25 mars 2008

Responsibilities of Criticism in NYC

On March 13 and 14, 2008, the New York University Department of Cinema Studies organised a seminar entitled "Responsibilities of Criticism"
The topic sounded promising :
"As the technologies of filmmaking and distribution continue to proliferate, criticism must also develop in ways that are commensurate with its object in order to effectively respond…
What is to be done?"
The panel of critics is of the highest standard : Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin and Nicole Brenez. I'm really pissed I couldn't attend because it was probably a great event. There are a lot of great ideas there, and they are really good speakers on films and on cinema issues in general. Though my expectations were disappointed by the missed opportunity of what could have been such a summit (in NYC, highly cinephile city, with film students and seasoned critics/scholars, and such a deep subject as ethics in the practice of film criticism,which is an issue that particularly interests me), and I expected a much deeper topical development from these great minds.
So the problem is less that the event was "elitist", because its form was meant to be an academic seminar for film students at a film school. Though broadcasting it live or at least putting up videos or MP3 on their website would certainly help to democratize this kind of exclusive events that not doubt would interest/educate a much larger crowd outside of the academic environment. The problem I see is the level of discourse proposed by the guests to their audience on a subject that could spare facile clichés and generalizations.

Kevin Lee transcribed his notes live from the lecture hall (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Others talk about the event also : Girish and Zach Campell at Elusive Lucidity

I wanted to wait for an audio recording of the full talks, to avoid making uninformed comments based on a mere summary, but there doesn't seem anything will be uploaded online. So I offer here my random thoughts after Dave Kehr and Filmbrain already voiced out their criticism of the content of these discussions, and an interesting discussion unfolded in the comment section of their blog (check it out over there).

Nicole Brenez talks about "Lumpenproletariat" (?) and poverty on screen (not poor aesthetics, but the socio-political commitment of artists!). This is an interesting question to raise before film students at NYU of course, but what roles does it play in a seminar on film criticism I don't know). First it's the business of filmmakers who are in charge of what appears on screen or not, only them could change cinema. Secondly, the "class struggle" (which is Brenez' point) is not the only way to make movies, even great art.
Meanwhile, her 4 points manifesto to challenge the filmic representation (to criticise, to identify and to differentiate, to interrogate and to transform) is insightful and worth questioning for film students. But that's not immediately related to the topic of Responsibilities of Film Criticism. Or did she imply that filmmakers and critics operate a censorship at the same level? That if a social category is under-represented on screen, the critics should act responsibly and denounce it? Her contribution to the topic doesn't make it very clear, at least from the summary I've read.

Adrian Martin published an excellent article on the very topic of "Responsibilities for the film press", under the form of an interview for the Italian online journal cinemascope.it, so his concern for the topic at hand cannot be questioned. Though I wish he had brought up today the same kind of insights he had written on last year.

And Jonathan Rosenbaum has a long record being on the frontline attacking the perversity of the system and sporting an irreproachable responsibility when distancing himself from the auteur's naive talking points. It's a shame not to find anything of the sort here. As Kevin points out, he brings up old anecdotes that we've read already in his books and nothing new about the situation we live in.
Instead of the same unchanged prejudice against internet (from a decade ago) we'd maybe expect evolution of the blogosphere to receive a new critical perspective (updated as of 2008). Should we conclude that the situation hasn't changed? That critics don't bother to check if there has been any notable changes? That the blogosphere doesn't improve in such a short period of time? That all this is hopeless in regard to the far superior state of print criticism? In any case we'd like this print/internet, scholar/amateur debate to be addressed less superficially, with a more accurate perspective.

