Sunday, March 02, 2008

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's “Making Waves”




Geoffrey Nowell-Smith is a British film scholar who has written books on Luchino Visconti (1968) and Antonioni's L'Avventura (1997), and is the editor of The Oxford History of World Cinema (1999). His new book Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s is an overview primer and a breezy, easy read. Quite a bit of the ground covered here might be familiar to the serious cinephile, but I nevertheless found many details and observations that were new to me and helpful. Let me reproduce a few interesting passages.

On Pasolini:

All his films represent a turning away from modernity into the past, from technology to nature, from the industrial west to the Third World, from the bourgeoisie to the peasantry and subproletariat, from the patriarchal to the maternal, from repression and heterosexism to the polymorphous sexuality of childhood — in short, to a world before the Fall. This prelapsarian world, of course, does not exist, but it is evoked as the negation, piece by piece, of a world which all too emphatically does exist, and which Pasolini hated. There is no coherence to the universe the films portray except in the form of this negation. And the only recoverable part of the lost world would appear to lie in sexual revolution, which might — just — restore to the modern world some sense of the freedom it had foregone. Such, at least, would appear to be the lesson of Theorem (1968) […]

How the world lost its innocence is explored in the films set in mythic prehistory (Oedipus Rex, Medea, and half of Pigsty) and in their present-day counterparts (Theorem and the modern sections of Pigsty). The so-called ‘trilogy of life’ which follows [The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights] can be seen as an enactment of how the lost innocence might be recreated. But by the time Pasolini came to the end of the trilogy he had ceased to believe even in the liberatory potential of sex. The sexual ‘revolution’ of the 1960s was no such thing but just a new form of embourgeoisement which normalized adolescent heterosexuality, while the gay movement (or what little he saw of it, which was not much) was just a way of channeling homosexuality into another bourgeois ghetto.

On Italian cinema and its relationship to the Italian left:

This observational vein [in his early films, Time Stood Still, Il Posto and I Fidanzati] was the one in which Olmi was most at home, but he had also grander ambitions to challenge the hegemony of the left in Italian cinema. In 1965 he made a film about the life of Pope John XXIII, E venne un uomo, starring Rod Steiger, which seemed purposely designed to rebut the eccentric portrayal of Christianity by Pasolini in his 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew. Some years later, the film for which he is most famous, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978), was an explicit response to the leftist interpretation of Italian history in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900 which had been released two years earlier and had become instantly canonical.

Olmi was certainly right in noticing the way the Italian film scene in the early 1960s, even more than at the height of neo-realism just after the war, seemed to be dominated by the left. The left’s cultural hegemony, originally constructed by and around the Italian Communist Party under its brilliant leader Palmiro Togliatti in the 1940s, had been fiercely contested by a resurgent right in the 1950s but was now reasserting itself in a new form, altogether more eclectic and diverse […]

One part of the old left strategy had been the perpetuation of the neo-realist aesthetic well past the time when it had any grip on contemporary reality. The result of this had been that the aesthetic innovators of the 1950s — principally, in their different ways, Antonioni, Fellini, and Rossellini — had been excluded from the orthodox left-wing ‘church’. […]

The leftward swing in the cinema of the early 1960s was a mixture of old and new and its first symptom was a revived interest in the ‘Southern Question’, that is to say the much debated issue of the deep-seated inequality between the industrial north of the country and the mainly agrarian south. For the old, Visconti returned in 1960 to the social concerns of his neo-realist period, forging the grandiose melodrama Rocco and His Brothers out of the problem of south to north migration. In between old and new, Francesco Rosi, who had been Visconti’s assistant on La Terra Trema in 1948, investigated the Mafioso character of Sicily in Salvatore Guiliano (1962) and the endemic corruption of his native city of Naples in Hands over the City (1963). And among the new, Vittorio De Seta set his debut feature Banditi a Orgosolo (1961) in what was probably the most backward part of Italy, the mountainous interior of the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.

On the Nouvelle Vague and actors:

[Resnais] tended to use theatrically trained actors, rehearse them thoroughly, and encourage the use of theatrical gesture and delivery, though never to the point when it looked false on screen. (Delphine Seyrig in Last Year in Marienbad and Muriel is a perfect example: poised, seeming to wear a mask, but always a mask that fits her naturally.) By contrast the Cahiers group were more inclined to improvise on set and hated working with actors in the French theatrical tradition, much preferring the more natural style that they found in their favourite American films. […] If actors coming from theatre, such as Jean-Paul Belmondo and Michel Piccoli, were used they were expected to be flexible and adapt to the prevailing naturalistic style.

On homosexuality and film narrative:

For the first time since the 1920s, homosexual relationships were allowed to take place between characters and be shown on screen in a moderately matter-of-fact way, even if not always with complete explicitness. Restrictions on explicitness had their compensations, since the less explicit a film the more it can engage the play of spectatorial fantasy in the face of uncertain events and, behind the events, uncertain desires. Some of the best films in this vein are those (Chabrol’s 1968 lesbian romance Les Biches would be an example) in which characters are shown as hesitating in face of a newly discovered or half-discovered desire and the spectator is invited to share this hesitancy — and with it a slight oscillation of gender identity.


