Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Cinephilia Collection

Zach Campbell and I have co-edited and participated in a series of letters on blogging, cinephilia and the Internet. The letters appear in a new collection out from Wallflower Press (distributed in the US by Columbia University Press) called Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction, edited by Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb. Also taking part in our letter relay were bloggers Dan Sallitt, Brian Darr and Andy Horbal.

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A few links:

-- Great news: David Hudson returns!

-- I've just discovered two terrific film blogs: Matthew Flanagan's Landscape Suicide; and the self-effacingly named "Log" run by two cinephiles, RW and Clint.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on a recent manifesto by Jean Douchet translated for us by Craig Keller. Ignatiy writes: "[Douchet] calls for a more partisan criticism, one less interested in appearing respectable than in defending its positions, whatever they might be [...] This is both a call to arms and an example: cinephilia that isn't afraid to be polemical, youthful and "unfair.""

-- The Venice Film Festival has announced its lineup; and Darren has been tracking the Toronto film festival announcements.

-- At Nitesh Rohit's blog Winds from the East you can view, in its entirety, Shyam Benegal's 1982 documentary Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker.

-- Adrian ("The Machine") Martin: on Abbas Kiarostami and Victor Erice at Artlink; "A Reflection on Animation Studies"; a podcast at the Monash University site, "Playing Vampire Cool: The Strange Postmodern Romances of Michael Almereyda’s Nadja (1994) and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995)".

-- Cinematheque Ontario now has a blog.

-- Chris Fujiwara on Jerzy Skolimowski at Moving Image Source.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum has an essay on Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.

-- Doug Cummings has a blog entry on Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible.

-- Catherine Grant makes has two invaluable discoveries for us: a collection of V.F. Perkins' writings online, and a post about the site "The Art of the Title Sequence."

-- At his blog Caméra-Stylo, Will Scheibel calls for papers on a panel on "Popular Film Criticism in Media Culture" for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Los Angeles next spring.

-- Cause for celebration: the first book-length study of Hou Hsiao-hsien in English.

-- The latest online issue of Vertigo magazine.

-- Thank you to all who contributed to the vigorous discussion and debate in the comments thread to the last post on "building a large conversation"!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Building A Large Conversation

In his book-length essay What Happened to Art Criticism? (2003), James Elkins surveys the last 50 years of the field. Contemporary art criticism, he writes, is in a state of crisis. While the field itself is larger than ever before--more writers, outlets, volume of writing produced--it has steadily receded in both importance and ambition. The vast majority of today's art criticism, which is generally written for art magazines, catalog essays, gallery publications, newspapers, etc., leans towards description and neutrality--and shies away from making strong judgments. Elkins calls for a new and alternative kind of art criticism that is both (1) deeply aware of art history and thought about art; and (2) is unafraid to evaluate, pass judgment, and be polemical. He writes:

Art criticism is best, I think, when it is openly ambitious, meaning that the critic is interested in comparing the work at hand with past work, and weighing her judgments against those made by previous writers. I like art critics who periodically try to bear the burden of history by writing in the imaginary presence of generations of artworks, art critics and art historians.

Elkins makes an important and troubling observation: the two fields of art criticism and art history hardly ever cite each other. Art historians writing in journals like Art Bulletin, October or Art History almost never refer to art critics who write in contemporary art magazines or newspapers. And similarly, art critics, while focusing on individual artworks and often rendering close, detailed descriptions of them, are either unwilling or unable to invoke the work of art history scholars both contemporary and past, even though it would undoubtedly help deepen their reflections if they did.

I see some parallels of Elkins' critique in the fields of film criticism and film scholarship. Except for a small number of invaluable critic-scholars who work to bridge the gap, the two groups similarly shy away from citing each other. Why is this so? For critics, it would require the significant effort of familiarizing themselves with scholarly literature past and present, an effort made more difficult by the presence of a specialized scholarly vocabulary. For scholars, whose jobs already require them to do vast amounts of reading, this would mean widening their field of vision to include writing in film magazines, the Internet (including blogs), and newspapers. Added to this are the demands in both professions of watching scores of films on a steady basis.

But nevertheless I think it's an important and worthwhile effort. In a roundtable at Artforum, Annette Michelson makes a penetrating comparison of two similar-but-different film writers, Umberto Eco and Pauline Kael. Both concentrate on narrative, seldom dwelling on matters of film form like camerawork or lighting. They have keen powers of observation and are witty writers, they possess an affection for a wide range of films both highbrow and lowbrow, and they have significant experience in journalistic writing targeted at general readers. But while Eco is deeply knowledgeable about intellectual history and scholarship--even being a notable contributor to the field--Kael is relatively uninterested in and even hostile to scholarly work. This, Michelson writes, inhibits Kael's

ability to account for film's impact in terms other than those of taste and distaste, [her resistance] expressed with increasing vehemence. To have continued to write into the '90s with no account taken of the advances made in our ways of thinking about spectatorship, perception, and reception meant that she ceased to renew her intellectual capital, to acknowledge and profit by the achievements of a huge collective effort. And so her writing, unrefreshed, grew thinner, coarser, stale. It is this that was ultimately responsible for Renata Adler's punishing assessment of her work, published in the New York Review of Books in August 1980.

