29 mars 2008

The Belgrade Manifesto

Continuing the thread of Responsibilities in cinema and to contradict my recrimination against the apathetic American market, here is an interesting project initiated by two independent filmmakers, Nora Hoppe (USA) and Jon Sanders (UK), in an open forum at the Belgrade Festival of Auteur film, on Sunday 2nd December 2007: The Belgrade Manifesto. I never heard about it, and apparently I'm not alone (despite an article in the current issue of Vertigo.uk) , as the number of signatures is only 58 (Sokurov and Kaurismaki among them) in four months. So spread the word and sign up!

They accuse the (Hollywood) system of dumbing down the audience with low standards films and Machiavellian marketing schemes. They propose to exploit the liberty of Digital Cinema to make and show films to the public outside of the established commercial circuit. Which relates to what Pascale Ferran is talking about in France right now.

There is a crisis in cinema today, a deep malaise, a feeling of artistic exhaustion, of pointlessness. The evolution of cinematic language that is so vital to the continued well-being and relevance of the medium has pretty much come to a standstill. Good films are getting fewer, the informed and knowledgeable audience that is so important for their success has shrunk. The older generation don't go to the cinema any more because so many films are for young people, and the young people today have little idea of cinema's capacity for depth, excitement and complexity. The critics, who should be guiding and educating that audience, are mostly inadequate, and the distribution structures no longer work.

The growth of the globalised market and of Hollywood's extraordinary success in exploiting it, despite the fact that the films are getting worse, has not only depleted the alternative markets but, more disturbingly, has undermined alternative approaches to production by acting as a virus - its methods and philosophy are either taken on directly or internalised. Nobody pays attention to form, without which, as our predecessors understood, nothing worthwhile can possibly develop. The “story” is given exaggerated importance; the study of its crude mechanics has become an industry in itself with consultants and experts in every financing agency and production house, part of an ever growing and unproductive bureaucracy whose purpose is to sniff out the trends and fads of the day and to select and develop (and distort) productions in accordance with those predictions.

However, the landscape has shifted and we are now entering the era of “digital cinema”. (...) What is being ignored is (...) the long-term stagnation of cinematic language and form and the consequent lack of innovation and depth which are essential to keep cinema alive.

(...) At last, it is now possible, because of the huge reduction in costs, to bypass existing funding channels and make high quality films WITHOUT PERMISSION. In addition, we need to adapt and develop those models of distribution and exhibition that are already being pioneered and begin to identify new sources of minimal funding. It is time to take responsibility for our own future and establish a committed, interactive community that can share ideas and work together to find viable ways to make and show our films and build audiences that will want to see them.

(full manifesto on the official website)

So hopefully critics and filmmakers worldwide, a global community, could feel RESPONSIBLE and oppose the system to defend artistic liberty and cultural diversity. Even filmmakers working in America and why not from Hollywood. Time to speak up and shake the world to change the system!

28 mars 2008

Film Criticism Blogathon 2006 (backup)

Since I mentionned in my last post Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blogathon (at No More Marriages!) on Dec 1st 2006, and that the blog was now deleted, I'll re-post the links here for future online reference and posterity.
Luckily a trace of the summary can be found copied at the end of in Noel Vera's own contribution
And thanks to the Wayback Machine, the original archive of this blogathon is not lost.

(*) indicates discussion in the comments section

And reminding us that the internet is not cast in stone and that blogposts and bloggers come and go :
R.I.P. offline pages
(please leave a link or a cached page to correct these missing contributions)

Bonus Link :

A Roundtable Discussion "How Film Critics Work" at Undercurrent (FIPRESCI) with Klaus Eder, Julie Rigg, Richard Kuipers, Adrian Martin and Roslyn Petelin
This forum, presented by the Australian Film, Television and Radio School as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival 2005, invited four prominent film critics to discuss their profession and share ideas about perceptive and informative film criticism.

