A Very Short History of Film Criticism


For as long as there have been films, there have been people writing about them. As film transformed from a nickelodeon fancy to an established art form all the way to becoming the dominant medium of entertainment as it exists today, film criticism has changed as well. However, just as the history of film is too broad a subject for any one article to summarize, the history of film criticism as a whole is equally too vast. Instead, it is more worthwhile to examine popular film criticism and discuss its influence in the past century. This article is a very brief history of film criticism up until the dawn of the Internet.

To define the term for anyone unfamiliar, popular film criticism is the evaluation of what a film is doing, narratively, thematically, and formally. It typically takes the form of published reviews and essays that are meant to inform readers with an interest in the art form. Furthermore, film criticism attempts to explore why films are or are not working. Veteran Canadian film critic Geoff Pevere (author of Mondo Canuck and Toronto on Film) believes that what generally defines a film critic is “expertise, insight and an ability to provide a judgement of a film’s quality that’s backed up with a cogent argument, a clear indication of the critic’s position and standards for evaluation, and a style that engages the reader of whatever particular publication the criticism appears in.”

It’s worth briefly noting that popular film criticism is distinct from film theory, although the two are intimately related. “Theory is the extrapolation of large principles and conceptual structures from a range of films so that certain tools can be created for the analysis and interpretation of either individual films or a body of (usually) related works,” Pevere says. “It’s like creating a formula for understanding and/or interpretation.” However, there’s no way of entirely divorcing popular film criticism from film theory—nor should one want to. Both are essential to our engagement with film. Pevere points out that film theory “needn’t be critical, but it can [be]. Criticism is, for the most part, purely evaluative.” Simply put, if film theory is the recipe, film criticism is the meal.

Like all criticism throughout history, popular film criticism was born in print. At the turn of the twentieth century, French film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière invented what we think of today as films. Their short films showing employees leaving a factory or workers knocking down a wall were huge hits at vaudeville shows and technological exhibitions. Trade paper journalists visited the shows and reported back on what they witnessed. Technically speaking, these reports were the first film reviews. In 1895, for example, the New York Times published a short review of a Paris exhibition of the Lumière films and in 1896, they published another review of a movie exhibition at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York. These reviews were uncredited and were as much general descriptions of cinema technology as they were of the short films themselves.

Outside of North America, writers such as the famous Soviet playwright, Maxim Gorky, also published what they observed from the Lumière exhibitions. Gorky commented on the realism of the movies and mused about the medium’s potential to showcase sex and violence, but he still merely treated film as an exciting novelty. None of these early writers on film were dedicated to the medium. They were just reporting on the entertainment trends of the time.

However, as the century turned and it became clear that film wasn’t going anywhere, writers began to dedicate themselves exclusively to the medium. American trade papers like The Moving Picture World, The New York Dramatic Mirror, Variety, and Views and Film Index began to regularly review movies. In 1908 Frank E. Wood became America’s first dedicated movie critic, filling one page of The New York Dramatic Mirror with “Reviews of Late Films.” Wood was also the world’s first critic-turned-filmmaker. He regularly collaborated with the titan of the era, D.W. Griffiths, receiving credit as a writer on his 1915 racist blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation. He also was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, established in 1927. 

Wood, along with other film critics W. Stephen Bush, Louis Reeves Harrison, and Epes Winthrop Sargent, had a marked effect on the early years of film. Not only were they witnessing the birth of a new artform, but they were discovering the possibilities and limitations of the medium alongside the filmmakers, who would read their trade paper reviews and react to the public thoughts in their next film. However, Pevere points out that it’s important to keep in mind that “Most of what passed for film criticism in the English world was mostly short reviews” instead of substantial evaluations of the medium as whole. He elaborates that “this reflects how long it took for movies to be taken seriously as anything other than a slightly disreputable sideshow amusement in the States and the U.K., whereas in countries like Germany and Russia (and later France), the medium was considered sufficiently important to be addressed in theoretical, political and historical terms.”

A perfect example of this mature European appreciation for the art form is the work of Soviet film theorist and director Sergei Eisenstein. A staunch communist and supporter of the Bolshevik regime, Eisenstein is best known today as the director of silent classics, Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925). However, he was also a pioneering film writer in addition to a director, solidifying a radical form of editing popularly known as Soviet montage. Soviet montage is a means of exploiting the potential of linear editing to forward political ideology. Eisenstein was suggesting that filmmakers could manipulate the effects of editing to subconsciously manipulate the beliefs and emotions of viewers. While popular film editing nowadays is not nearly as nakedly political as the filmmaking of Eisenstein, his theories and practices of editing have had a profound effect on the medium.

By the time Eisenstein’s films were widely established as classics in the West, Americans were finally beginning to catch up and take film seriously. By the late-1920s silent cinema hit its artistic peak with the films of F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu [1922], Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [1927]) and western film criticism came into its own. Critics like Otis Ferguson, James Agee, and Manny Farber began to standardize film criticism with their writings in publications like The Nation and The New Republic. None of these critics were academic film theorists, but they were the first to eloquently discuss film on its own terms. Many of the other critics of the time would adopt theatrical language to discuss movies, but critics like Ferguson and Agee understood that film required its own vocabulary. Their writing still mainly consisted of short reviews in newspapers, but they were reviews with wit and depth, that honoured the medium and offered detailed examinations of its potential.