Didn't these film students in the audience know more about the blogosphere than these critics? Shouldn't the scrutiny of this new medium go beyond the ostracism of the infamous "average blogger" at the expense of the striving force of online cinephilia who tries to be responsible despite the a priori bad reputation they get?
There is a lot of shit on the internets! Thanks, we knew that already. Now could we move on to something a little more substantial? I don't know what they want to achieve with such negative, pessimistic, dismal comments but it's not getting us or them anywhere. Is there hope? Will the internet play a key role in the renewal of critical scrutiny? Shall academics be concerned by a medium that isn't theirs? Is the blogosphere just not part of film culture because it belongs to a specious medium?

Well even if the blogosphere is out of the picture (though seeing the dire situation of weekly reviewers and academic studies, I do think there is no other place at the moment where a true alternative voice, independent from corporate influence and populist taste could develop!), the topic of responsibilities of critics is big enough a concern to raise lots of burning questions. Why treat it so lightly? Why not mark its importance with serious debates?


What are the responsibilities of film critics anyway? I hope the audience of the seminar got a better idea because I didn't.

I'm French, so it's not my business to figure out what the responsibilities are for American critics, but I would think there are obvious issues worth debating with film students... A country where 95% of the market is monopolized by movies made strictly in Hollywood! 5% of admissions left to be shared by all foreign films (Non-American English films, Europeans films plus the rest of the world). Just like in Iran and India. Even China is more open to foreign films than the USA! Wouldn't that be a matter to be addressed by critics who worry a little about diversity and a multicultural landscape? Why should the USA be any different than every other industrialized nation producing a great amount of movies? Why such protectionism? Is it a fait accompli we should all learn to live with because it's OK and should not change?
An audience who can't stand reading subtitles, who don't see anything wrong with copying foreign films and remaking them "American-style", who consumes whatever multiplexes serve them without any critical distance whatsoever, without any idea what is going on in the world. And it's not the weekly reviewers who give them a reality check (except great critics like Rosenbaum, who didn't engage in this polemic for once here unfortunately).

Wouldn't the responsibilities of critics cover the check and balance of a nationalist industry before even thinking of an ideal cinema aware of poverty exposure? Why critics fail to educate their readers to watch non-Americanized films? Isn't there a bit of self-criticism to contemplate there? Why bother to theorize responsibilities if critics don't take their responsibilities when they get a chance to speak up at a forum dedicated to Responsibilities?

When I see the uniformity of the Hollywood production I think that the American film schools failed to educate their students... that the new filmmakers are all made from the same mould to become conformist, conventional, academic, success machines. They are trained to obtain (pre-formatted) results before even knowing what cinema is and cultivating a personal inspiration. So few true independent filmmakers try to develop a different cinema.

Again it's the responsibility of critics to denounce this gap and support the struggling artists who are not screened. The distribution on the American circuit alone could be debated for a week in a seminar on responsibilities! Responsibilities of the public, of the reviewers, of the studios, of the filmmakers, of the stars, of the TV networks... The responsibilities of critics toward a growingly neglected history, toward a criminally underexposed current creation, the absence of cross-examination among peers, the lowering standards of a decadent culture, the hegemony of financially and morally conservative lobbies...

What about the unheralded, undistributed filmmakers who can only be seen by the American audience through import DVDs or illegal downloads??? Who cares? Read Michael Atkinson's recent post on Exile Cinema. So the American market (the most prosperous in the world) can't afford to publish these titles that other countries think is worthwhile?
What about the continued series of professional critics (deemed not populist enough) laid off in many big titles of the American press? How about the incompetent editors in chief who care more about readership appeal than about critical responsibilities? So who is going to question this mentality?

When you invite famous foreign academics from Australia and France, don't you want to take this opportunity to discuss the differences between the American market and how it works elsewhere?

I could point to a few articles made by André Bazin (here and here), or by Serge Daney on La Fonction Critique, or by Maurice Blanchot on La Condition Critique, or by René Prédal (here), or by David Bordwell (Against Insight)...
Sadly Andy Horbal deleted his blog where he highlighted these kind of issues, notably at his blogathon "Defining a critic" (here was my contribution) EDIT: I've posted a backup page here.
And also the insightful roundtable in Brisbane published at Undercurrent.
But all this is old news. What is new today about the state of film criticism, I'd like to know? Who is going to tell us?


