26 septembre 2009

Critical Fallacy 11 : Egocentrism

"It's too big, it's too wide | It's too strong, it won't fit | It's too much, it's too tough | I talk like this 'cause I can back it up [..] Some call it arrogant, I call it confident | You decide when you find on what I'm working with [...] Ego so big, you must admit | I got every reason to feel like I'm that bitch"
Beyoncé (Ego, 2008, on the album I am Sasha Fierce)
A critic is an individual human who develops a judgement based on personal preferences, like anyone else of course. Unfortunately, when taste becomes the only referential for every opinions issued on a film, the level of critical insight lowers considerably.


Assuming whatever affects you, influences you, shocks you, makes you think and dream is somehow universal therefore applies to everybody else, assuming that the expression of your own taste will set everyone else's taste in tune is the delusion of the infant whose psyche is underdeveloped. The infant believes to be the centre of the universe and that people around think exactly alike. Later we learn that taste is particular and personality is what makes everyone unique.
Each viewer can relate to a film for different reasons and the reaction can be totally contrary due to taste differences, even if the rational understanding of the film is equivalent.
That's why the debate of taste preferences is left to the basic audience chatting up what they experienced outside the theatre. Writing on a film as a critic involves going beyond this immediate state of personal impressions (self-indulgent preferences, self-reflexive experiences) otherwise the review will be entirely interchangeable with anybody else's report on the film... not because of the opinionated stances it takes, but for its level of superficiality.
Taste is equally shared among people. The taste of a film critic is no better/finer/more authoritative than any average viewer's. In fact when it comes to subjective appreciations, the critics' taste is probably less spontaneous, less genuine than the general audience (who is not conditioned by theories, trendspotting obsessions, "professional" fetishism, friendly acquaintances with people working in the film industry...) The critic fabricates a certain sophisticated taste, based on knowledge, canons, compulsive viewing, this taste becomes more objective, more informed, more reasonable, more based on facts and understanding than the fully emotional response of a common movie goer. So critics can't operate within total subjectivity and shouldn't deceive their readers by pretending what they offer is pure taste and impressions.

Lorena Cancela : "Or why — if most teachers celebrate Godard's inserts or interruptions in a film as the introduction of the first person, as the presence of a voice calling for attention — can't they accept that someone uses the first person in writing as a way of saying "Hey, here I am"? "

Klaus Eder : "[..] you start, as a film critic, on a white sheet of paper or an empty monitor and it's always painful to find the first sentence, to write something. And you write about yourself. I'm deeply convinced that, if you read film critics, you'll probably understand more about the critic writing it than about the film. About his personal humor of that day. You slept, you didn't sleep well, you had some problems with your wife or your lover. I mean, it's all in there. "

Adrian Martin : "Now the gut response is not the be-all and end-all of film criticism, but you've got to start with the gut response. Hopefully, it travels from your gut to your head at some point and you write something intelligent — but you've got to trust your own gut response."

David Bordwell : "Most orthodox criticism overdoes opinions, which create the critic’s professional persona. Soon opinions crystallize into tastes, and the persona overshadows the films."
Well, the first person is indeed preferable to the impersonal style using third person, "we", indefinite subject or infinitive verbs... Because the writer should endorse his own opinions when they are just opinions, and distinguish that from factoids and general wisdom that belong to culture and are not based on impressions/assumptions. The first person corresponds to the acknowledgement of the writer of his unique personal perspective. I care less for its stylistic advantages than for its inherent qualification of a point of view and discriminate the levels of reliability of informations contained in the article.
It's OK to let the ego speak, to express personal opinions, to share subjective interpretations, to throw tentative assumptions, to suggest speculative theses. But it's better to make it clear who speaks, where these statements come from, since the journalist publishes informations for the mass that might misinterpret the level of truth of a sentence. Good critics shouldn't build a reputation on such misunderstandings.
Read also Leo Charney's article : "Common People with Common Feelings" on Pauline Kael. (in my previous post)
That's why I believe film criticism is a collective action, one nurtured by the ego and subjectivity of many, to form an ensemble of perspective that balance eachothers. Film culture is not the sum of unilateral authoritative statements imposed by a self-appointed chosen few who say "I'm a film critic so you must watch what I like". Only the plurality of voices, the checks and balances, the self-criticism, the open debate of opinions, the mutual engagements with eachother's ideas could build an accessible film culture.

