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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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


Anonymous Andy said...

"Andy Horbal likes this."

June 17, 2011 2:51 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Haha! Facebook meets the Blogosphere. Glad you do, Andy!

June 17, 2011 2:56 PM  
Anonymous Larry Gross said...

In my opinion the Richard Neer article on Malick's The New World which you linked to, sets a new standard for Malick-criticism.

June 17, 2011 3:30 PM  
Blogger Steven Elworth said...

Can't wait for LOLAII Is it named after Lola Lola, Lola Montez, Demy's Lola or Ray Davies's Lola? I love them all!!!

June 17, 2011 3:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Larry, I'd not heard of Richard Neer until this morning: a great find! Friends have also highly recommended two more pieces by him, both in the journal Critical Inquiry: "Godard Counts" (2007), and "Connoisseurship and the Stakes of Style" (2005). I just obtained them on PDF and look forward to reading.

Steve, as you might expect: All of the above!! (And let's include Fassbinder's Lola in there as well, if we can!)

June 17, 2011 3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, I add the book you're reading to my wishlist. Thanks!

June 17, 2011 4:06 PM  
Blogger Andy Rector said...

I just want to throw in on Patricia Patterson and say that I saw the exhibition of her work at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido (it runs through July 4th, 2011) and found it the single greatest, most focused show of a contemporary artist's work I've ever experienced in a museum. Not only is the body of work presented huge, in scale and amount, but every aspect museum presentation is worked - the color of the walls, the carpentry and two-toned coloration of the frames, the doorways and partitions (and windows within them!) - all in incredible harmony with the work (how rare that a museum is used for harmony). She is a master colorist. Her brush work lives, her underpainting reminds one of that lost art, her perspectives are involving and complex, her documentary strong...The realist detail set-off by planes of abstraction remind me of the formal drama of film. On one side of a painting there may be a sudden flat heavy geometrical study of a fabric's pattern and on the other side the sudden eruption of deep space in light paint in the service of quick kitchen gestures. In the notes Patterson says a wonderful thing: the domestic can be risky.

I can't recommend it highly enough. I'll certainly be visiting the exhibit again and if area (or outside) folks want to get up a caravan there, I'm game...

andy rector

June 17, 2011 4:08 PM  
Blogger Andy Rector said...

PS- Congrats on LOLA Girish and Adrian...look forward to it (what the hell happened to ROUGE?).

June 17, 2011 4:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Good to hear from you, Andy! The future of ROUGE is uncertain, but it will very much stand as an inspiration for the new journal. Your description of Patterson's exhibition is *remarkable*: how I wish I lived closer!

June 17, 2011 4:19 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks for the link Girish! Just wanted to clarify, despite the site's formatting, that the piece isn't "mine" but a translation of the brilliant groundwork done by a collective from Independencia ( They've tried to elude credit in keeping with the movie's spirit, but they shouldn't.

June 17, 2011 4:23 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, David, I should've clarified that in my post but I'm glad you did!

June 17, 2011 4:27 PM  
Anonymous Walter Biggins said...

Girish, that's great news about LOLA. But does this mean that ROUGE is officially dead?

June 17, 2011 4:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Walter, ROUGE is in limbo right now, its future uncertain. But thank you for your good wishes on LOLA!

June 17, 2011 4:59 PM  
Blogger Catherine Grant said...

Thanks for the shoutout, Girish. I'm thrilled to hear about LOLA (Fassbinder's LOLA is a favourite film). Good luck with that important venture. I also wanted to flag my own deep appreciation here of Clayton and Klevan's wonderful collection, in particular of Adrian's essay and of the book's final chapter by Christian Keathley on the possibilities for film criticism of the video essay form. I do hope there will be a regular space for those at LOLA!

June 18, 2011 3:43 AM  
Blogger Surbhi said...

great news...exciting times to be alive!!

June 18, 2011 3:51 AM  
Blogger BF Taylor said...