Finally, because my intention is not to criticize the event itself but the missed opportunity, I'll close with a constructive citation by one of the participant :
"Merely citing the absence of canons, apart from those put together by ill-informed studio publicits (who typiclly don't even have a clear sense of what could be found in the studio vaults), doesn't suffice to account for the problem, which has only been made worse by the decimation of state funding for the arts, the downgrading of film discourse in general (both within the journalistic sectors, which increasingly prefer promotion to criticism, and within the academic sectors, which increasingly prefer the social sciences to art), and the cheap nostalgia of the older film who refuse to examine or interrogate the current situation any further than arrogantly declaring their own generation and its canons superior to any of those succeeding them."

(Jonathan Rosenbaum, introduction to Essential Cinema, 2004)

11 commentaires:

Zach Campbell a dit…

It's strange how the people most critical of the event are those who weren't there and are basing their criticisms largely off of Kevin Lee's paraphrases and extrapolating from those sketches, often in the opposite directions from where the participants actually took the discussion in real life. The idea that Adrian & Jonathan spent their panels complaining about the Internet and making fun of "bloggers" is utterly ridiculous, for instance ...

I suppose when it's done we could write reviews of movies we haven't seen, too.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Didn't I provide a sufficient disclaimer to allow myself to give tentative reflections on the echoes of this event? I know I don't know exactly what has been said, but I'm only judging some ideas (out of context) brought up that leaked on the blogs. Is it OK to be critical or are you pre-empting the right to comment to the exclusive attendance? You're making it more elitist than it was.

Now can we reasonable evaluate whether a quote could really change the intended meaning if taken out of context?

If you think that some important details are missing from Kevin's account, why didn't you mention in your report the positive things Adrian and Jonathan said about the blogosphere?
Though when discussing the responsibilities of critics I don't think it's necessary to isolate bloggers on their own (if bloggers wants to play the game of pro critics, they follow the exact same responsibilities). But that was the topic of Girish's roundtable. And nobody is saying that the panel ONLY said negative things. The simple fact that these silly non-representative anecdotes have been brought up in the discussion prove that they don't care about encouraging the spreading of polarizing clichés. That's all I'm saying. If I want to approach a problem without a bias, without a priori, I would try my best to avoid spelling out an argument that will surely crystallize the wrong sentiment. They chose to make fun of it, and digress from relevant issues (even if it only happened once). And we can judge this choice for this reason (knowing that it does not portray the whole of their argument).

Zach Campbell a dit…

Harry, each of Kevin's summaries takes 5 minutes to read, for panels & discussions that lasted 120 minutes. Kevin did us a great service by transcribing his notes, but understand he did it very quickly, while it was happening, cutting out and condensing a lot, and he published them online that very afternoon/evening! And some things got lost. For instance, Kevin's summary makes it seem as though Jonathan opens in Girish's panel just attacking the blogosphere by saying bloggers don't think. But this was not the case at all. Jonathan was referring to a certain level of civility among people on the Internet--not really about "bloggers" like you or me or anyone being mindless, but people who comment on blogs or write incendiary ones of their own, or write on listservs, etc., who say uncivil or even threatening things that would not be said in person and not make standard print media. (His two specific examples were the Chicago Reader blogs, with all the hate mail he gets, and a_film_by, which any observer can see has had incredibly inane flame wars.)

Girish's panel, btw, was not "about bloggers." Girish, being a guest moderator who was there in the capacity of a film blogger, simply started off the discussion on those terms because that's what he was comfortable with. This was a conscious and premeditated decision on his part. But it was not the topic of the panel. You're simply mistaken, and it's because you've read the wrong things into Kevin's summaries, ordered them in a way that distorts severely (if it does not totally ignore) what was actually said, what actually happened.

