31 décembre 2006

DIGEST : Décembre 2006

Unreviewed screenings, current reading, links, recommendations, free talk, questions, thoughts, informal conversation, anything... comments welcome

>> updates below (sticky entry for a month)

28 décembre 2006

The blog war will not take place

Looking back on the Film Criticism Blogathon. Comments on As a Preface: Andy's Letters to the "Young Turks" 3:1 (Or something), Andy Horbal's contribution at No More Marriage!

Andy Horbal interestingly compares the emergence of the online community of Film Bloggers to the historical split of Cahiers critics with the establishment of classic criticism in the 50ies in France. There is indeed a generational confrontation between the seasonned professionals who worked all their life in the print world and the digital generation of homegrown film buffs who are born with TV, videotapes and DVDs. Their tastes, viewing habit, references and practice clash. But if the internet promises a technological turning point, I wonder if the press can become outdated this easily by amateurs.
I certainly agree the complacency of the populist weekly press has given up on true insightful analysis to discredit the values of critical thinking. However could we rely on the blogosphere to take over the job and wage a groundbreaking revolution like the Nouvelle Vague did?

There is no lack of potential online, some bloggers are superior critics to what we can read in newspapers. But the democratic blogosphere is an anarchical system in itself and we cannot consider "bloggers", in general, the next form of criticism that will make everything else obsolete like Bazin's Cahiers did. So when I hear the word "bloggers" tossed around like an end-all argument solution, I'm worried. "Blog" equals to "rant without credential", so this is far from "criticism".
Either bloggers want to dump the baby with the bathwater, and get rid of the idea of "critical evaluation" altogether, no need for legitimacy then. Or bloggers want to invent a new way to criticism, more informal, but not acultural.

The blogosphere as it is now is far too messy to produce any relevant upgrade of the critical reflexion. Individuals could however, but not as a mass movement under the banner of "everybody's word matter". If the internet does kill the press, it will declare the victory of demagoguery, the rule of "common feelings" and uneducated opinions. I don't care if analytical criticism has less influence on the box office than the fads of the "word-of-mouse", it's not the point. If the B.O. and the mass blogs win, criticism will die that's all; there will not be a new form of "criticism" without values that will come out of this. This is not the future I want to see happening for film writing.

Sure it is necessary to talk back to the old farts who dismiss bloggers without knowing anything about the internet, but we won't gain credibility by opposing the blogosphere to the press. As flawed and tasteless as it is, the long established system of print writers will always have the upper hand. So I'm not surprised they chuckle in contempt when bloggers suggest a duel. The terrain to fight is not technological (digital v. ink), but it's the generational discrepency. The cultural battle is one that could be won online today.

Truffaut's famous Politique des Auteurs article was a bold provocation that had the knowledge, the inspiration, the intuition, the genius to offer a sustainable theory that would direct the birth of a new era. Where is the blogosphere manifesto today?

Bloggers claim to power is based on the weight of the virtual multitude. The blogosphere evolved from a tool that was there. It might be the expression of a public demand for information-sharing, but there is no conscious design to replace the establishment with revolutionary values. All they do is to pretend they are print critics without education, writing skills or film culture... Far from revolutionary, it's a reactionary and degrading tabula rasa. Of course this type of summary opinions is easier to swallow for the anti-intellectual crowd (a reader demographic that didn't read the press anyway).

My point is that the "blogosphere", as an abstract entity, doesn't consitute a solid, organised, willfull alternative to the press. So the "Bloggers v. Critics" war is absurd. If we want to impose a certain credibility online, we'll have to define the new generation of critics by something more substantial and more refined than just "bloggers". The blogosphere is only a tool used for best or for worst. The vast majority of bloggers is useless as far as the constitution of a new culture is concerned. I believe the hope for future criticism is in the fresh blood, the new perspective, the 21st century culture of images. That's what the old critics have hard time to catch on, and understand. But just because bloggers are more familiar with the tools doesn't mean they have the critical standards to understand them better than educated critics.

The blogosphere is a success of popularity, not so much of quality. What I'd like to see announcing the revolution of the blogosphere era is not Truffaut's manifesto, but the equivalent of Bazin's "Ontology of the cinematographic image" for the web : the ontology of the blogosphere journalism.

I'm not interested to fight to impose "online diaries" as the substitute to the press. Film bloggers must earn credibility through hardwork and discipline. Criticism is not intuitive and improvisational, unless you're a genius. So "helping our case to earn legitimacy" as Andy says, first means to dissociate the insight from the mindless chattering. Thus the "online film critics community" makes more sense than just "bloggers", which includes all sorts of blogs more or less meaningful.

