Film criticism has been more or less comatose for quite some time now. The internet seemed to reduce film reviewing to its lowest common denominator—thumbs-up or thumbs-down, so the kids at Rotten Tomatoes can slap a percentage on the review and add it to the total pass-or-fail grade. Even the New Yorker has suffered serious declines from the days when Pauline Kael was the greatest film reviewer in the country; Anthony Lane is a gifted writer, and he can cut a bad movie to shreds in a most entertaining way, but he doesn't have the power to elevate a film, to have a conversation with it.
Soft Skull Press just released the first two volumes of its new Deep Focus series of book-length essays about movies (one has to assume they were heavily influenced by Continuum's 33 1/3 series about great albums), and it's off to a promising start. The two books—first is Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter's They Live, second is Christopher Sorrentino on Death Wish—make a case for good old-fashioned thinking and writing at length about movies.
Unsurprisingly, Lethem's book is the better of the two. He hacks his essay up into one- or two-page chunks about a particular aspect of the film that strikes him, in more or less chronological order. It's denser than a commentary track, but Lethem's enthusiasm for They Live—even the many parts of the film that don't work, like "Rowdy" Roddy Piper's acting—makes you want to pair the film with the book for one mammoth six-hour session of viewing, pausing, and reading.
Lethem, who repeatedly acknowledges his shortcomings as a "real" film critic, is relaxed and entertaining. He labels They Live as a bifurcated film that starts as something new and shifts into something familiar (like Psycho, which he says was an unprecedented shocker of a film that then "flattens into a routine whodunit" at the halfway mark), but then he wonders, "Are we seeing instead a Kubrickian strategy of halves, like that in Full Metal Jacket" or Barry Lyndon or The Shining? He concludes by throwing his hands in the air: "Am I hedging here? Sure I am!" Lethem remembers that film criticism isn't about answers—this film is worth your time and money, this film is not worth your time and money—but is instead about asking beautifully written questions and posing thoughtful arguments.
Sorrentino's volume on Death Wish is fine, if unexciting, academic discourse. It contextualizes the film intellectually and enriches the viewing experience, which is to say it does exactly what good criticism should do. Still, reading the two back-to-back inspires hope that future volumes of Deep Focus will hew more to Lethem's model—chatty, funny, curious, and excitable—of what excellent film reviewing should be.