Film journalist turned film maker Sophie Monks Kaufman talks about the critic and the creative, and the partitions and parallels between the two. Interview by Tom Nel.
Feudal is the relationship between the critic and the creative. Never has this been more eloquently put than in the words of Chicago Sun Times columnist Eppie Lederer: “Asking a writer what he thinks of critics is like asking what a fire hydrant feels about dogs.”
Sophie Monks Kaufman is a freelance film journalist frequently published by Little White Lies and a prolific name within film criticism. Recently, her attention has bled from journalism into the realm of film making, with her 11-minute directorial debut “I Do Not Sleep” (2017). Having stood on both sides of the fence, Kaufman gives her angle on the critic-creative clash.
“A film maker can dedicate years of their life to making a thing that a critic can tear down in a few moments,” Kaufman told Indiewire, “if they are that old school, gatekeeper style of critic.” A hint of nervous laughter gives an impression of Kaufman’s own fear for the fate of her film within the imminent reviews.
The friction between those making the films and those critiquing them is understandable, Kaufman feels. “The feeling of shame comes from reaching out to the world” – a contemplative pause conveys her own empathy – “and not having the world reach back.”
Some film makers are notorious in their disregard of film criticism. Ben Wheatley, to name one, recently stated to the film website Flickreel: “Why should you really have a voice to complain about things until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes?”
Kaufman feels this is a brash, “ego-driven” comment, and that “it’s taking it a step too far to say the critics have no right…I also don’t think it’s fair to place the creation of film, or if you want to call it, the creation of art, just on a plane above any other vocation.”
“He’s saying ‘I’ve made films, these people have never made films, they are not worthy’.” According to Kaufman, Wheatley’s school of thought debases the creative side of criticism – a creative side is little credited. “I don’t feel like I’m sitting down to write a review, I feel like I’m sitting down to write something that hangs together on its own merit, not just in relation to the film…I dream of achieving this style and elegance…I think there is really a craft to writing that most people should spend more time on. I think I see criticism as writing first and a critical perspective second.”
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody corroborates this level of creativity, stating: “the best critics are artists” because their worldview is “imaginative and creative.” Kaufman substantiates this comment with a direct link between the two fields. “Whether you’re a critic writing or a film maker”, the real creativity, Kaufman notes, is in the edit. “You’ve done enough work that you’ve got the material to work with, and so you’re afforded the pleasure of trying to sculpt.”
To credit the production of film “on a plane above any other vocation” is also to neglect the potential effect criticism can have on the creator. Kaufman suggests that criticism can actually be used as a tool for the film maker. She speaks of how her experience as a film journalist acted as a foundation for her film making process.
“You’re really conscious of all the elements of cinema. For example, something that’s very important to me when I’m watching a film, and therefore was important to me when I was making a film, is pacing.” With hundreds of reviews and features to her name, Kaufman had the advantage of a plethora of reference points. “I was showing my cast great films. For the pacing I was showing them a scene in The Master (2012) because I didn’t want the dialogue to be too fast…I like the slightly more contemplative pace, I like the scene to be able to breathe. And I guess if I was just making a film without having had years to think about how much I like pacing, it maybe would have been something I would have overlooked.”
There are elements of film making that are underappreciated in criticism, Kaufman told Indiewire. The real dichotomy between the critic and the creative, Kaufman suggests, is one of mind-set. As ideal as it may be to walk on set with crystal-clear critical idea of what it is you want to do, “pragmatics take over so much…a lot of the decision making is just informed by ‘how can we get the things we need to make the film happen?”
The relationship between the critic and the creative is a little more sophisticated than that of a dog and a fire hydrant. As Kaufman suggests, the chasm that exists between the two doesn’t come from nowhere. Naturally, the two have their differences. But clearly there are benefits to bridging the gap and being more mindful of criticism. Perhaps this rift should be overhauled more often. Directors like Kleber Mendonça Filho and Paul Schrader made the leap – the latter having co-written esteemed flicks like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The Cahier du Cinema critics such as Francois Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette straddled the line dividing the journalist and the film maker during the French New Wave of the 1950s. These critics openly spoke of the juncture between their criticism and their film making. Truffaut, turning to film making in 1955 with his 8-minute short “Une Visite,” claimed that “to be a film critic helped me a lot because…The necessity to write about films pushes you to get better, and forces you to make mental gymnastic.”
Kaufman feels, however, that this “mental gymanastic” can only be taken so far. Ultimately, there is a decision that has to be made, and you have to take on the responsibility – “everyone has a life…maybe we just need to wrap?”