BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Recently, I decided to finally start reading some of the criticism of the late British-Canadian film critic Robin Wood...and right on the first page of his prologue introducing Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan...and Beyond, I came across this passage that instilled me with utter delight with its insights and eloquence:
I am a critic. As such, I see my work as in many respects set apart from that of theorists and scholars (though it is of course frequently dependent upon them). The theorist and the scholar are unburdened of any necessity to engage intimately and on a personal basis with any specific work; they can hide behind their screens of theory and scholarship, they are not compelled to expose the personal nature of their work because they deal in facts, abstract ideas, and data. Any critic who is honest, however, is committed to self-exposure, a kind of public striptease: s/he must make clear that any authentic response to a work of art or entertainment is grounded not only in the work itself but in the critic's psychological makeup, personal history, values, prejudices, obsessions. Criticism arises out of an intense and intimate personal relationship between work and critic. If it is the critic's duty to strive for "objectivity" (in the negative sense of avoiding distortions), s/he knows that it is an objectivity that can never be fully achieved, because even when one is convinced that one "sees the work as it is," the relationship to it has still to be established. I have not the right to say, for example, "David Lynch makes bad movies": many people for whom I have great respect admire them, and they can certainly be defended on grounds of imagination, accomplishment, originality, strong personal commitment. I do, however, have the right to say, "I find Lynch's films extremely distasteful; my sense of value repudiates them."
The critic, it follows, must never set him- or herself up as some kind of infallible oracle. The relationship between critic and reader must always be one of debate. One might invoke here F. R. Leavis's famous definition of the ideal critical exchange: "This is so, isn't it?" / "Yes, but..." All interesting criticism is founded in the critic's beliefs and values, political position, background, influences, and these should be made explicit or so clearly implied as to leave no room for ambiguity. The theorist and scholar can (up to a point) conceal any personal commitment behind a cloak of objectivity. The personal element will always be there (in such matters as choice of material to be pursued and analyzed, choice of premise from which to work), but it can only be exposed with precisely that "reading between the lines" that the apparent perfect objectivity is there to deflect.
—Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan...and Beyond (2003)
As someone who, even now, still considers himself a student of cinema (and film criticism) rather than an authority on the art form by any means, Wood's explication of the role of a film critic especially resonates with me. I am only one voice, and I can only bring my own personal experiences and emotional makeup to bear on assessing the value of a work of art. Whether my voice is of any value to anyone is, I guess, up to the individual.
Naturally, I hope that my critical voice is of interest to someone out there...which is partly why I'm finding Wood's politically minded brand of criticism to be so refreshing and even important—possibly a model to aspire to. I want my criticism to matter, dammit!
Sorry. After the firing of veteran film critic J. Hoberman from the Village Voice last year, I can't help but reflect once again on how best to forge ahead in this film-criticism path I'm trying to navigate. Maybe I really need to just drop out of the daily grind altogether and just return to academia or something. I don't know. I suppose 2012 will be the year I figure all that out.
Until then, perhaps I should frame Robin Wood's words above and absorb it as a mantra. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to the more specific insights he has in store for me in the rest of this and other books of his.