03 janvier 2009

Silo Survey - HarryTuttle

Here is my answer to the Silo Survey I've posted earlier here : Who knows where is Film Criticism going to?
The questions are a little pedantic and over-complicated for no apparent reasons (and I tried to tone it down in English!), I give you that, but it poses questions in a new way to go beyond the short term crisis. Because we always read the same clichéd questions about this crisis. It's to consider Cinema as a whole, in all its diversity, its forms, and Film Discourse as a whole.

HarryTuttle (Screenville)


I don't believe there is a crisis particular to Film Criticism today. We've heard these issues before. If Cahiers is going bankrupt and American Critics are laid off, it is a decline of the Paper Press business as a whole, not just the Cinema Press and Film journalists. The shift of advertisers to the Internet necessarily changes the deal. It's the era of decolonisation of the Press empire. An era of post-monopoly of information, that TV and the Press have a hard time to swallow, just like the Music industry couldn't adapt to the free MP3. But the raison d'être of Film Criticism doesn't depend on advertisers or even readership. I refuse to put the blame of a shortage of content on the economical conjuncture. If the Press can't afford to fund film pages, critics need to find new tribunes elsewhere (Internet, fanzine, niche press). Why should critics stay in the generalist newspapers if there is no room to give a proper coverage : brevity without insight, prescription without editorial independence, marketing without cinema.
DVDs more than the Internet have altered the relationship of the viewer with the film. Primarily, the film is no longer an event presented by an auteur, it's an object of consumption that either you own or you don't. Today, critics and cinephiles ask whether a film is on DVD, they don't care if the film has no theatrical distributor, or if they are in fact screened in their city. People want to appropriate a film, even more than to watch them. DVD stack up in piles of potential viewing that are always postponed. The connection with a film has degraded, so casually.
No wonder they end up at museum screenings... where they are respected as exceptional art by reverent visitors came purposefully to meet an artist and not just to spend fun escapist times.


The interaction with a film is manyfold :
  • The emotional response striking the right chords in us.
  • The psychodrama memories resurfacing from our life.
  • The political analysis issued from the Real World.
  • The acquaintance with an auteur's signature.
  • The intertextuality of cinema history.
  • Our idea of what cinema should be like.
  • The buzz (real or fantasized) within the profession...
And the critic needs to be aware of how each of them will forge and influence our opinion of the film, sometimes genuinely (insightful understanding of the heart of the film), sometimes deceitfully (manipulated by mechanics and prejudices). The critical distance is essential. The critic is not a random audience. The (self-appointed) authority to judge artists gives a tremendous responsibility to articulate a finer appreciation than every other viewers'.
I don't review films very much anymore. I only do when I feel the urge to say something new. Which is a privilege most professional reviewers don't have unfortunately. And I'm not a pro. I buy my tickets! I wish critics would write only when they have a point, not because they are assigned to it to get paid. Look around for the difference between pro bono criticism, out of generosity, and the "professional criticism", like a daily factory job.
I never take notes during the screening. I sit down after the film and note everything that came to my mind, with a precise time line of the scenes order to help me remember the continuity later on. Then I let it simmer for some time. I like to quickly point to possible film references that could be connected either formally or thematically. But to write a review I need to find an angle, to understand the particularity of the film, and maybe some key questions it answers. Only then would I try to write something. And often my ideas stay in my notebook because it didn't germinate or for lack of time.


I don't see the nature of cinema changing as much as reading habits. DVDs and the Internet didn't transform (yet) filmmaking, in my mind. What has evolved is the diffusion of images : freely, rapidly, globally. So movies become more accessible to a larger and more varied population. And Film discourse takes a multimedia form more and more.
Criticism has been a franchise of the distribution circuit for too long. If something has to change, it must be to turn critics towards auteurs and films (when they are made, when they première at festivals) instead of only reporting whatever Studios and Distributors decide should be screened that week in that city... Weekly reviews effectively condone and support all choices and (commercial) censorship made by the elective distribution. Cinema history is not an industrial schedule.
If (serious) Film Criticism suffers from a lack of popularity, losing touch with the base of movie goers... critics need to embrace contemporary means of communications, to reach out to a new audience, outside of the acquired choir of exclusive scholars, film critics themselves and hardcore cinephiles. Film Discourse should develop in audio commentary forms (Plastic Podcasts), in video essays (Shooting Down Pictures), in photo montages (365 jours ouvrables), interdisciplinary lectures (CinePhilo), cineclub forums (Girish) and blogs. And we see these forms taken more seriously online every year. Slowly but surely the change is on the way.


Here is a key problem faced by the confused reader. Film Discourse is all and nothing. Critics want to give factual IMDb infos, to be patronising taste makers, committed publicists or speculative theoreticians... all the while being entertaining and snarky. And since they jump from one mode to the next, readers don't take criticism seriously anymore. Meaningful analysis lost authority for the audience who put it in the same bag of impressionistic opinions as any other baseless review. Critics want to be too many things at once, and do justice to none.
Critics aren't the only ones to blame. The press that pushed towards cinema as an industry (fitting in with all schedules, lingo, figures and concerns of producers, distributors and publicists) rather than a production of artworks. And the Studios drag the press closer to their own marketing strategies (junkets, privileged screening, interview deals, movies sold as package).
Film Discourse should be segmented more clearly, in term of venues and writers, even if occasional overlap and exchanges are welcome.
That's why I'd rather want criticism to go back to a primordial state of clarity, simplicity and stability with a well defined object and an appropriate discourse.
Cahiers' attempt to survey the Digital "revolution" has been dubious at best so far. Critics should re-appropriate theatrical cinema correctly first.
I think it would be better if different people (not connoted with the archetypes of film criticism) would engage with new territories like music video, TV ads, TV news, live TV, Vlogs and viral YouTube videos... in order to develop a fresh set of references and jargon that doesn't suffer from the overwhelming history of academic theory. If only to dedicate a full time job to these new media, and not leave them in the sideline of something else bigger.


Film Criticism should be in permanent crisis to stay alert and self-critical. It is healthy and progressive for critics to be sceptical and self-reflexive. There is no such thing as a comfortable established self-indulgent complacent routine that would give us good criticism... The Press is defending its turf because that's the only thing they know, but the prestige they stand for is only a shadow of the past. The blogosphere isn't fully conscious of the new modality it brings to the table, and people don't exploit it to its fullest potential yet. The tools in place aren't facilitating everything either. However, step by step, the change is taking firm grip. And it's there to stay so you better understand it and embrace it already.

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