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

Related read:

25 février 2011

GQ vs Hollywood (Harris)

The Day the Movies Died
by: Mark Harris (GQ, Février 2011)

I wonder why it's GQ that dares to tell Hollywood how it really is. What's the use of running an "independent" cinephile publication if you don't have the balls to give an honest and insightful scrutiny to the majors who suppress independent cinema... I guess GQ has bigger balls than the NYT (who bows to digital distribution and 3D barnum) or Film Comment (who is too busy sabotaging the festival circuit)... American Fatalism will never die, the American movies will. You gotta sacrifice quality when you desperately want to be #1 in quantity. And even the "film critics" (I'm hesitant to use this word in this case) are willing to play their part to make sure foreign cinema abroad, and independent cinema at home keeps the head under the water.

"It has always been disheartening when good movies flop; it gives endless comfort to those who would rather not have to try to make them and can happily take cover behind a shield labeled "The people have spoken." But it's really bad news when the industry essentially rejects a success [Christopher Nolan's Inception], when a movie that should have spawned two dozen taste-based gambles on passion projects is instead greeted as an unanswerable anomaly. That kind of thinking is why Hollywood studio filmmaking, as 2010 came to its end, was at an all-time low—by which I don't mean that there are fewer really good movies than ever before (last year had its share, and so will 2011) but that it has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide."
This is the reason why you must be cynical about the way movies are made in Hollywood. I can not dellude yourself in thinking the few decent blockbusters that come out of this marketing factory were made ON PURPOSE. Filmic art in Hollywood emerges in spite of the system, when it's lucky enough to infiltrate incognito all the barrages!!!
Though, when a dude in GQ charges on Hollywood to defend an half-assed blockbuster like Inception (ranked above any foreign masterpieces in the American top10 lists!) taken as an exemple of cinema's ultimate greatness... you know the American film culture is deep up its own ass.

Scott Rudin (producer of The Social Network, True Grit) : "Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they're right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint."
Meanwhile there are still critics who believe that the "genius of the system" is the key that produces great mise en scène in today's commercial movies... WTF?

"Top Gun landed directly in the cortexes of a generation of young moviegoers whose attention spans and narrative tastes were already being recalibrated by MTV and video games. That generation of 16-to-24-year-olds—the guys who felt the rush of Top Gun because it was custom-built to excite them—is now in its forties, exactly the age of many mid- and upper-midrange studio executives. And increasingly, it is their taste, their appetite, and the aesthetic of their late-'80s postadolescence that is shaping moviemaking. Which may be a brutally unfair generalization, but also leads to a legitimate question: Who would you rather have in charge—someone whose definition of a classic is Jaws or someone whose definition of a classic is Top Gun?"
The follow up question would be : Who would you rather have in charge of an institutional cinephile publication (i.e. Sight and Sound),  someone whose definition of a classic is Inception or someone whose definition of a classic is Citizen Kane?

"In some ways, the ascent of the marketer was inevitable: Now that would-be blockbusters often open on more than 4,000 screens, the cost of selling a movie has skyrocketed toward—and sometimes past—$40 million to $50 million per film, which is often more than the movie itself cost to make."
The problem with American businessmen, is that either a movie can be sold on 4000 screens, or it's not even worth trying. They don't know the concept of parallel circuit, or niche market, or Long Tail consumers, or slow distribution. They do extensive production, just like they do their corn, never under 9 digits a head. Someone need to tells all the wannabe producers to stop trying to be #1. Every other country in the world produces and distributes dozens/hundreds of successful and quality movies, popular or artsy, without the gazillion dollars pumped into Hollywood. So I'm pretty sure if they took a class in cost-control, they would find a niche market at appropriate size for their capability (instead of aiming at what their overestimated ambition tells them to)

"Such an unrelenting focus on the sell rather than the goods may be why so many of the dispiritingly awful movies that studios throw at us look as if they were planned from the poster backward rather than from the good idea forward. Marketers revere the idea of brands, because a brand means that somebody, somewhere, once bought the thing they're now trying to sell. [..] Sequels are brands. Remakes are brands. For a good long stretch, movie stars were considered brands; this was the era in which magazines like Premiere attempted to quantify the waxing or waning clout of actors and actresses from year to year because, to the industry, having the right star seemed to be the ultimate hedge against failure."
Hollywood is definitely run by publicists, like they are given CREATIVE POWERS. A populist melodrama is bad enough, appealing to the lowest instincts and Pavlovian conditionning of basic emotions. But there is something that makes more money than that, turning cinema into 90 minute long commercials. The biggest worry is not actual product placement (for incidental product sales), the movie has now become a tautological selling argument, self-alimenting itself, swallowing the hypnotized audience and the complacent reviewers who all love to be part of this big shiny Zeitgeist bandwagon untill they are directed to the next big thing.

"[..] can't-miss movies miss all the time. But when a movie that everyone agrees is pre-sold falls on its face, the dullness of the idea itself never gets the blame. Because the idea that familiarity might actually work against a movie, were it to take hold in Hollywood, would be so annihilating to the studio ecosystem that it would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Give the people what they don't know they want yet is a recipe for more terror than Hollywood can accommodate."
If Hollywood was only mercantile, we could accept their business model, the economical logic of their choices... as long as the mass wants more of it. But that's not all. Hollywood is also stupid at its own game. They make BAD BAD BAD commercial products all year long, based on ultra-safe formulaic recipe. They are bad at being businessmen! They are wasteful maniacs. Because they make such indecent amount of money when they do succeed, they don't even care when they fail again and again, hoping for the magic blockbuster, like compulsive gamblers. Unfortunately they don't take risks with creative filmmakers, to discover the future infatuation of mainstream taste (like fashion designers would do for instance), no, they keep repeating the past safe recipe, copying eachothers, stealing formulae, ripping off, spining off, revamping, recycling... Frankenstein movies that only have the empty shell of what once was a "movie"!