A French perspective (Responsibilities)

Sorry to compare to France again, but synchronicity strikes right here to give an example of the "critical responsibility against a perverse system".

The French cinema industry isn't doing poorly exactly (the latest French blockbuster, "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis", a lowbrow comedy, is beating all previous sales records and the yearly audience is growing especially thanks to recent popular French movies), but still there are people to stand up and complain about a lack of diversity, a lack of opportunity and the spoilage of the state subsidies (without which there would be no French cinema).

At last year's Césars (the French Oscars), indie filmmaker Pascale Ferran made her acceptance speech for Best Film of the year (Lady Chatterley) a severe accusation against the governmental policy and the extinction of the middle ground cinema (cited as exemples : Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Lelouch, Berri, Costa-Gavras,Téchiné,Tavernier, C. Serreau, Corneau, Miller, Jacquot, Breillat, Carax, Chéreau, Guédiguian, Jolivet, Assayas, C. Denis, Dupeyron,T. Marshall, N. Garcia, Jeunet, Klapisch, Desplechin, Beauvois, Corsini, Kahn, Ferran, Kassovitz, Audiard, Salvadori,Vernoux, Masson, Belvaux, Mazuy, Lvovsky, Podalydès, Jaoui, Ozon, Moll, Cantet, Kechiche) between big budget movies well supported by TV networks and the small budget art films supported by subsidies. She said the gap between these two poles was growing thin which tends to polarize the image we get of cinema into two clear cut alternatives : the entertainment and the "boring".

This lone call had a snowball effect and opened the mouths of everyone. Though quite slow, like with every bureaucratic system, the press relayed the criticism and began to think over the situation. And now an independent interdisciplinary group of filmmakers (Jacques Audiard, Pascale Ferran & Claude Miller), screenwriter (Cécile Vargaftig), producers (Denis Freyd, Arnaud Louvet, Patrick Sobelman & Édouard Weil), distributor (Fabienne Vonier), theatre owner (Stéphane Goudet, Claude-Éric Poiroux & Jean-Jacques Ruttner), international distributor (François Yon) got together (surprisingly no critics or scholars in there) and published a report to analyze the current system and propose some needed modifications (Le Club des 13).

So even if it was ballsy and ungrateful to shout at the academy that just gave her a prize in 2007, the milieu of cinema kinda agreed and opened up to bilateral talks.
Today the newspapers (Le Monde, Libération, Les inrocks, Télérama) mention the news in a supporting way. This becomes a public debate.
Cahiers published the Cesar2007 speech online after having questionned the quantity of films produced in France in the past issues (#618 and #619 notably) then suggested some proposition just before the presidential elections (#622) and interviewed each candidate regarding their cultural agenda (#622).

This is what I'd call "Responsibilities of criticism": socio-political awareness, moral integrity, self-examination, analytical scrutiny and altruism.

The system is benevolent and ultra-protectionist in France : quotas, subsidies, taxes... yet the domestic production only owns around 40% of the market, leaving 45% to Hollywood and more or less 15% to non-Hollywood foreign films (=60% of foreign films allowed on our screens! that's how "ultra-protectionist" we are, compared to the 5% in the USA). But still people working here and benefiting from this system raise awareness and call for more justice, more fairness for everyone, and less abuse of the aids by the prosperous parties who don't need it.

We see that Hollywood screenwriters can solidify around their union to beg for their cut of the internet profits and get a lot of media attention, but could the same thing happen for selfless interests to defend the cultural diversity in their country? I honestly don't know, I'm just asking the question.

