23 avril 2008

Critical Fallacy 9 : Conflict of Interest

Critical Fallacy 9 : CONFLICT OF INTEREST

Unlike the interpersonal conflict between the critic and the film being judged, that was developed in the previous Critical Fallacy (Prejudice), this one is a prejudice at the macro level. But it's a moral constraint due to the underlying pressure imposed by the industry to voluntarily influence and limit the freedom of expression of the press and the total liberty of opinion of critics.

I heard "conflict of interest" is not as much an issue frowned upon in the USA as it is in France or in Europe. And this mentality reflects the practice of journalism too. What kind of independence can we expect from critics who are hired by a journal owned by a media-conglomerate including Movie Studios interests?
These media superstructures control the life of a movie from beginning to end, from production to distribution to advertising outlets and even its criticism. The audience might have the illusion to pick from a wide range of choice, to listen to the advice from diverse sides. But in the end the reason we hear and see the promotion for a movie everywhere is rather because of the favouritism of a single head than because it has been endorsed by several independent minds. We live in a media landscape segmented by the exclusive catalogue of a handful of tycoons. A film is nursed, shaped up, funded, bind by contract, cast, produced, edited, advertised, criticised, screened, then re-broadcast on TV, re-sold on DVD, appreciated in a book... by a single commercial interest, the media conglomerate seeking to make money out of it. It's reasonable to mistrust the amount of artistic input in this heavy industrial machine.

Examples of media conglomerates :
  • Rupert Murdoch (Press, Cinema, TV, telecommunication) : The Sun, The Times, [EDIT]The New York Times, 20th Century Fox, Fox TV...
  • Time Warner (Internet, Press, Cinema, TV, telecommunication) : Warner Bros., AOL, New Line Cinema, Time, HBO, Turner Classic Movies, CNN...
  • Disney (Cinema, TV, telecommunication, Radio) : Walt Disney Studios, Touchstone Pictures, Miramax, Pixar, ABC, Disney Channel...
  • Sony (TV, Cinema, Telecommunication, Music) : Sony Pictures, Columbia, TriStar Pictures, MGM, United Artists, Sony TV, Sony Music...
  • Vivendi Universal (Cinema studio, Multiplex, Music, Press) : Universal Studios, MSNBC, Canal+, Universal Music, NBC, Pathé, Gaumont...
  • Le Monde (Press, Book Publication, DVD) : Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Courriers International, Les Cahiers du cinéma, Télérama, Editions de l'Etoile... (about to split under the current financial crisis!)
Where is the independent journalism? Which cinema publication or broadcasting program isn't in bed with Studio or TV interests?
Klaus Eder (April 2006, FIPRESCI roundtable at Undercurrent) :
"I'm always in favor of film magazines because I don't think that daily criticism can contribute a lot to real film criticism. It's too close to all the pressure of the editors, of the film industry, and you know that kind of tendency in film criticism in the mass media to give a service, to give it points, to say "yes, see it" or "no, don't see it." That's not film criticism."
Another side effect of this monopoly of the media industry is how movies are sold as packages to the theatres (i.e. "if you want to screen this blockbuster, you have to also play my other cheap movies"), and the exclusive contracts signed by stars with a certain studio (which explains why some actors are not allowed to play in a movie because it is produced by another conglomerate). Negociations can also become tricky when curating a retrospective, or compiling a DVD collection, or broadcasting a series on TV, as movies may belong to different companies who might veto their participation to annoy competitors.
AO Scott (NYT, July 18, 2006) : Avast, Me Critics! Ye Kill the Fun: Critics and the Masses Disagree About Film Choices :
"So why review them? Why not let the market do its work, let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcana — the art — we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t. But the deeper answer is that our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and even of the people who see them. We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you."
However the salary received from a Media conglomerate isn't the only pressure a critic can be subjected to. There is also the psychological pressure, the "off the record" confidences, the risk to jeopardize a long friendship, a mutual respect, a moral debt, loyalty to peers, editors, directors, stars, cover deals, junket favours, private screening access :
Adrian Martin : "To start compromising yourself in terms of the industry, to start worrying about that letter you're going to get from the filmmaker or from the distributors; that's the beginning of the end."

