A small group of students circle around a man wearing an open black suit jacket and jeans. The first question he poses to the initially silent and nervous class: What is film criticism?
Tuesday, 12 p.m.
Institute for the Humanities, Room 2022
This is the Screen Arts & Cultures class The Art and Practice of Film Criticism: How to Think About Writing About Movies, a three-week minicourse taught by Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman, a University alum.
“The basic question of movie reviewing is: Who are our reviews being written for — those who have already seen the film or those who haven’t?” Gleiberman said. “The trick is — both.”
“Essentially, I’m writing my review for people who have seen the movie. Tons and tons of people obviously read reviews after they’ve seen the movie — it’s almost the essential purpose of criticism. Having said that, another purpose of criticism is to be a consumer guide. That’s always been part of it. So you have to write a review for people who have already seen the movie, but it has to be able to be read by people who haven’t, in a way that doesn’t completely shut them out.”
After giving a lecture at the Honors Program two years ago, Gleiberman became acquainted with Daniel Herwitz, director of the Institute for the Humanities and adjunct SAC professor. Herwitz brought about the idea of a class centered around film criticism to him. Given the time constraints of Gleiberman’s full-time job, however, he was not able to teach a whole semester’s worth of material. Instead, the class was transformed into a one-credit mini-course that would be limited to only 15 people. The intimate setting would allow for detailed discussion about the industry and what it was like to craft a well written movie review.
In a portion of the class, Gleiberman highlighted the distinctions between a review about a bad film and a review about an excellent one.
“The reason that’s fun to write that nasty, bad review is not really that I’m such a nasty person, but because what that review requires is a certain mode,” he said. “It requires you to be a comedian. It requires to be not just bitchy but kind of funny about it.”
“When you’re writing a review about a really great movie, like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ or ‘The Wrestler,’ that’s the greatest challenge,” he added. “Because for those movies in a way it’s not good enough to say that they’re very dramatic or moving. You do get into some certain mysteries of personality and your job as a critic is to try to capture those.”
A former writer and editor for The Michigan Daily, Gleiberman began a correspondence and friendship with The New Yorker’s inimitable Pauline Kael during his junior year after delivering a praise-infused letter to her mailbox. Kael eventually helped Gleiberman land his first job straight out of college, as a critic for the Boston Phoenix.
The friendship fizzled, however, after Gleiberman refused to back up Kael on certain “pet causes” she had — her passion for the director Brian de Palma, for instance, according to Gleiberman.
“I take my opinions very seriously, but not to the point where it starts to affect personal relationships. That just seems misguided,” he said.
As a critic renowned for embracing both high and low culture with panache, Gleiberman never tiptoes around his highly provocative opinions, most recently selecting the summer blockbuster “Inception” as his target, claiming “I just didn’t understand it.”
“I do think that you need to look at every movie in terms of what it’s trying to do,” he said. “You’re really asking in the case of each and every movie, how engaging was this? How much did it entertain me? In a way there is a uniformity to the grading scale, and I don’t feel like I grade on a curve. I gave the movie ‘Hostel: Part II’ a B — people ask me, is this just because it’s a horror genre film? No, this was actually kind of an interesting film. What’s really interesting about my job is that a good film can really come from anywhere — it can be high or low or in-between.”
In each of his reviews and blog posts, hundreds of commenters make it a regular habit to decry Gleiberman’s taste and writing style.
“I have detractors out there that are kind of religious about hating me,” he said. “Because I wrote that review where I totally panned ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ or more recently, ‘Let the Right One In’ — it’s now my personal article of faith that I must hate you and I can’t take you seriously.”
“I think that people these days are very uncomfortable with dissension,” he added. “Everything is so stratified now, and you definitely see this when people are talking about politics. And in a far more trivial way, you see it in arts criticism. All these little camps, all these little clubs — either you’re in my club or you’re not. And so it’s like you’re attacking people’s club if you’re not a fan of their movie.”
Gleiberman is unapologetic about the things he likes and doesn’t like.
“I think the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ has become a bullshit term,” he said. “There are so many things that people watch and enjoy that may not necessarily be works of art, but are they really guilty about watching them?”
“I think that ‘Jersey Shore’ is a show that some people tend to think of as a guilty pleasure, but that’s because they don’t want to own up to what really engages them,” Gleiberman said.
“Something in America that hasn’t been always there has been this party culture, this kind of spring break, frat house party culture. And okay, so youth party culture has become a big thing, and the people on ‘Jersey Shore’ are really good at it.”
“I also think that the fights on that show are great,” he added. “Sure, we all know that parts of reality television have elements of manipulation to it, but it’s too easy to say it’s all staged. And when you watch a show, your gut can kind of tell you whether it’s real or not. And I have seen fights on ‘Jersey Shore,’ whether they’re physical fights or verbal fights, that remind me of scenes of Scorsese.”
He continued, “When you think about what people love a movie about ‘Goodfellas,’ like Joe Pesci throwing a psychopathic fit, it’s partly the mesmerizing quality of watching somebody get so angry. I think that could be there in ‘Jersey Shore.’ And while that doesn’t make ‘Jersey Shore’ a work of art, there’s certainly a mesmerizing quality to it. And so why do (people) have to be calling something like this a guilty pleasure?”
Gleiberman also addressed the question that many have struggled to answer — the state of criticism in the future.
“There’s sometimes the temptation to take what’s going on online less seriously than what’s in print,” he said. “But there’s a part of me that believes that a piece of writing is a piece of writing. The second you put two words together — I don’t care if it’s an email, an article or a presidential speech — it’s a piece of writing, it’s a piece of prose — it can be good or bad or somewhere in between.”
“Of course there are going to be differences, and I’m interested in talking about them,” he added. “But before you do, isn’t it worth saying that, gee, the fact that what we read used to be on dead trees and now is digital — does it really mean that the content is changing so profoundly? Can’t it just be that the means of transmission is changing?”