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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 11, No. 1. February 27, 1948

Films — Fearless Criticism—or Biased Blurb?

Films

Fearless Criticism—or Biased Blurb?

Foreword: Film reviews are intended this year to take their place as a regular ingredient. The inter-relation of cinema and society is so inclusive that it is almost entirely overlooked. Generally it is thought of (if at all) under the head of Entertainment which means the utillation of jaded senses by brainless coquettes like Joan Crawford or by vulgar ape men like Clark Gable (who played Parnell without his beard lest it should mar his manly looks).

It is high time that genuine and fearless film criticism became the function of a university paper. What we read in the commercial press is almost always the reprint of blurbs sent in by the makers of the films themselves. Each company is given a free hand to boost its own goods—provided it pays the newspaper proprietors advertising money. And the review space given is directly proportional to the amount of advertising. No wonder every third-class film is hailed as an outstanding masterpiece.

(Vol. 1. No. 1. P. 3.)

With these promising words J D Freeman launched Salient into the [unclear: reair]. of art criticism, A study of the [unclear: ceuloid] estimates" appearing in Sabent throughout its ten years of publication reflects the general pattern of criticism of other art forms and at the same time shows the diversity of critical standards within the one form. Whatever cause lies behind the bastardired criticism of the daily papers and Mr. Freeman's acensation contains grains of truth we see examples of propagands [unclear: pwffery]. even [unclear: besprinkled] on Salient's academic paces. A delightly student may like to change through the mon-[unclear: srrosaoes] of page 3 of Vol 6. No. S. Hints at lecbery in one [unclear: lariOtac] [unclear: Xteh] are used to sell the picture, and we must, accept the anonymous [unclear: revjpwer'f] openion on the [unclear: ahsorhirig] nature of law Great [unclear: Ue] for he gives no [unclear: iltofitraoam] nor [unclear: prawning] evidence for his [unclear: opabon] The account of [unclear: aaawn] might be passed off as a rood reviewer in that it sketches the plot but the other three scrappy articles cannot even claim that—yet all six are passed off as "Our Opinions," A good review should be informative—what the reader requires is information about the scope and theme of the film, with the reviewer's Judgments a secondary consideration. Ron Meek's account of five biology films is almost perfection of its kind (1938), In two of them, be is informative, but at the same time emphasizes certain ingredients in order to point an underlying principle which he thinks is of significance for his readers.

Fearless Criticism

When we turn to critism proper, we find that Salient's genuine and fearless film criticism" never lacked assailants, Mr. Freeman's first effort was an assesment of the worth of Dead End. Altogether a memorable show," he says, and backs up his opinion by more than adequately illustrating his main points:

page 7
1."... it is splendidly realistic throughout."
2."For the first time in my experience, the Hollywood cameraman was permitted to use his camera dialectically. What I mean by "dialectically" is the presentation on the screen consecutively of opposed graphic ideas "i.e., thesis' and antithesis."

The appreciation of new technique was a positive contribution to the enjoyment of the film, but the "realistic" criterion was immediately attacked in the name of Romanticism, whitewashed till it became the principle of cleanliness—under the guise of Dorian Saker. His half-truths were successfully combated by R. W. Lithgow in the following issue. He thinks the film great for two reasons. "Firstly, Its characters are true to life—real: and secondly, it showed up evils of the present that should be rectified." Both social criteria.

Judging Principles

I think we have now come to the fundamental question underlying most of Salient's early critical articles. How far can a film be Judged In terms of art alone and to what extent must social and philosophical implications enter into our assessment of its values? Robert Frank in 1940 rightly called a, review of Rebecca "an inadequate and grossly unfair judgment." and elaborates three things to be appraised in a film "review." 1. Director's handling of the story. 2. Use of the medium and special techniques. 3. Standard of the acting. He then proceeds to make the sweeping and astonishing statement—"What the director does with his plot, not the plot itself is what makes or mars the effect. And judged thus, Rebecca is one of the best films which I have lately seen." H.W. in support of his own principles shrewdly reveals the basis of this opinion. "Alfred Hitchcock has done for the escapist film what Dorothy Sayers has done for the thriller, and in so doing he created something which is entirely pleasing and enjoyable." Later, in an article entitled "Pull Down Those Ivory Towers" (Vol. 4. No. 2) he puts his position succinctly "... but he (the artist) must focus attention on those parts of life which he considers important. The success with which he does this will be determined largely—if we ignore questions of technique—by the opinions which he has formed consciously or subconsciously regarding the decisive forces in the life of the individual and society."

Dialectical Solution

We may on this basis split up 'Salient's OBJECTIVE critics into the realist-philosopher group such as U.D.F.. R.L.M, and H.W. on the one hand, and the escapist-"pure entertainment' group such as "a" (who used a "criticism" of Balalaika as a medium for vindicating extravagantly his escapist principles). R. Frank and Sebastopol on the other. The basic contradiction is brought out in the controversy arising over "Garbo and the beast" wher H.W. considers the philosophy underlying such a film as Two Faced Woman" and finds It stinks to high heaven (July 2, 1942). Sebastopol, in defence of his two hours of pleasure" which "noone can take back again" utters an emotive vilification of H.W., whose mind, he considers, is "filled with an D-smelling fog of doubtful social consciousness."

Well, It would seem on the whole that the realist-philosophers win hands down, for even If one does disagree with the findings of a particular critic, there are gems to be found in their criticisms which heighten our sensitivity towards films, ultimately the great goal of film criticism. Meanwhile it is an undoubted fact that there is not one product of the other brand which tells us anything except that the critic enjoyed htmself.

Happily, a synthesis of the two extreme views arose in the person of Dennis Hartley (WHUI to you). He combined the best of both in establishing a consistent SUBJECTIVE standard of taste. His "social consciousness" does not get in the way of his thoroughly infectious enjoyment, but one often feels the sting of a critic who is fully alive to the social implications of the art under re-view, e.g., The Human Comedy—"Saroyan's drooling come to life." He has an adequate knowledge of technique, and unlike the "pure entertainment" fiends, is able to tell us why he enjoyed a show, not only that he did enjoy it. We are not surprised to learn that GM was WHUI's early tin god.

And what of criticism since WHUI? There have been one or two emasculated attempts to fill the gap by building up a personality whose subjective criteria it is possible to infer. Also, we notice the odd return to 1939-1940 standard, but no concrete trend is apparent. Perhaps this year will show some of that "genuine and fearless criticism" which should be "the function of a university paper." Who knows?

W.J.C.