25 mars 2008

Responsibilities of Criticism in NYC

On March 13 and 14, 2008, the New York University Department of Cinema Studies organised a seminar entitled "Responsibilities of Criticism"
The topic sounded promising :
"As the technologies of filmmaking and distribution continue to proliferate, criticism must also develop in ways that are commensurate with its object in order to effectively respond…
What is to be done?"
The panel of critics is of the highest standard : Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin and Nicole Brenez. I'm really pissed I couldn't attend because it was probably a great event. There are a lot of great ideas there, and they are really good speakers on films and on cinema issues in general. Though my expectations were disappointed by the missed opportunity of what could have been such a summit (in NYC, highly cinephile city, with film students and seasoned critics/scholars, and such a deep subject as ethics in the practice of film criticism,which is an issue that particularly interests me), and I expected a much deeper topical development from these great minds.
So the problem is less that the event was "elitist", because its form was meant to be an academic seminar for film students at a film school. Though broadcasting it live or at least putting up videos or MP3 on their website would certainly help to democratize this kind of exclusive events that not doubt would interest/educate a much larger crowd outside of the academic environment. The problem I see is the level of discourse proposed by the guests to their audience on a subject that could spare facile clichés and generalizations.

Kevin Lee transcribed his notes live from the lecture hall (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Others talk about the event also : Girish and Zach Campell at Elusive Lucidity

I wanted to wait for an audio recording of the full talks, to avoid making uninformed comments based on a mere summary, but there doesn't seem anything will be uploaded online. So I offer here my random thoughts after Dave Kehr and Filmbrain already voiced out their criticism of the content of these discussions, and an interesting discussion unfolded in the comment section of their blog (check it out over there).

Nicole Brenez talks about "Lumpenproletariat" (?) and poverty on screen (not poor aesthetics, but the socio-political commitment of artists!). This is an interesting question to raise before film students at NYU of course, but what roles does it play in a seminar on film criticism I don't know). First it's the business of filmmakers who are in charge of what appears on screen or not, only them could change cinema. Secondly, the "class struggle" (which is Brenez' point) is not the only way to make movies, even great art.
Meanwhile, her 4 points manifesto to challenge the filmic representation (to criticise, to identify and to differentiate, to interrogate and to transform) is insightful and worth questioning for film students. But that's not immediately related to the topic of Responsibilities of Film Criticism. Or did she imply that filmmakers and critics operate a censorship at the same level? That if a social category is under-represented on screen, the critics should act responsibly and denounce it? Her contribution to the topic doesn't make it very clear, at least from the summary I've read.

Adrian Martin published an excellent article on the very topic of "Responsibilities for the film press", under the form of an interview for the Italian online journal cinemascope.it, so his concern for the topic at hand cannot be questioned. Though I wish he had brought up today the same kind of insights he had written on last year.

And Jonathan Rosenbaum has a long record being on the frontline attacking the perversity of the system and sporting an irreproachable responsibility when distancing himself from the auteur's naive talking points. It's a shame not to find anything of the sort here. As Kevin points out, he brings up old anecdotes that we've read already in his books and nothing new about the situation we live in.
Instead of the same unchanged prejudice against internet (from a decade ago) we'd maybe expect evolution of the blogosphere to receive a new critical perspective (updated as of 2008). Should we conclude that the situation hasn't changed? That critics don't bother to check if there has been any notable changes? That the blogosphere doesn't improve in such a short period of time? That all this is hopeless in regard to the far superior state of print criticism? In any case we'd like this print/internet, scholar/amateur debate to be addressed less superficially, with a more accurate perspective.

Didn't these film students in the audience know more about the blogosphere than these critics? Shouldn't the scrutiny of this new medium go beyond the ostracism of the infamous "average blogger" at the expense of the striving force of online cinephilia who tries to be responsible despite the a priori bad reputation they get?
There is a lot of shit on the internets! Thanks, we knew that already. Now could we move on to something a little more substantial? I don't know what they want to achieve with such negative, pessimistic, dismal comments but it's not getting us or them anywhere. Is there hope? Will the internet play a key role in the renewal of critical scrutiny? Shall academics be concerned by a medium that isn't theirs? Is the blogosphere just not part of film culture because it belongs to a specious medium?

