02 mars 2011

Contra-contrarianism (IFFR) 2

Is there such a thing as critical courage in this world anymore? You can't sell weapons and ammunitions to both sides of a war, and sit back in your neutral seat, enjoying your stable job of weekly synopsiser. That's the difference between the weekly reviewers who are just there to watch movies for free (mindless cog without accountability in the system), and the film critics who consider their choices, their battles, their involvements have a certain responsibility in the direction this industry goes, what it allows and what it disallows.
There are intelligent ways to deal with the Oscars. Don't tell me you MUST cover the ceremony if you want to keep your platform of expression... because it means that job you hold on to so dearly is corrupt. Think outside the box! Sometimes you have to realize that the way the industry wants you to work is NOT the only possible way, that there are alternate channels of communication, and when there aren't, it is your RESPONSIBILITY to create them.
If you consider yourself a more serious film critic than the reviewers who report on the event, leave the easy job to the untalented, and show you can put your Lav Diaz skills to use on the state of the industry epitomized by the Oscars. Especially when you're sitting on a panel organised by "Filmkrant's SLOW CRITICISM", maybe you should experiment with slow coverage of the MPAA's ego-fest... with a tangential angle and outside of the timely window of their promotional campaign.
A critic with self-respect does not HAVE to stay on the Hollywood rail-tracks.

How many people in the room believe they are actively resisting the appeal of their own comfort zone? It's well and dandy to say it, to publicize the idea, but leading the way by example would be even better.
I'm not sure people who organize a panel entitled "out of the comfort zone" truly welcome the criticism of their lectures as they spent most of time trying to make the critical scrutiny part of film writing sound "conformist"...

Chris Fujiwara : "Reject the audience. Blame the audience [Manny Farber]. [..] I think the critic should oppose something. And I think what the critic should oppose these days is the audience. The audience needs to be opposed."
WTF? As much as I would enjoy to watch this happen (critics stopping to pander to their readership, stopping to indulge the emotional dependency of the regular movie-goers)... I have no idea what this odd incitation is going to accomplish. I'm never this radical myself. Maybe he took a page from Albert Serra's book...
Before all, define this generic "audience" (anybody? everybody? no matter their taste and reaction to the film?), define the level this opposition will be applied to (the box office choice? their taste? their engagement? their appropriation? their interpretation? their culture?). 
So if you're opposing the audience systematically, before knowing what they watch, what they think... you're being contrarian, the perverse kind. Without any specifics, this gratuitous radicalization yields little promise to improve the level of film discourse. This pseudo-provocative advice is pointless. I'm pretty sure Farber wasn't this vague and all-encompassing, without specific examples. 
The critical thinking opposition, if you call film criticism's responsibility that, is not directed at the consumers themselves, but at the resulting culture. The admissions are like ballots in an election, you don't randomly oppose voters... This is a poll of their needs and demands. You would want to oppose the conjuncture that influences their choice.

Within the "Out of the Comfort Zone" framework, maybe he meant to oppose the audience that goes to "Comfort Movies". That's different. The mainstream audience is shallow, self-indulgent, safe, conservative and impatient. Yes. That is the fact we can gather from the scores at the box office, and the blockbusters they support. We may oppose reality, but the function of a critic goes beyond a simple constatation.
The function of film criticism is not to make the audience feel guilty, it's to propose a higher cultural environment that maintains quality control at the production end as well as the offering end. Educate the audience. Expose the audience to a more varied choice. Organize cross-cultural exchanges.

Should critics "oppose something"? This is the statement I would most likely accept here. But not in reference to the audience. Like they briefly mentioned before all jumped on the "skeptical of skepticism" bandwagon, being contrarian means keeping a critical distance with received ideas, whether they come from the filmmakers or from the culture that inspired them. So unlike the audience who grants unconditional trust to the film experience, the film critic shall question the narrative process in the film and its implications every step of the way. Film critics shall oppose the film, meaning they always need to be suspicious, inquisitive, analytical, even if their final review will only present a vulgarized, yet educated, opinion (without the theoretical /aesthetic investigation/demonstration).
This is how we should understand this relation between the film, the audience, and the critic.