Klaus Eder : "I think this personality of the producer coming and saying, "you know I put my last money in this film and if you don't support it I'm going bankrupt," we know about it. We have it every day. We have also the opposite. We have some distributors coming to some critics and asking, "What do you think of that film?", and if the critic says "nothing particular," that film will not be distributed in that country. This happens as well, and I think this is extending the influence of the critic."
at the Undercurrent FIPRESCI roundtable (April 2006)
"Nonetheless, one must strive for an ethical standard in on-line publishing, and not let the moral slippery slide begin. That slippery slide is usually inaugurated, in the film magazine business, by one thing: money. And most particularly: advertising. The moment you allow advertising onto a site, you have bought into compromise. Can you be truly critical, any longer, of those distributors, exhibitors or publishers who are helping to subsidise your site? It is better – and certainly ethically easier – to ‘fudge’ one’s critical opinions, to keep powerful friends, to hold open the sources of precious revenue. Institutional support – such as might come from a government arts body, a university, a council, a cine-club association or a special public fund – can sometimes come with ‘necessary conditions’ (to promote a national or local cinema, for instance) which can be debated, deflected or subverted; advertising money, however, comes with the pulverising force of capital and its sole aim, which is to sell, to expand itself, and to win passive social consent. This is one of the most socially and politically responsible things that a publication can do: resist complicity with the system, the industry, the establishment. It is easy to be idealistic about this, but idealism often corrodes quickly in a difficult material world. There is so much pressure, one way or another, to conform to the film industry: to cover only those latest films which the commercial industry wants you to see; to engage only in the kind of discourse (pro or con) that ‘greases the wheels’ of the mass movie-going system; to overlook what the cinema of the past has been, or what truly ‘alternative’ cinema is today."

Adrian Martin interview on the "Responsibilities of Film Criticism" at cinemascope.it (PDF, issue #7, Jan-Apr 2007)

Related :

22 avril 2008

Critical Fallacy 8 : Prejudice

Continuing with this series I've neglected for long enough, the current debate around the responsibility crisis among film critics is a perfect excuse for this new segment.

Critical Fallacy 8 : PREJUDICE

There are various sorts of prejudices that may hinder the expected proverbial "neutrality" of the critical distance required to judge a work of art.

It's a personal conflict where the particular position/background/acquaintance of a critic render his/her judgment less neutral, more suspicious. For example, certain aggravating circumpstances will color one's perception of the film in a distorting way.

An excessive familiarity/antipathy (emotional relationship) with one of the filmmaker/star (eg. David Thomson).
A generational/social class gap (sometimes belonging to a different milieu blinds you to certain subtle aspects of a film designed for another niche).
A political/religious incompatibility (we don't expect from radical bigots a fair appreciation of a film pamphlet).
If the film aesthetic belongs to an aesthetic movement in contradiction with the writer's own preferences (the review of a musical by a hardcore neorealist critic will most likely miss the entire point of the film).
If the critic used to be/is/will be a filmmaker his/her personal conception of cinema may conflict with the one defended and applied in the film reviewed (same aesthetical contradictions may lead to false expectations, as the critic reviews the film he wanted to make of it rather than the film that was made).
Dan Sallitt (Aug 23, 2006, on a_film_by), Theories of Disagreement :
"What occurred to me this morning is that maybe we underestimate: a) the incredible amount of data available in even the simplest work of art; and b) the mind's ability to find strong, coherent patterns in even a small collection of data. So, for instance, I come to Kubrick with a particular heightened aversion to a certain acting style which is connected to a certain personality trait. I identify this element, am ticked off by it, and calibrate my perceptive apparatus so that I start picking up any other element with some aspect in common. Because there is so much data in a movie, I have no trouble finding lots of support for my initial aversion, and in discarding the occasional data point that doesn't fit what I'm looking for. Within minutes, voila! I have constructed a coherent Kubrick-pattern that I call a sensibility. Meanwhile, other observers, without the same baseline aversion that I have, not only construct a different Kubrick-pattern, but also lack a slot in their Kubrick-pattern to help them identify the traits that look obvious to me."