Well even if the blogosphere is out of the picture (though seeing the dire situation of weekly reviewers and academic studies, I do think there is no other place at the moment where a true alternative voice, independent from corporate influence and populist taste could develop!), the topic of responsibilities of critics is big enough a concern to raise lots of burning questions. Why treat it so lightly? Why not mark its importance with serious debates?

What are the responsibilities of film critics anyway? I hope the audience of the seminar got a better idea because I didn't.

I'm French, so it's not my business to figure out what the responsibilities are for American critics, but I would think there are obvious issues worth debating with film students... A country where 95% of the market is monopolized by movies made strictly in Hollywood! 5% of admissions left to be shared by all foreign films (Non-American English films, Europeans films plus the rest of the world). Just like in Iran and India. Even China is more open to foreign films than the USA! Wouldn't that be a matter to be addressed by critics who worry a little about diversity and a multicultural landscape? Why should the USA be any different than every other industrialized nation producing a great amount of movies? Why such protectionism? Is it a fait accompli we should all learn to live with because it's OK and should not change?
An audience who can't stand reading subtitles, who don't see anything wrong with copying foreign films and remaking them "American-style", who consumes whatever multiplexes serve them without any critical distance whatsoever, without any idea what is going on in the world. And it's not the weekly reviewers who give them a reality check (except great critics like Rosenbaum, who didn't engage in this polemic for once here unfortunately).

Wouldn't the responsibilities of critics cover the check and balance of a nationalist industry before even thinking of an ideal cinema aware of poverty exposure? Why critics fail to educate their readers to watch non-Americanized films? Isn't there a bit of self-criticism to contemplate there? Why bother to theorize responsibilities if critics don't take their responsibilities when they get a chance to speak up at a forum dedicated to Responsibilities?

When I see the uniformity of the Hollywood production I think that the American film schools failed to educate their students... that the new filmmakers are all made from the same mould to become conformist, conventional, academic, success machines. They are trained to obtain (pre-formatted) results before even knowing what cinema is and cultivating a personal inspiration. So few true independent filmmakers try to develop a different cinema.

Again it's the responsibility of critics to denounce this gap and support the struggling artists who are not screened. The distribution on the American circuit alone could be debated for a week in a seminar on responsibilities! Responsibilities of the public, of the reviewers, of the studios, of the filmmakers, of the stars, of the TV networks... The responsibilities of critics toward a growingly neglected history, toward a criminally underexposed current creation, the absence of cross-examination among peers, the lowering standards of a decadent culture, the hegemony of financially and morally conservative lobbies...

What about the unheralded, undistributed filmmakers who can only be seen by the American audience through import DVDs or illegal downloads??? Who cares? Read Michael Atkinson's recent post on Exile Cinema. So the American market (the most prosperous in the world) can't afford to publish these titles that other countries think is worthwhile?
What about the continued series of professional critics (deemed not populist enough) laid off in many big titles of the American press? How about the incompetent editors in chief who care more about readership appeal than about critical responsibilities? So who is going to question this mentality?

When you invite famous foreign academics from Australia and France, don't you want to take this opportunity to discuss the differences between the American market and how it works elsewhere?

I could point to a few articles made by André Bazin (here and here), or by Serge Daney on La Fonction Critique, or by Maurice Blanchot on La Condition Critique, or by René Prédal (here), or by David Bordwell (Against Insight)...
Sadly Andy Horbal deleted his blog where he highlighted these kind of issues, notably at his blogathon "Defining a critic" (here was my contribution) EDIT: I've posted a backup page here.
And also the insightful roundtable in Brisbane published at Undercurrent.
But all this is old news. What is new today about the state of film criticism, I'd like to know? Who is going to tell us?

