Movie Criticism: Theory and Practice–Course Offered at Columbia, NYU, UCLA Film Schools


Professor Emanuel Levy
Course Outline

There is no such thing as unbiased or objective criticism. The critic’s aim is to see the work as wholly as possible. His job is to discuss the quality of the result, not to lay down rules.
Robin Wood

The ultimate aim and purpose of criticism is evaluation– scholarship is a means to that end but never an end in itself.

A critic should have the capacity to emphasize with a work totally alien to one’s experience and sensibility.
John Keats

For better or worse, it’s the commentator who has the
last word.

A film critic is seldom commenting on the work of an individual or a cohesive group so much as on the upshot of a loosely connected series of independent decisions.
F.E. Sparshott

“First, I look for genius, then for talent, then for charm, then for trends. A critic should investigate what worthy efforts are being unjustly neglected. People seldom question the sincerity of a critical pan, but they are eternally suspicious of raves.
Andrew Sarris

My Initial responses are probably my deepest and most honest ones. Reviewing the perfect nothing of a movie is rather degrading: It’s like giving consumer hints on the latest expensive, worthless gift for the person who has everything.
Pauline Kael

Film critics are writers, and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.
Jack Smith

For movie criticism to be of any use whatever, it must go beyond formal analysis–which in movies is generally a disguised form of subjective reaction to meanings and implications, anyway.
Pauline Kael

Movie critics today are too often rating services, and readers look for four-star banquets, forgetting that a one-star Michelin restaurant serves better food than they often eat.
Robert Hatch

Course Description:

European film theorists claim that American film criticism is too impressionistic and unsystematic, that it has no valid methodological basis. Furthermore, American film critics are charged with borrowing heavily and haphazardly from literature, theater, and sociology, focusing on words and ideas rather than images and sounds.

The major goal of this course is to demonstrate what is distinctive about American Film Criticism in theory as well practice by placing it in broader socio-historical and comparative perspectives.

The various theories, concepts, and methods that American film critics have used will be examined decade by decade, from the 1910s to the present. Though critics customarily consider themselves disinterested observers, their activities are shaped by concrete historical, political, moral, and aesthetic contexts. Hence, the work of critics leads to practical evaluations and rankings of film texts with far-reaching implications. Why are certain film texts–such as The Searchers, Vertigo, Psycho, and Bonnie and Clyde–chosen for special attention and serious criticism? Which elements of these texts are singled out for critical discussion?

The relationship between film critics and the socio-political, economic, and technological settings in which they operate will be explored from a cross-cultural approach. American film criticism will be analyzed as a lively and dynamic process of interaction between critics as mediators between artists, film texts, and audiences in the various mass media: print, radio, television, and the internet.

While using both theoretical and pragmatic perspectives, the course will focus on the following issues:

The Origins of American Film Criticism
The History of American Film Criticism
American Versus European Film Criticism
Ideology and Practice in American Film Criticism
Changes in Critical Perspectives and Critical Yardsticks
The Various Roles of American Film Critics
The Power and Impact of Film Critics
Film Criticism, the Mass Media, and New Technologies
Writing about Film as Critics, Essayists, and Journalists
The Convergence of Film Criticism and Film Advertising
The Shrinking Space for Serious Film Criticism

These issues will be analyzed and illustrated by a detailed examination of reviews/critiques/essays of major texts of film history, both American and foreign-language. (See list of films below). The work of numerous American critics, past and present, will be deconstructed and evaluated.


1. Attendance

2. Participation in class discussions.

3. Six two-page reviews of required and/or recommended films.

4. Outline for research paper (2-3 pages) to be submitted
in the third week of classes

5. Midterm examination (take-home)

6. Research paper (about 15-20 pages, including notes and bibliography) to be submitted at the end of the course.

Structure of Final Grade:

1. Reviews 30 points
2. Midterm Exam 30 points
3. Final Paper 40 points

Required Readings:

Haberski, Raymond J. It’s Only A Movie! Films and Critics in American Culture. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Carr, Jay (ed) The A-List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films. N.Y.: Da Capo, 2002

Levy, Emanuel. Citizen Sarris: American Film Critic: Essays in Honor of Andrew Sarris. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2001. (Hardcover).

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions.
N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1995 (New edition of a book first published in 1968).

Warshow, Robert. The Immediate Experience.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press: Enlarged edition, 2002.
(First published in 1946, then 1954).