I posted my thoughts on RoC which were not a summary so much as a personal reflection & expression of gratitude. Did you want me to post an extensive analysis of the panels? I'm sorry, I haven't the time or inclination. I didn't feel like posting about all the "good things" said about bloggers because when I wrote my post, first, there was very little commentary up on the blogosphere about the conference (only Kevin's summaries, which had gotten only 2-3 comments at that point). Plus, I trust you will understand, I didn't feel an urge to defend the panel or its participants against very wrongheaded charges that had not yet been levelled against it!

It is incredibly frustrating to hear charges of elitism levelled at this event, too, when people do not know the whole story. Discretion (not "elitism") prevents me from saying much more, but just know that even when you're half-right on this point, it's not for the reasons you think (or could have known).

HarryTuttle a dit…

Listen Zach, my post was not a charge against people who were there (I even acknowledged how great the panellists usually are regarding the issues of responsibilities as demonstrated in other venues), it was just my disappointment about how pertinent such a precious event should/could have been (according to my lacunary perception). So if I'm overreacting against something I've not been informed of by what transpired from this event, it's not my fault.
And every justification you write here, I've already mentioned most of it, one way or the other, in my description of the context in my original post above. I thought I did.
Just to be clear : I'm not pretending I give a faithful account of what happened, I'm not reviewing the panels, I'm just reacting topically.

You didn't think Kevin's summary would generate unwanted reactions when you first read them, and now you know, you prefer to silence the criticism rather than sharing the goods we missed... I don't understand your motivations.

Could you just tell me if any of the issues I brought up in my post (please note I only talked about the topic in general, not *yet* about specific quotes cited by Kevin) were addressed in the panels?

I don't mind the accusation of "elitism". If you ask me there isn't enough elitism in film culture! And frankly only an elite of society access to graduate education whether you like to call it that or not. Maybe you think you're the proletariat, but you're an intellectual. And there is nothing wrong with it. Culture needs them to survive, to educate the mass and to spread out. I don't know what is America's irrational phobia of "elitism"...

Zach Campbell a dit…

So if I'm overreacting against something I've not been informed of by what transpired from this event, it's not my fault.

Well, when you post sentences like this--"I don't know what they want to achieve with such negative, pessimistic, dismal comments but it's not getting us or them anywhere."--you're making a judgment that is based on misinterpretation of incomplete information. Why do you have such an urge to form opinions on this conference when you know you only have scraps of knowledge about it? (What is with the general obsession with always, always having opinions anyway? Can't one simply have an experience, let a verbalized "stance" remain inchoate?) If you were curious about certain things you could have inquired to those of us who attended. Instead you have chosen to make snap judgments, and you complain when you're told how erroneous some of your inferences are.

And first when I point out that judging things one knows only a fraction about, you charge that I'm making the whole event "more elitist" (which is bad). Then in your next response you say elitism is beneficial, but you then obliquely attribute to me a totalitarian impulse--I'm "silencing" the brave critics who question this conference from afar. Ha! Make up your mind, my friend!

As for this question: "Could you just tell me if any of the issues I brought up in my post (please note I only talked about the topic in general, not *yet* about specific quotes cited by Kevin) were addressed in the panels?" - YES! I'll go through them if you like, let me post it separately right after this.

Zach Campbell a dit…

Is there hope? - Of course there's some. The panel wouldn't have happened otherwise.

Will the internet play a key role in the renewal of critical scrutiny? - It will have to, what else will? Print media are dying. Is this even a point worth spending time discussing?

Shall academics be concerned by a medium that isn't theirs? - But there is not much threat that academics feel by blogging, except airing out academia's dirty laundry publicly. Academics, in the US at least, are not concerned by blogs usurping their authority. Academic publishing, on the other hand, is a concern--and it will go more and more online. This is the trend and there are no indications it won't continue this way. This was not really brought up as I recall, but it's common knowledge among most in the conference crowd, so why spend much time on it?

