Cue the howls of rancor. Now press mute and consider.
If academic film theory is cut from the same cloth of impenetrable word games as most of literary theory or art criticism theory, then it deserves to be roundly ignored. Most of it is not written to be read by anyone except other critics, which is precisely the problem. It makes it impossible to have a discussion about the material except with another of the initiated.
I suffered through enough of that theory nonsense in college, because I'd already had exposure to plenty of intelligent, thoughtful criticism — Ebert's and others. "Be obscure clearly!" E.B. White insisted, Most people who want to look learned leave off the second half of the formula. They're not fooling anyone who's had a taste of the real thing.
Good criticism requires, I feel, three things: the willingness to approach the material on its own terms; the honesty to separate your own reactions from an objective assessment of the material; and the ability to examine the work through the lens of the creator's intent or approach. You don't review a grisly horror movie expecting Cries and Whispers, but if you get something of that caliber, all the better. You don't slam a film for not being what you wanted — but if you wanted something else, at least own up to it. You and your audience might both learn something.
And finally, you have to make some room in what you do for the creator himself — what he wanted, what he tried to do, what he ended up with. Sometimes he goes in with art on his mind, and walks out with T&A on the brain. Sometimes he sets out to make a fast buck, and ends up making a legend. You never know. That's half the fun.
None of this requires jargon, a "theoretical framework", or anything that looks like you need to arm yourself with two years' reading to understand. All you need is a little history of your own, a bit of empathy, an an open mind. There's more real criticism and insight in a ten-year-old going to a so-called comedy and saying "Why wasn't that funny?" then there is in a whole volume of post-whateverist foofaraw. This isn't to say that all film criticism has to be on that ten-year-old's level, but that's where some of the best criticism starts.
I mention Ebert time and again, so much so I fear people plugging their ears when I do. I have good reason to speak of him. I think most now of an essay, written on his 25th anniversary of being a professional critic, that is among the best appreciations of any art form I have yet read. He makes an analogy about black-and-white vs. color that I have used myself, time and again, to defend the value of black-and-white filmmaking. There's nothing fancy about it; it's just good, honest, and true writing. (The essay is not available online (yet); I'm hoping this changes.)
I have mentioned Danny Peary, of Cult Movies I-II-III fame and Alternate Oscars. He took movies I had never heard of and generated fascination for them out of thin air — even films I didn't think I would ever want to see (The Harder They Come, or Glen or Glenda?, to name two extreme examples). He also cast new light on films I knew I loved (Blade Runner), and made me look at others in a new light. All of it without jargon, or needless obscurantism.
Ever since I changed to a formal publishing system for this site, I've been re-reading and re-uploading most everything I wrote for it. Not everything I wrote was worth keeping, I think. But I am proud of the way I talked a few things, especially the films I loved the most: Blade Runner, Haibane Renmei, or Ran, and every time I come across something that belongs in their company I try all the harder to talk about them in a way that will bring others to them, too.
The best criticism starts an argument, or a conversation. The best criticism makes you want to go to the work being discussed so you can come away with your own reaction. The best criticism is a beginning, not an ending.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind