28 mars 2010

Cinéma d'auteur blasé (1)

Adrian Martin : "The status of the auteur and auteurism wavers all the time. Sometimes I think that it’s old-hat, a battle won long ago, an irrelevant and in fact burdensome legacy; at other times, I think it’s one of the few solid principles you can hold onto: the individual poetic voice that speaks, sometimes miraculously, above all the ‘noise’ of industry, money, publicity, culture in the bad sense. The difficulty is that, today (and for quite a while now, at least 20 years), the auteur has become a marketing category, a ‘name brand’: when that happened, everybody (including especially those who didn’t deserve it) became an instant ‘auteur’! It’s the ‘a film by...’ syndrome, set in stone within film industry law: the director is the boss, the star, the celebrity, the person with ‘vision’ and style and personality and (hopefully) good looks … and they know (sometimes painfully) that this is the part they must play within the ‘system’. So, in this sense, the auteur is no longer someone whom critics discover or ‘decipher’ (as Peter Wollen once put it); he or she is already way out there in the public eye, sometimes even before their first feature exists! (Look at the career of Jane Campion for a striking example.) So, the auteur is something different today: he or she exists in a different ‘game space’ of the public cultural industry, and when scholars talk (rather windily and posily) about post-auteurism or neo-auteurism, that’s what they are gesturing towards: it’s not just a matter of the film text in isolation anymore (if it indeed ever was! – the best auteurism always drew a wide circle around a film) but a whole, complex set of social relations. In terms of auteurism – meaning the kinds of study and analysis we critics, scholars and teachers do – there needs to be constant vigilance about moving away from the reductive trap (even worse in art criticism than in film criticism) of just funneling films first and last and foremost through their directors: there are many contexts, many circuits or networks, many aspects and cross-referencings of films that we need to explore, all the time. Auteurism as a critical approach, alas, is sometimes the easy, lazy way out!" (IndianAuteur #7, Nov 2009)

What wavers? the superficial idea of "auteur" in popular culture, in society, for the layman? or the objective reality of this function in regard to film History? I regret the former wavers, I disagree the latter wavers.
"Author" is a plain technical term, it's not a trophee only awarded to artists we approve. Either you make a film the auteur way, or you don't. And filmmakers who don't can still make great films. So it should never be at the center of cultural or academic controversies.
One of the reasons why film culture has considerably deflated is precisely because people - professionals or the general audience - argue over the wrong issues, empty words of their meanings, overdramatize the simplest things... Nothing means anything anymore nowadays. And everybody can and will question word definitions.

I doubt the "a film by" syndrome plays any role in the industry's legal system. If it is, it's certainly not part of the studio system legacy (Hollywood) where movies are made, owned and advertized under the studio's name. I wonder where in the world film directors are at the top of the pyramid, except maybe in France, which is not quite the typical industry. "A film by" is a concept of critics and intellectuals, it's a cultural phenomenon (IF actually taken in consideration).
In fact it's probably a minor problem if the name tag "auteur" is misappropriated or missused, because the aesthetical debate doesn't depend on whether filmmakers are auteurs, but whether their films are good. What do directors direct? actors or a film crew or the editing table or mise en scène? It's roughly the same question as what are filmmakers authors of? a script or storyboard or a series of shots or a commercial product or the spirit of the film?
Whatever the neophytes call "auteur" doesn't really affect the specialised film discourse... they deform so many film notions already in their daily consumption of movie spectacle. It is quite disturbing however that the word "auteur" would still be controversial amongst intellectuals 60 years later!

The "complex set of social relations" around the film and its director doesn't negate the existence of an auteur on set. Either you choose to focus on the inspirational signature of a film, or you want to explore something else, because these layers exist there at the same time. Even if the "social relations" of an entire crew are a bigger influence than the input of the single director, we can still choose to analyse that particular film through the particular prism of auteurism. It's no less absurd than to imagine that a book has no specific author because of socio-political considerations...

"The lazy way out"
I wonder what is the target readership of such anti-auteurist discourse. When on a sinking Titanic, you don't question the deckchairs arrangement... you teach how to swim and quick! Apparently most people don't even realize film criticism is riding a Titanic in India, in the USA (because of commercial imperatives)... or anywhere else (because of slow mainstream aculturation). I fail to see the educational benefit to teach "post-auteurism" afterthoughts in a country (India) where auteurism hasn't been assimilated enough in popular culture to have the luxury to get rid of it already. I'm sorry but this is the snobbism only a limited circle of European intellectuals could afford (because cinema culture there has reached that point! not in Bollywood, not in Hollywood!), and yet, it's never a legit issue to forget about auteurism altogether...

