28 février 2011

Contra-contrarianism (IFFR) 1

Filmkrant (Jan 2011) and International Film Festival of Rotterdam (30 Jan 2011) present: Out of the Comfort Zone
Do film critics have a moral responsibility to go against the grain? Or is this contrarianism a mere rhetorical tool, a querulant's toy, or an easy way to establish a name for oneself in the age of cyberjournalism? And what happens when even the most daring critics are confronted with films that bring them out of their comfort zone?
A Critics' Talk about Critics, Contrarians, Conformists and Other Provocateurs
With: Dana Linssen [NL], Adrian Martin [AU], Chris Fujiwara [USA], Cristina Nord [DE], Neil Young [UK], Gabe Klinger [USA]
Here we go again, a lecture on the "responsibilities of film criticism"...
I wish they defined what they meant by "comfort zone" in introduction, to put everyone on the same page. Cause they weren't clear what the notion of "comfort zone" or "anti-comfort zone" corresponded to. To the point that "contrarian" became equated to "conformist" by a strange twist of sophistry. Some even said they were both categorically for and categorically against, without being able to tell which exclusive position was right. After a lot of stereotypes, moderator Dana tried repeatedly to extort answers and practical suggestion from this panel, in vain. They are all full of good ideas (some don't even know what they mean), but - spoiler alert! - revealing how to get there is not for today.

High mark : the panel is international (like the host : Rotterdam festival), although despite all communicating in the English language (4 of the 6 panelists' native idiom), they didn't feel the need to address the fact that English-spoken culture might be a "comfort zone" for some, and a bit exclusionary for film criticism published in the rest of the non-English-speaking world. 
Also, the debate was filmed and uploaded online (for free)! Unlike the Ljubljana panel (if you know where to find it please leave a link)

And since they didn't manage to interact with the public in attendance, someone has got to give them some feedback. I'll show them the benefits of playing Devil's Advocate.

* * *

Adrian Martin : "Armond White... Taste is a prison..." 
Adrian Martin is mad at contrarians as if every critics on Earth acted against the dominant opinion (for the sake of disagreeing and being original?) or trapped in a niche, a "fixed religion" (Armond White IS that majoritary model apparently). And he's on a campaign to eradicate this kind of practice from film discourse... (textbook straw man fallacy!) 
First, I would hope that Armond White was not the role model brought up in a SERIOUS PANEL about SERIOUS FILM CRITICISM, he's as relevant as Roger Ebert, meaning relevant to populist appeal. Do you feel threatened by his level of discourse? OMG Armond White becomes the talk of the Rotterdam Festival!!!! I didn't even know his notoriety exceeded NYC. Why do you compare yourself to the lowest standards? Because they have the popularity? Do you enjoy beating a dead horse? Measure up to models of your stature at least for a fair game. 
Second, if you didn't pick such a lame role model, you wouldn't define one of the actual missions of a film critic, skeptical cross-examination, as uni-dimensionally as a guy who disagrees by perversion (not because there are reasons to play devil's advocate sometimes?) and a relentless activity at the exclusion of anything else (as if Adrian Martin was the only one with an ecclectic taste in the world). 
Breaking news: Contrarians are a minority, undiscriminate filmgoers are a majority. If something should be disconcerting and dealt with, it's rampant equivalence.

If you can't tell whether someone disagrees systematically without purpose, either that contrarian is doing a good job faking it, or you're not qualified to pass this judgement... Threat level to film discourse? about as high as for any hack film reviewer employed in the press, contrarian or complacent. 

Another point worth considering : within the world of mediocre film reviewing (i.e. weekly newspapers and similar online movie-guides), when contrarians are as shallow and subjective as their mainstream peers, the simple fact of them opposing majoritary taste and received ideas (for good or bad reasons, we don't care, since the result is mediocre anyway), shows a modicum of critical activity. Yes. When two equally bad reviewers are compared, the one with a contrarian approach will at least construct a form of argumentation based on disputing an analyzed position from a colleague, if not from the film's mise en scene. 

And if competent critics decide to write a skeptical paper, which is not to frown upon in and of itself, they probably have solid reasons to do so. Thus, it's not the contrarianism itself that lowers film culture, it's a-critical criticism.

You see, I don't believe that imposing ecclectic taste to incompetent reviewers, or film students, or spectators, will issue higher standards of criticism. You need to acquire critical standards first. Then you'll be able to evaluate whatever is thrown at you, any which way you so desire. But you can't invent your own hierarchies if you don't know how the ones established before you had been made. "Freestyle aesthetics" is for the erudite, not for the illiterate anarchists.

Now, I'll tell you one thing, there is something much worse than a contrarian, however bad a job (s)he does, and it's a critic who refuses DEBATE, thinking that by ignoring dissent, head stuck in the sand, all is perfect in a perfect world where everyone agrees with MY TASTE. That, is BAD CRITICISM in my books. In fact it is not criticism, it is more like panegyric. If you advocate one, you'll find faults in the other, obviously. 
So since you're bragging about only writing about films you love, and you make a point in refusing any discussion with people who don't adore the films you cherish... (Adrian Martin will recognize himself there) you're not in a good position to patronize film critics about open-mindedness and critical responsiblities! You have your own comfort zone. Leave that to critics (not cheerleaders who are trapped in their ivory towers) maybe they have a chance to make a credible argument in this direction (*IF* banning cross-examination from the praxis of film criticism could ever be taken seriously). 

