Friday, June 17, 2011

The Language and Style of Film Criticism

A quick personal note. Especially in the last year or two, when Internet film-cultural activity has been dispersing more and more over a variety of spaces (notably Facebook and Twitter), I’ve found myself putting up new blog posts less frequently than I once did. I’d like to correct this. As an experiment — and to try and provide a modicum of predictability and consistency to readers — I’ll aim to post every two weeks, specifically around the 1st and the 15th of each month. This will also give me a personal deadline, a target to shoot for. I'll be curious to see how it works out.

Some exciting news: Adrian Martin and I are launching a new Internet film journal together. It will be called LOLA, and we envision its form and sensibility to be similar to that of Rouge. The first issue of LOLA should be out this summer.

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I’m reading a terrific new essay collection called “The Language and Style of Film Criticism,” edited by Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton, who teach in the UK at Oxford and Bristol respectively. As it happens, a passage in one of Adrian’s old and classic essays, “Mise en scène is Dead,” which appeared in the journal Continuum in 1992, provides a cue and an impetus to the project of this collection.

As cinephiles and film critics, we are accustomed to watching and re-watching films — and subjecting scenes, shots, compositions, gestures, and so on, to close analysis. What we almost never do is transplant this slow, careful, close-analytical approach to good film criticism itself. In a broad, eclectic and personal fashion, all the authors in this collection do precisely that.

The brilliant piece by Klevan and Clayton that opens the collection is no pro forma introductory essay. It is lengthy, detailed, and broad in scope, building its arguments by paying close attention to several key examples of critics and criticism. Let me provide a couple of excerpts:

We find the best criticism deepens our interest in individual films, reveals new meanings and perspectives, expands our sense of the medium, confronts our assumptions about value, and sharpens our capacity to discriminate. Moreover, it strives to find expression for what is seen and heard, bringing a realm of sound, images, actions and objects to meet a realm of words and concepts. Engaging with film through criticism therefore means involving ourselves not simply with a series of points and arguments but with language and style.

In a thorough and eloquent essay exploring the history of film criticism and analysis, Adrian Martin has asked why, in accounts of criticism, ‘the materiality of the writing of [Manny] Farber — or [Jonathan] Rosenbaum or David Thomson or Meaghan Morris — [is] so often rendered immaterial, a wasteful luxury, mere surplus value … écriture is again divorced from content, to be damned or indulged accordingly’. Pointing out that ‘writing is always more than simply “badly done” (dense, circumlocutory, baroque) or a “good read” (witty, racy, stylish, etc.)’, Martin calls for a better sense ‘of the action of critical writing, what it can conjure, perform, circulate, transform’. ‘In writing as much as film,’ he adds, borrowing a phrase from Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘we must come to terms with what is “at once mysterious and materialistic” in matters of style.’ This volume of essays aims to answer Martin’s call. [...]

Film criticism, Klevan and Clayton point out, has not found a firm place for itself in the academy the way literary criticism has. Rather, it's been sidelined in favor of approaches that pursue historical or social or political or cultural study of film:

Rather than objects of criticism, most commonly, particular films are objects to be analyzed, specimens used to investigate cultural, historical or theoretical positions, contexts and tendencies. This is true even of aesthetically orientated work. Most academic writing aims for a prose that is neutral, objective or informational. It is generally suspicious of personal involvement with films and apprehensive of value judgements, except for ideological critique (for instance, where a film is implied to be ‘transgressive’ in some way, or its representation of a social group ‘positive’). It is felt, perhaps, that serious academic analysis should differentiate itself from the evaluative reactions of the ordinary film viewer […] For the most part, films are used illustratively (valued primarily for their usefulness) rather than engaged with critically (valued for their achievements). Despite this, much film writing, of whatever hue, in its choice of films and examples, and in its assumptions, either contains remnants of film criticism, or is haunted by its absence. One ambition of the volume is to help film criticism emerge from this illicit and ghostly presence.

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A few words about the various essays in this collection. Adrian himself has a piece here, in which he analyzes passages by three critics, John Flaus (“the mimic”), Shigehiko Hasumi (“the pointer”), and Frieda Grafe (“the seer”), and how these critics perform description of films in different ways, to different ends. Klevan’s essay takes three close readings of film sequences by James Harvey, Charles Affron and V.F. Perkins, and in turn provides illuminating close analyses of their writings. In his piece, Christian Keathley suggests how a “poetic criticism” might work in the video essay form. Alex Clayton looks closely at samples of film criticism from Bordwell/Thompson’s widely known book, Film Art: An Introduction, critiquing them for not sufficiently ‘coming to terms’ with the film (in this case, His Girl Friday). In Richard Combs’ essay, he takes four critics — Manny Farber, David Thomson, Raymond Durgnat, and Pauline Kael — and groups them together as ‘four against the house’ (the title of his piece), in which the “house” refers to whatever these writers are opposing (e.g. the viewer, academia, etc). Other contributors to the collection include Lesley Stern, George Toles, William Rothman, Charles Warren, and Robert Sinnerbrink.