The excerpt quoted above comes from an interview published in an Indian AUTEURIST journal! I don't take any responsibility because I only suggested question guidelines in private mode and they were sent out as is, I also suggested afterward, in vain, to remove this part of the interview.
In a culture suffocated by the mainstream industrial anti-intellectual standards (like Bollywood or Hollywood), this kind of rebel attitude towards the "auteur establishment" can only further entrench an elitist (alternative) culture that should, on the contrary, be vulgarized and communicated to the wider public. Good luck teaching serious film studies in a mainstream country where you've killed auteurism...

25 mars 2010

Parallel evolutions of auteurism

Gavin Smith : "Over the course of the last 30 years, art cinema, or what the French call 'auteur cinema,' has to a great extent been annexed by (or surrendered to) the not-dishonorable commercial imperatives of turning out product in order to put bread on the table, product that, for all its modernity, some regard as a return of the repressed: the dreaded Tradition of Quality, caricatured by Cahiers du cinema back in the day, alive and well in stylish new clothes." (Film Comment, March/April 2010)
"I do not believe in the peaceful coexistence of the “Tradition of Quality
and an “auteur’s cinema.” [..] It is not the desire to create a scandal that leads me to depreciate a cinema so praised elsewhere."
François Truffaut, Une certaine tendance du cinéma français (Cahiers #31, January 1954)
NY International Latino film Festival 

23 mars 2010

Rétrospective Kitano à Paris

Rencontre avec Takeshi Kitano & Jean-Pierre Limosin, Basile Doganis
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (11 Mar 2010) 1h22' [JAPANESE/FRENCH]

17 mars 2010

Ideas and excellence (Bordwell)

David Bordwell : "Insofar as we think of criticism as evaluation, we need to distinguish between taste (preferences, educated or not) and criteria for excellence. I may like a film a lot, but that doesn’t make it good. For arguments, go here again. Criteria are intersubjective standards that we can discuss; taste is what you feel in your bones. A critical piece that merits serious thinking tends to appeal to criteria that readers can recognize, and dispute if they choose.
Enough with the love, already. [..]
Opinions need balancing with information and ideas. The best critics wear their knowledge lightly, but it’s there. To be able to compare films delicately, to trace their historical antecedents, to explain the creative craft of cinema to non-specialists: the critical essay is an ideal vehicle for such information. The critic is, in this respect, a teacher. [..]
[DB's answer to a student wanting to become a film critic] Forget about becoming a film critic. Become an intellectual, a person to whom ideas matter. Read in history, science, politics, and the arts generally. Develop your own ideas, and see what sparks they strike in relation to films."

11 mars 2010

Hollywood or not Hollywood? (Cahiers)

Except for 1955 and 1957, the Hollywood auteurs are in minority in Cahiers' yearly Top10 lists... And only 1 Best Picture Oscar and 2 nominees (the opinion of the Academy, "the System") coincide with Cahiers' taste during the 50ies (years 51-54 missing). That's a total of 23 titles out of the 70 listed there (33%), and not even a systematic hold up of all the top spots. Therefore 67% of non-American auteurs who operate outside the Hollywood system, and most of them outside the pre-"Politique des Auteurs" European studio system, announcing the emancipation of non-commercial cinema, independent cinema, the artfilm niche.
Overall the non-Hollywood system auteurs still dominate the preferences of the Cahiers team, who supposedly favoured the Hollywood system. That's not overwhelmingly conclusive for the very team who invented the notion of "auteur within the system"...
The "studios auteurs" praised by the Young Turks were still far from the heart of The System, even when it was fashionable to like genre movies.

See also : Hollywood system auteurs?

Admissions 1955-2008 - World Cinema Stats (14)

There was a Before and After the peak of the Golden Age (due to the development and spread of TV)... The cinema industry is just not like it used to be in term of transversal popularity. The "Hollywood hegemony" of today is not due to the USA curve being alone in the top pf the chart... it is only the curve of the domestic attendance (and the USA is a huge federation of smaller states, while France, UK, Japan, Germany and Italy are smaller states which population cannot compete with the larger American population, not to mention the higher admission per capita rate in the USA). What makes the Hollywood industry hegemonic in the world today, is the expansion of its exports pretty much in every country.

