A collection of various documents, such as transcriptions
of conferences, readings, discussions.
A Ceremony of Ignorance
by Ronald Bergan
In Variety (January 5, 2003), there appeared an article
entitled Nix to the Crix (a typical Varietese headline) by someone called
Peter Bart (1). In it, Bart made the tired, old anti-intellectual
complaint that critics are too elitist and out of touch with popular taste.
His philistine credentials are revealed by maintaining that critics ‘summon
up a list of movies that no "civilian" has ever seen or, indeed,
ever heard of. There's no way to contradict a critic if his favorites
were shown only at the Ouagadougou Film Festival.’
Bart, who proudly claims not to be a film critic, doesn’t
name any film titles that no “civilian” (i.e. those people,
like himself, who have limited knowledge of world cinema) has ever heard
of. But you can bet that Bart could not name one film by Abbas Kiarostami,
Wong Kar-Wai or Alexander Sokurov, to mention but a few of the leading
directors of the day. Neither, in his insularity, does he realise that
the centre of creative cinema has long moved from the USA and Europe to
the Middle and Far East, and to the Third World generally.
Bart also falls into a trap of his own making. According
to Bart: ‘Elitist by nature, critics find it positively unbearable
to endorse any movie that has found acceptance from the mass audience.
If the great unwashed liked it, could it be any goddam good?’ In
fact, he is guilty of the same selectivity by finding it positively unbearable
to endorse any movie that is not popular and of which he has never heard.
In other words, like an editor of a tabloid newspaper, he
believes critics should follow public opinion instead of leading it. But,
behind this polemic, is the still prevailing assumption that film is a
second-class art, good only for taking a date to on Saturday night, and
anyone who differs from this is ‘obscurantist’, in Bart’s
The problem is that, unlike music, films are not divided
into ‘pop’ and ‘classical’. It is a lamentable
situation that reasonably intelligent film critics, in order to please
their bank managers, have to review every piece of commercial vomit that
Hollywood, though not exclusively, throws up into their laps every week.
It is equivalent to asking a book reviewer to write about airport bestsellers
rather than literature. And few people would accuse the book critic of
being elitist by reviewing, say, a Milan Kundera novel and not a Tom Clancey
pot-boiler. Worse still, film critics of most national newspapers are
obliged to lead their columns, on the latest blockbuster, no matter how
dire, adding in a few lines at the end, ‘but the best film of the
week was an Iranian film by…..’
Surely, it is the duty of any critic, in whatever art, to
alert the public to works of which they would not otherwise be aware.
Commentators like Peter Bart not only hinder this process but perpetuate
and even celebrate ignorance.
(1) Peter Bart is vice-president and editor-in-chief of Variety.