Chris Fujiwara : "Why is it so important that YOU should be entertained, instructed, sent a message to, stimulated. Or me. What is so important about YOU that the film should do this for you? We have to reverse this implied hierarchy and we have to go to the film, and do what the film wants us to do."
Last year, he wrote (badly) about ethics, and said exactly the contrary... He said that the reader was part of the urgent responsibilities of the critic, and that Myself (the writer, one audience member in particular) was the first "ethical urgency". Nice flip-flop! I guess he is learning.
Of course what this above quote says is right. I just wish he meant it. And he is wrong about attributing this moral discipline to the everyday spectator... this intellectual rigor only applies to the exceptional viewer who intends to comment and judge a film : the film critic. There is no reason to deprive the entire movie going population of the wonders of identification and suspension of disbelief. They knowingly, willingly abandon themselves to the manipulative narrative put in place by the storyteller (be it a commercial product or a masterpiece, the primal purpose of a movie, like a book, is to capture an audience and transport it). This is the whole point of buying entertainment. And THEY have the right to react to the film subjectively, selfishly, unfairly.
Regular spectators do what the film wants them to do, they wonder "whodunnit?" because the story requires suspense, they believe images of a flashback even if it is the lie of a character, they feel tensed when the music orders them to, they jump when a blast surprises them... This is being a slave of the narrative put in place on purpose by the film. And they do it naturally. 
The position of a film critic is slightly different. This is why a film critic is NOT a random spectator, therefore cannot claim the self-indulgent prerogatives reserved to the general audience. The discourse of a critic shouldn't be self-concerned, or else his voice does not deserve to elevate his personal opinion above the noise of the mass. 
If you're saying this to film students, OK. But make sure you're not suggesting every spectator must turn into a film critic to watch cinema. Because it's bullshit. In fact, most filmmakers hate critics, and prefer the innocence and candor of the regular audience.

"Going towards the film" means something else entirely. It means not being a self-centric consumer who demands the film to deliver our expectations. That is entertainment. What art in cinema is, can only come from the road map the auteur designed, and we are invited to visit HIS world, whether we like it or not. We make the humble choice to give the artist a chance and let him do whatever he has decided to do. We watch a film, like we visit a museum, to learn what the artist wants to say, not to find the confirmation of our own preconceptions about what his art might or should be. Once you've let the artist deploy the fullness of his vision, the way he meant it, the critic steps in and criticize the wonders and shortcomings of the film's vision (not dictated by the critic's own personal taste).

Chris Fujiwara : "I want the viewer to have less agency, and less control. I want to viewer to sit and watch the fucking film, in the dark, in a theatre, and not fuck around. I believe in this old-school belief of the passive spectator. Someone who has to seat through the film as an ordeal. Even as a torture."
Wow, what a pathetic view of cinema... is he allergic to nuance? No need to be so radical and make "challenging cinema" sound like "torture". If you're an idiot who asks for easy entertainment, maybe it's torture to you. But there are people who seek unsettling artworks opening the mind, for the intellectual challenge it promises. There are experiences in your life that are enlightening, even if you never asked for it, even if it doesn't fit your preferences, even if it shakes your belief. Leaving your comfort zone shall not be torture!
To be a humble guest invited to receive a filmic object? Yes. To sit until the film closes? Yes. To be passive? No. To consider a challenging work an ordeal? No. To torture yourself to watch films you hate? No.
And then he cites Rivette... WTF? Now we understand why he wanted to randomly "oppose the audience". A filmmaker may choose to torture his audience, playfully, or perversely. And the audience will play along, or accept the challenge willingly.
But this is a tacit contract between an artist and an audience. Not between a critic and his/her readers, or between a critic a filmmaker's audience. They relate on different levels and for different purposes.

Chris Fujiwara : "We should give the audience the tools to quit their jobs so they can devote their life to cinema."
It's with sentences like these you can tell he has no clue what he's talking about. Not even as a contorted metaphor does this have any poetical moral. For once, someone (Neil Young) stands up and opposes his silly anecdote with the common sense he lacks.