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Some links:

-- Catching up with an old-but-good image post from Mubarak Ali on the "chaos/choreography of things hidden and revealed" in Frank Tashlin's Bachelor Flat.

-- Catherine Grants presents Christian Keathley's new video essay, "50 Years On." She writes of the essay: "It beautifully posits and explores the idea of two different viewing strategies in the cinema: what Keathley calls a "literate" mode in which "a single-minded gaze is directed toward the obvious [cinematic] figure on offer" on the screen; and a "non-literate" mode, less narrowly focused, roaming instead "over the frame, sensitive to its textures and surfaces"."

-- Many, many new pieces at the Project: New Cinephilia site.

-- (via Chris Mason Wells) Leos Carax is making a film with Denis Lavant called Holly Motors. Also via Chris: interesting news of Anthology Film Archives programs of 1980s musicals and films presented by William Lustig.

-- Robert Polito has a piece on Patricia Patterson in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

-- Several podcasts are available for listening from the recent Northwestern Univesity conference on film criticism. Participants included Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Farran Smith Nehme, Gabe Klinger, Nick Davis, and others.

-- As he often does so usefully, Jim Emerson gathers together the various threads and voices in the recent "boring films" debate, and weighs in thoughtfully with his own position.

-- At Moving Image Source: Film Socialisme Annotated" by David Phelps.

-- (via Adrian) An ambitious essay on Terrence Malick's The New World by art history scholar Richard Neer.

-- -- At IEEE Spectrum: "5 Technologies That Will Shape The Web."

Pic: Installation by Patricia Patterson

Thursday, June 02, 2011


The Edinburgh International Film Festival is hosting a symposium called Project: New Cinephilia. The event — a conversation about cinephilia, film criticism, and film culture — is taking place both at the festival and at its website, recently launched in collaboration with MUBI.

Chris Fujiwara, Adrian Martin and I are among the contributors. Chris’ essay is titled “Criticism and Film Studies: A Response to David Bordwell”. (The Bordwell piece he’s responding to is in the new issue of Film Comment.) Adrian’s article is titled “Creative Criticism” and is appearing in English for the first time; it was originally written for Cahiers du cinema. España. My essay is called “Taken Up by Waves: The Experience of Internet Cinephilia,” and is a reworking of two previous pieces that appeared in Filmkrant magazine and on this blog. Also: the first online roundtable on cinephilia recently concluded at the site. Finally, Damon Smith and Kate Taylor, curators of the project, have posted an editorial that explains its aims and sketches out its context.

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There is a useful but not very respected mode of criticism — let’s call it “micro-criticism” — that is made possible by the Internet. Most of the criticism generated in this mode is probably not of great use. But when it is practiced well, it can be valuable, insightful, and forward-looking, while working in small, daily, and humble ways.

I think it’s a rarely acknowledged practical truth that the cinephile or critic will see many, many more films than she will write about. Even the most disciplined blogger, with free and unlimited space in which to write, and an army of films available to summon up and watch on Netflix “instant” streaming, will not be able to engage with each film in any sustained way that might be termed “criticism.” But the Internet does provide this cinephile with the next best thing: a useful means — frequently, Facebook or Twitter — to record short, sharp impressions of each film, offering perhaps a fresh and particular “angle” into the work, a fruitful and unexpected lens through which to view it and attempt to open it up. This record is often brief and telegraphic; even if it is almost never a lengthy or carefully considered reflection, it just might contain the seeds of one. I'd argue that even such all-too-brief insights can function like tiny building blocks in our ongoing construction of a structure — a structure that constitutes our personal understanding of a film or filmmaker, and indeed of cinema itself. Further: perhaps, someday in the future, the cinephile or one of her readers might be struck by a piece of micro-criticism enough to find it insightful and worthy of development or incorporation into a larger reflection or piece. In this sense, micro-criticism is a sort of “termite criticism” (as Andrew Horbal once called it in evocation of Manny Farber) that works in short moves or bursts or flashes but is nevertheless (or can be, in the best hands) a generator, or at the very least a glimmer of vanguard critical ideas and possibilities.