* * *

Links:

-- Adrian's new column at De Filmkrant is on "the eternal debate between 'enthusiasts' and 'contrarians'. Certain magazines at particular times - such as 'Cahiers du cinéma' in the 1950s - have adopted the enthusiast's principle: you should only write at length about films you love. But, in the day-to-day practice of film criticism, that is an impossible ideal. At other moments, the need for heated polemics - speaking up against some overrated film or director - overrides the enthusiasm principle. That is when contrarianism - going against the consensus opinion - asserts itself in all its violent glory..."

The piece goes on to use as examples French-language blogger Charles de Zohiloff, Kimberly Lindbergs, and Miguel Marías (in Dan's comment section).

-- Keith Uhlich's "Links of the Day" post at The House Next Door points to: Paul Schrader's site with his writings; news about Ray Carney's site being temporarily suspended due to a dispute with Boston University; and two clips of Jonathan Rosenbaum speaking, among other things, about his retirement.

-- An 80th birthday tribute to Jacques Rivette by David Pratt-Robson at Videoarcadia.

-- At YouTube: A Star Wars trailer as it might have been designed by Saul Bass.

-- At My Gleanings: "Cahiers, the 'young turks' and William Wyler".

-- Recent film blog discovery: Andrew Schenker's The Cine File.

pics: Jacques Rivette's L'Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003).

40 Comments:

Blogger andrew schenker said...

Girish,
Thanks for the link - and the heads up on the Nowell-Smith book. I was sufficiently impressed by the excerpts - particularly his take on Pasolini's obsessive yearning for a non-existent pre-lapsarian world that can only be defined as the negation of a hateful modernity - to order a copy online. A unique and, at least as far as the excerpts go, spot-on perspective.

March 02, 2008 8:51 PM  
Blogger bradluen said...

I'm glad to learn that Miguel Marías exists. The generally up-up-up film blogosphere could use a few more thoughtful naysayers. (I wish the ultra-caustic Louis-Georges Schwartz was still blogging.)

March 03, 2008 3:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Girish, and thanks Adrian Martin and Bradluen - but, all said, I'm rather much of an Enthusiast. An skeptical enthusiast, if you want. I know you can say almost anything (bad or wrong, for or against) almost anything. I'm sure I could be destructively critical of "Vertigo" or "Pierrot le fou", to take two of my all-time enduring favorites, but I think, anyhow, you write better or more interesting things when you love very much something (and refuse to be blinded by that love, of course). You can be fun when you're angry and indignant, but feeling too entertaining is dangerous too. The point, I think, is that one of the tasks of criticism is to differentiate between what is good or bad (for each of us, of course) and don't bother much, if you feel you're right, to go against the opinion of all others. And then, at least implicitly, you're stating your enthusiasm for some things (from Bresson to Víctor Erice or José Luis Guerín) when you argue how much you are against other things (the flock of fake minimalists which here triumphs now), sometimes amalgamated with the former.
Best,
Miguel Marías

March 03, 2008 9:21 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Andrew, Brad & Miguel!

Wise words, Miguel, borne out by your exhaustive list of enthusiasms in the current Senses of Cinema year-end poll...

Andrew, my first impression of the book was one of faint disappointment because it seemed to be pitched more at a generalist than a specialist level. I was a bit surprised, given Nowell-Smith's previous work, e.g. his "Minnelli and Melodrama" essay in Screen from the mid-70s during the heyday of 'Screen Theory' around the time Laura Mulvey's famous/controversial essay on visual pleasure appeared in its pages. But when I looked at the new book more closely, I found that it contained lots of tossed-off facts and insights that were new to me.

March 03, 2008 11:20 AM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

I received Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's Making Waves as a birthday gift in December and I've been slowly making my through it (I have a bad habit of reading 3 or 4 non-fiction books at once and sort of reading chapters from them when the mood strikes). I have a mixed opinion of it so far since a lot of it seems to just repeat what he considers to be common knowledge without much further investigation or personal insights, but I've also enjoyed bits of it as well. I'm sure I'll have a much firmer opinion about the book once I'm done with it, but I was happy to see it mentioned here Girish!

I'm very thankful that Adrian Martin took the time to consider my blog in his interesting new column. I personally find negative criticism to be much easier to write, but I tend to avoid it because I enjoy spending my free time analyzing films I enjoy (a lot of the films I write about have also suffered from negative reviews). Of course this is also due to the fact that I'm very selective with my viewing since I'm not a paid professional.

I also don't think the 'enthusiasts' vs. 'contrarians' argument is so cut and dry as might be assumed at first glance and I suspect Adrian Martin might agree. In my recent positive review of Godard's Pierrot le fou for example, I took a swipe at Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde when I made a comparison to both films by calling it "Less interesting and more conventional" than Pierrot le fou.

I don't personally find the blogosphere to be overpopulated with a lot of 'enthusiasts' myself. I think you can find many interesting examples of 'enthusiasts' and 'contrarians' online if you go looking for them.

March 03, 2008 1:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Kimberly, I have to agree with you on Making Waves. Perhaps if I weren't a cinephile and was more of a generalist reader, it would've been a little less frustrating, but I did have to wade through large portions of familiar and received wisdom in order to come upon passages and insights that were unfamiliar and new.

