No Concessions: What I Learned from “The Class” (and the panel)

noconcessionsOn Tuesday, I read that I’m about to be extinct.

I got the word from a chart published on Movie City News, which showed that there were 122 working film critics in the U.S…scratch that, 117, as the chart was revised. It’s been revised again, slightly upwards, and is a “work in progress”–but the progression can only be downwards. With print publications going the way of the covered wagon and online venues that actually pay snapping the purses shut, it wouldn’t surprise me if the number dipped below 100 by year’s end. Hell, by July. There’s no bailout or stimulus package on the way, or earmarks for film criticism, either.

I’ve written movie reviews since grade school (first critique: The Return of the Pink Panther, 1974) but I’ve never come close to the making the grade on this chart. The most I’ve ever earned from film writing (mostly profiles and trend pieces, not reviews) was in the four figures, and I’ll be lucky to see that again. It must be said, of course, that salaries for fully employed film critics who don’t have their own TV shows have never exactly been stratospheric. Whether you’re on or off this chart, you’re always doing this for love, from the bottom of your heart–and your savings account.

Coming across this chart is like finding a hit list. I want to shout, “John Beifuss, look out! Run, Rick Bentley, run!” But, like Burt Lancaster in The Killers, they realize the inevitable is coming. I don’t know them, or their writing, but they represent parts of the country that will no longer have a local voice to help separate the good, the bad, and the ugly in movies if they get the axe. And that is a shame. (My hometown paper, The Morristown, New Jersey Daily Record, has an AP autodrone, completely disconnected from the market, as its critic.) I don’t know what the high-water mark for film critics was in this country, but the business of movie criticism is dying a slow death, not unlike the unplugged HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. John, Rick, and the rest of the shakily employed brethren must think “Daisy…Daissyyy…Daiiiisssyyyy” as they show up for another uncertain day in the office, the last of their tribe.

All of this was on my mind today as I headed down to Rider University in NJ yesterday to participate in a film criticism panel moderated by my colleague at Cineaste magazine, Cindy Lucia. Another of the Cineaste elite, Richard Porton, and Kevin Lally, who has been at the helm of The Film Journal for 25 years now, joined me. The panel was something of an offshoot of a gripping Critical Symposium the magazine published last year on the state of the art, “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet.” I’m in there, keeping on pennilessly in print and online. But anyone who writes about film, and who cares about the medium, has to be concerned about the loss of important individual and regional gatekeepers, who are being swallowed up as surely as Marion Crane‘s car in Norman Bates’ swamp in Psycho.

It was an upbeat session. I showed a clip from one of my very favorite films, The Heiress (1949), which went over well; the students got how the very different Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson harmonized under William Wyler’s probing direction, whatever their differences offscreen. It’s movies like this that get you interested in film and encourage you to learn more. (Prior to our panel one of the students was presenting a paper having to do with Rosemary’s Baby, and showed a snippet of the film; I wish I had heard the whole presentation, and could have watched the entire film again.) Cindy steered the conversation in different interesting directions and I don’t recall saying much about blogging. But if I had I would have said that while blogging has its place in my life, it had its moment, too, and is no longer as central to my film writing as it was when I took up the cursor, in 2006. Which is a problem with blogs: You could count on your print film critic of choice being there every Friday, but you can’t rely on your blogger to keep as rigorous a schedule.

I had some back-and-forth with Kevin, who dissed The Fury and Titanic, two movies I happen to like. We were in complete agreement on the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In and heartily recommended it to the students, who expressed boredom with all the horror movie remakes out there now. (It’s on DVD this month, so queue it up.) And all three of us had kind words for The Class, a French film that failed to win the foreign language Oscar, but won our admiration.

The first homegrown film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes since 1987, The Class is the latest from Laurent Cantet, whose prior films, including Human Resources (1999) and the excellent unemployment drama Time Out, (2001) are about the world of work. The steamier Heading South (2005), a more upscale melodrama with recognizable actors, is about sex work, and upset critics hoping he would stay the course. (I think it’s somewhat underrated.) The Class could be classed as a teacher film, a favorite heart-tugging genre, but it transcends the usual cliches. The teacher is played by François Bégaudeau, who is playing a version of himself; the film is based on his semi-autobiographical reminiscence of teaching literature to inner city middle school kids in Paris. I haven’t read the book, but the movie doesn’t feel like an adaptation; the handheld camera seems to be finding the story right before our eyes, in long and engrossing takes that dart about the classroom. We see the students exactly as the teacher sees them, as he negotiates a delicate course.

The kids are the children of immigrants, some legal, some not, whose futures are far from clear in a country that pays lip service to supporting them. The teacher is part-locksmith, picking away at their reserve or bravado, trying to find a way into their secretive lives as he instructs them in the nuances of the imperfect indicative and subjunctive tenses in the French language. (The students, who have their antennae up, try to change the subject, and grill him on his sexual preference.) He draws them out by having them create self-portraits of themselves, a revealing exercise that gives them a little pride. They are smart, sympathetic young people. But they are on the margins, and when they backslide into trouble the teaching staff and administrators are at a loss as to what to do with them. The usual rules feel arbitrary. In a difficult scene, an African boy whose father has threatened to send him back to his home country if he gets into more trouble tries to reason with the disciplinary committee, as his mother watches. The mother speaks no French, and the committee can’t speak to her directly, so the boy is obliged to translate. The lack of communication is painful.

But for a film critic, the raw humanism of a picture like The Class is tonic. It has something to say, and says it artfully. In turn, it gives us something to say. Our panel agreed that film critics, even in their weakened state, can help smaller pictures by talking them up, so before the profession shuffles off to oblivion I say, see The Class.

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  • Griff

    Bob, RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER didn't open until mid 1975.

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