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Jean-Michel Frodon on the New Frontiers of Film Criticism

By Armine Pillikan

 In April, the Stanford Humanities Center welcomed Jean-Michel Frodon as its international Bliss Carnochan Visitor. Frodon is one of the most well-known film critics in the world, and surely the most notable in France.

A Man of Many Charming Hats

Born Jean-Michel Billard, Frodon chose his pseudonym (a pre-trilogy-release tribute to J.R.R Tolkien’s novel “The Lord of the Rings”) not from any particular identification with the power-hungry, hairy-footed hobbit, but, first of all to distinguish himself from his father, Pierre Billard, a prominent film critic in France, and, secondly because of his genuine love for the stories. Frodon actually possesses more of a Gandalf-esque aura, sporting a scruffy silvery beard and radiating phenomenal wisdom.


Jean-Michel Frodon

As former editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinema, the preeminent journal of film criticism in France, Frodon has helped define the role of film and film criticism in society. He has been a fascinating presence in the world of cinema for much of his life, starting his career as a critic for the French weekly Le Point in 1983, moving onto the leading French daily Le Monde in 1990, and then joining Cahiers du Cinema in 2003. He currently works for Slate, where he runs the film criticism blog “Projection Publique.” And like any influential public persona, he maintains an active and tasteful Twitter account.

Frodon shares his knowledge in a manner effortlessly fluid, spouting aperçus as if a fountain of cinematic references. This openness reflects his overall approach to film criticism: films, and the resulting impressions and theories, should open up a welcoming space of aesthetic and cultural appreciation for all audiences. And so long as movies continue to tell regenerative stories, evolving to reflect social transmutations cutting deep into our psyches, we will continue to watch and listen.

A Spellbinding Presence on Stanford Campus

During his stay, Jean-Michel Frodon interacted directly with students in two separate on-campus events. One of these events was an illuminating Q&A session with a class spearheading the new student-run Stanford Arts Review, where he provided a shrewd run down of dos and don’ts for online criticism. Frodon also gave a lecture at a Structured Liberal Education (SLE) event, discussing his philosophical views on film’s role in society: past, present, and future. To top it all off, Frodon taught a master class during the San Francisco International Film Festival entitled “The Critic’s Response and Responsibility.”

The Role of the Critic: Recognizing the Ethics of Aesthetics

According to Frodon, the images we see on screen change how we see the people in our lives. In every cinematic journey, a relationship builds between the viewers and the oversized people on screen, whether it’s bred of opposition or admiration, of power or submission, of sympathy or disgust. We develop our sense of empathy because we immediately relate to each scene, each interaction. Before we know it, the characters in the story transform into actual individuals, bridging that troublesome gap between non-fiction and fiction: “they are real human beings, and this always brings up something more,” said Frodon.

Clearly, watching a movie isn’t just a nice way to spend Saturday night—it’s a mind-opening experience. “It is a part of this idea, this larger idea that art is this object that is constantly opening these questions: who we are, where we go, how do we relate to others, to friends, children, neighbors…and these issues are constantly brought to light, not finished,” said Frodon. And so it is the critic’s job to zero in on these issues, inventing new insights after each reel.

Same Purpose, New Venue: Film Criticism in the Digital Age

During his Stanford Arts Review class Q&A session, Frodon explained the need for the critic’s presence, particularly in the increasingly relevant virtual realm. Frodon certainly practices what he preaches. In June 2001, he initiated an e-version of Cahiers du Cinema. His reasoning: “it’s a huge new market of course, but it’s also the possibility of making an original and exacting voice heard, based on the love of cinema.” If you love something, you have to let it grow.

If, as Frodon states, the “critic is an artist that directly interacts with society,” then digital media is a necessary, and surprisingly creative, tool for the artist-critic. Creative composition kicks in because now we get to hear and see the critic’s ideas: “What we can do now is mix writing with images, sound, hypertext links, to promote circulation and navigation,” said Frodon in the class. Modern critics are at liberty to layer their words with a host of vibrant stimuli, stirring new associations and emotional responses.

Scott Hutchins, the Stanford Arts Review class instructor, said after his visit, “Frodon really emphasized the importance of making the magazine speak to the audience, always being wary of becoming a magazine that speaks to itself.” Communicating with an audience takes conscious effort on the part of the source, and for Frodon, it is an effort crucial to the persistence of art.

Film, Alive and Well

Although many argue that film, along with other art forms, needs to be put on life-support and fast, Frodon argued for the vitality of cinema at a SLE lecture, which was a part of a cultural series the program holds every Thursday night. One of the students, Vanessa Moody, felt comforted by his perspective: “He had a really optimistic view of film, in terms of the digital realm, in not seeing film as a dying art, but rather as it being reborn in different ways.”

Frodon believes movies are fueled by this eternal, restless human need—“the need of storytelling.” With each work, the filmmaker announces: “I’m going to tell you a story, and you’re going to listen to my story.” And, despite modern conveniences, we go out of our ways to hear those stories, “we go, all of us, out of our home, into the cold… we have to be in the car, in traffic jams, in the train, but we go to theatres and we keep doing it.” So this love of movies, of storytelling and listening, will never subside. “It is not something that can be reduced. My opinion is that we are absolutely not ready to abandon this relationship,” said Frodon.

But to keep this relationship going steady, some things have to change. Frodon fights against the belief that cinema is dying, that the moving image is accelerating towards a cultural cul-de-sac. He must even struggle with those who truly love film, because they “love cinema so much they will not acknowledge that to keep cinema, for it to remain alive, it has to evolve deeply.” So long as filmmakers continue to adapt, to tell engaging stories in fresh forms, they’ll continue to enchant audiences virtually everywhere.

Tags: Arts News