Finally, because my intention is not to criticize the event itself but the missed opportunity, I'll close with a constructive citation by one of the participant :
"Merely citing the absence of canons, apart from those put together by ill-informed studio publicits (who typiclly don't even have a clear sense of what could be found in the studio vaults), doesn't suffice to account for the problem, which has only been made worse by the decimation of state funding for the arts, the downgrading of film discourse in general (both within the journalistic sectors, which increasingly prefer promotion to criticism, and within the academic sectors, which increasingly prefer the social sciences to art), and the cheap nostalgia of the older film who refuse to examine or interrogate the current situation any further than arrogantly declaring their own generation and its canons superior to any of those succeeding them."

(Jonathan Rosenbaum, introduction to Essential Cinema, 2004)

10 mars 2008

La productivité du savoir théorique

"Teorie del cinema (1945-1990) /Les Théories du cinéma depuis 1945" Francesco Casetti (1993) :
"Ce livre se réfère à une idée de la théorie du cinéma aussi éloignée de l'abstraction (celle de ceux qui voudraient que cette théorie soit ce qu'elle n'a jamais été) que de la complaisance (celle de ceux qui en trouvent des traces dans tout discours intelligent). L'épistémologie contemporaine, dans ses efforts de redéfinition du concept de "théorie scientifique", nous aide à éviter ce double écueil. La "théorie" n'est plus uniquement envisagée comme un dispositif formel, fondé sur un nombre restreint de postulats, dans un cadre conceptuel bien défini, et avec des modalités rigoureuses d'acceptation des contenus empiriques (Nagel). Elle est plutôt pensée comme une conjecture qui permet de saisir la signification ou le fonctionnement de certains phénomènes (Popper), ou mieux encore comme une façon de voir partagée par une communauté de scientifiques et considérée efficace (Kuhn). Une théorie ne doit donc pas être nécessairement une construction axiomatique, elle doit cependant être au moins un savoir partagé au moyen duquel on tente d'expliquer le monde. (...) Une théorie est, au premier degré, la réunion d'une opinion, d'une croyance et d'un vocabulaire, permettant d'observer et de parler du réel. (...)

Suivant cette logique, nous caractériserons donc une théorie (du cinéma) comme un ensemble de thèses, plus ou moins organisé, plus ou moins explicite, plus ou moins contraignant, qui sert de référence à un groupe de chercheurs pour comprendre et expliquer en quoi consiste le phénomène en question."
Différent aspects de la théorie du cinéma :
  • - l'indication de principe et l'illustration probante : "le cinéma est... "
  • - la prise de position et le vœux pieux : "le cinéma devrait être... "
  • - L'hypothèse de tendance et la défense d'école : "le cinéma ne peut être que... "
  • - L'analyse globale et l'exploration systématique : "le cinéma semble être... "
  • - la lecture personnelle et l'analyse méticuleuse : "le cinéma dit être... "
  • etc
"Ce qui donne de la profondeur à ces discours, ce n'est pas toutefois telle ou telle forme qu'ils peuvent prendre, mais leur capacité à exprimer une hypothèse dotée d'une certaine cohérence, son évidence, sa nécessité, et surtout qui soit partagée ou puisse l'être par un groupe de chercheurs. (...)
Une thèse acquiert une dimension théorique si elle sert à la fois de point de rencontre et de motif de discussion. (...)
Les théories poétiques particulières, celles dans lesquelles un auteur théorise sa propre oeuvre, ne seront plus étudiées, sauf si elles proposent une image du cinéma qui s'étend au-delà de son objet de départ et dans laquelle d'autres peuvent se reconnaître, ou à partir de laquelle d'autres peuvent établir un programme de recherche (Bresson et Tarkovsky sont des cas controversés non résolus)"

"L'Histoire du cinéma n'est plus uniquement une histoire des films, évalués selon leur esthétique, confrontés au monde de leur auteur et reliés à leur contexte culturel. L'histoire du cinéma aujourd'hui est confrontée à un triple objet : la "machine industrielle qui régit la production et la distribution des films, la "machine" psychologique qui régit leur compréhension et leur consommation et la "machine" discursive qui régit leur mise en évidence et leur valorisation (Metz, 1977). (...)
La théorie est aussi un savoir social."