Examples of this kind of micro-criticism can be found on the Twitter pages of Michael Sicinski, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Steve Shaviro, and Mike D’Angelo, to name just a couple of its gifted practitioners. Such micro-criticism also finds a particularly healthy home on Facebook. (I’m not linking to pages of cinephiles and critics on Facebook here since most are not publicly accessible from the Internet at large.) The advantage of Facebook, in my experience, is that it allows conversations around micro-critical statements to germinate and grow. (I know there are folks who have mastered the art of conducting conversations on Twitter, but I’m defeated by this challenge. I find Twitter most useful for catching links and finding micro-critical nuggets of the sort I’ve been describing above. At most, I’ve managed to conduct brief “exchanges” on Twitter — never full-blown conversations. Nevertheless, I find Twitter invaluable.)

The idea of micro-criticism reminds me of a wonderful essay on the British-Swiss film critic Raymond Durgnat by Jonathan Rosenbaum. The essay first appeared in Film Comment in 1973 and is available in his most recent book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. In it, Rosenbaum characterizes Durgnat as a “wandering troubadour” of film criticism:

An essential aspect of his wanderlust is that he rarely stays with one subject for long, at least not in the rigorous, methodical way that characterizes André Bazin, [Robert] Warshow, or [Robin] Wood. Even when he devotes a book to a single figure, like Luis Buñuel or Georges Franju, his characteristic approach is multilayered and varied, a continual shift of strategies, rather than the systematic pursuit of a single argument.

Durgnat himself responds to Rosenbaum’s characterization with an illuminating comment about the nature and function of criticism:

The business of criticism seems to me “matters arising,” and naturally varies from film to film. I’d rather be wrong but open up a perspective than be right, i.e., dismiss opportunities for the full, intellectual, sensual, emotional experience of reflective hesitation [emphases mine--G.]…

I think there’s a lesson here for Internet micro-criticism. The short, succinct form of tweets or Facebook status updates furnishes a useful freedom — to record observations, try out ideas, hazard lines of analysis, risk hypotheses, identify contradictions, think laterally rather than linearly, all in a spirit of “reflective hesitation.”

I’m curious about your take here: Do you think Facebook and Twitter have the potential to generate useful film criticism and conversation? When — under what conditions or circumstances — do you find these social media to be particularly substantive or valuable? Do Facebook and Twitter offer a useful alternative, or supplement, to traditional modes of film criticism? Finally: in your view, what are some interesting ways in which social media are enriching film culture? I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these. Thank you!

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A few links:

-- The second issue of the recently resurrected Movie journal includes a tribute to Robin Wood and seven of his essays published by Movie between 1960 and 1983. (Also: a link to my earlier post on the "rebirth of Movie.")

-- Christian Keathley has a beautiful 7-minute video essay on a moment in Anatomy of a Murder at Catherine Grant's website Audiovisualcy. Also: at Film Studies for Free, Catherine collects links to writings on Otto Preminger's films.

-- Several typically thought-provoking pieces by Ignatiy, including one on Allan Sekula and Noel Burch's new film The Forgotten Space; and the posts in his new column at MUBI, In The Margin.

-- The Bioscope points to its current favorite website, the Cine-Tourist. Created by Roland-François Lack of University College, London, as a home for his studies into cinema and place, it is interested in "how films record and depend upon place, both literally and metaphorically."

-- Good news: Film International has been unveiling old pieces on a regular basis at its website. A recent example: Jonathan Rosenkrantz's "Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary". Also: the site features a "Picks of the Week" section in which editors of the journal recommend their favorite online articles on cinema.

-- Let me share a blog discovery: Cinemiasma, written by "EG".

-- A charming Mother's Day post by Michael Guillen at MUBI: "Mothers and Movies".

-- An interesting news story on how theaters are sometimes using 3-D lenses to show 2-D films, which severely compromises the projections.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's place continues to be, for me, the essential film blog. It gives me reading pleasure every single day. A recent post among many: "Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard". Also, a link to a podcast: Jonathan, Gerald Peary and David Sterritt discuss and conduct an audience Q&A on the subject of film criticism at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

-- A wonderfully helpful post by Kristin Thompson on the "graphic match."

-- Owen Hatherley in the Guardian: "Marx at the Movies."

-- At Fandor: Kevin Lee catches the latest films by Jose-Luis Guerin, Claire Denis and Jean-Marie Straub at the Jeonju film festival.

-- An interesting piece in the NYT: "'The Hangover' and the Age of the Jokeless Comedy."

-- A resource to visit soon after you've watched the just-released silent Naruse set from Eclipse: a wonderful round-table discussion between Danny Kasman, David Phelps and Dan Sallitt.

-- Simon Reynolds in the Guardian: "Why retromania is all the rage."