Out of the Shadows: Moments from a Film Critic’s Conference

Last weekend I attended “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism In Focus,” a conference held April 21-23 at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art. More than 20 film writers and critics took part. I was the sole unaffiliated blogger in attendance, and as such I tried to uphold the honor of the film blogosphere by speaking in complete sentences, dressing appropriately and not eating Cheetos on stage during my two assigned panels.  What follows are my five most memorable moments from that very illuminating Easter Weekend.

1. I was part of the first panel, called “Past Perfect,” designed to look at the influence of great critics of the past. Jonathan Rosenbaum named Penelope Houston of Sight and Sound as a critic who influenced him, and whose profile had waned, perhaps in part because her criticism is uncollected and hard to find. Gabe Klinger talked about Serge Daney; Dave Kehr named Andrew Sarris; Fred Camper talked about cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s test for women in the movies. And I was able to bring up Pauline Kael, whose New Yorker reviews were manna in the cinephile wilderness during my Alabama upbringing, and above all my main man James Agee, endlessly re-readable to this day.

2. Rosenbaum introduced a documentary (as yet unreleased in the U.S.) called The Forgotten Space, directed by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch. The film concerns the vast amount of cargo that travels the globe daily in anonymous, identical building-blocks of containers, and the workers and lives concealed by this travel and by globalization itself. In his introduction, Rosenbaum posited that the imaginative hold the sea once had on humanity has been replaced by another world-wide travel mechanism–the Internet, with its associated metaphors of “surfing.”

3. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, co-host of Ebert Presents At the Movies with Christy Lemire, mischievously remarked during the panel on the art of writing that he considered Jean-Claude Van Damme to be a movie artist on the level of Buster Keaton. Or near the level of Buster Keaton. Worthy to be mentioned in the same declarative sentence with Keaton, anyway. I don’t remember the precise phrasing; I was on stage next to him for the same panel, and PTSD caused me to lose track of my pen. Despite my own appreciation for Van Damme (perhaps one day Fandor will hire me to write up Universal Soldier), I believe I gave Vishnevetsky what is usually referred to as the “side-eye.”

Watch Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. on Fandor (Sorry, no JCVD films at the moment):

4. Towards the end of the “Criticism in Chicago” panel, a questioner at the back raised his hand and expressed astonishment that Chicago’s two most famous contributions to film-critical culture had gone unmentioned so far; “when I moved here,” remarked the man, “I was moving to the city that had the only two film critics who were ever turned into Muppets.” While I reflected that becoming a Muppet was indeed a signal accomplishment, wondered how many decades I would have to blog before I was voiced by Frank Oz, and what color they’d choose for my yarn hair, several of the assembled Chicago critics expressed their abiding admiration for the writing and influence of Roger Ebert. And Ben Sachs of Cine-File paid moving and gracious tribute to the late Gene Siskel, noting that Siskel didn’t come to criticism through years of cinephilia, but rather from yeoman journalism; hence a “common-sense” approach that Sachs said he still found satisfying and useful in his own work.

5. My favorite remark of the entire conference came from Michael Phillips, chief film critic of the Chicago Tribune, during the panel called “Present Tense/Future Conditional,” about where criticism goes from here. Asked to comment on the working critic’s obligation to cover awards season, particularly the Oscars, he said, drily and without rancor, “Business journalists don’t cover GE’s company picnic.”

Farran Smith Nehme blogs about movies at The Self Styled Siren.

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