March 03, 2008 2:00 PM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

I think Making Waves would probably be a pretty good introduction to the topic. I was also disappointed that the book doesn't seem to make any mention of the Japanese New Wave even though it explores the New Wave cinema of countries like Britain and Czechoslovakia.

I also wanted to clarify my comment above regarding 'enthusiasts' and 'contrarians'. I don't personally see the two different positions as merely positive vs. negative film criticism. I think the point Adrian Martin was making was a little more complex then that.

March 03, 2008 3:15 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

I resent enthusiasts who give enthusiasm a bad name! Give me back my god within!

March 03, 2008 4:37 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Kimberly, I was puzzled about the Japanese New Wave going missing too (except for mention of Oshima, e.g. in the "Sex and Censorship" chapter). Also, not as glaring an omission because less significant in the 60s, but still ... no mention of the Indian New Wave (or "Parallel Cinema") that was unofficially born with Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome (1969). In fact, Asia as a whole hardly registers in the book.

Maya, great big Pedro Costa Next Stop post you have there! (And in a bit of recursion, I went back to my 'first stop' and updated it with your 'next stop'.) Also, your Bay Area comrade Ry Knight has begun gathering his Pedro Costa links as well.

March 03, 2008 7:44 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

You've captured one of my favorite gestures in cinema in those two grabs from Marie and Julien!

March 03, 2008 10:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Danny -- This is a small point, but I get a kick out of the fact that her eyes are still open in the second image: a slightly unnerving touch!

March 04, 2008 6:47 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

In a world of enthusiastic reviews only... there is no criticism. Can we be really critical when we're in love, in a self-indulgent bubble?

March 04, 2008 9:38 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I agree, Harry. I think that was Maya being the prankster...

Acquarello has been filing reviews from Rendez-Vous With French Cinema. I unfortunately missed Christophe Honoré's Love Songs at TIFF but look forward to the imminent dvd release of Dans Paris, which I also haven't seen.

March 04, 2008 9:55 AM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks, as always, for the link--and these two screengrabs, which really are worth about a couple thousand words demonstrating what Rivette's like. I love that her eyes are open too; there's all sorts of waking-sleeping phantasmagoria running through Rivette's works, not only in the mystical films, and one thing I wanted to do for my own post (but couldn't, because I don't have access to two of the works) was to just provide shots of Rivette characters sitting with their eyes closed and day-dreaming: the guy in Haut Bas Fragile (which I did include), Celine and Julie in their film, and The Duchess of Langeais in his latest, one of my favorite new films I've seen in years. More soon.

March 04, 2008 9:58 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Maya was right too. Writing on a film you loved doesn't mean you're more honest about it. The hyperbolic enthusiasm usually discredits the fans.

Dramatic Arts are a manipulative bag of tricks to enrapture and persuade the audience into falling in love. So showing your love might prove you've just succumbed to the push-buttons and lost your critical distance.

I mean, maybe cinephilia builds upon shear enthusiasm (etymologically), but the critical culture requires at least some confrontation of alternative opinions.

March 04, 2008 10:57 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Girish, thanks for linking "next stop" to your "one-stop"; I'm always honored when you fold me into the mix. Both you and Dave Hudson excel at keeping the community informed and interactive.

I was being a bit of a prankster in my earlier comment because I was rushing out the door and didn't have the time to respond fully, which I'd like to do now. Enthusiasm, as you are no doubt well aware, stems from the word "entheos", which means the god within. So I wasn't really joking when I said, "Give me back my god within", which is to say give me back the words as they are meant to be used. Two words are being used here in a disparaging manner—"enthusiasm" and "love"—to help create what I perceive is an essentially false dichotomy. Though the "debate" persists—as Adrian has graphed out so interestingly (and fairly) in his column—like Kimberly, I'm sure Adrian would agree the argument is not as cut and dry as is being insisted here. And thank the god within for that!

"Criticism" itself is another word nearly bereft of meaning, having been worried to death by folks once again hoping to claim the word for false purposes. I think in popular parlance it has come to mean "negative" or, as Adrian states it, "contrarian." I'm even guilty of this when people ask me if I'm a film critic and I rally to my own defense by insisting no, no, please, do not call me a film critic. Egads. It's enough counting angels on the head of a pin, let alone critics.

But criticism is—more accurately—discernment and ranges from negative to positive distinctions, often qualified and interwoven, sometimes halting, sometimes harrowing; but—even when negative—hopefully enthused. So you see why I oppose this camp mentality of pitting enthusiasts against contrarians. It just doesn't hold true for me. Back in the '80s when the AIDS pandemic was decimating my social world, we learned that silence equals death. That equation carries comparable clout wherever applied, no less in film writing than anywhere else. To not write about things you don't like is just as valid as feeling compelled to detail what it is you don't like, even if you're diplomatic and damn with faint praise. Both are critical stances. Both have strength. Absence, as well as presence, has strength.

