Neal Gabler is not a person who can be described with only the epithet “writer.” Maybe it’d be more accurate to call him “writer-journalist-critic-professor-broadcaster Neal Gabler.” Gabler, who came to the University of Michigan on April 9 to give a lecture on whether film criticism is truly necessary, may not write much criticism himself anymore, but he certainly has a broad wealth of knowledge on the subject.
“Many people talk about this as a post-critical age,” Gabler said before the lecture, in an interview. “Are we in a post-critical age, where we form our judgments for ourselves and we don’t need that other layer in between ourselves and the film?”
Gabler was invited to give the lecture by professor Hugh Cohen of the Screen Arts and Cultures department. Gabler and Cohen became “friends in film” when Gabler attended the University as a student and joined a film society in which Cohen was the adviser. After years of talking about movies, seeing movies and traveling to hear major directors speak, Cohen asked Gabler to leave law school and become one of the first GSIs for his new course, which became the preliminary course for all Screen Arts and Cultures majors: SAC 236, The Art of Film.
“I was fully entrenched in the film community here, and it’s all because of Hugh Cohen,” Gabler said. “He was best man at my wedding. He was my friend and my father and a lot of other things.”
Gabler said, at that time, though film was important to culture all across the country, Ann Arbor was the best place to be a film connoisseur. Having edited the daily newspaper at Lane High School in Chicago and feeling alienated in Ann Arbor, Gabler decided to write film criticism for the Michigan Daily.
“I was writing very, very long pieces,” said Gabler, who was inspired by the long pieces of Pauline Kael, the acclaimed New Yorker critic. “I was told, ‘You wrote more column inches for The Michigan Daily than any person in the history of the paper.’”
Before the lecture on Thursday, Gabler stopped by Cohen’s class on writing film criticism to have a discussion with the students. Each student shared their interest in film criticism and their reasons behind it. Gabler noted that there was no single critic who everyone in the class reads — evidence of a growing divisiveness in the film community.
“There are no venues for (film criticism),” Gabler said, explaining why he rarely writes criticism anymore. “There’s no place to write criticism, certainly not the kind that I like to write: long, sustained, analytical pieces. Secondly, when you’re an active working critic, you’re reviewing everything. I was seeing five movies a week. Every year, if you’re really lucky, maybe you get three or four movies that are worth engaging.”
Gabler still occasionally writes about movies, but his interests have broadened. He is currently writing an expansive biography of Edward “Ted” Kennedy.
Gabler also teaches one class a year at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He has taught classes on film criticism, creative nonfiction, biography and the essay.
“My interest is twofold,” Gabler said. “I try to teach them how to become professionals. I’m never interested in just a skill set. I try to teach them how to think about the world in interesting ways. I get up every day and I say to myself, ‘What interesting thing do I have to say about the world today?’ That’s what I try to get my students to do: to think about the world in interesting ways because you can sell that kind of work, and it’s worth writing.”
Though Gabler calls himself “a writer who teaches” instead of “a teacher who writes,” he cares deeply about education and encouraging his students to explore new points of view.
“I’m not just teaching how to write an essay,” Gabler said. “If I’m good at what I do, I’m trying to teach you how to think about the world. You take that little piece, and you put it into your own sensibility, and then you’ll have another teacher and plug that into your sensibility. By the time you’re through with your education, you’ve got all these things out of which you’ve formed your own sensibility. That, to me, is the whole function of education.”
In both Cohen’s class and Gabler’s lecture Thursday night, Gabler emphasized the danger of aggregate scores from sites like Rotten Tomatoes. He also explained that criticism should be more about exploring new perspectives on a piece than completing a checklist about what strengths and weaknesses a film does and does not have.
“It’s an instantaneous culture, and you want something instant,” Gabler said. “I’m an extremely strong believer that you adjust to the film; the film does not adjust to you. I don’t have some sort of critical rubric that I apply to a movie. Never.”
Gabler occasionally misses the days when film had such a prominent role in culture. In his view, the proliferation of Internet criticism, social media and a constant stream of information have led to a drastically different — if not objectively worse — role for film.
“Individual movies matter, but the movies (of the canon) don’t matter,” Gabler said. “They don’t dominate our lives in the same way they once did. They don’t rouse passions the way they once did. And if the movies don’t matter much, neither does film criticism.”
Still, Gabler does acknowledge that criticism may still hold great power. In Gabler’s view, common objections to criticism, like that reading criticism takes away from the magic of the film, are often misplaced.
“(Reading criticism) is not, I emphasize, mutually exclusive with any other movie-going pleasure,” Gabler said. “It’s an addition to the pleasure. Why would anyone want to deny himself or herself that pleasure? Why would anyone want to shrink the movie?”
One of the issues with widespread Internet criticism, Gabler said, is its inaccessibility.
“The object is not to demonstrate how smart you are, but how generous you are,” Gabler said. “Do we really need film criticism? Yes, I think we do. I think we need this kind of criticism: a criticism that enables us to see what we might not otherwise have seen, that enables us to learn something about ourselves, others and the world that we might not otherwise have learned.”
In the 1970s, when film and criticism flourished together, there was a symbiosis between filmmaker and film critic, Gabler said.
“Every so often, I see a film, and I really wish there was a critic to analyze it in some interesting way, a critic against whom I could weigh my own interpretation, a critic to challenge me and illuminate the film,” Gabler said, comparing Pauline Kael’s widespread accessibility to lesser-known modern critics.
Still, Gabler hopes modern criticism can overcome its limitations and regain the power it used to hold.
“(Critics) are vital to our art, and they are vital to us,” Gabler said. “You don’t analyze a movie to death. If you are a good critic, an essential critic, you actually analyze it to life.”