Sorry to sound so negative and elitist like that, but the popular enthousiasm for an informal "blogosphere" to become more meaningful than the press is something that can only hurt the level of film culture. Being open-minded and lowbrow inclined is one thing, but to consume free-for-all movies without reflexive distance is not criticism anymore.
The blog war will not take place... until proper weapons are developped by bloggers, for bloggers and appropriating the true potential of the internet-multimedia technology.

Andy's 5 recommendations (Exploring, Linking, Creating, Debating, Supporting) are perfect to lead on the right way for legit online critics. I've been too long so that will be for another post.

26 décembre 2006

La Condition Critique

Notes from : La Condition Critique by Maurice Blanchot (in Le Nouvel Observateur #6, 1950, republished in Trafic #2)

Even if critics think little, they comment, give interpretations, are opened to the world. Criticism is daily, fugitive, instantaneous, versatile like time passing by. It is motion and becoming. Its role is to disolve solemnity and the abrupt, secluded character of film works through daily life reflexion that has respect for nothing.
Critics shall not have proper art or personal talent : they shall not be self-centered, they are a regard, anonymous, impersonal, vagabond. Anonymous, irresponsable, presence without tomorrow, someone who never says "I", the powerful echo of a word expressed by noone.
The task of the critic is becoming one (antagonistic moment of the work of art). The critic is the outside, while the art is a closed intimity, jealous, denying outside. Critics shall therefore contradict the instinct of art. But shall go near, to understand, to betray (great effort of comprehension).
The most faithful interpretation is the most inaccurate one because it opens art to the truth of common light, whereas the "raison d'être" of art (its essence) is to stay away from versimilitude, to escape truth.
The critics excessively dedicated to the intimity of art, eventually reach obscurity and denies themselves. No longer the capricious will of present moment shines briefly on the art (or neglected by it), and retrieve whatever they want. But they become supporters of culture and make art timeless.

22 décembre 2006

Critical Fallacy 6 : Mannerism

Susan Sontag : "It would be hard to find any reputable literary critic today who would care to be caught defending as an idea the old antithesis of style versus content. On this issue a pious consensus prevails. … In the practice of criticism, though, the old antithesis lives on, virtually unassailed. Most of the same critics who disclaim, in passing, the notion that style is an accessory to content maintain the duality whenever they apply themselves to particular works of literature. … Many critics appear not to realize this. They think themselves sufficiently protected by a theoretical disclaimer on the vulgar filtering-off of style from content, all the while their judgments continue to reinforce precisely what they are, in theory, eager to deny." cited at Jahsonic

I know it's awkward for me to pin down mannerism because I can't write in English, and I'm not even a good writer in French. But I'm against style on principle, not to justify or excuse my own lazy and deficiant wordsmith. Actually I feel more comfortable developping content and ideas in criticism in a foreign language precisely because I don't have the possibility to resort to self-indulgent formulas that plague the French intellectual criticism where nice words worth better than ideas or even substitute them. Although the low brow reviewing is not immune to ready-made clichés. Too often words precede ideas. When you start a sentence, or when you use a certain verb, there is a selected possibilities to follow up that are engraved in the collective culture, a series of clichés embedding consensual ideas into catch phrases. Critics believe they said it all when they come up with a nice sentence while there is nothing really new or actually pertinent to the film at hand below the stylish surface.

bradstevens : "I've always believed that film criticism should be approached responsibly, not as an opportunity for stylish displays of wit that end up trivialising both writer and film. I expect film critics to inform or educate, not entertain." at a_film_by

Criticism is a literary genre and I would have nothing against this practice if it was only the icing that does not replace meaning. The reason it's dangerous and that this fallacy should be pointed out here is that most readers are duped by the icing and since they found entertainment in reading believe the critics did a good job. Mannerism breeds routine, apathy, mindlessness. Readers are happy with "word-dropping", "bon mots", and it spares them the bore of an extended demonstration or the underlaying reflexion overlooked by the critic.

Luis Buñuel : "I loath pedantism and jargon. I happened to laugh to tears when reading certain articles in Cahiers du cinéma."

In a recent article, Charles Tesson (former editor at Cahiers) compiled a list of such "generally accepted ideas" that French critics enjoy themselves with : Dictionnaire des idées reçues de la critique (in Panic #4, july 2006) denouncing these self-satisfied, superior, ridicule, smart-ass, hype sophisms.
He points out to certain absurd word combination, tautology ("rigor of construction"), pleonasm ("classic shot-countershot", "impression of reality"). He warns against denegation that spells in words something that shouldn't be brought to the reader's attention even if disabled by the negative form ("The film is not..."). He's annoyed by the trivialization of great theories through adjectivation ("Deuleuzian", "Derridian"). He calls the emptiness of some overused expressions ("debauchery of special effects", "return to real", "curious alchemy", "magnificent movie", "Death of cinema", "Subtil cinema"). If it was clever the first time, it becomes tired and voided of its sense when repeated at every opportunity and sometimes in the wrong instances. Others examples are typically French, or locale jokes, so don't translate well.