With all due respect to Harry, his comment that there is no criticism "in a world of enthusiastic reviews only" is both vacuous and misleading, because there is no such world first and foremost. And again, thank the god within for that. "Can we be really critical," he poses, "when we're in love, in a self-indulgent bubble?" Please. That's not a true question; that's a pose. Why not angle a beret and sport a cigarette holder and suffer ennui while you're at it? Contrarians can be self-indulgent too, let's remember. It isn't like these are ready qualities to be ascribed to either enthusiasts or contrarians. Again, to do so is to promote a false dichotomy that—in my humble opinion—furthers nothing. Certainly not an appreciation of film, which should remain as diverse and democratic as there are silhouetted heads in a darkened theater. Kent Jones, whose "think pieces" I find quite thought-provoking, as they are meant to be, included a wonderful essay in his recent collection of film criticism where he defends the summer blockbuster on behalf of the audiences that love them. That's courage for you. Imagine, a critic defending an audience against the critics! Film writers should remember they are only half of the equation. Without film readers, they are nothing. And just as there are readers who love rushing to the dictionary just to get through a sentence—"prelapsarian" being the perfect case in point—there are many readers, most I might conjecture, who want it in plain English (i.e., "before the Fall"). Myself, I try to go somewhere in the middle. Back when I was ensconced in Maya academics, leading ecotours in Central America, I learned to wade through brackish academic treatises in order to find the one insight or image that I could pluck out like a lotus from sludge to entertain non-academics in field. For me it's sport to temper academics with populism and—to a certain extent—even requires more intellectual rigor than is required by being faithfully reliant on the comforts of academese. Though, again, both languages exist and should exist. For every consummate academic there should be a skilled spray can artist ready to bomb it. That's the illusion of it afterall, isn't it? The maya? The tension between opposites that I understand as the eros of the ancient world that holds the world together.

So "enthusiasm" aside, let's talk about "love" shall we? What's wrong with it? It's not like it's shit on a shoe. Maybe Hollywood has reduced it to silly romanticism and sit com situationals, but love is much larger than that, we all know that, it's elemental, it's gravitational, it's magnetic, it's cohesive. I try to pour as much love as I can into the written word because, quite frankly, I think the world needs that more than not. My world does anyways; I can't speak for yours. Love is not some fuzzy mishmash. Real love cuts (i.e., discerns) like the sharpest of blades. Like mythology's wounded king; love is the consequence of the wound. I'm in agreement with novelist Lawrence Durrell who challenged his readers to remember that love is made up of the same letters as evolution and revolt, albeit inverted.

To wrap up this rant, and because I am steeping deeply in Pedro Costa this week, I'm reminded of his wonderful seminar address published in Rouge, an address saturated with his love for cinema; a love so ardent that it has compelled him to create a "dangerous" cinema, one which forces you to consider what filmmaking, and by extension film watching, is all about. It is, in fact, a love—to underscore my point—that is enthusiastically critical. These are not words meant to be separated and pit against each other. To do so, is unnecessary, let alone inaccurate, violence.

March 04, 2008 1:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Rousing words, Maya! I didn't pick up on the meaning of the "gods within" allusion the first time around.

I think that as a person, I pretty much line up with Miguel's characterization of the "skeptical enthusiast."

Being exposed to the Enthusiasm of fellow cinephiles does two things for me: (1) It adds an urgency to checking out films I haven't seen yet or writings I haven't read yet; and (2) If it's the right kind of enthusiasm, and not simply enthusiastic assertion, it can illuminate films and filmmakers.

A nice thing about contrarian 'moves' (like Rosenbaum's Bergman NYT op-ed) is that even if one doesn't agree with everything in them, they set in motion a valuable process of re-examination of the received wisdom about a film or filmmaker. They can be useful generative interventions; they can produce valuable discourse.

Since we're on the subject of Adrian's piece here, let me recommend one of the best contrarian pieces I've ever read, his fiery, no-punches-pulled essay called "Losing the Way: The Decline of Jane Campion" in the New Zealand journal Landfall (2000). Well worth putting in an inter-library loan request for.

March 04, 2008 3:41 PM  
Blogger girish said...

David, your "more soon" has me in anticipation...!

Harry, I agree with what you say about "hyperbolic enthusiasm." Valuable is that enthusiasm which is accompanied by the evidence which supports it.

March 04, 2008 3:50 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

I love you, Maya!

March 04, 2008 4:19 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Kimberly is spot-on as always: I, too, do not think the enthusiast/contrarian difference can be simply mapped onto positive/negative commentary. (By the way, Kimberly, it was your musing on your blog about only or mainly concentrating your time on films you like which inspired my column!) Actually, in many cases, boith enthusiast and contararian arise in opposition to a (real or perceived) mainstream consensus opinion: the underrated film which has not been loved enough, or the overrated film which has been hyped too much, etc. It is fascinating to read in Jim Emerson´s blog how he charts the waves of commentary for and against a film like JUNO, for example, the backlash against perceived consensus opinion, then the backlash against the backlash ... this sort of obsession with ´the thoughts of others´(in general, not on Jim´s site) can get a bit stifling or paranoid at moments, too self-conscious perhaps, but anyhow it´s unavoidable if one lives in the world! Love for a film often expresses itself as a gesture of protection; and hate is often the cry of the wounded disappointed lover! By the way, Girish, an amusing anecdote about my Campion article: it got me NOT invited to a conference on Campion in NZ, because (as I was informed later) what I wrote was ónly negative´!!!