I'm really looking forward to this new venture. Great news.

June 18, 2011 6:16 AM  
Anonymous Laurent said...

Adrian, Girish,

Great news about LOLA. It's increasingly difficult to find (good) film criticism to read on the internet. Somehow, all the talk is about film criticism itself, which (as we say in French) is a bit too much like looking at your own belly button.

ROUGE will be much missed. It was a truly amazing place for excellent criticism. Some of its pieces are still living with me. LOLA has a lot to live up to. Good luck.

June 18, 2011 8:44 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

I'd heard about LOLA from Adrian elsewhere (project NC?) and I wanted to drop a note only then.

Way to go! Congrats, Girish & Adrian. Looking forward to it!

June 18, 2011 2:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Catherine, Surbhi, BF, Laurent, Srikanth -- Thank you so much for your warm wishes!

Catherine, I'd say that there will absolutely be room in the journal for the video essay form. I also love Chris' essay in the Klevan/Taylor collection, and his two recent video essays that you've showcased recently are both wonderful.

Laurent, you're right, of course: ROUGE sets the bar extremely high! We will have to do our very best to try and rise to it.

June 18, 2011 2:56 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I do hope that you will use the opportunity of the new journal to not just offer another (even, I anticipate, superior) journal to what already exists, but to encourage and explore new modes of criticism, ranging perhaps from micro-criticism (despite my remaining doubts) to video essays, etc. Indeed, ROUGE paved the way but this is a great time to dust off some of the cobwebs that have already formed on even online journals, which tend to fall into a familiar essays/interviews and reviews format. Shake things up!

June 18, 2011 9:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Great, eminently wise advice, Corey!

June 19, 2011 12:12 PM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

Look forward to LOLA, Girish. But not so much if it means stealing Adrian's attention away from ROUGE limbo for good!

I second Laurent's comment too -- a moratorium on online critical navel-gazing would be welcome. All this talk about cinephilia is taking the fun out of it...

June 19, 2011 5:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Matthew, it's true, "cinephilia" seems to be the topic du jour of late!

But I don't believe in moratoria. Cinephilia in itself is no less rich a subject for writing than anything else in cinema. And I can't buy into the false binary between cinephilia and film criticism (even though I fully understand and empathize with Laurent's point!). Cinephilia, like anything else, can be thought and written about in open and productive ways that are critically engaged with the world, or in rote, familiar, narcissistic, navel-gazing fashion. (However, there's no denying that a good proportion of writing is likely to lean in the latter direction.)

June 20, 2011 9:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

More in the "boring films debate": an NYT piece that features an exchange between Manohla Dargis, AO Scott and Dan Kois.

June 20, 2011 8:22 PM  
Blogger Adrian said...

I've said more than my two cents worth in 'metacritical' mode about cinephilia - my first piece on this topic was written in 1986 !! - but at the moment I have to agree a bit with Matthew: it's frustrating to me that so much talk on this topic is about a kind of 'life ethics' of cinephile behaviour (with its implicit or explicit polemics about what is authentic vs inauthentic cinephilia, which can be quite a discursive dead end), and so little about discussing actual films. There are many exceptions of course, and I am not trying to mount a blanket critique - because Girish is right, it can be a fascinating area 'in itself', anthropologically speaking ! - but I like it to lead back to film criticism, more often than not, myself.

June 21, 2011 8:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

That makes sense, Adrian. I guess that for me, personally, I find that cinephilia serves a vital and daily role -- as a conduit into film criticism. And being a cinema 'amateur' (unlike you and Matthew, both cinema 'professionals'), this conduit is particularly important in my daily life in the absence of others -- like teaching about films, working with students on theses, writing articles, attending seminars and conferences, and so on. These are all multiple ways, various conduits into films and film criticism. In the absence of these, what I personally have is simply ... cinephilia. Which is why I tend to be perennially curious about it in all its forms (in Adrian's words) as an anthropological practice...

June 21, 2011 9:11 AM  
Anonymous Steven R said...