No wonder the Studios Golden Age, which started to fade out at the end of the 50ies, remains so deeply implanted in the general culture... a lot more people watched movies back then! A third less today in the USA (from 2,080 to 1,364 millions; after going down to half), half as much in France (from 390 to 190 millions). The defection of the movie goers is even worse in the other countries : UK (from 1180 to 164 millions), Japan (from 1080 to 160 millions), Italy (from 810 to 112 millions), (West) Germany (from 760 to 129 millions).
More people saw the popular studios movies in the 50ies than todays best Hollywood blockbusters! So obviously they influenced a lot more people upon release, who in turn carried on this "buzz" around them in the following decades. Today's critical authorities have been influenced by this frantic popularity, and when we poll the critics today about the best films of all time, it appears that the masterpieces of the peak years of cinema history shine much brighter than later masterpieces from the depressive era of cinema decline. Fewer audiences have seen and enjoyed todays masterpieces too.
Back then the critically acclaimed masterpieces were part of the zeitgeist (even if not always near the top of the Box Office or at the Oscars).
Today the best cinema is made in the smallest countries, has little audience at home (because Hollywood blockbusters monopolize local screens) and are seen by fewer critics abroad. So their influence is easily outweighed and rendered invisible by Hollywood's best movies, even if they are not as creative/deep.

The conditions of viewer-ship and popularity between then and now has changed dramatically... Then, everything was about Studios; the mass audience and highbrow critics almost shared the same taste for genre cinema. This was an era right when Italian Neorealism was reappraised. Before the clash with the Studio tradition of La Nouvelle Vague. Before the narrative revolution of Modern Cinema in the 60ies, before the Experimental scene of the 70ies, before Tarkovsky, before the "non-European/non-American" masters, before Deleuze... It is impossible to consider the Studio genre at the same level as when it was championed by unmatched genre masters like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Charles Chaplin, John Ford... They don't make genre movies like these anymore, even with the technical/skills general improvement of the industry's standards!

Sources :

  • Bilan CNC 1987
  • Laurent Créton, "Cinéma et marché", 1995
  • "Quelle diversité face à Hollywood?" (CinémAction, hors série, 2002)

10 mars 2010

Forgotten Obsolete English Words #3 : Curiosity

late 14c., "careful attention to detail," also "desire to know or learn" (originally usually in a bad sense), from Old French "curiosité", from Latin "curiositatem", from "curiosus". Neutral or good sense is from early 17c. Meaning "an object of interest" is from 1640s. [Dictionary.com]
Disposition to inquire, investigate, or seek after knowledge; a desire to gratify the mind with new information or objects of interest; inquisitiveness.
--Milton. [1913 Webster]
  • desire to know, lust for learning, thirst for knowledge. Eager to acquire knowledge.
  • a state in which you want to learn more about something; the tendency to ask questions, investigate, or explore. Curiosity that motivates investigation and study.
Related words : attentiveness, concern, interest, regard; inquiry, interrogation, questioning; inquisitiveness.
Antonym : indifference; apathy.

We can't force people to be interested in learning, in critical thinking, in constructive debate... it's something you have to nurture by yourself. It's a drag anyway to talk to people not motivated by a genuine curiosity.

There is no shortage of people willing to share personal opinions, whether we asked them to or not... so if it's your only skill you're up against tough competition. However what is killing Film Culture today is the absence of people who are passed the "viewing recommendation" stage (debating whether this or that is worth watching/buying over that or this) and more into cinema as a creative entity rather than an entertainment commodity.
Looking for any screening or DVD to buy yourself a couple of hours of distraction with a riveting spectacle isn't curiosity.
There are greater states of mind to reach beyond "fighting boredom and jumping on the zeitgeist bandwagon"... there are deeper questions to ask on art beyond the trivial worries about whether the storytelling had plot holes or dubious political bias (even if movie reviewers believe this is the only thing that matters).

Words. Words. Words. All about script content.

Who is LOOKING at cinema anymore? Nobody SEES anything...

09 mars 2010

Reality Check : Film Critics are NOT the Movie Press

...and vice-versa.
You don't find Film Criticism where there is a so-called "Film Press", you find it where Film Critics are. Film Criticism is not an employment by an industry, it's an immaterial discipline.