March 04, 2008 4:56 PM  
Blogger Keith Uhlich said...

Many thanks for the link to "Links" girish. :-)

Would be interested to hear your and your readers' take on the Carney situation. We've had a lot of interesting discussion in that entry at The House.

March 04, 2008 5:54 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Once again I'm victim of my jump-cut train of thoughts... thanks for the criticism, Maya, you're a good contrarian now ;)

I agree with you, of course, that criticism is both positive and negative. Though if you equate love with discernment, you lost me. To love might be a life-affirming stance, I'm not so sure it's a "critical stance".

To silence your dislike of certain films might be a valid stance, no doubt. But your discernment in this case is your topic selection (we could call that "good taste"), not the proper "critical scrutiny" developed to argument whether a film is good or bad, since that voice remains absent from film culture.

The hypothetical world of positive-only reviews was to show the absurd result if such behaviour is generalized among film writers (which is implied when we encourage one model over the other, like Cahiers did). If only enthusiastic reviews are published (and consequently we assume the films less wrote about are bad), the visible aspect of cinema literature would be only worded in blissful praises. We can't leave the dissenting discourse up to the reader's imagination. Every side/opinion should be voiced out, argued and scrutinized. A culture cannot be "critical" if one side of the coin remains in the dark.
Let me remind you how the Soviets were enthusiastic about the communist propaganda, and just ignored/silenced things they didn't like. This is hardly a critical stance. ;)

If I had to part the world in good v. bad criticism, I wouldn't use Adrian's duality (enthusiasts/contrarians). These are two (of many) symptomatic attitudes, that are not even the pair of direct opposites in a dichotomy.
I guess it was also a little confusing to use Cahiers as an example of "purely enthusiasts", in opposition to contrarians... because they are hardly the paragon of impressionistic reviewing.

Even if I seem to defend the role of contrarians in film culture, I do not believe it incarnates the ideal of (good) criticism by any means. It's not even a stand-alone stance since it relies on a "reaction to" someone else's opinion.
In case you needed confirmation from me, a purely emotional discourse does help to build the content of film culture. Nothing is wrong with love in film writing. All I'm saying is that "scrutiny" and "passion" have distinct roles. The former defines (like the "evidence" mentioned by Girish) what qualifies as "criticism".
Aesthetical values arise when, beyond your immediate love for a film experience, you realize that screening is part of a larger history and culture to which it should be compared in order to be evaluated.
If you don't like scrutiny, analysis, demonstration and hierarchy then you don't like criticism. And it's ok. Film criticism is only a portion of film culture. One could write passionately about cinema all life long, in a "valid" way, without being critical.

P.S. The etymology I referred to was one of cine+philia (philia>love>passion>enthusiasm), regardless for any divine intervention.

March 04, 2008 6:34 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

Well, I have some theories on the subject (positive, negative criticism, etc.) - I think, first that while "contrarian" criticism (writing about films you hate) can generate some interesting prose, it doesn't lead to the most interesting criticism. (Unless you're Mark Twain: anyone read his magnificent demolition of James Fenimore Cooper?) Maybe it's because of my preference for poetics and theory over interpretation or evaluation - formally oriented criticism tends to sidestep the problem. Though I think there is more to it than that - poetics, especially, requires a lot of time with the film: and if you are going to spend the time to do a detailed analysis of it, you probably ahve to want to keep watching the film. And, I suspect, whether you like the film coming in or not, if you do spend hours and hours watching scenes or stepping through frames and so on, you will come to appreciate the film more.

There's another aspect to this I've been thinking about lately: a different sense of "positive" and "negative". Not just positive as liking a film, or praising or defending a film - but positive in the sense of writing about what the film is, instead of what the film is not. Some of this came up during the Contemplative film blogathon this year - ways to describe films in positive terms, what they are, rather than what they aren't. (I noticed something similar during the Jose Luis Guerin retrospective at Harvard a couple weeks ago, too.) I think "enthusiasts" tend to write more positively, in this second sense as well as the first - they write about what the film does, what it means, what it is, how it says what it says, and so on. "Contrarians" seem to me to often write negatively, in that second sense - they write about what the films is not, what it fails to do, what it should have been - or they judge it as failing to do what other films do.

Speaking of Ray Carney - he strikes me as a perfect example of what I mean. When he writes about what he likes, I think he is excellent: he writes about those films on their own terms - he writes about what they do, and what they are.... But when he writes about films he doesn't like (Hitchcock or Lynch or Kubrick or whatever) - he is much less convincing, because he does not write about what they do, or why and how - he writes about how they don't do what Cassavetes does; he writes about them from an external standard. He doesn't seem to accept them on their terms, and look for how what they do works...

March 04, 2008 10:02 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Does "contrarian" mean "writing about disliked films" or just "writing against the (perceived) mainstream trend"? I could defend enthusiastically a film I love, and still be a contrarian if everyone else disliked it. ;)
Contrarianism has to do with setting oneself against the majority opinion, that's why it's not a good incarnation of film criticism, it depends on the value of the position taken by the majority. If the majority is "right" (though sometimes nobody is wrong), then the contrarian is wasting time.