JP Coursodon : "I consider myself a fairly ordinary film viewer, but I have never expected film to be the purveyor of wish fulfilment. I never expected a movie to fulfill any wish I might have. I never went to a movie with any kind of 'wish' that might somehow be 'fulfilled' by the experience of watching the movie. I don't even comprehend the concept of wish fulfilment. I can't believe that I am a freak exception and everybody else goes to movies for fulfilling some wishes. Maybe I'm in denial... JPC"
Fred Camper : "Yes, I don't come here [a_film_by] to "have fun" either. I also don't go to films to "have fun." There's nothing wrong with fun, but there are other kinds of experiences in life, and great cinema offers something different."
Here is the difference between the regular audience and the professional viewer. I could as well say the difference between the casual movie goer (who is a consumer paying to receive a guaranteed entertainment) and the art lover (who visits a "museum" devoutly, with respect for the work, with understanding, with humility).
The consumers expect a service, a gain, a return for their money. They don't care who did it, or why and how, they don't care for excuses, for explanations, for messages. All they want is to get the entertainment they ordered, to kill time, to feel good, to escape daily life, to forget their problems. They are in an egocentric attitude, where the movie should come to them or fail. That's why the audience may be disappointed by a film for many different reasons, because it didn't match the expectations they built up for this movie, or their idea of an enjoyable night-out at the movies.
The critic goes towards the film, the filmmaker, in order to find the clues, to find what the auteur had to say, to offer. This is a forward pull in the direction of the film, a film-centric perspective.
This is a very different process. And if critics tell you they can predict what your ego wants in movies, what will be your favourite movies... they are lying. A film writer shouldn't make a business of dictating preferences, being a taste maker.
A critic is there to give readers all the elements necessary for you to judge for yourself if it fits your need or not, to help you enter the world of the film, to accompany you down the labyrinth.
Adrian Martin : "There is something in criticism I value perhaps above everything else: it is what I can call the ‘personal voice’. I do not mean the autobiographical or confessional content of writing, which often bores and irritates me – and, in fact, most writers ‘in person’ are absolutely nothing like what you imagine them to be from their writing! No, I mean the way in which an individual writer can communicate and draw you into his or her own ‘system’, their way of seeing, feeling and processing films, as well as the world."
Cinemascope.it (issue 7) PDF
  • See illustration here

25 septembre 2009

The Root of Anti-Intellectualism

Common People With Common Feelings
The rhetoric of American popular criticism arises on the shifting sands between authority and persuasion. In contrast to the scholarly discourse of academic film criticism and the reportorial tone of newspaper film reviewing, popular film critics strategically emphasize the personal nature of their responses. Yet they must reach beyond this subjectivity to persuade readers, support evaluative authority, and to catalyze communal response. The critic is one viewer who expresses one opinion, yet film critics aspire to resolve this potentially troubling crisis of authority by foregrounding rather than concealing it."

[..] the critic [of popular film criticism] distances himself from both other critics and the entertainment industry, depicting himself as independent, disinterested, and trustworthy; emphasizes the personal, subjective nature of her responses as one of the "common people with common feelings" who watches movies; and then uses this subjectivity to license a shift from personal to communal response, a shift that converts the critic's subjective opinion into the engine of communal persuasion and the focal point of a public sphere of film response. [..]

Agee disagrees with other critics as a strategy to disavow his own authority. They are the "intellectuals," the ones who determine public taste, while he is a regular guy throwing spitballs. [..] Having placed himself rhetorically as just another guy, Agee goes on to distinguish himself subtly from other members of the mass audience, enforcing his own authority as the critic. [..] But this persona is set against both "every-one," whose opinion Agee judges, and his role as a critic, a "duty" that Agee separates from the "I" who enjoys movies.