"[..] the degree to which children's genres have colonized the entire movie industry goes beyond overkill. More often than not, these collectively infantilizing movies are breeding an audience—not to mention a generation of future filmmakers and studio executives—who will grow up believing that movies aimed at adults should be considered a peculiar and antique art. Like books. Or plays."
How I wish film writers in the specialized cinephile press were half as concerned as this guy...
Meanwhile smartasses declare that "Dude, Where's My Car?" or "Stuck on You" or "Wall-E" or "Toy Story 3" or whatever Jackie Chan does... should be on the same level as high-brow art, alongside the achievements of Kiarostami, Tarr or Lynch. That's so mature to make immaturity sound like serious cinema... Not. Grow up! It was smart to pick Hitchcock, of all Hollywood employees, within the commercial system... but today's kid's movies are nowhere near Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford or Chaplin! 

"In a way, that kind of thinking is just the terminus of a decades-long marginalization of the very notion of creative ambition by the studios. If in the 1970s making good original movies was a central goal of the men who ran the studios, by the 1980s that goal had devolved to making good original movies to release at the end of the year, for Oscar season. In the 1990s, as the boom in American independent filmmaking began, the idea of a "good" movie, as New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has pointed out, eventually became a niche that could be outsourced—first to self-made moguls like Harvey Weinstein and then to boutique divisions of the studios themselves. "There was a moment a few years ago," says Schamus, "when studios said, 'Hey, all of these specialty companies seem to be taking up all the seats in the front row at the Oscars, so if they can do it, we can do it—we'll just throw money at them!' "
Get real already. Visit the world, get familiarized with what the word "independent" stands for outside of the USA (where words have longer objective definition).
Read what was written about the Hollywood fare back in 1931 by Philippe Soupault ! The production was already profit-driven. You would think that after walking around knee-deep into shit for the better part of a century, American Film Critics would eventually rebel and contest this mentality, support the emergence of a non-blockbuster market... That would be underestimating American Fatalism. Deep in shit, they got used to it, they love it, they wouldn't exchange their place for anything, not even foreign masterpieces!  

"[studio executives and marketers] They're philistines, foes of art, craven bottom-liners, vulgarians."
Don't worry Hollywood, you will always find smartass wannabe-critics who find cute and hip to rebel against the "overrated establishement of high-brow art". Easy to find them, they are the ones who didn't lose their job in the press! They think bashing elitist art is the most revolutionary thing they can do in this mercantile era. This is so "subversive" to love Hollywood when nobody, really nobody, gives Hollywood the attention it deserves. Really? History will remember them... not in a good way though.

"And overseas markets are becoming less predictable and more insular—Schamus points out that Japan and Italy have taken a pronounced turn away from Hollywood films and toward homegrown fare, a trend that's likely to spread around the globe. (And adult dramas play particularly poorly abroad.)"
OK. Now I stop to concur. The fact that foreign markets bend over to Hollywood in a predictible pattern is one thing. But deciding that BECAUSE they begin to buy less Hollywood crap equates to "even abroad they don't make/watch adult drama" is bullshit. Since outside of the USA we do not know how to make epic superhero blockbusters or 3D spectacles... I garanty you that dramas with actual storytelling skills, aimed at a mature audience (rather than saying "adult drama" like if it was "porn"!) is still selling pretty well, in France, in Italy, in Japan, in the UK, or pretty much anywhere else. See, if Hollywood didn't make such dumb movies... the world would probably not watch any.

"Put simply, we'd rather stay home, and movies are made for people who'd rather go out."
You're a bit presumptuous there! Do you think Hollywood is worried that the movies they make will be sold on DVD or on VOD rather than the big screen? Before the technological upgrade of TV sets to the 16/9 aspect ratio, Hollywood shot their films on 16/9 film for the TV 4/3 aspect ratio, by leaving no meaningful details or characters in the side margins. Now that 16/9 home-video settings exist, they still shoot for the 4/3 to cater to the consumers who kept their old TV. That's not what I call "making films for the big screen". When films used to be letterboxed, rather than pan-and-scan, yes films were made for the cinemascope screen; not anymore. 3D cinema is probably the only specific technique that shows Hollywood wants to make movies that are best seen on the big screen. But Hollywood already tried 3D in the 50ies, it's not a new fad.

Ball in your court so-called "thought-provocating film press"

Actually, there is an article somewhat critical of Hollywood in a recent issue of Sight and Sound (I don't remember which, February?, and they don't even have a full table of content on their website), what a shocker, they woke up from their complacent hibernation. That's a start.

Related read:

23 février 2011

Lumière (Tarr/Bergman)

A torinói ló (2011/TARR/Hongrie) bande annonce (45 sec)

* * *

Persona (1966/Bergman/Suède) premier plan (30 sec)

Voir aussi:

05 février 2011

Colbert Portrait 2011

My interpretation of Stephen Colbert annual fireplace portrait 2011 (see gallery here) The one-man allegory of American news media of the 21st century. Democracy on one hand, brainwashing on the other, and support to foreign totalitarian regimes in the back.


03 février 2011

Forgotten Obsolete English Words #5: Obituary

"Obituary is when celebrating an artist was already too late"
Jean-Luq Godard, apocryphal and posthumous citation