Clive James (NYT) : "To know what can't be shown by the gag writers, however, you have to know about a world beyond the movies. But the best critics do, as this book proves; because when we say that the nontheorists are the better writers, that's what we mean. That extra edge that a good writer has is a knowledge of the world, transmuted into a style."

Clive James on the rest of us -- we're doomed (at a_film_by) follow up discussion

My preference goes to rich and precise vocabulary detailing one's mind (closer to the film's reality, which is accuracy not mannerism) than the use of ready-made phrases or the elaboration of stylistic/rhetoric hallucinations (offsetting from reality). Literary skills could go two ways, one is to refine descriptions, one is to evoke a fertile imagination. The former (respectful, insightful, helpful) should never be overwhelmed by the the latter (dubious, extravagant, risky), especially when the credibility of the critic's taste is in question. If two trusted critics disagree frontaly on a film I want to see, how could I tell which one best assumes my perspective if they can only be compared by their style? It's the contrary for the journalists of course who prefer to entertain the reader nomatter what the film is, rather than to engage in an adequate reflexion on cinema.

Anthony Lane (The New Yorker/Nobody's Perfect) : "The primary task of the critic, and no one has surpassed Miss Kael in this regard, is the recreation of texture, filing a sensory report of the kind of experience they will have if they decide to buy a ticket. A review should give off some reek of the concession stand." at Undercurrent

When a good writer with a contradictory taste talks lyrically about a film I haven't seen, I'm particularly warry of stylistic flare focusing on abstract/general appreciation rather than specific evidences... It's easy for the positive review to emphasizes solely on hyperbolic enthousiasm that informs one of many possible experiences of that film. Excess of literary style celebrates the individual emotional reaction of one person as if it was any indication of what every reader will feel themselves.

What is a spellbinding story? What is a haunting movie? What is a mesmerizing performance? What is a riveting plot? Translating a film into appreciative adjectives assumes we believe anything the critic says without the need for an analytical demonstration or any kind of descriptive evidences that would corroborate this summary opinion. First they are impersonal abstract wordings and could apply to any movie, taken out of context, copied and pasted ad infinitum. Second they are evaluative (on an unspecified scale of values) instead of qualitiative (to characterize a certain detail defining THIS film in particular). Perfect quote-ables.

It could be a relative adjective without referential comparison : "it's great/bad, believe me"; unverifiable gradation (praise, success, quality level) "it's the best film of... [insert director, year, country]".

And finally we have the professional jargon (ellitist technical words), abbreviations (acronym, hip shorthands, truncated titles) -- see Variety!, metaphors (themed vocabulary calling all the funny expressions linked to the film's topic) -- see David Edelstein's review of The Devil Wears Prada, puns (smarty wordplay, jokes with the title or actor/character's names) ...

This fits in the larger rhetorical questions : Can words incarnate the multimedia experience of cinema? And what exactly do readers imagine when reading chosen words? What is the gap between the reader experience and the viewer experience? Don't critics manipulate this gap with stylish obfuscation to push their opinions?

Jonathan Rosenbaum : "although initially [Moving Places] had a very negative effect on my career in film criticism, because it wasn’t film criticism and it wasn’t something that could pave the way toward a career in film criticism. I was naïve enough to believe it was a road out of film criticism. I still have a side of me that has an interest in literary writing." Interview at The House Nextdoor
Mannerism could be the vertue of a certain kind of impressionistic criticism, but I leave that to others to chant its glory because this series only deals with the flawed habits of critics. So please defend mannerism in the comments if you wish, to offer a more balanced view.

See other entries in the Critical Fallacy series on the sidebar menu.

01 décembre 2006

Defining a critic

The Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon hosted by Andy Horbal Check others' contributions and comments at No More Marriages!
all weekend (Friday, December 1 - Sunday, December 3)

I'll probably post more later, but here's for starters, a compilation of aphorisms by critics, directors or writers trying to define what is a "film critic".

"The undefined place where the critic stands. When I was a critic, I thought a film, to be accomplished, should express simultaneously an idea of the world and an idea of cinema. Today, I expect the film I watch to express either the joy to make movies, or the anxiety to make movies and I don't care for everything in between, i.e. all films that do not vibrate."
"Anybody can become critic of cinema; the candidates don't need a tenth of knowledge required for literary, musical or painting critics. A filmmaker today shall accept the idea that his/her work will be eventually judged by someone who hadn't ever seen a Murnau film."
François Truffaut (French critic-filmmaker), "A quoi rêve les critiques?" in Les Films de ma Vie (1975)

* * *

"Oeuvres are of infinite solitude; to grasp a work of art, nothing is worse than the word of criticism." Rainer Maria Rilke (German poet)