The early work of Pauline Kael took Agee's highly personal style one step further, not simply deploying a rhetoric of subjectivity but explicitly privileging subjective response over "objective" standards, which for Kael emblematized the dual manipulations of both other critics and the culture industry. [..]
Kael portrays authority and objectivity as gestures of power, designed to make regular movie-goers feel bad about the validity of their instinctive responses; personal response is all that exists, while critical "objectivity" constructs a scaffolding to justify subjective reactions and bolster the critic's authority at the expense of the viewer's response. [..] Valorizing subjective response becomes, for Kael, an anti-authoritarian gesture, an act of empowerment. Above all in "Trash, Art, and the Movies," she defined "art" as a category of manipulation, a con designed by critics and press agents to keep themselves in power at the expense of movie viewers : it is "preposterous" [..]

Placing herself against the Hollywood industry but also against art cinema ; against other critics ; and refusing to judge films by an invariably applied "standard," Kael emphasized response. She enforced her own authority by placing herself outside the sphere of those authorities she circularly defined as manipulative and untrustworthy. She gets readers to trust her by positioning herself as the only person they can trust. This emphasis both allies her with and aims to articulate a public sphere of film response.
Leo Charney, "Common People With Common Feelings" : Pauline Kael, James Agee and the Sphere of Popular Film Criticism,
in CiNéMAS, Journal of Film Studies, Vol.6, N° 2-3, Spring 1996 [Official website]
(Read/Download the full PDF article online)

Lire aussi:

20 septembre 2009

Screens & Population - World Cinema Stats (5)

Screens per million population (2007-08) 67 nations + EU + HK + Québec
  • Number of screens in 2008 (or 2007 when not available) compared to the population size (in 2008, sorry about this convenient approximation). See total number of screens here.
  • This puts every nation on equal footing, regardless for their population size. We can see the omnipresence/shortage of screens available to the entire population.
  • Iceland is still on top with 141 screens per million inhabitants (population = less than 1/3 of a million). The only country above the USA. USA (=132 scr./mil) is the widest theatre circuit in the world, bringing cinema to the largest share of population.
  • By contrast, the other "big cinema nations" could improve their theatre offering : EU (74); India (12); China (total: 31 / modern: 3), their population exceeds the American population and could score higher with a comparable abundance of screens (provided the movie-going enthusiasm follows).
  • We find the countries that topped the Attendance per capita chart : Ireland, Spain, Australia, Norway, France, Canada... albeit not in the same order. Meaning the number of screens is not always the limiting factor. The countries that are no longer on top in this stats (Singapore, New Zealand, Georgia, South Korea...) attract more audience proportionally with less screens available. These countries already have a motivated movie-going population, and could benefit from an increase of screens to improve even more their scores.
In the next chart, we can see the countries that fill theatres easily, and at the bottom those with empty theatres...

Average Yearly Audience per screen (2008) 65 nations
  • India dominates once again the chart (though it needs confirmation that the data I have for Admissions corresponds to the same screens that are tallied, like the China discrepensy between modern theatres and total screenings). This ratio showing full seats for each screen is way higher than anywhere else in the world, and it corroborates the results in previous graphs (highest admissions tally, and medium screen quantity). Either all theatres are huge, or most shows must be sold out. Which makes movie-going enthusiasm quite visible in Indian culture, in the street. No wonder Indian exhibitors had the leverage to negotiate a deal with Bollywood in the early 2009 strike. There seems to be too few theatres in India to cater for the massive audience.
  • The next nations (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia) are only half as big as India. Surprisingly they are the ones that were at the bottom of the charts previously (film production, admissions, attendance per capita, screens), though Singapore did rank 2nd in attendance per capita. Again it shows demand exceeds supply.
  • Hong Kong and South Korea are two nations with a high production and a great audience following, like India. Over Iceland and USA, which are the top nations in Admissions per capita, they are only a 1/6 as high as India, or a 1/3 of the next group aforementioned.
  • At the bottom of this chart (Czech Rep., Sweden, Ukraine) either have too many screens, or the population doesn't like cinema (on the big screen) enough.