March 05, 2008 4:03 AM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

Adrian - Many thanks for the mention of my blog in your piece! I'm very grateful that you took the time to consider Cinebeats in your piece. I'm also glad I tried to make myself clearer above because defining your original concepts of enthusiast/contrarian onto positive/negative film criticism seems to be missing a much larger point.

Maya - Love your rant! You made some very valid points that I can relate to. You're passionate stance put a big grin on my face.

Weepingsam - I think you made a very smart observation when you said the following:

I think "enthusiasts" tend to write more positively, in this second sense as well as the first - they write about what the film does, what it means, what it is, how it says what it says, and so on. "Contrarians" seem to me to often write negatively, in that second sense - they write about what the films is not, what it fails to do, what it should have been

I had a *bingo* moment after I read that because it perfectly expressed the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head lately.

I often find myself turned away from contrarian arguments or poorly written negative film criticism because it does exactly this. I've found that best contrarian writing is able to successfully move past the writers own expectations and instead focus on what exactly they feel is wrong with a film as it is instead of what it should have been.

HarryTuttle - I'm not sure I totally understand your argument, but you seem to only equate "scrutiny, analysis, demonstration" with contrarians and I don't really follow that line of thinking myself. If I've misread something above, I apologize in advance.

And lastly, Girish you're very right about the Geoffrey Nowell-Smith book. I realize that the entire Asian New Wave is still a relatively new area of study for many, but I was surprised that a new book on the topic would completely ignore it. I would love to read more on the Indian New Wave or "Parallel Cinema" as you called it so if you can point me to a good website or recommend a good book on the topic, please do!

March 05, 2008 3:01 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Two quick thoughts about enthusiasm versus not-enthusiasm (which, as HarryTuttle said, isn't the same as conformism vs. contrarianism):

1) In some ways the enthusiast has something more solid to write about: the successful construction of a pleasure circuit between the filmmaker's creation and the viewer's good response. It may not be objective, it may not be intentional, but it worked for one person at least. The non-enthusiast, on the other hand, is in danger of finding elaborate ways of saying "I don't get it." Sometimes a movie one doesn't like creates clear feelings that one can report on; but other times one is simply confused or detached, which isn't the best basis for analysis.

2) Whenever I take a non-enthusiastic position on a mailing list or on my blog, the vast force of negativity in the universe seems to rise up to meet me, and I get my comeuppance three times filled and running over. Something about human nature. This doesn't say anything about the value of enthusiastic versus non-enthusiastic criticism, but it does explain why I think twice before I write from a non-enthusiastic posture.

March 05, 2008 8:38 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Kimberly,
I have an idea what a contrarian does, but I don't know what an "enthusiast" represents within film criticism.
The contrarian is usually using critical thinking because the point is to debunk someone else's argument. So there is a form of critical rhetorics. Though if it's fallacious or in bad faith it's bad criticism.
But how enthusiasm tells us if it's a critical stance or not? The P.R. marketing is enthusiastic, the interview of actors, directors, producers are enthusiastic, the test-audience is enthusiastic. Talking points are positivist. But what is it about "positivism" that makes it "critical"? These are apples and oranges (and both are delicious fruits, down with the either/or mentality!). To say that enthusiasm is not criticism doesn't mean it's not valid or that it's bad... it's just something else than criticism that's all, it can still be good writing.

Now, like you and Adrian said, these categories are not exclusive. One could be enthusiast and also develop a sound argumentation. So enthusiasm alone doesn't define good or bad criticism, it's the level of scrutiny in there that does. So we can have a "critical enthusiast", and a "non-critical enthusiast". but it's not enthusiasm that makes the difference, it's everything else. But usually a positivist enthusiast refuses to engage in a critical debate since shortcommings (potential weakness, failure, limitation, overestimation, excess, cliché, facilities...) are out of the picture anyway.

Look at Godard's Monika article in Cahiers : Bergmanorama (an enthusiast exception to the analytical tradition of this revue). His enthusiasm is his only argument why we should believe him that this movie is "the most beautiful film". We just have to take his word for it, because he knows (well he gets a little more critical towards the end). This is lyrical rhetorics, very moving and infectious, something readers love to read, something journalism loves to publish, but there is no scrutiny since the idea that the film is a masterpiece is his point of departure, instead of the conclusion of a demonstration.

Well I guess this is again going to the objective vs. subjective type of debate to define what should film criticism be...

March 06, 2008 6:56 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all, for this great and continuing discussion.

Kimberly -- Alas, I haven't yet found a large and systematic resource of Indian "parallel cinema" online. Even the wikipedia entry is measly and anemic--and no indication of the importance of this movement. I'd like to put up a post before too long that touches on key films and points to some readings, and I will drop you a line to let you know when I do.

Speaking of Indian cinema, I'm reminded that the first Cinebeats post I ever read was the one on Sholay. If you're curious to check out another Ramesh Sippy/Amitabh collaboration, I can suggest Shakti (1982). It's one of my personal favorites in all of Indian popular cinema.

March 06, 2008 9:21 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

But how enthusiasm tells us if it's a critical stance or not?

Through the language, Harry. Adrian has it just right when he comments above: "Actually, in many cases, both enthusiast and contrarian arise in opposition to a (real or perceived) mainstream consensus opinion: the underrated film which has not been loved enough, or the overrated film which has been hyped too much, etc." In both instances the language becomes corrective and, thereby, "critical".

