Why do I find Gavin Smith's 2010 "neo-history" unconstructive?
So basically, Film Comment whines about the lameness of international film festivals : this has become a familiar tune amongst snub critics who would like to think that their personal taste is above whatever the entire community of artists can collectively put out on the festival circuit.
It is part of the critic's role to evaluate the film production and sift the good films from the bad films. It is also inevitable that personal preference will lead critics to favor certain films or certain filmmakers for their unique qualities. And critics may put more emphasis on this quality rather than that quality, but overall they all should, more or less, agree that at least some sort of quality evaluation makes cinema greater. Thus great films or great filmmakers must have a recognizable talent, skill or inspiration that other critics could not entirely dismiss (even if it doesn't correspond to their subjective preferences). This is the basis for universal aesthetic standards in Art.
Artists create their work, and critics evaluate them. That is how the world works. Not the other way round. It's rather absurd, I think, to criticise artists for what they do not make...
What I'm saying is that the critics' job is to judge what is out there, what has been effectively made, produced and (in the best case scenario) distributed. They are not entitled to speculate on what contemporary artists are "expected" to do at this point in time, if cinema should shed skin one more time, if it's about time for new aesthetics to form... It's the artists' call whether they want to be followers or innovators! (and there is nothing to be ashamed of to be a follower; I'll come back to that)
Critics must be after-the-fact witnesses. They don't create anything, they do not initiate anything. This is one very important distinction that keeps each in its place, in the (already unbalanced) artist-critic relationship. Artists have everything to lose, they put themselves and more on the line, they take chances, they risk a career... while critics somehow grant themselves the right to judge them, at the show of a thumb, without the slightest accountability in the workplace, in society or in regard to history. Critics have the easy job. Don't abuse the privileged position you're offered to have a reserved space within the Art scene. Critics ought to deserve this privilege by minding their own business without interfering with the natural evolution of aesthetic maturation in history.
Gavin Smith goes a step too far, when he suggests that today's artists are not good enough (I beg to differ with his opinion), that they don't make anything "new"... as if there was a rule in Art history saying that you're not artist enough if you don't surprise the critics. He takes the problem from the wrong angle.
Look up the pantheon of cinema masterpieces, it's full of films that didn't pioneer a new aesthetic trend, films that are not one-of-a-kind, filmmakers that were not lone wolves. It is disingenuous to suggest that the quality of today's cinema depends on this factor.
Of course, everyone is happy and proud when cinema renews itself, when new forms are invented; at least hardcore cinephiles are welcoming such brutal changes (producers and audience aren't as adventurous). But the novelty escalation (always racing after the never-been-done-before) is not how Art history built upon. There are times for breakthrough and times for development to exhaustion of a given style. Artists decide whether they had enough, they are the ones with their finger on the pulse of society, they are the ones projecting themselves in the future. Society gets the art it deserves. If our society sucks, art will reflect it. That's how we should perceive these things.
We don't get a series of great Films Noir, Westerns, Musicals if artists get tired of a "standardized" style, not to mention Comedy or Melodrama. Are there no masterpieces in these long-lasting "genres"? Were they exclusively the very first film of its kind, or could masterpieces still be made long after its precursors? And I'm only talking about the most common "prefab formats" of mainstream cinema. If this is true for the most conformist side of cinema, then the more exclusive and shorter movements in art-cinema may also bath in the same water for a while before moving on. Yes, there are cases where more than one masterpiece emerge from the same aesthetic movement, even in art-cinema!
Blaming the "genre" or uniformity shall not make any cinema greater.
Needless to say that being first doesn't mean securing greatness for posterity. Being a "lone wolf" doesn't mean greater. What he admires in them is their unique talent, not them being necessarily first or impossible to imitate. History is full of "hopelessly sui generis" wannabe artists who never accomplished anything significant, or just not as much as certain "followers". Testing and failing is part of Art unfortunately; for others to avoid following the dead ends. The romantic idea of the "lone wolf" is just a myth to sell books...