Is the blogosphere just not part of film culture because it belongs to a specious medium? - Nobody ever said this. Why mention it?

Wouldn't the responsibilities of critics cover the check and balance of a nationalist industry before even thinking of an ideal cinema aware of poverty exposure? - Thinking about Hollywood as an isolated case of nationalistic/protectionist tendencies is insufficient. It spans the globe and does so because of American market and hegemonic (and more indirectly military) dominance. The questions of poverty, of the masses of lumpenproletariat who populate our inflating slums whose representation and discursive presence Brenez's paper covered, is inextricably tied up with this global sociopolitical system.

Why critics fail to educate their readers to watch non-Americanized films? - This is obvious, it's because of editors, advertisers, market questions. It was discussed, however. Adrian related an anecdote about how he would find as many ways as possible to mention Hou Hsiao-hsien in The Age, no matter what film he was reviewing, for instance. Jonathan discussed the blurred lines between 'cinema' and 'marketing' that the corporate studios promote, which bleed into journalism and tempt journalists and effectively buy space in papers and magazines. When working in a system not conducive to our aims, Adrian pointed out, one must find ways of "mastering" the system and cultivating the marginal subversion of its function. In big media film reviewing, for instance, it could be this kind of "smuggling" of Hou into all sorts of articles. Media outlets that pay won't let you ramble on about whatever films you like, and whatever topics in film culture and commerce you feel are meaningful: if you want to express yourself in those media outlets, then, you must learn to be wise about it.

What about the continued series of professional critics (deemed not populist enough) laid off in many big titles of the American press? - For reasons of money. Newspapers are dying such as they are, the culture is changing for reasons that were discussed throughout. Admittedly the panels did not go into much depth about this specific phenomenon (the dismissals).

How about the incompetent editors in chief who care more about readership appeal than about critical responsibilities? - See above! The editors are not necessarily 'incompetent' from the point of view of their shareholders.

So who is going to question this mentality? - All of us. We need to start talking, blurring or crossing lines between academia, journalism, criticism, personal reflection, as well as cultural lines. One needs to know many codes, hold many skills, to keep the expertise of sociopolitically, globally, locally conscious cinephilia and/or criticism alive, precisely because the other, older, more "defined" jobs aren't so forthcoming. Adrian and Jonathan both talked about their varied experiences as scholars, critics, longtime staff reviewers, lecturers. They talked about Nicole's work as a scholar but also as an activist/programmer, "reaching out" to a public larger than her lecture room.

Again it's the responsibility of critics to denounce this gap and support the struggling artists who are not screened. - And the guests did just this. They screened some of those struggling artists' works themselves! This is what Nicole Brenez's paper was in large part about, fostering alternative communities of filmmakers, viewers, commentators, programmers, and activists!

When you invite famous foreign academics from Australia and France, don't you want to take this opportunity to discuss the differences between the American market and how it works elsewhere? - They did. Adrian talked about the way things were in Australia, not simply with the market & distribution but with journalism and academia (and his students), and the monoculture of capitalism. He also talked about the pocket of alternative/activist film culture that Nicole has helped foster in her part of the world. Jonathan talked about how the Internet has helped him connect with people so that he no longer totally feels as though he lives "in Chicago" (a major filmgoing city in America, yet still second-tier after NY & LA due to market constrictions). We had some discussion, too--Kevin's notes only indicate a certain fraction of the talk that happened after a particular paper was presented. One of our PhD candidates brought up questions of nationality in global art cinema, how our market (and festival circuit) often try to relegate most countries to having only one "representative" filmmaker. Paul Fileri brought up a superb point about the ingrained, real power structures that keep the digital field (and the DVD market) from being as smooth and level as the greatest optimists among us might claim.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Ok, I apologize. You're right I should have contacted you directly to ask you all my questions. But you just said above that you didn't have time to post a detailed analysis of the panels, so would you have quenched my thirst? I asked Kevin about the recording he promised to post and got no answers... What am I to do? If I wait too much I'll also lose the inclination to devote time to this topic.
You know what blogs are for, it's to engage in a debate in the open, and that's what we're doing here. I post my provocative, assumptive opinions and you kindly respond to my interrogations. Thank you very much. I admit this seminar sounds less disappointing now. Though we can always ask for more, can't we?