Popular film criticism would see its next major shift when André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca founded Cahiers du cinéma in France in 1951. The Cahiers writers would change film criticism and filmmaking forever. Young film critics Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and François Truffaut revitalized film writing, attacking the snobbery of traditional European criticism and celebrating the power of Hollywood film and its directors, namely Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. Not only did these young writers change the way the films of Hitchcock, Ford, and many others were viewed, but they became hugely influential filmmakers in their own right. During this period “critics for the first...time pick up cameras and put their critical perspectives into practice,” Pevere says. 

This era of filmmaking became known as the French New Wave and produced classics like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard’s Breathless (1960). It also inspired other film critics to pick up a camera and follow in the Cahiers writers’ footsteps. Pevere points out that “Following the New Wave, American film [critics] like Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader went into filmmaking as an almost natural extension of their writing.” Cahiers writers Truffaut, Bazin and Alexandre Astruc were also significant for introducing “la politique des Auteurs”—the policy of authors or the auteur theory. Arguing that the director of a film is its primary author, and the sole master of its unified artistic vision, the theory revolutionized the field. American critic Andrew Sarris transplanted the notion for American audiences in his 1962 essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory” and film criticism has never looked back.

Pevere says that “The auteur theory, like it or not, was probably the most influential theoretical tool ever devised primarily because it was so simple almost anybody could use it. And filmmakers of course loved it because no longer were they just doing, as John Ford called directing, ‘a job of work.’ They were artists creating works that expressed a particular sensibility, vision and point of view.” The auteur theory became the defacto perspective for film criticism. Instead of crediting the large team of artists jointly responsible for a film’s creative vision, critics began to solely focus on a film’s director, mythologizing the role. Criticism as it exists today is still held sway by the auteur theory, as most every film review will credit the director of a film as one would the author of a novel.

While its influence is undeniable, the auteur theory has also been one of the easiest film theories to abuse. “Film remains one of the most collaborative of all the art forms, and sometimes pinning wholesale responsibility on one person is just dumb and wrong,” Pevere says. “But it remains a ubiquitous form of critical shorthand because it’s now been firmly embedded in the general discourse of movie reviewing.”

As the auteur theory took hold of film criticism, film critics began gaining greater exposure. While Sarris and Cahiers du cinéma writers popularized the director as the artist, critics like Pauline Kael of The New Yorker began to popularize the film critic as artist. Kael was a large personality with impassioned opinions about film. People would read her as much for her unique voice as for her analysis of films. Writing boldly opinionated reviews for The New Yorker and never flinching from calling out what she perceived as a filmmaker’s shortcoming, Kael began “to have a significant influence on what filmmakers [were] thinking of their own work,” Pevere says. “She was a scrappy prose stylist and middlebrow intellectual pugilist. She was mesmerising at what she did, and probably influenced more movie geeks to become critics than anyone else prior to old Roger [Ebert].” Kael has been lionized for her writing, but her influence on the medium falls short of her contemporary, Roger Ebert.

“Ebert remains the Coca-Cola of movie critics; generic, easy to consume, ubiquitous and painlessly accessible,” as Pevere puts it. “He’s [the] first person that comes to most people’s minds when you mention movie critics. He was a gifted plain-speaker who successfully spoke his mind without seeming stuffy or superior, and he was about as threatening as a teddy bear.” Reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun-Times and later on his ABC television series, At the Movies, Ebert made film criticism appealingly consumable. His writing was clear and concise and deeply personal, but it was also simple enough that someone who’d never stepped in a classroom could understand his opinion. He’d eschew any terminology or theorizing that’d alienate an ordinary reader. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize and he quickly became the most popular film critic on the planet.

On At the Movies, which he hosted alongside Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, Ebert also popularized the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” system of criticism, condensing the assessment of a film’s worth to a simple hand gesture. This system has attracted its share of both praise and condemnation. On the one had it made film criticism, something often dismissed as snobbish, accessible and overwhelmingly easy to understand. But it also made film criticism another easily digestible commodity.

Still, despite differing opinions on his ultimate influence on film criticism, there is no doubt that Ebert loved movies all the way until his death in 2013. He used his great popularity to champion films he deemed worthy of a wider audience. Films like Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven (1978) and Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) would never have gotten the exposure they did if Ebert had no personally made it his duty to push them on the masses. There’s even a film festival, the aptly titled Ebertfest, that continues to run with the objective of bringing underseen and undervalued films to a wider audience.

Roger Ebert was the last great film critic in its traditional form. He’s both the art form’s popular peak and its swan song. As he died, a whole mode of popular film criticism died with him. However, perhaps Ebert’s most pronounced legacy is his inspiration to future film critics. The world of criticism as it exists today is populated by film critics who got into the game because they read Roger Ebert. Just as his passing signalled the death of the old guard of film criticism, his career inspired the entirety of film criticism’s current generation.

As Geoff Pevere so eloquently sums up, “Ebert suggested that anybody—like anybody—could be a movie critic. All you had to do was like movies. And who doesn’t?”

This article was originally published at the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.