On Film Criticism
There is a rich and rousing conversation with Adrian Martin in the new issue of the Italian journal Cinemascope. Conducted by the Spanish film magazine Miradas de Cine, the interview is wide-ranging and thought-provoking in a myriad ways. I thought I’d excerpt a few parts, but I would highly recommend reading the whole thing. It thoughtfully (and inspiringly!) takes up many of the topics we’ve been dialoguing about in the film blogosphere recently, most notably in Andy Horbal’s Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon.
There is much to savor, think about and discuss in the piece and in the entire issue, which is on the subject of “Responsibility and Film Criticism.” So, I invite you to chime in with your thoughts: this one’s tailor-made for conversation!
Q: “Some film critics deal with new kinds of cinema and new forms of expression in film. Are we forgetting about older cinema (silent films, for instance)? Isn't it necessary to rediscover filmmakers from the past?”
Adrian M.: “[…] I completely agree with your proposition about ‘old’ films and ‘past’ filmmakers. In fact, I would go further: no film is truly old, or in the past! Every cinephile should have the experience of watching a silent film – I had this experience watching some Jean Epstein films recently – and suddenly feeling confronted with something that is still, today, newer and more modern than we ourselves are as spectators. There is a good, simple reason for this: the cinema is always a laboratory, a field of experimentation: experimentation with image, sound, performance, gesture, light, colour, music, rhythm, storytelling, etc. No experiment is ever exhausted, and no aesthetic or cultural problem is solved for all time. So, when we return to old films, we therefore see that they are completely contemporary to us and our concerns, if we are open to the traces of experimentation in them – there are always new ideas in old films. I do not regard the ‘cinema of the past’ as something neat, clean, classical, canonical. Cinema is always ‘at the crossroads’, at every moment of its existence, and so are we. That is why the art of programming is important: placing the present and past cinema always into a fruitful encounter – or an Eisensteinian dialectical clash.”
Q: “Is it possible to establish any kind of objective knowledge about these crossroads where cinema always is at? Can we get further than just a discussion of personal tastes and preferences?”
AM: “Well, we must get further than just ‘personal tastes and preferences’! I deeply believe that taste is a kind of prison for oneself […] Critics should feel free to bring in their own emotional reactions to films – it is hard to keep them out of writing – but the phenomenon known as the ‘gut feeling’ or gut reaction can become a terrible end in itself: ‘this film makes me angry or it makes me happy, so it's a rotten film or a great film, and I’m not going to discuss it any further.’ The important thing is always argument, analysis, logic. I have an irrational side (critics need it), but my rational side believes in logical demonstration: if you can prove to me that what are saying about a film makes internal sense, if you can marshal the evidence from the film itself to back up what you say, then I too can be persuaded to disregard my own first gut reaction and explore that film again in a new, more open way.”
Q: “You say that writing on films could be a way of ‘understanding the way the world works and how we work within it’. Do you think critics should include their own political ideas when writing on films?”
AM: “The first way I can answer your question is to declare this: that, no matter what critics think they are saying or not saying in their writing, they are betraying themselves, giving away their deepest selves, their full system of beliefs and values, at every single moment. It is important for every critic to come to a realisation of this truth. What you think about music and art, what you think about sex, what you think about family and friendship, what you think about politics and history: it’s all there, plainly there, for everyone to read in what you write, in your slightest expression, your smallest turn of phrase. Any critic’s biases are always going to become apparent – so it is better to master those biases, use them, include them, be up front about them. Or else, those biases will rule you, like nasty unconscious impulses, and you will end up looking like someone who has a sinister agenda, an axe to grind.”
“[W]hat did I really find in Deleuze, beyond the substance of certain ideas, certain models? This goes to the very heart of the investigation into criticism that you are making at Miradas. There is something in criticism I value perhaps above everything else: it is what I can call the ‘personal voice’. I do not mean the autobiographical or confessional content of writing, which often bores and irritates me – and, in fact, most writers ‘in person’ are absolutely nothing like what you imagine them to be from their writing! No, I mean the way in which an individual writer can communicate and draw you into his or her own ‘system’, their way of seeing, feeling and processing films, as well as the world. In this sense, no critic is either right or wrong in their judgements; they can only succeed (or fail) to be convincing or persuasive, to let you experience a new or specific way of looking and thinking. Writing is rhetorical, in this sense, but it is also creative, imaginative, poetic: this is the point where criticism approaches art (although it never supplants art!), and all the best critics (like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Nicole Brenez, Judith Williamson or Roger Tailleur) reach it. The Surrealists (who have been a big influence on me) always upheld this principle of the ‘personal voice’ above all else, and I find a more recent statement of this principle from Jean Baudrillard in The Perfect Crime (1995): “As for ideas, everyone has them. What counts is the poetic singularity of the analysis. That alone can justify writing, not the wretched critical objectivity of ideas. There will never be any resolving the contradictoriness of ideas, except in the energy and felicity of language.””
“The adventure of the new, that’s finally what it’s all about: launching experiments that will liberate some creative and social energy in the collective act and art of film criticism. So I don’t think any of us needs to define a singular, revolutionary ‘way to go’ to regenerate criticism. The revolution starts wherever you are, with whatever tools you have to hand – Deleuze can teach you that! Likewise, I do not think we should try to collectively fix on a ‘single purpose’ for criticism. Criticism always has many purposes, and many potentialities at once; it’s not a ‘field’ you can cohere and strategically organise across the board, like a business plan, a military operation, an academic conference or a political party. What a grotesque delusion that would be, in any event! When I speak of purposes and potentialities, I mean everything from the most humble aim – to simply give a lucid, respectful account of a film – to the most elevated and crazy: to think of film writing as a means of political intervention, or as a form of concrete poetry. Obviously, criticism can take an infinite number of forms: it can be soliloquy, meditation, dialogue, polemical rant, patient description, a work of fiction, a text running ‘parallel’ to a film, a sociological or philosophical commentary, a cryptic piece of symbolist literature, or a political treatise. All forms should be encouraged – I defend them all! And they should be constantly intermixed into every kind of hybrid mode. It is when we narrow down to only a few modes of singular discourse that stagnation and repetition set in, and creativity withers. The challenge is always to keep your own impulse, your own excitement – or the excitement of the group you are part of – alive and productive for as long you can, and to keep switching tracks so that your idealism can be constantly reborn in new ways.”
“Abel Ferrara’s Mary (like also Gus Van Sant’s Elephant) happens to be a remarkable essay about telephones in modern life – mobile phones, in particular. All the actions, the character interrelations, the montage dynamics, the junctions and disjunctions of image and sound, are caught and dramatised in the multiple phone calls that occur in the movie, bridging different countries, different experiences, different media. Ferrara deliberately restricts his frame of reference: none of his characters use computers or send emails, for instance. Maybe that will be the subject or substance of his next film! But by ‘unrealistically’ isolating this one element of modern experience in Mary, he really makes us see, experience and understand it. And he connects it to very large issues: faith, love, revolt. This working from the particular detail to the general theme is part of what the influential critic Manny Farber meant by his concept of ‘termite art’. Films are involved in making termite art in this way – and so are film critics.”
There’s plenty more reading where that came from, so bon appetit. And feel free to share your thoughts on any of it....