More comments later.

HarryTuttle a dit…

"it's common knowledge among most in the conference crowd, so why spend much time on it?"

That's exactly my point about their dismal comments. Yet they did choose to say them, so why can't we judge their decision to bring up the negative side of the situation (a cliché as old as the internet endlessly perpetuated by the mass media)?
Since recently, I no longer favour the intellectual superiority of the press over the "anarchic blogosphere". I used to tone down the oversized ambition of bloggers who imagined being the equal of professional critics... because there is no competition possible between these two practices. But now I revised my judgement. Especially since the appalling treatment of Cahiers with their online forum and their website. And the inability of leading critics to adequately understand and embrace the actual potential of the internet. The situation has dragged long enough, the "traditionalists" should have caught up by now. It's a tiring backward hopeless lack of discernment.
I know they also talked about the good side of internet, but the simple fact they still insist on reminding at every possible occasion irrelevant anecdotes about one isolated bad experience they had with the wrong people just show how eager they are to give a better image of the "blogosphere".

"if you want to express yourself in those media outlets, then, you must learn to be wise about it"

I don't like this pragmatic/defeatist mentality. Are we talking about the practical job of delivering weekly reviews for an employer, or about the noble responsibilities of an art critic toward our social culture? If reviewers can't do their job in newspapers there is no point talking about their (hindered) responsibilities...
The responsibilities of a critic only matter to the edification of cinema as an art, not as an industry. If the economical constraints have become too limiting, then we have to question to role of art pages in the newspapers! This is our responsibility.

Rosenbaum (in his retirement video interview) talked about the way it's no longer possible to pick a film not in distribution or outside the weekly batch, the length of the article... The responsibility of a serious critic is to quit playing along with the system imposed by the studios. Hollywood makes critics in a position where they can only give a thumb up or down (there is no bad publicity!), but above all to talk about the list of film they gave them. The system is American-centric (and yes it is a global problem that exist elsewhere in the world), and critics can't even talk about non-Hollywood films because the newspapers won't let them. The system sustains itself, while leaving an illusion of liberty to reviewers who feel proud to be employed.

The cultural diversity is dying worldwide and you tell me about the bankruptcy of local media companies???

HarryTuttle a dit…

Interesting discussions going on at scanners and The House Next Door about the Nathan Lee lay off, with surprisingly progressive views of the situation.
But before being called for contradicting myself, I want to say that the only reason I bring up this affair, is to point to a dysfunctional system and a mutation of habits. I wouldn't necessarily fight to get bad jobs back to print critics. If the press wants to go without critics, it's their problems. The situation of film criticism could survive without the press today (more than ever).
So I just want to emphasize that the existence of a critical discourse on cinema is not tied to the economic decisions made by the established press.

A cine-club discussion, an academic seminar, a cinematheque retrospective, an online journal, a newsletter, the internet buzz do not depend on the established media consortium. And these new forms of expressions are as valid a representation of "film criticism" as the old press, if not more (given the ridiculous limitations weekly reviewers get in the practice of their formatted jobs).

So let's think wider and leave behind the obsolete economic models...

I have great hopes in what Rosenbaum will do with his own website when he can finally self-publish his free opinions without the self-censorship out of respect for his employer and affiliates, or the rewritting imposed by an editor.

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Now on the Endangered Species List: Movie Critics in Print"
By DAVID CARR (NYT, April 1, 2008)

HarryTuttle a dit…

re: link above
There is a commentary thread at a_film_by:
Numbered Days