REDDIN: Making the case for criticism

Coincidence is a funny thing.

We probably miss hundreds, or even thousands, every day. They pass by us unannounced, coming to our attention only by a slightly greater amount of chance.

But the ones we do notice make a difference. I’ve always believed coincidence is the universe’s way of telling us to pay attention, and this one is no different.

It happened the other day, while I was browsing my usual selection of news sites between classes. Amid the other stories on my computer screen, one caught my eye. Maria Schneider, the female lead in the scandalous 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris,” had recently died after battling cancer.

Schneider’s name wasn’t familiar to me — “Last Tango” was by far the most well-known film the French actress starred in — but the name of the film rang alarm bells in my head. After a moment, I connected the dots, experiencing a classic movie flashback to my critical writing class a week prior.

We had been discussing the basics of writing reviews, and my professor mentioned offhand a particularly exemplary one written by the late Pauline Kael, regarding “Last Tango in Paris,” that shifted public perception of the film and is widely considered to have changed the art of film reviewing forever.

The film desperately needed a good review. Directed by Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci and starring Schneider and Marlon Brando, the movie depicted an impromptu, anonymous sexual relationship between a recently widowed American and an engaged Parisian woman.

A deeply emotional and sexually violent film, “Last Tango” was released in the United States in 1972 with an X rating, the precursor to NC-17 that was associated with pornography. Despite its exemplary performances, the film might have been relegated to back rooms, left to collect dust.

But criticism saved it, and Kael led the critics who trumpeted “Last Tango’s” praises. She described the night of the film’s premiere as a “landmark in movie history,” and said the film “has made the strongest impression on me in almost 20 years of reviewing. This is a movie people will be arguing about, I think, for as long as there are movies.”

High praise, but there was more to her review than that. Kael analyzed the film, picking it apart and granting it legitimacy a simple five-star review could not. Writing for The New Yorker at the time, Kael’s reviews had an impact that was literally enough to make or break a film.

Flash-forward to the modern era. Newspapers and magazines alike are trimming their staffs to survive, and arts critics are among those getting cut.

Taking their place is a plethora of sites and blogs online, devoting themselves to reviews of every kind. Some have claims to authority, or are close to building that reputation. But for every website that offers qualified, intellectual criticism, there’s nine 16-year-old boys complaining that the post-teen starlet of the month didn’t take off her bra in “Not Another Pointless Teen Comedy 26.”

It’s enough to make you think there’s no future in criticism. That’s what I thought at least.

Until coincidence struck.

Kael wasn’t the only critic who loved “Last Tango in Paris,” and Schneider’s performance in it, but she was emblematic of them all. Without Kael and critics like her, Schneider’s life would be remembered in terms of a smutty, pornographic failure, not a triumphant, painfully true portrait of human sexuality. That may seem like an easy distinction to make in retrospect, but it’s one the layperson isn’t qualified to make on the fly.

Critics should be able to. Good critics aren’t just saying whether they liked a movie or not. They say why they liked a movie, for what reasons, what it references, what its meaning is. They don’t just review, they critique.

I don’t know where journalism is going to take me. Maybe my desire for continued elevated criticism won’t be shared by the industry at large, and I’ll have to find another avenue to pursue.

But I’ll take with me the lesson of Pauline Kael: When you write, write like you’re making a difference. One day, you just might.