There’s Something in the (Shape of) Water

By Neil Fox

Following a recent conversation on Twitter with Dr. Felicity Gee, who listeners may recall from the Female Experimental Film & Surrealism Episode we did a year or so back in association with MUBI, Dario suggested I write something about the ongoing debates around film criticism using the threaded conversation as the basis.

I was reticent at first because the discussion around film criticism is a fast flowing river that it's impossible to place any kind of permanent marker into, as if there ever was such a time of course. I never thought the episode we did on film criticism would be the final word but it has been quite startling to see how debates around what film criticism is, should do, should contain, whether it is needed and how it functions, have spiralled out into so many different areas. What brought me round to the idea was the chance to flag up and comment on some of the recent trends in the discourse and provide links to people talking discussing the subject in different, probably better, ways than me.

The ongoing debate about the relationship between aesthetics and ideology shows no signs of abating just as discussions around theory and practice in film education (my main area of academic research) retain singular and often antithetical positions as militantly as they ever have. Recently, debates have been brought to the fore in more public ways through the increased exposure in the mainstream context through significant works by black, women and black women filmmakers in particular. In the last 18 months Moonlight, Detroit, Get Out, La La Land, Lady Bird, Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time to name a few have led to discussions about film histories and genealogies when discussing films, the cultural position of the audience in the experience, cultural appropriation and historical rewriting, the power and responsibility of the filmmaker in telling stories outside their own cultural position and yes, to what degree ideology matters when discussing aesthetic objects. 

For brilliant discussions around cultural sensitivities, representation in terms of filmmaking and criticism, check out these essays and podcasts - 

Wakanda Forever in Film Quarterly

Damage Control: How Not To Talk About A Wrinkle In Time

Still Processing: We Don’t Love Everything Made By Black People and That’s OK?

None of the questions and matters mentioned above will be resolved anytime soon if at all, but there is something I do want to talk about here, based on recent social media dialogues I have had, and that's the historical responsibility of film critics.

Film Histories in the Film Contemporary

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I responded to Felicity's tweet about Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water being described as magic realism because of the fact that issues mentioned previously had been circulating in my mind for a while. While there's never a true consensus about what good film criticism is (and I'm not proposing there should be) it would seem that one thing many critics agree on is the need for a display of contextual and historical understanding in film writing. Or rather, maybe there used to be agreement. Because, this seems to be a real issue presently. What irked me is that the review in question just claimed that the film was magic realism without ever arguing why or how it could be perceived to be. It took a term from film (and wider art) history and applied it without real thought, muddying the waters of the forms of magic realism and fantasy and thus demonstrating both an ill-conceived appreciation of critical genealogy and a lack of basic research. The argument could be, and frequently is, made that it doesn't matter. But it does. In a 'post-truth' world it matters more than ever. It's not to say that definitions aren't contentious or fluid but that any fluidity should be contended with, not ignored or dismissed. Felicity's position is a defensive one and rightly so. This is her field of expertise, knowledge and labour. She has committed time to its study and exploration and evolution. Flippant criticism undermines the work of those who have provided the basis for good criticism to exist. It shows a lack of respect for the work of scholars and critics, and indeed the filmmakers working within different genres and disciplines, and is part of a wider debate of the responsibility of film critics to know, understand and reckon with film history. So much mainstream criticism has a wikipedia level of depth and is fired off into the ether as quickly as possible to garner hits and views without so much as cursory respect for what has come before and whether the definitions being used are accurate.

The speed is not the issue for me. I understand the demands of the internet age in that respect. One issue is how critics and film writers spend their time when not writing. As an educator I have the same issue with students. Knowledge is like a muscle and muscle memory, in order to be deployed whip-fast, needs to be developed and built. Aside from questions of ideology in critical writing, the genealogical context of a film object is valid and important. Films do not exist in a vacuum, either in the filmmaker's or the wider art form's lineage.  Professor Racquel Gates discusses this expertly in a piece for Film Quarterly (linked above) and also on the Film Comment podcast in an episode titled Cinema of Experience II looking at questions of representation:

Cinema of Experience II - Film Comment Podcast

She superbly deconstructs how conversations round Get Out and Black Panther erased black film history when, on release, they were respectively described as the first black horror film and the first black superhero movie. Ignoring the facts of film history that led to the possibility of Get Out and Black Panther not only existing but being as engaged with black cultural history as they were could be viewed an example of soft racism or unconscious bias, but there's no denying it's symptomatic of wider issues regarding film writing as mentioned above. As Ashley Clark says in our film criticism episode, too many critics don't do the hard work of grappling with a film. Part of this grappling, I would argue, is researching the contexts and being sensitive, smart and introductory for readers about them. Also key is the need to reassess and reclaim forgotten and ignored - for whatever reason - work and artists and reconstitute the elements of film history that are now problematic or have come to be regarded as not as significant as first claimed. Criticism isn't static, it's fluid and is a regularly spiralling conversation. 

A reason that this lack may be so prevalent is potentially down to how the internet has shifted the parameters for what criticism is and also what and who a critic is. My feeling is that a critic can be found in Ashley Clark's assertion, a critic moves beyond fandom and does the 'hard work'. However, a critic doesn't grow in isolation. Being a fan of cinema is surely the soil that a critic grows from. Another twitter interaction I had was with Hannah Woodhead who writes for Little White Lies:

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As you can see, I do find it problematic that critics are not seen as fans. The act of criticism should be detached as much as possible (it's impossible to be completely detached) from the subjective and the fannish. However, the desire to write in depth about film or anything comes often from love and the hope of falling in love again never goes away. I've written about films for 20 years and I'm not jaded. This year alone I have already fallen in love with Phantom Thread and You Were Never Really Here and that's just new releases. I've also fallen in love with films from last year I missed and films from cinema's past, because I love cinema. I also believe in the role of the film critic and to a certain extent I have a utopian idealism in the role of the film reviewer. Following my initial correspondence with Felicity our colleague Anna Backman Rogers from the MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture journal, who we write and edit for, joined the conversation and it moved on. It covered as you can see, questions around the role of film reviews, separate we would argue from criticism in many respects though there is an element of Venn crossover. 

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This is my final point I guess. The Venn diagram of Critic - Reviewer - Fan is ever more interlinked and tear-stained and ill-defined. There are those of us who read writing about film who want a lot of the same things - good writing, solid and thoughtful context, aesthetic appreciation, ideological awareness, so we can learn or see something new. All of those things are hard if not impossible to define. 

So maybe, for now, until we have more evidence and thought to draw from, we should turn our attention more to the good practice and shed greater light and volume to that. There's so much of it out there. Here are some of my favourite recent examples in audio and written form:

Melissa Anderson on Phantom Thread (4Columns)

Sheila O'Malley and Violet Lucca on Phantom Thread (Film Comment Podcast)

Sean Fennessey (The Ringer) on the Longform Podcast

Sheila O'Malley on Phantom Thread (Film Comment)

Hanif Abdurraqib on Black Panther (4Columns)


Dr Neil Fox is a Senior Lecturer and Course Coordinator in Film at Falmouth University’s School of Film & Television. His research interests include film education, music documentaries and concert films. his debut feature film as writer/producer, ‘Wilderness’ played over 15 international festivals, winning 11 awards including for Best Screenplay. He is also the co-founder and co-host of the Cinematologists podcast.

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