Calling for a "Tradition de Qualité" re-evaluation, I'm all for it! But blaming the right culprits would prove to issue more constructive results.
And even before getting into the Tradition v. Innovation argument, I flat out disagree with his contention that art-cinema is poorer today. A "half-empty glass" syndrome.
I think this is a misleading portrayal of reality, a very selective conception of "art-cinema". Someone should write a heavy dictionary to define the many acceptions of this term in English language... Cause most confusion stems from the mismatching territories covered by the word in different people's mouth.
So what is art-cinema, when Film Comment says enough with the tradition of quality? I'm afraid the issue isn't as clear-cut as when Truffaut used it. The problem is that the "art-cinema" fringe was engulfed by the mainstream, appropriated, digested, also perverted, and popularized. For the best and the worst. This is a sign of cultural evolution. However, so many people who think they make "art-cinema" because they copy the styles of the old art-cinema don't realise they are still operating under the mainstream certification. Making art-cinema today is not like making art-cinema decades ago. Art evolves faster (even with the long lasting sheep trends) than its vulgarisation in popular culture.
I agree with Gavin Smith that a large portion of actual art-cinema (which we could identify with the critically acclaimed festival auteurs) has been slowly orbiting the Mainstream magnet closer and closer as their career progressed; and I've been saying this for a long time now. What critics have accoustumed themselves to call "auteurs" and "art-films" are simply no longer the visionaries they used to be.
Again, there is nothing wrong with giving a try at more conformist genres. Artists might be tempted to make more money, or reach out to a wider audience, or succomb to the seductions of tradition if they want to. If the best artists start to make boring films it's a loss for cinema, but we can't blame them for making something they feel more comfortable doing. The idea that artists are responsible for the greatness of cinema, a lifetime commitment (and if they give up trying they fail our expectations) is another mistaken conception.
Nonetheless, he chose to point finger at someone... If cinema is self-indulgent (taking a long nap for 30 years?) do you really believe that blaming art-film auteurs and international festivals could change anything?
If artists lost their mojo and fell back on the complacent format, there is nothing we can do about it, except to wait for better artists to come along. You won't force lame artists to become visionary by poking at them. You won't make Art appear spontaneously by calling its name in the desert. Critics do not control the destiny of film culture.
When Cahiers did it (in 1954), les Jeunes Turcs put their balls on the table and went on to make better films THEMSELVES! that's why it was OK for them to speak out on this extra-criticism matter.
*IF* cinema is mediocre today, whatever international festivals screen is the best we can get, anywhere, any time. It's much superior (diversity, challenge, risk) to what distributors show on the commercial screens.
An American critic should understand this divide between the artistic production and the public availability of great art-cinema... better than anyone else. You couldn't even dream of a comparable line up to the Rotterdam festival in an American festival, let alone on the theatrical circuits! The creativity of art-cinema filmmakers disappointed you? Big fucking deal... You wouldn't even show them to your public if they were good enough! The Lincoln Center alone won't accomodate all the American audience deserving GREATER cinema. What imaginable commercial pressure had the NYC Film Forum, waiting on for 5 years before the first American screening of Sokurov's The Sun, for a one-shot one-week run?
Why would artists care to make great art if you only show Hollywood movies anyway??? So you are demanding on quality control, but you let other countries feed the artists? America doesn't need to contribute to provide a decent exposure and livelihood to art-cinema artists but it can still tell them what to do?
Funny how I can see BIGGER, more urgent problems in the situation you whine about than to blame festivals and auteurs who still do a better job than distributors, art centers and the specialized film press! Who are we kidding here? I wish a Film Comment editorial had the power to change the face of art-cinema worldwide... but since it's already an impossible task for Film Comment to fix the shortcomings at home, I won't hold my breath for it.
I'm going to assume this editorial was an April's fool... right?
Sorry, I'm talking "off the cuff"... that's what makes exemplary PRINT criticism nowadays (unlike anything we can find on the blogosphere).
Please, someone email me when Film Comment writes an editorial on the glass ceiling of American distribution for foreign films. Maybe we'll talk about pulling a Truffaut then.