hotlove666 (Aug 23, 2006, on a_film_by) :
"I don't attempt to construct a personality for an auteur. I'm looking for something else. When I look at North By North West, I am not thinking about Hitchcock's personality. I'm thinking about his art. And I know a lot about Hitchcock's personality! Ditto for Fuller and Boetticher, whom I knew well: When I watch China Gate or Seven Men from Now, I'm not thinking about Sam and Budd, except as artists, and strangely, I don't see much of the man in the artist. The films are always a surprising revelation to me of "who" the men I knew really were - a misleading way to put it, because that "who" isn't a person in any of the usual senses. Maybe I'm arguing for a theory of artistic impersonality? I'm not sure. The one case where this may not apply to how I saw the films in the early days is Hawks, where certain eccentricities I loved in the films did suggest a "person" behind them. But I wouldn't see them that way today."
"But I remember meeting the author of The Blue Iguana for a presskit interview and finding him terribly obnoxious -not a bad guy, just obnoxious. I still watch his films. I think he "has something." And I suspect his unfortunate personality has kept him from making a name for himself in the businss. It isn't what I watch his films for, however."
J. Rosenbaum (Oct 11, 2006, at The House Next Door) :
"The problem is that if and when these films [Welles' Don Quixotte & The Other Side of the Wind] see the light of day, they will not be received well by critics because they aren't what people are looking for from Welles. In fact, that was the genius of Welles. He never wanted to give people what they expected from him. They wanted “another Citizen Kane,” whatever that means. One always has to adjust one’s preconceptions and expectations and that's one of the great challenges of his work."
Cultural barrier, language barrier, historical rivalry may lead to misunderstanding, oversimplifying caricaturization, false characterisation, cultural blindness, missed in-joke humour, double-entendre, local cultural references, innuendos, regional accents... I know most of this is usually exploited by mainstream cinema as unmissable laughter signposts. But when serious criticism seeks to understand a film that doesn't functions on easy ropes like that, it become crucial to have a minimal understanding of the cultural context. To abstain from commenting such details might also be wise.

I'm not suggesting that every critic with a suspicious profile is unable to overcome the bias of a cultural/emotional frameset, but the idea to leave the review to someone more apt to neutrality should at least be considered in such case. Hard to believe for some, but a strong "subjective bias" is not a proof of greater insightful response for a film. It sure makes for a more entertaining read (people love animated polemics), but it doesn't give the film at hand the most adequate appreciation. If critics differ it should always be on aesthetical level, not because of preconception that exist in their worldview, outside of the film itself.

Then there are practical reasons why a critic should pass on the review to a colleague. Missing the begining or walking out before the end, might not be a big deal to the casual movie-goer, but if someone is asked to judge a film, a complete viewing of the work, under decent conditions (original aspect ratio, continuous projection without technical interruptions, quality soundtrack, eventually correct subtitle translation, close attention throughout...), is a mandatory requisite. Not everybody in the audience rate the film they saw, but those who do, shall know what they are talking about at least (not to mention being a competent critic).

Certain pre-screening information may also spoil your "virgin experience" of the film, or the conditioning by a partisan crowd...


10 avril 2008

Où va la critique française?

Unfortunately I also missed the French roundtable on the crisis of film criticism, on April 7th 2008, mirror to the NYU event of last month. Likewise, critics came to La Fémis, the parisian School of cinema, to discuss problematics of a changing practice with film students. Likewise I only read a second hand digest, posted by Damien at Château de Sable, so I'm only commenting myself based on partial assumptions. A few differences. This "ciné-club" debate was more modest, shorter, and didn't have the multinational character of NYU guests. However it's more interesting to form a panel with guests with a different job in film culture : in Paris there was Antoine de Baecque (critic, historian of cinema), Hervé Joubert-Laurencin (Cinema scholar), Nicolas Klotz (filmmaker), Sandrine Marques (blogueuse, Contrechamp-Media), and one who didn't make it (due to the financial crisis at Le Monde) Cyril Neyrat (Critic, Cahiers).

"Where is going cinema criticism? Situation and perspectives of a practice"

DE BAECQUE : There is an overload of films produced. And there is only 4 days to publish a review on a film, between Wednersday [weekly national release] and Saturday [first Box Office weekend]. Too short. And every critic publishes the same blurb.


JOUBERT-LAURENCIN : We need to define "Criticism". Art historian Adolfo Venturi used to say that criticism must define its object.


DE BAECQUE : We can read everywhere the phrases "Beauty", "a beautiful film". Beauty has been stolen by publicity. Against the shame of becoming a quote-whore critic, we used to make sure never to use such easily quotable phrases ever in our reviews.


JOUBERT-LAURENCIN : There is also a violent rhetoric that consist in declaring "this is cinema", "this isn't cinema".


KLOTZ : What is the role of cinema if it remains an autistic bubble, ignoring its power of "resistance" like Deleuze said. Cinema is also an archive.

09 avril 2008

Cultural Relativism

At Frieze Magazine (08/04/08), Ronald Jones argues around Sontag's notion of "cultural relativism" in funny ways I'm not sure to fully grasp... Anyway here are interesting excerpts :
The language of relativism projects power by raising doubt or casting uncertainty where none existed before. Its favoured targets are declarations of objective truth and ethical judgment.
Allergic to absolutism of any stripe, the art world overwhelmingly identifies with Sontag’s relativism, usually with good reason, and always with an open hand towards tolerance and inclusion. Just how tolerant and inclusive the art world has become – while eschewing objective certainties – can be measured by the howls over reviews or essays that draw fire as expressions of aesthetic imperialism.
Nevertheless, such uncritical relativism is the reigning lingua franca manufactured in universities, and art and design schools, where puréed ideas can be recycled for decades at a time. Once institutionalized, relativism became an acquirable skill like typing or riding a bicycle – transferable knowledge reproduced at will. Tolerance? Check. Inclusion? Check. Diversity? Check. And so it goes. These days it is possible to train someone at university in relativism or Abstract Expressionism, and to virtuoso levels, without critical judgment ever having to be engaged. But empty of critical judgment the fundamental condition of historical amnesia becomes epidemic.