19 septembre 2009

Burdeau sur la critique web française

Interview sample on the France Culture website (Sept 2009): "Rentré ciné. De Twitter aux textes sans limites" La webcritique.
Emmanuel Burdeau : "Y'a beaucoup de chose à inventer, pour renouveler l'analyse de séquence, pour faire des entretiens filmés, monter des extraits ensemble, pour que la critique manie elle-même les images et le son pour en faire des outils d'analyse critique."
"Les outils de pensée que la critique a l'habitude de manier sont caduques sinon en train de le devenir (perte du pouvoir prescripteur des journaux, nouvelle cinéphilie, petit écran TV, téléchargement pirate)."
"Ce que me semble très important c'est l'aspect international d'internet, la possibilité pour la cinéphilie de fonctionner à sa véritable échelle, qui est aujourd'hui internationale. (eg. Moving Image Source)"
"Internet est une pièce centrale de reconsidération nécessaire des rapports entre la critique et le spectateur, la critique et l'industrie, la critique et les lieux où les films sont montrés, la critique et les cinéastes. Mais la réponses n'est pas seulement du côté d'internet. Elle se situe dans une interface entre internet et la presse écrite, entre internet et les salles de cinéma, entre internet et les musées..."
"On peut considérer qu'aujourd'hui la plupart des revues de cinéma et des quotidiens défendent le même cinéma, et que le lieu où peut se défendre un autre type de cinéma, c'est internet. C'est un lieu de liberté incomparable pour ça."
"Aujourd'hui, le besoin d'un esprit critique ne se fait pas tellement ressentir, mais ça va revenir."
"Un reproche qu'on pourrait faire à un certain type de blogs c'est qu'ils sont encore trop réglés sur l'actualité hebdomadaire. Ils rivalisent dans leur façon de fonctionner peut-être un peu trop avec les quotidiens, hebdomadaire et mensuels classiques. Alors que la critique de demain, c'est une critique qui pourra à la fois parler des films qui sortent, mais aussi des DVDs, mais aussi un discours donné en accompagnement d'un film proposé en téléchargement... réglée sur plusieurs types d'actualités"
"Les 'cadors', les 'petits messieurs' de la critiques existent depuis des dizaines d'années. Donc il est évident qu'il faut être absolument du côté d'internet. Entre les vieux de la vieille qui sont contents d'eux qui n'ont pas changé d'avis depuis 40 ans, et des jeunes excités qui éventuellement peuvent dire des choses irrecevables sur internet, ou très agressives, il est évident qu'il faut être du côté d'internet. Si il y a un arbitrage à faire, il est très très clair."
I'm glad to see that the positions on the internet of the ex-Cahiers editor is more progressive and realist than when he was still in command of Cahiers last year (at the NYC roundtable), or even earlier, dec 2007 (at the Cahiers roundtable). Would a certain "conflict of interest" explain this sudden reversal in favour of the internet projects, and allowing him to discredit today the pundits of the press he used to be part of?
Anyway, it's always nice when institutional voices speak out to support the agenda we've been pushing online for years. The wind is changing. Soon or later, the power-that-be, the taste-makers, the pundits of the conservative press will realise that the internet is today's modernity, that the general population has already embraced it, that the cultural landscape is migrating online and that it's where it will continue to generate the culture of the XXIst century.