Adrian Martin: "Down with Ingmar Bergman... Generation gap... blah blah blah"
Have we heard this before? Self-quote lifted from his Filmkrant column in reaction to Rosenbaum's Bergman Op-Ed. Self-indulgence or out of the comfort zone?

Adrian Martin : "For me the important thing is to constantly go back and forth between all the different sorts of culture of films"
Let me build another straw-man for you : Now you've done it! Every critic on Earth is a generalist, loving all genres equally, and knowing a bit of everything, and nothing deep of anything (because if they dig too deep in one place, they alienate themselves from knowing everything else). That's what you advocate, right? What are we gonna do with only generalists and no specialists???? This is ruining film culture! Let's blame open-mindedness now. 
It was easy to take a seemingly self-important position in "favor" of film culture and undermining it in another excess? Critical insight at the end of the day? None. Straw-men do not help to define helpful conducts. 

What is your point to shame people who opt to focus their efforts to improve the understanding of one specific area of cinema, be it elitist culture or sub-culture? What greater goal are you trying to accomplish? How could the mere existence of specialists infringe the freedom of expression of the generalists? Film culture is the sum of the contributions by specialists and generalists, by conservatives and contrarians, by journalists and scholars, by publicists and spectators...

There are people who think that escaping your comfort zone is to embrace the mercantilisation of culture made by Hollywood, let's call them "cheerleaders" cause they are the "real cinephiles" who dare to watch even crap movies. And there are people who think that to expose a counterargument to the mainstream "common wisdom" is kinda different from the self-indulgence entrenched in the guilty-pleasure filled proverbial "comfort zone", let's call them "contrarian" to discredit any trace of critical value in their skeptical intentions. 
Yeah all it takes is to redefine words, through a clever marketing campaign, to justify your own fallacies and make those who are more critical than you sound useless. I guess the dumb readers might fall for it...

Maybe it is the important thing FOR YOU, and it is certainly something we should encourage for everyone interested in it. But is it worth sacrificing skepticism in film criticism? I don't think so. No reason to oppose them, to make us pick one OR the other. They are not polar opposites, not an exclusive dichotomy.

Adrian Martin : "disregarding auteur and genre, crossing the lines of mainstream, arthouse and film festival exhibition, opening your mind to the odd, subterranean zeitgeists that always flow in, around and underneath our shared culture."
It's called Baroque, and it's hardly the highest peak in Art History. Random collage of anything and everything, mixing styles against any aesthetic coherence, disregarding balance and harmony, stuffing in the most possible elements, and above all showing off, exuberance. I'm not sure that's the stuff film culture lacks, or has been missing all these years. I'm not sure either it's the brilliant idea that will save a dying film culture crumbling under the perils of syncretic equivalence. Intertextuality is great, but it doesn't mean that ANY random crossover mix will be insightful and this is the weakness of Cultural Studies. This is the old bulimic/anorexic (false) quarrel, right?

Cristina Nord: "Being a contrarian can be staying in your own personal comfort zone, of your taste, and your likes and dislikes. And I think that's indeed a danger. It can be something that is very self-indulgent."
WTF? It's not being contrarian then, if you're not disagreeing BECAUSE it is the dominant opinion (the side your counterpoint is going to defend is dependent on what others will bring up), but because it is YOUR comfort zone to think that way (whatever others think, you already know what you're going to write). See the difference between being contrarian by principle (always against everything else no matter what) and being contrarian by coincidence (your insular taste somehow happens to be contrary to the mainstream). This distinction might sound a too subtle to some... but believe me, intentionality makes a world of difference.

Cristina Nord: "I can't do this exclusively. Like, if I only do Lav Diaz, if I only do Apichatpong Weerasethakul, if I only do Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel, films that are rarely shown in Germany, films that are not mainstream, films that not a lot of people have access to see. I have, like, to find other options as well." 
First, what unwritten rule of the Film Criticism holy book would bind you to the same limited number of auteurs for a lifetime sentence? This phobia of exclusivity is a non-issue. Are you trying to convince yourself that it's OK to review the commercial fare? Or are you just name dropping these hardcore names to justify your weekly review job? I don't get it. But thanks for sharing. 
Does it really matter who covers which specific auteur? Is there a quota to balance the Hollywood easy reviews with the more demanding effort to criticize a challenging artwork for the brains? 
All I know is that if you only review commercially released products (filtered by the industrial infrastructure) you're doing a bad job. If you only review a Lav Diaz film when it is released commercially, it's a cop out, or a sell-out to the commercial censorship I should say (because you're playing their game and they will continue to quarantine artfilms because it prevents you from writing about them). 
Personally, I see a problem when compromises don't matter anymore. Reviewing Oscars (like a million other journalists in the world!) and reviewing an underexposed film by Lav Diaz, cannot be the same undifferentiated commitment for a critic... It's not a matter of acquired taste, or defending the Great Cinema for the cultural elite against the bad mainstream cinema. It's a matter of understanding your role as a film critic within the media system that allows you to watch films, and write about them. Either you're a resistant or you're a collaborator! You can't tell your buddies you helped Lav Diaz one day and promoted the marketing machine that destroyed local cinema in The Philippines the next day. Either you care about how things got perverted, or you don't. You can't play for both teams, and then patronize the resistance for being excessively motivated by their cause... This is RIDICULOUS. Don't tell me you feel responsible for the success of art filmmakers if you consider your duty to add an umptieth Oscars coverage to the pile of self-promotion. 
Will critics ever realize that it is IMPOSSIBLE to continue to support an industry that goes against freedom of expression, diversity, education and art? 

Full series : Contra-contrarianism (IFFR) 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

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