Movie Critics: We Are NOT Snobs

Levy defies the critic stereotype and discusses cinema

By Mimi Honeycutt · Daily Trojan

Posted Yesterday at 8:29 pm in Columns, Featured, Lifestyle

What makes a film critic different from Joe Shmoe writing a Rotten Tomatoes review? For L.A.-based film critic Emanuel Levy, it’s scholarship, prolific publishing and decades of experience. But those same traits also make him different from most film critics one finds in a regular newspaper.

Levy received his Ph.D. in sociology of culture studies from Columbia University in 1978, where he also received mentorship from Andrew Sarris, one of the most influential film critics in American history.

“I’ve always had dual careers,” Levy said. “A full-time film professor and a full-time critic — which means I have no life.”

Levy balances teaching part time at UCLA, Columbia and other schools (he gave up his tenured professorship at ASU in 2004)  and writing books, including “Oscar Fever: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards” and “Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer.” As a critic, Levy wrote for one of America’s premier film magazines, Variety, for more than a decade, and became the head critic for Screen International. He writes for his own website, and continues to teach college students.

Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room. Like stereotyped lawyers, art critics have a reputation as snobs who value technical and artsy touches over fun and entertainment. Some have even gone as far as to call art critics the guys who hide out in the woods during the battle then run down the hill and shoot all the wounded soldiers.

Levy disagrees.

“Most stereotypes are inaccurate and deceptive — it’s like saying ‘Mexicans are lazy,’” Levy said. “You cannot generalize when there are 200 or 300 film critics in the country. None of my friends are snobs.”

Of course, some exceptions exist — Levy believes some critics are, in fact, snobs. The best way to pinpoint them is if he or she never uses the terms “picture,” “movie” or “flick” and steadfastly sticks to the hallowed moniker “film.” But if one wonders why critics trash so many movies, consider how many poor films a critic must review before chancing upon a great one.

“Most movies are bad by nature — it’s no different from music or literature,” Levy said. “It’s not a matter of snobbery. What comes out of mainstream Hollywood and independent, at least half is not good. As critics, it is our job to sort out what is good, what is distinguished and what is excellent.”

Levy sees his share of bad movies — he averages two films per day, one in theaters and one at home. For anyone curious about the perks, he rarely gets free popcorn, but he doesn’t find it hard to sit back and enjoy a fluffier film.

“I never turn my brain off,” Levy said. “But I can go in and out of the critical mode. To me, Basic Instinct is not a good movie but it has enjoyable parts. It’s a guilty pleasure; it’s like a trashy novel at the airport — you get to the end and you say, ‘That was trash but I enjoyed it.’”

There is a general consensus among critics for what makes a great movie. Levy uses Citizen Kane as an example of one such masterpiece. Almost by nature, masterpieces — like Shakespeare’s celebrated plays — ensure their own enshrinement in history. The exact parameters of less-obviously good movies, however, are more abstract.

“If I had a good definition I’d be the richest person in Hollywood — I would be able to tell people how to make only good movies,” Levy said. “[A good film] must be intelligent. A movie needs to have some overall coherence, unless the movie is fragmented by design.”

Levy believes Hollywood films like Transformers are fragmented messes because of poor direction, whereas French masters like Jean-Luc Godard use fragmentation for great cinema.

“For me, a good movie is where you get more than what you see,” Levy said. “It leaves lingering memories. Most Hollywood movies are junk, like fast food. How would you feel if you only went to McDonald’s for two weeks? Imagine if you see only junky, trashy movies for two weeks; it’s not good for your system.”

As far as Hollywood goes, Levy sees a few problems. One is the money-obsessed greed that often spawns 3D films out of material never intended for 3D. But the chief problem he sees is the discrepancy between the level of technology and good storytelling.

“The stories are formulaic and the characters are stereotypical and predictable,” Levy said. “It’s amazing what technology can do, yet we’re still telling this old-fashioned melodrama.”

Once again, there are exceptions. Levy believes directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are especially cherished because of their ability to put technology to good use as a complement to a well-developed story.

Despite the problems he sees in Hollywood, Levy sees 2011 as a particularly good year. Some of his recent favorites are Drive with Ryan Gosling, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and the upcoming George Clooney film The Ides of March.

Though nothing is certain, Levy has high hopes for films that await the Oscar-contending month of December, and hints at a strong future for films, namely David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Steven Spielberg’s Warhorse and the animated The Adventures of Tintin.

“I may be in a minority,” Levy said. “But I think we are entering a golden age.”

Mimi Honeycutt is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column “Cut to Frame” runs Fridays.