In his speech, I still hear references to the old paradigm. He's concerned about "economic model and capital", "popularity and readership following in numbers", "circulation and business size"... as if these marketing considerations ever mattered to the existence of the Press. They were always materialistic statistics, and culture doesn't depend on polls and public satisfaction. His argument against the blogs is that there isn't yet one big hegemonic blog that would suck up all paper readership and single-handedly substitute the press monopole with an internet monopole.
The technological conversion doesn't present itself under such premise; there is no complete transition from one medium to the new one to be expected in the short term. What is evolving is the culture itself, not the industrial infrastructure. It's people's habits and usage that changes. Not the power balance between anonymous nerds and seasoned academics that will take over the control over film culture intelligence overnight. It's not going to happen. But if all newspapers and magazines go "virtual", it won't be a surprise. The internet is not a territorial war, it's a promised land for any entrepreneurial pioneers who want to use the tools that the consumers already use.

03 septembre 2009

Light Speed Zero

In a more or less dystopian interpretation of the cold war, Ray Bradbury depicted the crime against culture with an auto-da-fé for literature. Books and books cremated like as many Jeanne d'Arc. In a disconcerting act of Pataphysics, the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 took the name of their job a little too literally and substituted the salvaging water of their hose with a destroying fire. The only hope for humanity to save the "library of Alexandria" from ashes was to memorize every book by heart and carry them clandestinely inside your head. Vagabonds with a mind full of literature masterpieces, walking an Earth without a single book left to read. A drastic return to oral tradition when culture was transmitted from one mouth to one ear, every day and every year, repeatedly, until the younger generation is ready to pass it on to the new-born generations.

They say when an old man dies, it's like if a library is burning down. But Nika Bohinc (Ekran) and Alexis Tioseco (Criticine) were not old yet. Unbelievable tragedy!
« Pour faire un film, il vous faut obligatoirement une fille et un pistolet » in Histoire(s) du cinéma. Why did Godard ever utter this nonsense ?
A book can always be copied, reprinted, handwritten, recited, learnt by heart. Censorship has always had a hard time to suppress literature. But when the light doesn't shine through the celluloid, a film dies completely, definitively. When eyelids shut down forever at the touch of a bullet, cinema ceases to exist abruptly; not only an instant death, but any evidence it ever had been disappears at the same time. Unfortunately images are transient figments of our memory. We can't photocopy, rewrite, memorize a film when the last reel is lost, because unlike books, the sum of images and sounds exceeds whatever a narrator could transmit orally.

The preservation of film archives in celluloid was a big concern of Alexis' ultimate post on his blog Concentrated Nonsense and many of his previous articles.

I always thought the real "book-keepers", or "hommes-livres" in French, from the ending of Truffaut's adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 ending were instead the cinephiles. Most certainly, Truffaut had this analogy in the back of his head. When a film title is pulled from public theatres, when a nitrate reel burns out, when a filmmaker can't find a distributor, when censorship bans a scene or an entire film... there are only cinephiles left to testify that these images ever existed. When a film critic dies, not only the unimaginable amount of unwritten material waiting in her/his head is lost, but all the films seen, revisited, hunted down, captured, felt, cherished, understood, appropriated vanish instantly. Irrecoverably. As certain as when light halts, darkness takes over.
It takes a long time to form a cinephile. Hours and hours of steady viewing. Years and years of initiation. Thousands of films ingested and digested. This investment was dear to Alexis heart, and the raison d'être of his love for his girlfriend Nika, as you can read it in this beautiful open letter.
Domestic film culture in her land, Slovenian cinema, and his land, Filipino cinema, in particular, but also World Film Culture in general will suffer greatly from their absence. Two pairs of eyes that had seen so many wonders, that had so many things to tell us about it. I'll remember Roy Betty's final words, the Blade Runner replicant (another perfect cinephile metaphor), as of someone whose eyes had encyclopaedic memories, someone who was not allowed to live to tell. An irreparable loss for their families and friends, for a cinephile community severely lacking such exemplary models of transnational love and dedication.

Survivors are left with the responsibility to pass on to the next generations everything Nika and Alexis, ces "hommes et femmes-films", these "film-keepers", had the liberty to share and recount from the scrupulous spectatorship of their intimate filmic memory, their fragile and fugitive mental film archive.

Lights out and silence.