RIP Variety
David Poland (8 Mar 2010) The Hot Blog :

"As in the film business, everyone in entertainment media is trying to figure out the landscape. indieWIRE has continued to expand beyond indie, clearly aware that they cannot make enough money on indie alone to keep the now-deep-pocketed doors open. [..]
The only reason anyone pays much attention to Variety, critically, is not because Todd is the greatest critic in the world... but because studios, steeped in The Past, have continued to allow Variety to act as though they have a unique position in the industry and to review first. That has drawn much of the traffic they have had. And Variety - and Todd McCarthy - have held onto that long antiquated idea of how to handle review embargoes closely to their hearts. It has been their lifeblood, however absurd on its face, as "the trades" have been published on the newswires and as consumer content on the search engines for years. [..]
What is our role? What should we aspire to? it's hard to know. But the notion of pushing towards the established power... time to let that go. In our arrogance, we all like to believe that given the opportunity, we could see more clearly, be more aggressive, solve what others have failed to solve. But as we dig our tunnels out of our creative POW camps, seeking the clear, clean sky and freedom, and we find ourselves running into the tunnels of those we sought to emulate, it is a scary thing. How will we find a way out?
Variety, the last independent news-let not owned by a movie studio, doesn't need to employ critics anymore in order to synopsize official studio releases...

Apparently the new business model at the Internet age is to outsource your primary content-generator : critics... because a movies trade paper is all about management and advertising. Nursing film writers, controlling writing quality, running independent analysis is not as important. Content can be privatized, which will soon be owned directly by Media conglomerates themselves, who are much interested in controlling film writing content so that it boosts their sales, regardless for the quality of their products.

Today American film critics realize that the institution called "Film Criticism" is a separate entity from the Newspaper industry. Someone doesn't become or cease to be a film critic when employed/laid off by a media company... A critic is a critic when they fulfill the responsibilities of their discipline with integrity, objectivity, honesty and curiosity. Sitting around giving personal opinions on pre-screeners lined up by the industry (that blocks anything they don't want you to review upstream) is NOT film criticism.

Even Cahiers learnt last year about it the hard way... an independent French journal, living in a subsidized bubble of "exception culturelle", is not exempt from being bought out by a (foreign) profit-driven media conglomerate! End of the independence of opinion. End of the film criticism outlet ran by film critics. Le Monde milked them while they needed content to put out their collection of cinema DVD (approved by the Cahiers logo), and passed it on to the next publisher seeking movie-related content for their collection : Phaidon.

Read more of this by remembering the 2008 "crisis" of movie reviewers lay-off causing critics to reflect on the condition of their job.

Do you think that the truly independent film critics on the blogosphere would want to dissociate themselves from this commercial pattern, from the industrial pressure, from the formated content dictated by studios, from the rhythm of official distributions, from the non-stop blurbs, from the traffic-incentive catch-all, from the offend-none Political Correctness imposed by sponsors... ? No. The new generation of film writers only dream about becoming one of them industry slaves, with a salary, an employment and a shiny label to wear on their ego.

These people look up to the wrong models... they don't care about what "film criticism" really is, they just want to become "that person that is paid to blurb opinions and watches movies for free". All they talk about is : "my profession deserves to get paid, it's unjust when critics are laid off, I have the right to access private junkets, I want privileges, I want authority, I want influence, I want to rub shoulders with Hollywood stars, I want a piece of the cake of this prosperous commerce..." and they rationalize this deep desire with a ready-made rhetorics borrowed from people who had a clue about the freedom of the press and the conscience of film criticism.

Dissecting American Distribution

The Business (KCRW/NPR) MP3 podcast 30' (8 Mar 2010)

Dissecting Distribution : It's tough to get distribution for indie movies these days. But just what is distribution, and what can you do if you have a great little movie without it? Distribution...and self-distribution...and everything in-between...

  • Richard Fay: President of Domestic Theatrical Distribution, Summit Entertainment
  • Thomas Woodrow: Producer, 'Bass Ackwards'
  • Anthony Deptula: Writer, producer and actor, 'One Too Many Mornings'

Talking points:
- Oscars win/nominations, critical acclaim don't help distribution of small films
- Less and less films are bought at festivals by distributors... (!)
- There is no USA audience to support documentary/highbrow drama/foreign films... that's the excuse of distributors for not buying this kind of "niche" films (?)
- Major studios (MPAA members) get less restrictive "censorship board" ratings than indie films (PG13, R...) for equal offensive content. See: This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006/Kirby Dick)
- Big name distributors can get deals because smaller distributors are (allegedly) incapable to deliver prints in the theatres on time...
- "Block booking/Blind bidding" is (allegedly) illegal : a distributor cannot punish an exhibitor with future films denial if they refuse the deal on the current film. So it cannot be the reason why theatrical circuits only show major studios flicks (whether they are good or bad, popular or flops)... can't be. The only explanation must be that exhibitors don't know what their audience wants, can't tell if a movie sucks, and that they rent bad movies just because they love losing money... yeah right!
- If you have a great film that the Hollywood system refuses to buy, just bend over and release it on YouTube, cause... you know, underdogs must get second rate exposure. Nobody would suggest that the right option would be to change the freaking plutocratic/hegemonic/imperialistic system...

