30 avril 2011

French Critics Legacy 2

Contrary to Bordwell's unfortunate oblivion (French Critics Legacy 1), Jonathan Rosenbaum remembers that French critics inspired the American critics of the 60ies to start appreciating American cinema in a different way : 
Rosenbaum : "I have to say that my appreciation of American cinema came to a large extent from the French. It was French critics who taught me how to appreciate Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks and Nicolas Ray and Samuel Fuller and lots of people. There were some American disciples like Andrew Sarris, but even he was getting a lot of his inspiration from the French. [..] It happens in more than just in films. In literature, William Faulkner was appreciated in France, to a greater extent before it was appreciated in the USA. [..] In America there is a big difference between people who ever left the country even briefly, and just what it does to your perspective, to be able to see America the way the rest of the world sees America. And also to feel that you're part of that world. It's very important to me whether people regard themselves as just citizen of America or whether there're really a citizen of the world, and therefore how much they relate to other people, the international community. And the funny thing is that America is in some ways more isolated now that it was during the Cold War. And yet, because of the internet, the possibilities of being in touch with people all over the world are enormously greater than it were. [..]"
Jonathan Rosenbaum interview (The Marketplace of Ideas, 20 Feb 2011) 57'34" [MP3]    
Eureka! It is much better when an American (an influential figure like Rosenbaum) says it, in the USA, to an American audience. Because nobody listens to the French guy (promptly labeled anti-American) who says the same thing on this very blog. Now, keep repeating this until it is no longer a controversial, anti-American thing to say, and that Americans are past the denial stage, ready to deal with the isolationism of the American culture. It is up to Americans themselves (helped by cultural educators) to work on it, and make their own cultural environment as open to the world as they would like it to be! Educators need to care for this pernicious issue. Students, readers, spectators... need to learn to care for world culture too (against the national-centric interests conveniently imposed by the American market which prefers to sell Hollywood products than to contribute to make a living for foreign artists!). If cinéphiles aren't offended by this situation, are they cinéphiles?

Rosenbaum : "French cinephilia while it's very intense... French culture is in some ways paradoxical, in its own way is kind of insular. Most French film critics I know don't read that much of critics from other cultures. Few of them do, when some things get translated. But to a large extent they read other French critics."
OK. I agree. More than the proverbial language barrier, it's about the self-alimentation of the press community, anywhere it is. And I'd be particularly interested to read a comprehensive survey on available translations in each language, comparatively! Should we compare head-to-head the French-English and English-French translations on either side of the Atlantic? Should we survey what names critics working in the press can cite? what foreign books did they read?

Now before we do that... you're assuming that French criticism would learn something from the American press? I've read the reviews in the NYT, in LAT, in Village Voice, in Cineaste, in Filmmaker, in Artforum, on Salon, on Slate... and I've given up. Maybe the anti-intellectual demographics in America is impressed, I'm not. At least the French press, however imperfect it is, doesn't apologize to be overanalytical or intellectual, it is not constantly obsessed with spoilers, it is aware of bad distribution and political problematics of the industry, it knows what an independent film is, it does not fear controversial debates, it does speak of mise en scène and form.

The accessibility of foreign films on the French market (the big screen, and not just in Paris) is way better than anywhere in America, even in NYC. Well, you read in the French press more inquisitive articles on the weakness of the distribution, on blind spots, on favouritism, on bad management of our state subsidies, on the complacency of the industry, on the Hollywood ubiquity, on perverse marketing tactics... When there isn't enough Hollywood films in Cannes, or no comedy genre represented in the selection for years, the French press talks about it, and confront the status quo openly. We can read both sides of the issue expressed in the articles, on the radio, on TV. It is not taboo to put into question the "Exception française", to compare our market failures to Hollywood's market...
However, in America, the state of theatrical distribution is infinitely worse, and instead of making the press angrier... American critics don't give a fuck, don't talk about it, don't even see it as a problem for the balance of world cinema!!! What exactly do you think French criticism needs to learn from reading the American press, translated or not??? Do French critics need a masterclass in populist pandering, in demagoguery, in puritan hypocrisy?