Because I'm preparing for an interview with Pedro Costa this afternoon, let me use him as an example since he is forefront and center in my mind. When Variety's Justin Chang "criticized" Costa's Colossal Youth as "a numbing, nearly three-hour fusion of documentary and dramatic essay that will hold the Portuguese director's coterie of fans in rapt attention while proving a colossal bore to everyone else", it was like throwing down the gauntlet for Costa enthusiasts. Not only to defend Costa but to speak against such bad criticism; in this case, again to quote Adrian, a "perceived mainstream consensus opinion." What I find fascinating about the Costa phenomenon, especially in the wake of his nationwide retrospective, is that his "coterie of fans" has grown exponentially, even as understanding of his work has relied less on the "received wisdom" of the early naysayers and more on the enthusiasts who have stepped in to champion him along the retrospective's route. Among these would be Scott Foundas of the L.A. Weekly who, first and foremost, countered Chang's blithe dismissal by painting an altogether different portrait of the film's reception. One might say he was just as disdainful of those who left the theater in protest as they were of those who stayed behind in "rapt attention"; but, precisely in striving for balance, his "critical stance" was ameliorative and important.

Cinema Scope's Mark Peranson has likewise stepped in to employ his enthusiasm in service to a deeper understanding of Costa's work. First he recognizes that festival fatigue might have had much to do with critical willingness to sit through a formidable piece like Colossal Youth. That's what, for me, is the prime value of the Still Lives retrospective. It recognizes an appropriate exhibition of a commanding and demanding oeuvre. "Rapt attention" is, indeed, requisite and an enthusiast's reliance on same makes for a more nuanced appreciation.

After Toronto, Michael Sicinski arrived with enthusiastic, detailed language on how to access Costa's work. James Quandt has likewise tethered enthusiastic language to critical purpose in his Artforum essay. In my humble opinion, however, the most enthusiastic and critical piece on Colossal Youth is Dave McDougall's superb essay for Chained to the Cinémathèque, wherein he provided a sociopolitical context to help place what is seemingly unmoored to narrative. His contextualizations served to focus and deepen my appreciation more than almost any other write-up and I am deeply grateful to his enthusiastic acuity.

All of these pieces can be found either in Girish's One-Stop or my Next-Stop with regard to the Costa material and I use them as an adamant defense of the value of enthusiastic criticism. They go straight to the dilemma: why is the audience bored? Is it for a failing in the film or a failing in how the film is received? And, if the latter, how can that reception be improved? The traveling retrospective with its critical adherents is a classic case in point of how enthusiasm educates.

Well I guess this is again going to the objective vs. subjective type of debate to define what should film criticism be...

Again, with all due respect, Harry, a comment like that is like putting on blinders. Do you really want to understand the critical value of enthusiastic writing or have you already predetermined what you believe is "objective"? It sounds to me like you have decided enthusiastic and passionate language cannot be "objective", which by turn suggests that objective criticism must be distanced and dispassionate. Personally, I'm a great fan of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle which critiques objectivity in and of itself. I suspect the same holds true for film criticism. There's no "objectivity" in film criticism. Film criticism is not some monolithic entity that is either real or not real. Film criticism is language and—when the language is at its best, either through intellect or emotion—it is "evidence" (as Girish terms it) to support an argument or to criticize another's. I respect the protean god in language, especially when applied to film, and will always object against the statuary.

March 06, 2008 12:25 PM  
Blogger acquarello said...

Kimberly, regarding references on Indian parallel cinema, I highly recommend John W. Hood's book, Essential Mystery: The Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema. It's about ten years old now, but along with giants like Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, and Satyajit Ray, it also has sections on "newer" filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

While I find that some of Hood's analysis of films are a little of the mark (for instance he's awfully critical of the flaws of Ghatak's last film, Jukti Takko Ar Gappo which, to me, doesn't stand out any more than the (few) awkward elements in his other films), it has really been an indispensable guide for me. There's a final catch-all chapter also called Some Eminent Others which is a pretty great snapshot of then up and coming filmmakers who have now firmly established themselves, like Aparna Sen and Mani Kaul.

March 06, 2008 1:36 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

We are in agreement Maya (at least in most part). Language is rhetorics. The texts you cite aren't pure "enthusiasm" (like Godard's article I've linked above, where he simply asserts "this is great and I don't have to tell you why", this is what I consider "non-critical enthusiasm"), they are critical stances that happened to be enthusiastic too.

When you say "[McDougall] provided a sociopolitical context to help place what is seemingly unmoored to narrative. His contextualizations served to focus and deepen my appreciation" this is critical rhetorics, analytical scrutiny and demonstrative. This is (objective) criticism (=checked facts from the real world, universal values, outside of the personal emotional response). And his enthusiasm doesn't hurt a bit of course.

Like I said, nothing prevents criticism to be also enthusiastic. We all agree that it's quite rare when a review would be 100% of one and nothing of the other, there is always a bit of both. It's not the happy tone that makes it critical, it's the persuasion of the language.
This said, enthusiasm has its value in facilitating an appreciation to reach out to the readers, as you just explained here (though it's not a "critical" value IMHO). I agree with you that enthusiasts may be a powerful factor to drag more people in theatre for Costa. To talk positively about "boring art films" does help to change the prejudices. That's what weepingsam noted above, recalling what we talked about at the Contemplative blogathon.

