16 décembre 2008

Reading should be a respite from watching

A.S. Hamrah : "It seems that now, more than ever, an alarm has been sounded within literary communities concerning the Internet’s potential to slight or undermine patience, attention, and contemplation"

I didn't have time earlier to comment Tisch Film Review interviews A.S. Hamrah (he publishes here) about online film culture (11-16-2008) :

He opens with an astute observation, that the line between Publicity material and journalistic report blurs so much it becomes virtually impossible to make the difference. The reason is because both sides tend to converge towards a mutual interest, a middle ground where both are happy with a lousy compromise. The P.R. hands out a pre-digested press kit including all necessary information, trivia and anecdotes about the plot line, the production, and the stars. They even use the advertising channels to take these blurbs directly to the consumer (passing by the Film Criticism institution), in TV ads, on Movie Websites, in Press Ads, on radio, in the street. Conversely, the Press tends to publish the same thing, either because they duplicate the press kit or they write a similar material themselves for the reader that demands exactly that.
Add this to the mythical "no-spoiler policy", the "incentive for positive review" and there is no room left to reflect on cinema in the Press. There is no readership for that and no editor affords the extra words necessary to get beneath the surface.

Last night at La Cinémathèque (to introduce his new film Shirin), Abbas Kiarostami said something about the futility to talk about a film either before or after a screening that has an ironic truth for the job of film critics :
"I usually see no point to introduce a screening of my films because, before, you haven't seen the film yet so we can hardly talk about it and, after, you already saw the film so there is nothing more to be said"
It's a clever excuse. A filmmaker could easily get away with that, but it leaves the role of the critic devoid of any sense.

Hamrah touches here on an irreconcilable paradox of Film Criticism. And it's exactly what separates Film Reviewing from Film Criticism, which are two distinct discipline with a distinct practice and a distinct purpose. I wonder why people keep talking about them with interchangeable terms... Let's part ways and move on once and for all. Film Criticism requires its own space in the Press, its own venue, its own readers who know what they came looking for. And too bad if it means falling into an underexposed niche of the Press...

Google gives anyone the necessary facts for a casual night out at the movies, even the show schedules at your nearest theatre. So why the Press would even bother repeating such things in the age of an internet savvy readership? Like I said earlier : Abolish Locale, being a consumer-guide is not the business of film critics!

The problem is that the specialised Press for cinema strives to catch up with the newspapers and generalist press that steals all the movie-goers attention (potential readers) by publishing useless information, blurbs and stereotyped reviews... instead of having the guts to cut loose with the dead weight and dedicate more time, space and attention to fewer movies.

I'm not sure his provocative statement that short reviews are harder to read than longer pieces holds water... but I like when he says :
A.S. Hamrah : "If magazines and newspapers were publishing writers worth reading, and who were writing original and unexpected things, and giving them enough space to do it, people would read them. Instead, they publish toadies who, along with most of the editors and publishers who hire them, feel as though they have some stake in keeping the entertainment industry afloat (which they very well may)."
This is another major issue with the Film Press. Newspapers and Film Magazines are so close to the cinema industry, even in bed with them sometimes (I'm talking about Media conglomerates tied to Studio interests), that they feel responsible for the public success of a movie. It's not even critical championing of their favourites, they lost any critical distance. Their concern is more akin to P.R. guys'. They announce projects ahead of time, report of contract signed, follow the production and post-production, negotiate interviews with stars to ride their coattail and announce the screenings and the B.O. figures! How could there be an ounce of objectivity left when it's time to rate these movies? The movie and the whole cast is already part of the family, and making sure this movie makes a lot of money is their only objective, to befriend with the stars, to please the studio, to pander to their readership whose taste has been forged all along...
A.S. Hamrah : "Many critics essentially abandoned the cinema in favor of blockbuster entertainment. They decided to go along to get along, and all of a sudden they had no patience for anything - but they couldn’t get enough of Jaws. I think they began to identify, even over-identify, with the industry in general, more than they identified with any of the filmmakers they once professed to love."
They care not about the quality of cinema, its artistic achievements, its aesthetism... they care to predict the B.O. money to be made from this variation of a formula, the award nominations to come, and believe that giving an interpretation to a plot line means in-depth critical insights... They think popular enthusiasm for dumb movies and financial success are the keys to critical greatness.
A.S. Hamrah : "This serves the entertainment industry, not readers."
I couldn't agree more! What kind of readers want to read that? What kind of culture does such journalism build?