One of the invaluable aspects of scholarly work is this "huge collective effort" that builds upon the work of others--both of centuries past and contemporary. The edifices that scholars construct have the likelihood of being tall and capacious by virtue of the largeness of this effort. There is a lesson here that film critics can learn from scholars: the practice of reading widely to become familiar with traditions of thought in film, art, philosophy, and other disciplines that can guide them and their readers towards a deeper understanding of cinema. This would mean a practice of criticism conducted in an exemplary fashion: as Elkins says, in the imaginary presence of generations of artworks, critics and scholars.

What can film scholars learn from practicing film critics? At least two things. First, critics are invaluable because they have their fingers on the pulse of cinema at any moment. They are on the front-lines, watching new films, directions and innovations break. They help determine which films will acquire critical reputations, thus boosting the films' chances of being taken up for future study. Second, journalist-critics have the talent to write engagingly and skillfully for a large audience of educated non-scholars. In addition to their customary mode of writing--with their peers in mind--scholars could learn much from critics about cultivating this alternative and useful mode of writing that can bridge the gap between academia and the general reader.

Let me close with one practical tip for critics and scholars. Critics looking to get acquainted with some of the best scholarship of the last 10 years might consult this large 2007 poll at Screening the Past. And scholars seeking pointers to the best online criticism (blogs and otherwise) tracked on a daily basis should bookmark the indispensable David Hudson, formerly of Greencine Daily and IFC Daily, soon to return at an as-yet-undisclosed site.

Any thoughts on the opportunities and challenges for critics and scholars in building this large conversation? Please feel free to share them here. Thank you!

pic: A still from Noël Burch's Noviciat (1964), which features Annette Michelson in its cast. Might someone know: is this Michelson in the photo?

Friday, July 03, 2009


-- The French critic Jean-André Fieschi has died. He is best-known to English-language readers through his brilliant essays, in Richard Roud's 2-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, on Hitchcock, Buñuel, Murnau, Tati, Rivette, Vertov, and others.

-- There's a new issue of Cinema Scope.

-- Let me collect here links to the writings of the thought-provoking blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: his site, Sounds, Images; at The Auteurs, including his column "What is the 21st Century?"; and at Tisch Film Review.

-- Also at Tisch Film Review: interviews with J. Hoberman; Ivone Marguiles; and A.S. Hamrah.

-- At the Monash University site: an Adrian Martin podcast titled "Last Day Every Day: Figural Thinking in Auerbach, Kracauer, Benjamin and Some Others". Via Catherine Grant, here are links to a collection of podcasts by several other scholars including Lesley Stern, Andrew Benjamin and Graeme Gilloch.

-- A link to all five of Ryland Walker Knight's posts which collect an eclectic array of quotations.

-- Dave Kehr on Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad: "For Mr. Resnais, a fan of comic books and genre fiction, the hotel in “Marienbad” belongs to a long line of Dark Old Houses, the archetypical setting for a certain kind of comic thriller that dates back at least to silent films like Roland West’s 1926 “Bat” and Paul Leni’s 1927 “Cat and the Canary” (and to the Broadway plays that inspired them)."

-- The Claude Chabrol Blogathon at Flickhead.

-- Dan Sallitt on Stephen Frears.

-- Kevin Lee interviews scholar Chris Berry on Chinese cinema.

-- Steven Shaviro has a post on Michael Jackson: "Greil Marcus, as the quintessential white hipster, can only see cultural innovation and subversion when it it is performed by white people. Marcus celebrates the ways in which “the pop explosions of Elvis, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols had assaulted or subverted social values,” but denounces Michael Jackson’s pop explosion as “a version of the official social reality, generated from Washington D.C. as ideology, and from Madison Avenue as language … a glamorization of the new American fact that if you weren’t on top, you didn’t exist.” For Marcus, black people are evidently at best primitive, unconscious creators whose inventions can only take on meaning and become subversive when white people endow them with the critical self-consciousness that Marcus seems to think black people altogether lack. And at worst, black artists and performers are, for Marcus, puppets of the Pentagon and Madison Avenue, reinforcers of the very status quo that countercultural whites were struggling so hard to overthrow."

-- The online magazine Cinefils features English-subtitled interviews with international filmmakers.

-- Ted Gioia on how the jazz world has viewed Michael Jackson over the years.

-- Joe Hughes reviews Paola Marratti's Gilles Deleuze: Cinema and Philosophy.

pic: Chabrol in his jammies, courtesy Kevin Lee.