Long-time reader, first-time poster...just wanted to say something about the Klevan-Clayton anthology mentioned in the original post. It's like drawing a fresh breath of air. What a wonderful book. It pertains to some of the ideas brought up above, i.e. the idea that metacriticism and cinephilia might act as "conduits" (Girish's word) into a close critical engagement with particular works.

For example, Clayton's wonderful discussion of "His Girl Friday" begins as a critique of the rather skeletal Bordwell-Thompson textbook analysis of the film but ends by drawing us closer to the film's "whirlwind" of activity. Cause and effect be damned!

The passion for film (cinephilia) and critical discourse (film criticism) are utterly intertwined in this beautiful book that deeply engages with the language and style we use to get close to the movies we love. Wouldn't be a bad mission statement for a film journal, come to think of it...

June 21, 2011 1:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Well put, Steven -- and good to hear from you!

June 21, 2011 1:56 PM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

Girish -- I think Adrian's follow-up points to my present concern with cinephilia much better than my flippant comment did! (Thanks, Adrian.) There does seem to be a particular field of 'cinephilia criticism' happily emerging, with its own curious vagaries, insularities and anthropologies, and I'm struggling to see the value of it on those terms. Better off lurching back to aesthetics...

June 23, 2011 9:20 PM  
Blogger Rachel T. said...

hi Girish,
I went out and bought this book! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I have yet to sink my teeth into it, but I was disheartened that there is only one female contributor. Aren't there more women being asked to contribute to collections like these? i know they are out there writing about both cinephilia and film criticism... I guess in the end perhaps it's might be my job to write about this particular absence (!)

June 25, 2011 10:04 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Klevan said...

Thank you so much to girish for drawing attention to the book and for his typically generous and spirited post. Thank you also to the others here such as Catherine and Steven who have taken time to acknowledge the volume; I’m very pleased it has struck a chord. I wanted specifically to respond to Rachel's point. Sorry you are disheartened. We too were disappointed not to have more female contributors. It wasn't for want of asking, as you suggest, or trying, but they were committed to other research projects. We tried to ask everyone we could think of, male or female, who had shown an interest, explicitly or implicitly, to language and style in their prose. (And just to be clear the book is not about film criticism per se but about the language and style of criticism. It is also not about cinephilia although it has one chapter that includes this aspect – an interest in cinephilia was not a criterion for selection.) To be fair to the volume it doesn't ignore criticism by women: Camille Paglia, Frieda Grafe, Susan Howe and most particularly Pauline Kael all receive extended, and appreciative, treatment. Add that to Lesley Stern's imaginative and creative contribution and there is a decent presence. But it’s true that most of it is filtered through male voices. Sensitive to the charge that film criticism is a “boy’s club”, I’m keen to learn of female critics, especially those practising close criticism, perhaps new on the scene, for whom language, style and voice are going concerns, for my current and future editorial projects. I’d be happy, and grateful, for you to mail me with recommendations.

June 26, 2011 4:29 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

In response to the request for recommendations of female film critics and scholars who are attentive to "language, style, and voice" in film criticism, I first think of my colleague Paula Amad, who has published two important historical studies along these lines:

“‘These spectacles are never forgotten’: Memory and Reception in Colette’s film criticism,” Camera Obscura:59 (2005): 119-164.

"'Objects became witnesses': Ève Francis as witness to the emergence of French cinephilia and film criticism,” Framework 46.1 (Spring 2005): 56-73.

Recent discussion in Sight and Sound on the lack of attention to women critics has also attempted to revive attention to neglected figures like Dilys Powell, among others:

June 28, 2011 5:54 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Rachel, for your comment, and Andrew, for your response!

Corey, I appreciate the links you provide: I don't know Paula Amad's work.

July 21, 2011 12:03 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Here's a review of the Klevan/Clayton collection by Nicholas Forster at the Boston University graduate film & culture blog.

July 21, 2011 12:04 PM  

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