No Direction Home: Creative Criticism

By Adrian Martin

Early in 2009, Nicholas Rombes on his blog Digital Poetics launched the project 10/40/70, for anyone who wished to use it:

An experiment in writing about film: select three different, arbitrary time codes (in this case the 10 minute, 40 minute, and 70 minute mark), freeze the frames, and use that as the guide to writing about the film. What if, instead of freely choosing what parts of the film to address, one let the film determine this? Constraint as a form of freedom – a new method of film criticism, freed of the old tyrannies of continuity. The discontinuity of the digital age, demanding a new way of seeing. A new way of writing.

This wonderful avant-garde call to critical arms recalls – consciously or not – a century of manifesto-style pronouncements. Constraint as freedom: wasn’t that the literary motto of the Oulipo group? Down with the tyranny of continuity: couldn’t that have been the cry of every art movement devoted to collage, montage, cut-up? Let the film overwhelm us and determine what we will say about it: maybe the ‘impressionist’ Manny Farber could have agreed with the Surrealists on that point? A new way of seeing tied to a new way of writing: hasn’t every revolution in film criticism proceeded with precisely that same, impassioned, almost hallucinatory conviction?

Let us place a moratorium on all current discussions of the ‘crisis of film criticism’ (newspaper columnists losing their jobs), the ‘death of film theory’ (academics getting old) and the ‘lost continent of cinephilia’ (the last of the murky 16mm prints). The forms of writing on cinema may not be exactly the same as they used to be, they may not be using the same tools and materials, but they are alive and well. Film criticism has returned, in the digital age, to its true and rightful place: the shadows, the margins. Proliferating everywhere, on a thousand blogs and websites and magazines, but with no solid, permanent, institutional home, no centre.

Let us seize a new era in which film criticism can once again be ephemeral and explosive, cosmopolitan and stylish, voluminous and unpredictable, uncompromising and radical. Unpaid, and unloved except by the Happy Few – except that now, around the world, those isolated few have grown into a connected multitude. We live too much in nostalgic awe of everlasting cultural monuments, always very local, even parochial in their nature: cinémathèques and libraries, publications that last fifty years, film festivals with the same old heroes still in power. The rapid changeovers in technologies and viewing modes, canons and criteria, are bringing out an anxious, conservative, homing reflex in too many of us. As the philosopher Norman O. Brown once wisely advised: get lost!

All over the world, we are witnessing the rise in experimental ways of writing about film – what I call creative criticism. Some write in haiku – recording an impression in twenty words or less. Some explore fiction, or autobiography, or poetry. Others freely mingle words and images.

It is pointless to object that ‘none of this is new’. Nothing is ever entirely new. Models exist – David Thomson’s Suspects, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Moving Places, Petr Král’s Private Screening, Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s A Twentieth Century Job, all the way back to Blaise Cendrars’ The ABC of Cinema or the cine-poems of Vachel Lindsay – and we should draw due inspiration from them. The new is also a tradition, except that it is a subterranean, buried tradition, forever in need of militant revival. The forms of technocratic, bureaucratic rationality are always ready to snuff out creative criticism, poised to police the borders of public expression in the mass media, in the University, in the government institutions of art and culture.

The change is that, today, more creativity leaks out and finds its time and place on-line. Adventurous developments in film culture often died quickly in the past, because we were all so hung up on our locality: if we couldn’t find 300 people in Barcelona or Melbourne or New Delhi or Lyon or Milwaukee to attend the once-only screening of Marcel Hanoun, or buy the special double-issue of our print journal, we gave up, dispirited. But that was always an illusion: there may only be a few dozen people in the entire world that each of us can truly connect to and productively, imaginatively work with in our lifetimes – and we are not going to find them at home.

The standard complaints against the new digital culture are weak. People fret that standards in writing have dropped  – but, in fact, more people than ever practice writing and reading on a daily basis, via many technologies. We hear that the new critics have no sense of history or context – when, on the contrary, the film students of today see (at their own initiative) more silent, experimental, political and alternative cinema on YouTube, or through downloading sites, than they would ever have been able to see before.

We are told that the big problem of the Internet is its infinite chaos, its disorder, its lack of a reliable guide. But was it truly any better in the pre-digital world? What chance did I ever have, circa 1980, of encountering the cinephiles writing in small, vibrant magazines in Peru or Slovenia or Taiwan or even Italy and Germany and Spain? Today, something has shifted: there is a new passion for translation, for cross-cultural communication and collaboration. On the Irish website Experimental Conversations, I can read an appreciation of Ivan Zulueta; on the Portuguese website Ainda não começámos a pensar, I discover the work of German filmmaker Angela Schanelec. ‘Elective affinities’ spark across the micro-pieces of diverse national cultures, and individuals happily struggle to communicate, and comprehend, across languages.

The example of my own biography is typical of many from the Old World. I spent the first sixteen years of my adult life as a critic scarcely moving outside the small, intense, but festering and divided scene of cinephiles in Melbourne, Australia. I travelled little, had few contacts overseas, and did not seek publication of my work elsewhere. What we did in Australia – our screenings, discussions, magazines, not to mention our best experimental and independent films – was unknown to the rest of the world. Even if we did not realise it at the time, we were all isolated, depressed, dying on the vine.

But in the mid ‘90s I received the siren call from beyond: it was (thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum) the start of the Movie Mutations experiment in creative criticism. Today, the majority of my work appears in languages other than English. In Zagreb, a Movie Mutations Film Festival, totally independent, happily rolls on. The Spanish edition of the book, Mutaciones del cine contemporáneo, has just appeared – with a lengthy and erudite introduction by Pere Portabella himself. I get to travel and meet people all over the world. And only one thing made all of this possible: the Internet.

One day in 2010 I received an email, out of the cyber-ether, from four young filmmakers in Brazil: they’ve made a collective film titled Road to Ythaca, and they think (as loyal readers of Rouge magazine) that I might appreciate it. Would I like to receive a DVD? You bet I would.

Originally published in Spanish translation in Cahiers du cinema. España, no. 32 (March 2010), pp. 84-85. 

Adrian Martin is Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies, Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). He is the author of five books and several thousand articles (soon to be collected on his archive-website). His next book is A Secret Cinema (re:press, 2012). He is the co-editor with Jonathan Rosenbaum of the book Movie Mutations (BFI 2003), and is presently cooking up the first issue of the new Internet film journal LOLA with Girish Shambu.

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