and film culture at home and abroad; and further discuss the importance of advocacy, particularly in relation to international films that often get seen only in small film festivals. We agree that the online environment has immeasurably improved criticism and helped create a different way of appreciating and writing about cinema, pushing film criticism in new directions, not least the increasing importance of the video essay. It’s an exciting time.
Because I was so gobby in the podcast, I’v also added some excerpts from a workshop Kieron led at Warwick. The short one below is on Sight and Sound itself.
The longer one below is on writing film criticism in general and writing for Sight and Sound in particular. Kieron’s talk ranges from how to pitch, the writing of a draft, right up to the submission and editing stages. Top tips from Kieron, rather choppily edited by myself. But bound to be useful and certainly interesting.
I’ve excluded books of history or theory from this list that have to do with work even though some (Marx, Benedict Anderson, Harold Innis, Barthes, Sontag) had an influence on my thinking that exceeded the boundaries of my job – always and at best uncertain, elastic, permeable — and seeped into shaping an understanding of life and the ways the world works. But I can’t refrain from including Pauline Kael here: she was my introduction to films and film criticism. In the mid-late 70s there were very few film books in the second-hand bookshops I trawled through and worked at in Montreal but Going Steady, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I Lost it at the Movies could usually be found there along with Bazin, V.F. Perkins, Paul Rotha, John Grierson, maybe a collection of Agee.
The problem with those and with other film books then available was that one was usually reading on films that were not available to see; one was reading …but in the dark. This changed for me when Reeling was published and was available at every corner bookshop in paperback: I bought my copy at Classics. In Reeling she was writing about some films I’d already seen or would soon see on television, and one could have a conversation with her views, and as one grew up and social circles expanded, one could also have a conversation about her work with others. It was almost de rigueur at a certain period. I saved my money and bought The New Yorkeronly to read her: I could barely understand the rest of the magazine. The weeks she wasn’t in it, I didn’t buy.
Anyway this is turning into a thesis, suffice to say that I’ve read her all my life and continue to dip into it occasionally, that no one’s writing on film entertains me more, that she’s endlessly interesting as a figure and despite her unarguable historical importance has still not received the attention that is her due (why do David Thomson, James Wolcot and all the other major figures she helped have such a tortuous relationship with her legacy – each expression of gratitude is a sting; what does it say that the person who did most damage to her reputation was a fellow female critic, Renata Adler?). I miss her irreverence, that thirties unsentimental funniness, those marvellous jazzy sentences, her fearlessness (she was banned from screenings several times). No one now exercises a similar centrality in the current culture, and that’s probably a good thing. But it does seems to me that no established popular critic now dares call out and poke fun at those in power like she did with Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, calling him ‘Feather in Brains’, one of many of her jokes that still make me chuckle over thirty years later , and largely because it hits its target so accurately. See the film. That’s what Kael always made you feel like doing.