Reflexions sur la critique / Reflections on criticism
Following to my previous post on his preliminary essay on criticism, Pour une critique cinématographique (1943) -- which didn't provoke much commentary, sadly -- here is an essay he wrote shortly before dying, aged 40, at the end of 1958 -- 48 years ago -- and published in Cinéma 58 n°32, which concludes his career of film critic. He animated Ciné-Clubs (which he considered to be a form of criticism), and worked for big circulation daily newspapers, weeklies or specialized magazines (Cahiers du Cinéma) during 15 years, a decisive period for film criticism in France and in history. He looks back on how print criticism has evolved since he started, the state of criticism and its practice, with an extraordinary lucidity.
(my rough paraphrased translation. The titles are Bazin's)
I - De l'inefficacité de la critique / About criticism inefficiency
Cinematographic criticism is almost useless to the commercial success of a film.
"More and more, advertising uses criticism, although one couldn't say this borrowing and citation pays homage to its efficiency. Firstly because these skilfully truncated quotes are always favourable to the film, even when the article was harrowing, secondly because they prove by contrast the direct impotency of criticism, which becomes efficient when promoted by advertisement."
The impact of criticism on the total commercial run of a film is quasi-null. Even an unanimous critical acclaim, at festival for instance, cannot attract enough audience to extend its run.
However Bazin confesses his satisfaction of criticism powerlessness because the disproportionate and arguable responsibility on the success/failure of a film (like it is most common with an almighty theatre criticism) frightens him.
"I don't see what moral authority, or what intellectual grace would grant to the critic the monstrous privilege to decide the fate of artworks he doesn't like. Ideally we could help efficiently the ones we like, and we would have little influence on the others; but since the two are linked, I still prefer quasi-inefficiency to an abusive power."
II - Inutile mais nécessaire / Useless but necessary
However cinema cannot do without criticism, in spite of its uselessness.
"Chaplin, Griffith, Murnau, Stroheim, Dreyer would have existed anyway, with or without criticism : they wouldn't have changed a single plan in their films. (...)
This parasite vegetation [criticism] on the majestic tree [creation] maintains a symbiotic relationship, with hindsight, not necessarily meaningful to growth but to blissful ageing"
"Criticism is two-faced : one toward the film, which is worthless commercially, the other toward the audience, which justifies its existence. (...)
Had I revealed the cinematographic truth to 10 stray readers only, one even, my duty of critic would be justified. Back in the thrilling days when I could practice oral criticism of workshops and ciné-clubs, the superior delight it gave me over the print criticism laid in this immediate sentiment, physical, directly human, that intellectual analysis resulted on a genuine conversion. How many times have I been approached on my way out by spectators (usually over 40 years old) who meant to tell me they were unable to judge the validity of my analysis of the film, but that it revealed to them that cinema existed, was truly an art, and they believed in it now. (...)
Believe me if you like, these results matter much more than a 10% increase of the influence of print criticism on weekend gross"
Bazin wishes quality would become quantity too on the long run... nearly 50 years ago! The spread of arthouses, replacing the ciné-clubs. Post-war criticism of a greater quality, the actions of La cinémathèque and ciné-clubs, the popular cultural movements are the factors of a complex phenomenon leading to form a specialized cinema audience for a decade (then).
"If criticism is the conscience of cinema, cinema owes to criticism its self-consciousness."
"The concern for style, shaping up thoughts, promote film criticism as a literary genre, which wasn't true before WW2. (...)
We know concerns for effect and style lead sometimes French criticism to disputable excess (often caused by juvenility). But these are the flaws of a new and fundamental quality, which for the first time places film criticism on par with traditional criticism."
III - La critique et la création / Criticism and creation
If criticism is unable to influence a film commercially, then does it influence filmmakers who read it?
"The presumption would be even more intolerable to teach the maker how to do his job (only the like of Baudelaire or Valéry could). The creator expects little from criticism, due to the profound psychology of creation. The critic commences from the result, from the finished work. His mission isn't so much to "explain" it but to illuminate its significance (or meanings more exactly) in the conscience and mind of the reader.
Some bring forth the silly objection that critics find thousands wonderful intentions that the auteur never contemplated. For instance one "sublime" mise-en-scène idea that was in fact originated by a technical incident. If the final work was limited to the sum of the artist's conscious intentions it wouldn't worth much. The quality and depth of an artwork can be measured by the gap between what the auteur meant to put in it and what it actually contains. (Of all arts, cinema is the one that by nature leaves the largest part to chance). Besides, the purpose of criticism isn't to track back the psychological process of creation (operation more uncertain than the most arbitrary aesthetic sketch), but to help nurture its reader intellectually, morally and in his/her sensibility in relationship with the artwork.
Whichever critical method is worthless if not controlled, limited, corrected by this specific quality judging the critic ultimately : taste. A quality, obviously hard to define, that only could distinguish a theoretical hallucination from an acceptable elaboration. Those who lack critical sense and distance, the bad impressionistic criticism, which facile irony only equals its incompetence, make up the free-for-all of criticism. (...)
Nonetheless, after defining the independence of creation from criticism, a new phenomenon should be mentioned, the growing dependency of criticism from creation.The birth of criticism at the silent era was tightly bound to creation : Canudo, Delluc, L'Herbier, Dulac, Gance, Epstein, Tedesco... are both filmmakers and theoreticians. Critical reflection and creation were interdependent.
French critics of the talky era, from 1930 to 1950, mark however a quasi-absence of mix between the industry and what is written about it. A counter-example in the UK (Gavin Lambert, Lindsay Anderson and the team of Sight & Sound) or in Italy (the Experimental Centre from the fascist era) proves critics often cross the line between criticism and filmmaking. Meanwhile, non-critic filmmakers always dialogue with critics. [See: critique/creation mix]
However I'm rather sceptical about the fertility of such exchanges.
In France, this new generation of young intellectuals with a conscious vocation and envy to make cinema, believe knowledge and reflection of cinema is no longer at the studio or internship on set, but at the Cinémathèque and by the practice of film criticism. Thus the partiality, the polemic and militant character of these young critics. Naturally, this is a passionate criticism made of virtual creators. Objectivity is not a goal. Taking side in art is legitimate when backed up by intelligence, taste and talent. Of course these critics are narrow-minded, unjust... but the narrow angle of reflection often penetrates deeper in the intelligence of its object than objective criticism.
Hitchcockism or Bergmanism will remain strategical operations of criticism that nurtured the history of cinematographic reflection. Even though I don't believe in "La Politique des Auteurs" personally. But there is no absolute error in Art. Truth of criticism isn't defined by whatever objective and measurable exactitude, but by the intellectual excitation triggered inside the reader : its quality and amplitude.
The function of the critic isn't to bring an inexistent truth on a silver plater, but to further as far as possible, through intelligence and sensibility of readers, the impact of a work of art."
What do you think about Bazin's analysis and its relevance in today's critical debate?