* * *

"The critic is meant to make see and make listen" Jean-Louis Bory (French critic)

* * *

"I don't believe, as a matter of criticism, in the existence of objective truths or more exactly, I value more contradictory judgments that constrain me to consolidate mine, rather than the confirmation of my principles by weak arguments." Cahiers #44, 1955.
"The critic is meant to continue -- as much as possible within the readers' intelligence and sensibility -- the shock of the work of art."
"Don't be so severe with the film, put yourself in the shoes of the filmmaker, and find out his/her motivations"
André Bazin (French critic)

* * *

"The best in criticism, it's the dialogue that is, sometimes, established with the radio audience or the reader. Business as much profitable when your point of view is disputed by the contestant. Critical dialogue and tea for two."
"We write our critiques for filmmakers first. Readers shouldn't feleft outout though. They are asked to bear witness, we feel more liberated in presence of a third party to express our sentiments."
"Paraphrasing Flaubert: to be a critic of cinema, one shouldn't know personally filmmakers, actresses, producers... But we know some of them! That's the problem."
"A critic : a resistant -- to pressure, to fad, to consensus"
Michel Boujut (French critic), La Promenade du critique, 1996

* * *

"To be a disinhibited critic, one should be a creator in becoming" François Weyergans (French critic)

* * *

"Every competent critic is an aspiring filmmaker" Roger Leenhardt (French critic)

* * *

"A critic is someone who shoots at his own regiment" Jules Renard (French writer) cited in Godard's Nouvelle Vague

* * *

"To be a critic is to be able to reflect on films. The question of criticism is this : shall criticism evolve because the status of cinema has changed?" Jean-Michel Frodon (French critic)

* * *

"What is annoying, isn't that a critic suggests reservations on our films. It's the manner, the tone, the facile and demagogical use of controversial tricks : this semantic of hatred and contempt." Patrice Leconte (French filmmaker), infamous letter against French critics in 1999.

* * *

"To me, criticism is included in cinema. There is no art without commentary." Robert Guédiguian (French filmmaker)

* * *

"The 'critic' of cinema [in the popular press] (often not a specialist, but a journalist from the "culture" pages) is no longer delegated by the community of readers to the front line of cinema, (s)he is the inert "mirror" of the supposed social class of such readership, and is the commercial target of this publication. He/she is commanded to scout for films that will give readers a pleasant, gratifying image of the imaginary demographic they supposedly belong to, of which the publication is the mirror, rather than the spearhead." Alain Bergala (French critic), Cinemas Vol 6, N°2/3, 1996.

* * *

"Like/Like not : matters to nobody; this, apparently, is meaningless. Meanwhile all this means : my body is not the same as yours. Thus, within this anarchy of taste and distaste, kind of distrait mesh, little by little is outlined the figure of a corporeal enigma, calling complicity or irritation. Here begins the intimidation of the body, forcing the other to bear liberally, to remain silent and courteous before pleasures and denials that (s)he doesn't share." Roland Barthes (French semotician), 1975

* * *

"Criticism is the art of Love. It is the fruit of a passion that is not self-devoured, but aspires to control a vigilante lucidity. It consists in a tireless research of harmony within the couple passion-lucidity." Jean Douchet (French critic), Cahiers #126, 1961.

* * *

"Criticism is a business of provocation rather than conviction. Its best role is to call forth, about a film, some reactions, preferably violent, in the reader." Louis Seguin (French critic), Cahiers, 1969.

* * *

"The efficiency of criticism relies on nothing but the seduction of words" Michel Mourlet (French critic), Cahiers #163, 1960.

* * *

"The critical judgment constitutes the only cultural valuation. The artist exists only under the look of the critic. Artists don't exist without commentary! Death of commentary means the disappearance of the artist." Michel Ciment (French critic), 1999.

* * *

"Criticism is hermeneutic by vocation, normative by fatality, impressionistic by facility and aesthetic in practice." René Prédal (French cinema historian), 2004

* * *

"Open criticism gets its efficiency and its fecundity from its ability to discussion and welcoming." Raymond Barkan (French critic), Cinéma 60, #45.

* * *

"My definition of a good critic is somebody who communicates their enthusiasm for work they find of merit, without ruining the option of you, the reader, also discovering the film's merits. " Lisa Nesselson (American critic), Variety

* * *

"The role of the film critic is to write well, or speak well. A critic is someone who I think should try to tell a story about the film that they're reviewing. And the story can be the story of their response to it, the story of their coming to understand that film, coming to a position on it." Adrian Martin (Australian critic), Undercurrent #1, 2006

p.s. Sorry for the approximate translation. Now what are your thoughts provoked by these phrases? Add other quotes if you have more, I'm always interested in these kind of encapsulated thoughts. Thanks.

[EDIT : See also Citations sur la critique]