... hopeless

03 mars 2010

Intolerance (R. Dawkins)

Richard Dawkins :

"I think there is a difference between arguing robustly against somebody and being intolerant of them. Intolerance is refusing to listen, or not bothering to argue because you sort of simply think they're beyond the pale. I suppose I occasionally do that - but who doesn't? - when you're faced with some of the provocations that one occasionally gets. But if somebody is honestly interested in working together to get to the truth, if they're ignorant - we are all ignorant of something, you know, about most things - I'm very very happy to have a discussion with anybody who I hope is amicable. If I feel somebody is deliberately deceiving because they've got some sort of agenda, I might be intolerant of that."

02 mars 2010

Experiencing Self v. Remembering Self (D. Kahneman)

Compare the colonoscopy example with movie watching. Critics need to be aware that the Self enjoying/suffering through a film projection is not the same Self who will write about it! Thus the rational conflict between objectivity and subjectivity. The Remembering Self is entirely manipulated by subjectivity, not the romanticized "emotional" subjectivity, but the hindsight rationalization of a (misremembered) perception. The Self self-justifies, a posteriori, whatever discourse is intuited by the narration of the film and especially its conclusion (self-indulgent dénouement). If the film flatters our ego, brings back good memories of our personal lives, allows us to overcome (through identification) our fears and repressed feelings, which is what people call "feel good movies" (that are not always blissfully happy, but necessarily cathartic and hopeful if sad), then our remembrance of it all will inflate its positive points and minimize its negative points. We construct a "forced" discourse to serve the "perceived memory" we are left with.
This is the reason why impressionistic reviewing makes no sense to anybody else than its author, it is unique to this one-time experience, unsharable, incomparable : it uses the same ropes and tricks the movie narratives use to manipulate its viewers. Impressionistic reviewing is an equally manipulative rhetoric surfing on catchy sensations, lowest-common-denominator feelings, talking points and summary judgments. The review is built with a hook, with vague generalizations, anecdotal facts and an ending with an easy-to-read (and easy to re-tweet) binary taste, either "like it" or "like not", either "worth watching" or "not worth watching". And readers will forget about the bad prose and the absence of insights, all they will remember is the final ready-made opinion, which they will carry around like their own; just like movie goers walk out of a "good" movie believing they own all the thoughts and feelings fed to them during the projection.
Impressionistic reviewing assembles a panel of incoherent, opposite impressions from the fans and detractors who only refer to a subjective sensations, subjective feelings, subjective thoughts, subjective impressions, subjective rhetorics... These are implanted in their brains by the manipulative ending and its effect on our deceived judgment, just like a painful medical experience would be positivized with a clever spin and a deceiving procedural handling of the climax. Precisely because we forget the instantaneous moments, the sub-parts of its digested sum... a cunning built up may leave the spectators with a sweet aftertaste that is impossible to deny, that must be taken into account when comes the time to put in words this experience.

Movies are like colonoscopies, it's all about the ending.

What Kahneman says about the micro scale of memory (the immediate aftermath of the experience, when you are asked to formulate and appreciate what just happened, what you just watched) could naturally be expanded to the macro scale (our life time).
There are moments in our life when we are more suggestible, easily influenced, when we are actively seeking to pattern our opinions/taste/personality after admired figures, either by imitation or by opposition. [See : "Le désir mimétique" de René Girard]
Regarding cinéphiles, the adolescent period is particularly notable and will take a disproportionate importance in their personal Panthéon. That's why we hear so often "it was always better in my youth". Films seen during these formative years are considered THE BEST EVER, and will remain so, even compared to latter masterpieces. The critics will engage in a process of auto-justification to explain why this self-remembered was right to think, then, that the films had a tremendous impact on their unsolidified ego, even if the exact (objective) experience was long forgotten...
The formative years act as the "ending of puberty" (whether it is congruent with physiological puberty, or if it is a symbolic puberty when we discover and appropriate certain cultural landmarks to access adulthood), like a "coming of age" experience, like a first kiss...
Thus everyone rationalizes their "formative films" and give them an inflated importance in film history. Which creates the proverbial "generation gap" between generations of critics who were born in the same formative decades and critics who were not born to experience it firsthand.
And people get extremely defensive, territorial, authoritative with their "ending", these particular formative films, that school of thought that was in fashion back then, along with all the discourses and attitudes justifying its existence. They defend and rationalize their impressionable years. It's quite impossible to engage with someone about this sensitive period that is simply the foundation of their entire Self (personality, culture, taste, career...)