Hamrah also acknowledges the cynicism of the Movie Industry : they don't even care if critics like their products or not... as long as they are talked about and appear enough times in movie pages! We even hear readers claim they enjoy reading bad/contrarian critics precisely to use their ratings as a reverse barometer. If this critic didn't like it, I want to go see it.
How weak is the authority of a critical judgement when they are totally overlooked by the Industry and flipped upside down by the readers?

I don't understand how high are his standards for academic writing when he equates Bordwell (who incidentally wrote his own dismissal of academic writing last year Against Insight) to Maltin... but other than this, the fact that more and more people openly speak about the disappointing level of academic writing is preoccupying.

While Mister A. S. Hamrah pretends he's sick of infotainment and sloppy writing, he certainly enjoys to pepper in some clever colourful catch phrases (one-liner review, vague approximations, and even a geeky quote from a movie!) which is what I think undermines film writing in particular and literature in general. So I'm not exactly sure what he means when he blames film literature for being cheap :
"And since, on average, every movie that comes out gets 3 ½ stars, why rate them at all? (...) I know academics I wouldn’t read a postcard from. (...) I can’t think of one book or article by any American or English academic film writer of the last 25 years that I’ve read and would re-read today. (...) jovial gleefulness (...) classroom version of Leonard Maltin’s television bonhomie (...) If it has produced anything of lasting interest, please send me a copy. (...) Vanilla Sky, that deranged, terrible monument to baby boomer hubris Cameron Crowe made for Tom Cruise. (...) I guess it’s like Marlene Dietrich says to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil: “Your future’s all used up.” (...) Watching movies on a screen and then reading about them on the same screen is a depressing system to live under. Reading should be a respite from watching; it’s different from watching movies on a screen, even if movies are a form of writing, too. Movies should complement reading, and vice versa. Now they’re being collapsed into the same thing, into television, which makes them into work and not fun. Computers are what we stare into at work. I don’t want to be chained to a device like a heart patient or a rechargeable handyvac. (...) Maybe the only hope for film criticism is that Harry Knowles goes face down into his third helping of pancakes tomorrow morning."
Is that better than Bordwell's insights?

I'm not convinced either by the menu he cites of his favourite (recent) cinema :
Vanilla Sky? Ghosts of Mars? Choses Secrètes? Land of the Dead? Marie Antoinette? Black Dahlia? A Prairie Home Companion? Lust, Caution?
I mean, come on... these are hardly the best of what "commercial cinema" produces, even if you could make the case that formulaic plots could give us anything remotely interesting in terms of Great Art. Leave these to minor reviewers who try too hard to look snob because they champion B.O. flops or unloved commercial movies. If you're going to challenge Film culture in wide strokes, from the 60ies till now, from Kael to Bordwell... I expect a taste a little more refined. He seems to name-drop a few art festival honorary guests (such as Kaurismaki and HHH, but no film title in particular this time!) only for good measure, in afterthought.
I would begin my listing from the end of his, backward, and I would eventually end with more challenging commercial movies (Secret Sunshine; Mukhsin; Persepolis; Conversations with other women; Renaissance; Paprika; Me and You and Everyone We Know...)
I know. I'm boring. Because I only care for artfilms and am so radically anti-Hollywood, anti-entertainment, anti-popular that I'm not even a cool geek.

A.S. Hamrah : "The main problem with the serious new film blogs is their naiveté. I don’t know why I expect people who write about Straub-Huillet and Pedro Costa to be a little more hardboiled, but I do."
This however is a thought worth contemplating deeper indeed.

1 commentaire:

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks to Adrian Martin for pointing this article to me last month.