I'm all for cultural exchanges, so translation of foreign press should be more widespread, by principle. Even if the content sucks.
But honestly, if you've read anything in the French press (and I don't like everything, by a large margin, even most of what Cahiers and Positif do), you'd realise that French critics are probably more self-critical about French criticism, about French cinema, about the French industry than any other critics. They are also sometimes more insightful about American movies than American critics themselves! (History proved that time and again)
What would American critics would have to say about the French press, the French industry, the French market... when all they know about France is what is marketed to them by Hollywood publicits! Even when they go to Cannes, all they care about is to trash independent East-European movies because they aren't as glossy and light-hearted as a Hollywood flick.

We obviously have a lot to learn from eachothers, but not from the current cultural environment. Maybe after the language barrier and the cultural policies become more permeable, after a few years or decades of mutual exchanges... then there'll be some substance to share.

It's not all bad in the American press, and not always bad... but the standards consistency isn't high enough on average. Influenced by the decline of journalistic standards on TV, there is no minimal level of sound arguments in film discourse... every pundit believes they can say whatever they want on anything, and they even get published by the high-profile press. In France, the profile of the publication usually corresponds to the level of quality we can expect from their content. Do you really think the NYT, or the various cinephile specialized publications live up to the quality we'd expect from them? (I have a few examples if you can't think of any)
The confrontation of American and French press will not flatter American writers... let's put it that way. So I'm not sure it is a clever move to turn the "isolationism issue" back in our face (especially since the question asked by the host was about the relevance of French cinema, not French criticism!). I would bet that, as little as the average French critic knows about the American film press, it still is more than what American critics know about the French film press themselves, or anything about French culture at all... And France is probably one of the countries they would more likely know something about, outside of the UK. What do they know about Italy, Portugal, Romania, Iran, Korea...?

What's tragic is that within this cultural isolationism, there is usually a small underground pocket of resistants who defy the dominant attitude and think outside the box, a group of activists who seek out knowledge that is not available in their country through the official channels, bypassing the censorship, cultural barriers and national-centric interests, moved by a love for global cinema beyond any borders. If there was a dozen Jonathan Rosenbaum in the American film press, I think it would have come to my attention by now, even as ignorant as I am of American culture. And there should be. Owning a DVD collection of a few French films doesn't make a film reviewer an anti-isolationism activist. I don't see this cultural resistance anywhere, I don't preceive on the internet the indirect shockwaves of its presence, I don't see the results of its secret achievements.

Back to the French Critics Legacy theme: when this pocket of resistance existed in France, during WW2 and afterwards, we could see the cultural impact and we still are grateful today for the services they rendered for world cinema culture, by saving silent film prints and not only French films! (Langlois), by developping a network of cine-clubs to educate the public at large (Bazin), by supporting foreign films not visible in France (Rissient), by nurturing a cinephile press (Cahiers, Positif)...
France is a much smaller country that the USA, with a much smaller economy, a much smaller movie business, a much smaller audience, and language much less widespread than English... So logically, anything similar happening within the USA should be remarkably more visible. Where is it? What American (so-called) cinephiles fight for? What do they support? What is their ambition for American culture? Do they care what the MPAA does to cinema industries in other countries?
What is left from the Sarris-Kael legacy for today's American cinephiles to work on? They can now use snob words such as "Nouvelle Vague", "mise en scene", "montage", "cinephile" to impress their friends... but apart from that?
They aren't helping foreign filmmakers get screened, or get better exposed. They aren't making the film press substance any deeper. They aren't producing a new generation of filmmakers more aware of world cinema. They aren't teaching in film schools life-changing classes. They aren't taking serious criticism to the radio or TV.

