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.
-- 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