Hoberman's 30 years sentence

In the anticipation of another great NYC event coming up soon (announced by Doug Cummings at Filmjourney), at the Museum of Moving Image, conducted by the New York Times Company Foundation : the Institute in Film Criticism and Feature Writing (from April 10 through 15, 2008)...

somehow I missed this other very interesting, yet inevitably nostalgic, discussion on criticism with J. Hoberman (The Village Voice) and A. O. Scott (NYT), that took place on January 5, 2008, in New York City, also at the Museum of Moving Image. More food for thoughts for the ongoing debate around the status of film criticism in the media and its responsibilities.

Here are some selected excerpts :

A.O. SCOTT opens with a quote from a famous Hoberman essay (I wish I could read it, if anybody knows where I can read it, please let me know) :
“That history [of cinema] will force those critics refusing the role of under-paid cheerleaders to themselves become historians, not to mention archivists, bricoleurs, spoilsports, pundits, entrepreneurs, anti-conglomerate guerilla fighters, and in general, masters of what is known in the Enchanted Palace as counter-programming.”
(J. Hoberman, The film critic of tomorrow, today, 1998)
J. HOBERMAN: there’s this thing called film culture. Not the magazine, but something that would be akin to literature, and without being unduly weighty about it, (...) that’s the entity that I feel that film critics and other interested parties serve. It’s making film culture. I think to do that, you have to be aware of what is coming at you, being propelled at you, by the studios and the market place; and also have a kind of context to counter that with and to make sense of it which is the history of film and also to a degree, the potential, the possibilities of it. So this is why I like the idea of double bills and programming films: because that automatically puts something in context.
SCOTT: when you arrived on the scene, there were some very imposing figures on the critical landscape, which are also looked back on now with a lot of sort of nostalgia, and fear and trembling.

HOBERMAN: I think that this was sort of the end, I would say ”the tail end, maybe the bitter end” of this mythologized period that began in the late fifties, and then petered out with the bicentennial, when so many things seemed to go wrong. So I came after that, and there were some things in the landscape that definitely were better. One, very simply, was that there were more venues (at least print venues) for people to write film criticism. And there also were in New York, more venues, I think, where movies could be shown; at least revival theaters and so on. But I also think, at that time, that there was (and I think that this is true today, although less so) that there were many things that were just not being written about.
HOBERMAN: I think that there’s a dynamic which existed from the very beginning, in which passé films were rediscovered, very often by artists or artistic types, you know, "aesthetes" and were valued. The French… reorganization of American cinema, or let’s say the rationalization of it, that the French engaged in in the fifties, and then which Andrew Sarris really brought to America in the sixties is part of an ongoing process.
SCOTT: You used the phrase “academic filmmaking” before, (...) I think about… you know, [art] in the sense that you would talk about academic painting of the nineteenth century; that is, a work in a received style that is content to stay within its own parameters. I mean, where do you see that?

HOBERMAN: Well, we don’t even need to talk about stuff that’s produced by the studios, because it’s a given that commercial films need formulas; and sometimes that can be great, depending on what people do with it. But you know, anything that made money once is just assumed to be able to be recycled to make money again, that’s sort of the principle of it. But a movie like (...) No Country for Old Men (2007), to me, is a very academic film that is constructed in such a way to bring the audience along, and deliver a certain amount of thrills and excitement and surprises on schedule, and has a very mechanical aspect. But I couldn’t deny that it’s an extremely well made movie, the way that French academic painting is expert.
HOBERMAN: One of the great things about movies, and one of the things that’s really fascinating and in some ways new about the motion picture medium is that, you know, movies are time capsules. Even the worst. Sometimes even the worst, best of all. (...) I also think that there’s a great precedent for this in the case of Siegfried Krakauer. I mean, a lot of his formulations in From Caligari to Hitler may seem naïve in some respects (although not in all). But for me, this was like a blinding insight, to come across this as a teenager: to say that movies really did intersect in such a basic way with the life of their times and with the whole collectivity. (...)
read the whole transcript or listen to the full MP3 recording at Museum of Moving Image.