Like in the case of the Rivette quote, he mixes up the distinct societal roles of filmmaker, critic and audience. 
That a filmmaker leaves everything behind to dedicate his/her life to the development of a cinematographic vision makes sense, not only that but it's noble and even recommanded. Some of the best films have been made that way, thanks to the sacrifice of few people who believed in the final result despite the economical bankruptcy, the social alienation and the intellectual disapproval. There is a sense of mystical calling, devotion, radical commitment in the pursuit of an artistic career at the highest level. Not for a critic or a spectator.
That a critic quits his/her commercial employers that prevents the publication of anything insightful, seems to be self-evident, unless authoring poster quotes doesn't keep you awake at night... If you can't do your job, by staying in this job, why try to complacently justify yourself? Either you are exercizing critical thinking or you don't, there is no middle where you are honest on tuesdays and you lie the rest of the week.
That a spectator quits a job in order to dedicate more time to cinema is absurd. When the Young Turks did this, to squatt La Cinémathèque, they intended to become critics first, and then filmmakers. It works for any career, you start to obsess with a certain discipline to become an expert and leave the life of civilian amateur to go professional. 
But in the filmmaker-audience relationship, there is no ambition to turn all spectators into filmmakers, let alone compulsive viewers. And the raison d'être of a critic is NOT to turn readers into addicts. Unless you plan to found an occult sect... You're out of your mind. You're mistaking Art with Religion.
Even in an ideal world, I can not conceive the necessity for the generalisation of this individual case. No masterpiece, of the greatest arts, calls for such a devout following. Not even Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare or Orson Welles.

If you hop on a soapbox to make public declarations, in the name of "film criticism" (in the hope to fix film culture!), you can't just say whatever bullshit goes through your head... it would be embarassing at a dinner with friends, it is insulting at an international film festival. Seeing film culture so misrepresented drives me mad!

Chris Fujiwara : "The tools that critics can give to readers and viewers is just the text, good writing on film, we don't have to be ambitious in a theoretical way, you know, the high-faluting concepts that we are devoted to. [..] [Q: How to maintain your trust with the readers?] By writing as well as you can, being as interesting as you can. And constructing interesting ways to view films and putting it on paper. And if people like that, then that's good."
Wow. So your advice to be good at your job is to write good writing. Thanks for the nondescript adjective and the tautological definition of "being good at what you do". Thank you so much for revealing that GOOD writing is better for film culture than BAD writing... who would have thought? Define "good"! And then get into details and how-to.  (see Good critic, bad critic

Neil Young : "There is always someone worse off than you. Watching starving peasants, or people in terrible dire straits, you leave the cinema and you think ' Well maybe things aren't so bad' In a way that's confirming you in your comfort zone"
Turning the argument on its head. So according to his fallacious logic, watching a story "out of your comfort zone" (because it is worse than your own situation) is what keeps you in YOUR comfort zone. So there is no possible way out of it. According to him, even the exposition to alterity reinforces your conformism. I feel like I'm listening to doublethink from Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. What has a chance to extract you from your comfort zone then??? Are you trying to dissuade any attempt, and comfort people in thinking that escaping our own comfort zone is a futile endeavour anyway?  (see: Seeds for wider diversity in American Culture?)
Let's parse this with a little more intellectual honesty. The proverbial "Comfort Zone" depends on two factors. The active participation of the person and the passive context that sustains it. If spectators do all they can to leave the comfort zone, but cannot find any film providing an alternative vision, then filmmakers are to blame. If the choices are limited to a selection of safe and conformist films, then the system is to blame. If filmmakers go out of their way and film alterity, they did their part of the job. If the person still refuses to open up when given the choice, they are victim of their own apathy. Neither the artists nor the system are responsible for the perpetuation of this state of isolationism if spectators build a wall around their self-indulgent ego. Let's be clear about that before extending the "comfort zone" boundaries ad infinitum... That's why defining the conditions of a "comfort zone" prior to the debate was obligatory.

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2 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

contrary to what Neil Young suggests above...

"The more independent films you watch, the less you stereotype"
Cazadores, commercial for the BAFICI (2001/Augusto giménez zapiola & rafael lopez Saubidet/Argentina)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Chris Fujiwara: "I know it’s time to lay down my cards about what good critical writing is, so here’s a list of some texts that I’ve read many times with pleasure: Bazin on Renoir; Rivette on Rossellini, Preminger, and Lang; V. F. Perkins’s Film as Film; Robin Wood on Hitchcock; Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson’s pieces from the 1970s; Serge Daney’s Persévérance; Hasumi on Japanese cinema."

Criticism and Film Studies: A Response to David Bordwell (Project: New cinephilia, 23 May 2011)

Namedropping is easy enough for anyone. A GOOD writer, who wishes he was a post-graduate teacher, should be able to articulate in details WHAT exactly is "good writing".