What is the birdie?

From: Daniel Cockburn

What aspects of filmmaking do I think are most often overlooked – or, conversely, belabored – in film criticism?  That should be an easy question to answer, but for some reason I’m drawing a blank . . . which might mean that I’m repressing something.  So I’m going to speak to a couple of previous points that struck me, and hope that something gets uncovered.

Melissa says “eventually you realize that it’s impossible to ingest – or love – it all”; the conflict/overlap between ingestion and love is something I’ve been struggling to come to terms with for a long time, which I suppose is common to people in our wide field.  This echoes Kent’s mention of the anxiety around list-making.  And I can’t help, when thinking about things like this, to think of IMDb comment threads, which I tell myself, for the sake of sanity and hope, are not representative of contemporary human movie-thinking, but which nevertheless are the ne plus ultra of some sort of current thought-mode.  Comment threads like “Neil Jordan’s top 10 films, in order”, where commenters post a series of lists and the discussion’s high point is “I agree with your list except I would make Interview with the Vampire #2, and The Crying Game would be #5”.  An endless stream of data posing as content… but why do I keep reading?

There’s a compulsion in it which I recognize and identify with, and this compulsion probably has a kinship with an impetus at the heart of more considered criticism: the urge to classify and collect, freeze-dry the living object so it can be “understood and known” before moving on to the next one.  I don’t expect that that impulse can ever be denied or eradicated, but I think it needs to be acknowledged and dealt with in order for movie-making and -discussion to have a communal, communicative life.

Beyond list-making, in the realm of thoughtful analysis, there’s still a schism that I find prevalent; the unanswered question of “what does a movie do, and how?”.  An analysis of a film can delve deeply and validly into unpacking it as a text re: class structure, gender politics, machismo, anything and everything… but no matter how convincing it is rhetorically (and even ethically), the piece so often missing is: but how does this film actually have an effect – on viewers one at a time, or on the world at large – with respect to the issues that are supposedly the criteria for its (in)validation?

Without that connection, it’s a game wherein the act of convincing, making a case, claiming or rejecting films/makers one by one, is the primary motive.  Cinema starts to look like a big RISK board, and as in RISK, there is no reason for the territorial battles; it’s a pleasingly abstract world where borders are just an excuse to fight.

I feel an urge to invert Melissa’s question: what aspects of film criticism are most often overlooked or belaboured in filmmaking?  This question seems, sadly, hardly applicable to reality – certainly I can’t think of any aspects of criticism in danger of filmmakers’ belaboring!  But it does make me imagine a world in which filmmakers do incorporate criticism into their movies, where the makers are aware of and engaged in the ongoing dialogue, where they make films in anticipation of a critical response – not keying their work in order to elicit reviews of a certain type, but rather an anticipation of the sort you have when you’re in conversation, speaking and at the same time imagining what your words will prompt your partner to say next.

So maybe a very broad roundabout answer to Melissa’s question would be: critics would do well to write criticism that (in an ideal world) would provoke filmmakers to respond and engage.  To write questions whose answers can come in the form of images, questions that inflame filmmakers’ desire to respond.


Kent says “words like ‘political,’ ‘power’ and ‘capitalism’ are swatted around like badminton birdies.”  I agree, with one hair to split.  I don’t think those words are the birdie; I think they’re the racquets. For me, the question at the heart of all this is: What is the birdie?

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You will find all related posts under the Online Roundtable 2 heading.