For every single movie we could find an enthusiast. Each movie has an audience and a fan club. This doesn't mean that every movie is good, that every filmmaker is automatically great because there are people to talk about their work enthusiastically. What does it mean if the audience of Pirates of The Caribbean is more enthusiastic than the one of Colossal Youth? My point is that enthusiasm (by itself) is not determinant in defining cinema greatness, and conversely, criticism soundness.

Could someone please define what is "enthusiasm" in film writing exactly?
I assume it belongs to the "subjective" camp, correct me if I'm wrong.

You know that I particularly resent critics who find "contemplative cinema" boring, and I've denounced the same types of reaction that Justin Chang entertains in Variety. We don't care if Variety doesn't like Colossal Youth, or how many people will enjoy sitting through it. It's not because the enthusiasts are in minority that our case is less potent. What matters is what the film does and what we are able to retrieve from it.
But this is Variety! It's a trade paper and they speculate on immediate box office potential rather than capitalizing on a misunderstood masterpiece that will take some time before gaining posterity. We don't need to be psychic to know this kind of film is far from what 90% of the mainstream audience expects... we know the followers will be few. So what? That's not a critical discourse, it's just an economical forecast, an audience's response study.

I'm looking forward to your Costa interview, which I know will be both insightful and passionate like all your interviews. And you prepare them very studiously, it's quite impressive. Have fun for us. ;)

March 06, 2008 4:33 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Maya, Harry, and Acquarello.

Maya, I'm looking forward eagerly to your Pedro Costa interview.

Acquarello, I'm glad you mentioned the John Hood book on Indian parallel cinema. Sheepishly, let me confess. You know how you talked about a couple of his judgments being a bit "off the mark"? I bought the book a few years back and the first couple of times I tried to get into it, I stubbed my toe on those instances, esp. with Ghatak, and (unwisely) I slammed the book shut. I need to go back to it and give it a patient, thorough read. It's a rare effort in this sparse field, and thus automatically valuable.

March 06, 2008 8:19 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Girish, I said hello for you to Costa today. He remembers you fondly. Admittedly, I was using everything in my arsenal to loosen him up to make him feel comfortable. Dropping your name worked wonders. Thanks!

Harry, next time I'm in Paris, please allow me to take you out for drinks where I will thrash you severely around the head and shoulders. Don't worry. I'll pick up the tab. Heh.

March 07, 2008 2:54 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Maya, thank you for doing that. And I hope your interview was enjoyable!

I'm in the midst of a week of travels. Just returned from Toronto: the opening of the Edward Yang series, and his amazing debut feature, Taipei Story (1985), with Hou Hsiao-hsien (!) as the lead actor.

I'm leaving town again this morning but assuming they have wi-fi at the hotel, I'll put up a post within the next day or so.

March 09, 2008 7:45 AM  
Anonymous Dottie said...

Thank you for your eloquence, Maya. You are truly what a film critic should be!

March 09, 2008 11:32 AM  
Blogger girish said...

A 'thank you' to Steve Erickson for pointing out that Edward Yang's debut film was actually That Day On The Beach (1983), also Chris Doyle's first film.

March 09, 2008 11:49 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

It's funny how love gets lots of spontaneous supporters as if this natural instinct was endangered among critics and cinephiles... while there is no cheers for a less-obvious (and more boring) problematics like to contemplate the limitations of positivism that actually undermines the film criticism discourse.
Last time around we discussed the issue, everyone identify with "sceptics" against "missionaries", and today as the word "love" is mentioned, everyone claims to be an enthusiast-missionary (contrarian being a form of scepticism). Funny how changing a word can swing alignments.

See what the excess of this mentality leads leads to: Giving the Outsiders a Say on Movies (NYT).
Way to go enthusiasts, just tell artists what they should create for us! Somehow I don't expect any "great" movie to come out of such participative endeavour...

I hope this NYC "responsibilities of criticism" conference will go beyond fandom enthusiasm and positive thinking. ;)

March 10, 2008 11:52 AM  
Anonymous Ash K. Ladd said...

harrytuttle - For someone who seems so concerned with contemplative cinema, your inability to contemplate this topic is pretty astonishing. You're viewing it through an extremely narrow perspective. Even though both Adrian and Maya have clearly explained themselves, you continue to chase your own tail.

March 10, 2008 3:00 PM  
Blogger dave said...

Apologies for not posting here earlier, my computer is 'in the shop.'

Thanks to Maya and Harry for such nice words about my contexualization of Colossal Youth. As for 'enthusiasm,' for me, criticism should be an illumination. Facts, narratives, analysis are weapons in the struggle to reveal a film. Enthusiasm is the faith that these weapons can reveal greatness. Contrarianism uses these weapons and still finds a film lacking.

March 10, 2008 4:29 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Ash K. Ladd, it's always an inspiration to meet open-minded people (who can't stand listening to others sharing concerns). By the way, I had the impression our little chat here was about the future of film criticism in general terms. Was it just about Adrian and Maya?

March 11, 2008 5:37 AM  

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