Note: There are only a few required books because students will consult and research readings that pertain specifically to their focused research paper.

Detailed Schedule and List of Films to be screened:

Week 1: Film Theory and Film Criticism

Approaches to Film Theory and Film Criticism

Week 2: Writing About Film: Criticism and Journalism

Differences between Criticism, Reviewing and Reportage

Film to be screened and analyzed:

Week 3: History of American Film Criticism,  1915-1966

Citizen Kane
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Searchers

Week 4: History of American Film Criticism, 1966-present

Auteurism Vs. Popular Culture Approaches
The Influence of Film Theory and the New Discipline of Film Studies on American Critics

Bonnie and Clyde

Week 5: Film Criticism–Comparative and Cross-Cultural Perspectives

American Vs. French and German Criticism

Antonioni’s L’Avventura
Godard’s Vivre sa Vie, Weekend
Bergman’s Persona

Week 6: Contemporary Issues in American Film Criticism

Film Criticism and Censorship (formal and informal)
The Prevalence of Anti-Theory and Extreme Pragmatism
in American Film Criticism
Commercial and Corporate Pressure on Film Critics
Film Reviewing as Extension of Film Advertising

Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris
Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut

Week 7: Film Criticism and Film Genres:

Film Criticism as It Pertains to Different kinds of Film Texts: Mainstream Hollywood, Independent Cinema, Foreign-Language, Documentaries, Avant-Garde and Experimental

Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Seven Samurai
Franklin’s One False Move
Lanzmann’s Shoah
Livingstone’s Paris Is Burning

Week 8: Film Criticism and the New Media Technologies

Film Criticism in Print, Radio, TV and Internet
Writing for Trade Vs. Popular Magazines
Dailies Vs. Weeklies and Monthlies

Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Scorsese’s Raging Bull

Week 9: The Various Roles of Film Critics

The Critic as a Public Figure, Celebrity, Social Citizen, Aesthete, and Moralist
Reviewing Films That Lack Theatrical Distribution
Setting the Agenda for Film Debates

Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ

Week 10 The Impact of Film Criticism–American and
Global Dimensions

The State of American Film Criticism in the New Millennium
Film Criticism in Major International Film Festivals


Mulholland Drive
Amelie Vs. No Man’s Land

Recommended Books: (on reserve)

Allen, Robert C. and Douglas Gomery. Film History: Theory and Practice. N.Y.: Knopf, 1985.

Bordwell, David, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger.
The Classical Hollywood Cinema. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art.
N.Y.: Knopf, Latest Edition.

Bordwell, David. Narrative in the Fiction Film.
Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Bordwell, David. Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Braendlin, Bonnie (ed) Cultural Power/Cultural Literacy:
Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Annual Florida State University Conference on Literature and Film. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University Press, 1991.

Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen (eds) Film Theory and Criticism.
N.Y. Oxford Press: Latest Edition.

Everett, Anna. Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism, 1909-1949. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.

Glatzer, Robert. Beyond Popcorn: A Critics Guide to Looking at Films. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 2001.

Hill, John and Pamela C. Gibson (eds) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hillier, Jim (ed). Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Hillier, Jim (ed). Cahiers du Cinema: The 1960s.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Kael, Pauline. For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies.
NY: Dutton, 1994.

Levy, Emanuel. Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film. N.Y.: NYU Press, 2001.

Levy, Emanuel. Oscar Fever: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. N.Y.: Continuum International, 2001.

Lounsbury, Myron. The Origins of American Film Criticism,
1909-1939. N.Y.: Arno Press, 1973.

Lewis, Jon (ed) The New American Cinema.
N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

Mast, Gerald and Marshall Cohen (eds) Film Theory and Criticism.
N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1980. (and later editions)

Monaco, James. How to Read a Film.
N.Y.: Oxford University Press, latest edition.

Noriega, Chon A. Chicano Cinema and the Horizon of Expectations: Discursive Analysis of Recent Film Reviews in the Mainstream, Alternative and Hispanic Press. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Chicano Research, 1990.

Noriega, Chon A. (ed) Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 1992.

Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema,
1930-1980. Princeton: Princeton University Press, l985.

Ray, Robert B. How Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies. Bloomington; Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Rodowick, David Norman. The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology on Contemporary Film Theory.
Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Staiger, Janet. Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Stokes, Melvyn and Richard Maltby (eds) Hollywood Spectatorship: Changing Perceptions of Cinema Audiences.
London, England: British Film Institute, 2001.

Taylor, Greg. Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.