Mekas' Film-makers Cooperative is expelled to the street of NYC, the most cinephile-friendly city in the USA. The LACMA film program, in the city of the world's richest movie industry, is shut down. When screenwriters and actors protest in the street, it's not like Truffaut and Godard in 1967 to save Langlois' Cinémathèque, or to take down the studios stronghold, or to give copyrights and director's cut to the auteur of the film... you know, noble, selfless, ethical issues... no, they march the street to get more money for themselves! This doesn't look like a country who cares for cinema as an art detached from personal/national/corporate interests... It's not surprising that the industry, the government or even the institutions don't care about this. But that's when there should be a pocket of resistance against the mainstream opinion, who actively defends these cultural principles. And even if it's an unattainable goal in practicality, it shouldn't stop anybody from TALKING ABOUT IT again and again. Making it part of the film discourse doesn't cost a dime. And since USA is a democracy, it doesn't even take the courage of Iranian or Syrian filmmakers, to risk imprisonment for speaking up... Yet American cinephiles freely choose not to be activist and disregard the basic rights cultural diversity should enjoy on the American market... clinging to the comfort of their own DVD collections (half of which was pirated online, which doesn't even support the way of life of foreign filmmakers). It just shows American cinephiles don't care as badly about the place of cinema in their culture as French cinéphiles did back in the days...

If you don't do it "to do like France did", or for world culture... at least be selfish and do it for yourself, do it for the future generations of American movie consumers, do it for the level of culture a country like yours deserves and should aspire to. You don't have to compare USA to France and its "cultural exception"... but you should at least attain a decent cultural development for yourself. And isolationism is not acceptable, not for Iran or China, less so for USA : leader of the "free" world.

I wonder how many more decades and generations it will take for American culture to be as open to the outside world as their patronizing political talking points suggest it is. I'll keep repeating myself until I see some changes. And so should you.

"[..] I don't want to rain on his Parade [..] I don't want to criticize an excellent book I came away from whistling the theme from Mon Oncle. Just like in Tati's film, it is the play between the old world and the new that makes Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia so valuable and unique."
A.S. Hamrah, review of Rosenbaum's Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, 2011 (Cineaste, Spring 2011)
When his book is reviewed by a friendly admirer in a magazine where he's listed as an associate... there is not much critical insight to expect indeed. All Hamrah did was recounting how he watched the movies cited in Rosenbaum's book... ME ME ME. That's the American style of journalism. Always make the reader relate to a pointless subjective anecdote.
I would hope that Rosenbaum's retirement would give him the time necessary to write proper books. An anthology of already-published articles is for others to publish after your death... Just like I wish he would be a little bit more vocal about American culture and American cinema on his blog, instead of posting old articles that are available elsewhere. Again, this is the job for an archivist. A serious critic should dedicate his time to write new material, which mere archivists cannot do for him. If he writes a book on Dreyer or Godard... I will probably not like it, but at least he would do his job of film writer, and contribute to expand Film discourse in these areas, which will make wannabe reviewers who look up to him, hopefully smarter.

Anyway this radio interview is very interesting, and the content of Rosenbaum's speech changes a lot from what we generaly hear about American culture, about world culture as seen by Americans, about niche markets, cine-clubs... in the American press. So listen to it and pass it around, because this type of discourse should become the dominant discourse, at least within cinephilia, if not mainstream media. If more American "cinephiles" would think that way, and make a point of spreading this mentality everywhere they can, in their articles, to their friends, or at their cine-clubs... this would start to make constructive evolution in the  isolationist brainwashing, time allowing.


    3 commentaires:

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    Film at LACMA is dead. Long live LACMA film? (LAWeekly, 7 avril 2011)

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    recent French translations: 2 Kael anthologies
    - Pauline Kael, Chroniques Americaines (2010)
    - Pauline Kael, Chroniques Européennes (2010)

    HarryTuttle a dit…

    See: Subjective, subversive, sensationnelle, cinglante (Positif on American critics legacy)