14 juillet 2006

Bazin on criticism - 1958

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?

8 commentaires:

andyhorbal a dit…

Harry, I'm glad I finally have the chance to read these most recent posts of yours! I'm going in order, so I haven't actually read the subsequent ones yet...

Your last question, "What do you think about Bazin's analysis and its relevance in today's critical debate?" is interesting. There doesn't really seem (to me) to be anyone doing quite what Bazin and the Chahiers critics were doing in the late 50s/early 60s.

This is at the heart, I think, of the discontent that David Bordwell voiced earlier this year in Cinema Scope (it's telling that Bordwell actually says, "Go back and read, say, Rivette on widescreen cinema, or Sontag on Bresson, or Bazin on anything, and I think you’ll agree that most of today’s film critics have abandoned probing for posturing."). Specifically:

In academic venues, it mostly grinds Movie X through Theory Y, in the hope that somehow the exercise will yield political emancipation. Meanwhile, film magazines and free city weeklies promote that self-assured nonconformity which prizes jaunty wordplay and throwaway judgments.

It's a lot clearer to me after reading this where you're coming from in a lot of your recent comments elsewhere. Bazin, with his ciné clubs and his disdain for the movie industry is trying to create and to define a sort of pure criticism. The same thing that Bordwell is calling for.

This kind of criticism would, presumably exist not in academia, and not in the press. So where? Some of our more hopefully colleagues might suggest on the internet...

As Michael Blowhard recently noted at my own site, much of "today's critical debate" is the result of professional printmedia critics sensing a threat to their livlihoods. So they're responding in the language of commerce, of profit. Joe Morgenstern says, ah yes! We do serve a useful economic function. A.O. Scott says the same thing, but in a different way. He says our standards may differ in the short term from the masses, but in the long term we define art, raise the bar of film quality. We do serve the masses, but in a more complex way than by simply telling them what to see.

These approaches leave me cold, especially compared to Bazin's fire. But would his "defense" of criticism hold water with a newspaper editor? I think that Dave Kehr might pessimistically tell you that it would not.

And here's where I'm sympathetic to Peter Suderman's musings. The two different conversations we're having: Whither the film critic? and Wherefore? Might they be two different creatures entirely...

It is my very fondest hope that someday, someday I might be more coherent on this subject...

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks for the pointers, it's very difficult to keep track of the updated (discontinuous) conversations in various threads spread all around... (that's why I miss the forum format so much!)

And thanks for leaving me some comments, Andy.

The idea of "pure criticism" is indeed the only one that interests me. I'm concerned by the principles of critical rigor. Considering the critic with the largest audience and making the biggest money isn't necessarily the best critic, the factors to make a career are irrelevant. It might be relevant to the survival of film criticism pages in newspapers or the social status of film critics, these are material considerations, neither have to do with the quality standards of critical thinking.

What does "To serve the masses" mean? Should art serve the masses to own its right to existence? Should critics make money to get respected credentials? "masses" is an economics term and don't play a significant role in defining what is good/bad criticism. Personaly, I don't think there is an "economic function" in film criticism. As Bazin said (and it's still true to date), the recommendation of a film critic only marginaly influences the gross profits of any given film, much less of blockbusters.
A.O. Scott swings both sides (our opinion differs from the masses, but we do it for you), which is incoherent. The critic "do it" for whoever cares for the artistic values, but since the masses want spectacle, critics don't do it for them. Critics do it for Cinema, to help filmmakers evaluate themselves, to gauge the ongoing history of cinema, and watch the rise of promising trends. Art and Criticism are there for posterity, whether the masses will follow or not is besides the point.
A critical judgment is not democratic, it's not a statistical rating proved by the majority of opinions. That's why the silly counters at Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritics are useless... even though they part critics' ratings from viewers' ratings. Critical judgements aren't mathematical sums, they are arguable. A 4-stars (masterpiece) and a zero-star (flop) ratings don't add up to average a 2.5-star (OK movie)

I'm not sure the debate is Whither/Wherefore, but what are the respective roles of a critic and an editor? That's the crux of the conundrum.

andyhorbal a dit…

A.O. Scott swings both sides (our opinion differs from the masses, but we do it for you), which is incoherent.

You'll get no argument from me here!

I'm not sure the debate is Whither/Wherefore, but what are the respective roles of a critic and an editor? That's the crux of the conundrum.

Again, dead on. I'm still intrigued by the idea of the professional critic. And this interest is not entirely seperate from my interest (shared by you) in the ethical/moral/aesthetic exploration of criticism. But I think it's going to be awhile (there's so much reading to do) before I can successfully tie them together...

HarryTuttle a dit…

Well the "professional critic" question is parallel, but not correlated.
Actually Bazin argues that "a critic whithout readership is worse than a useless critic"... because he firmly believes in the educational purpose of film criticism to culturally educate the people, which is meant to benefit the (good) film industry in the long run.
And his thinking (along with the worldwide establishment of La Politique des Auteurs) did in fact make evolve the attitude of the general audience (and critics) towards film as an art.
But to me, such evolution is only possible if the integrity of critical thinking is respected. La Politique des Auteurs was a fundamentally anti-populist affirmation, against mainstream taste, against mainstream criticism, against the ready-made market where money is easy to make.

Either the critics believes in insights (as Bordwell puts it) and is ready to face adversity, or the "critic" is desperate for an audience and making money with a populist taste before risking to push forth some controversial ideas.

True critical thinking is not afraid to be controversial and against the popular taste. That's why editor and critic are different jobs, and that's why economy has nothing to do with value judgements. IMHO.

andyhorbal a dit…

Something begins to dawn on me...

There is a very definite difference between the analysis of a film's commercial success and the simple, uninformed prediction or celebration of that success (or failure).

In other words: What does this success mean? is an interesting question (to me). One can consider this question without being beholden in any way to an editor, to a film studio, to the masses...

HarryTuttle a dit…

You're right there are different, but still, a success analysis is still not film criticism because it deals with social events posterior to filmcraft.
Film criticism can judge the worth of a film whether the reels are shelved/censored/banned during hundreds years, if it was seen by only a few of people, or if it had a popular success in another country. So these aspects, by principles, shall not influence the conclusion a critic could reach.

What does a success mean then?
What does it mean to The Da Vinci Code? What does it say about the American people according to you?

What does it mean to Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet, rejected in France for decades and celebrated in the USA in the meantime? What does it mean to Welles, rejected from Hollywood and celebrated in Europe? What does it mean to Kurosawa, rejected at home and funded by American producers?

All it says is that sometimes critics/audience can be wrong locally at a given time. But what resists to temporary fashion and lasts in posterity is beyond any popular success considerations. There is no logical link between long term critical worth and immediate commercial success, that's why I can't bring myself to merge the two like if they were the same thing.

Dan Sallitt a dit…

Harry - I just discovered these Bazin posts. Thanks so much for translating and posting them!

HarryTuttle a dit…

You're welcome. Sorry for the eventual typos and bad grammar... (I didn't have Firefox's built-in spell-check back then)