Re-making criticism

From Kent Jones:

Before I write another word, I want to acknowledge the quality of everyone’s responses. This has been a really interesting discussion.

I want to begin with Daniel’s inversion of my badminton birdie metaphor. I think he’s absolutely correct on that count. What’s being swatted around is the film-under-consideration itself – swatted and batted and kneaded and punched and rolled like pizza dough, ranked in a series of endless beauty contests with other movies, categorized and re-categorized, but never quite looked at.

On the subject of the barrier between film critics and filmmakers, someone once told me a story that’s amusing but also instructive. At the time of its release, there was a French press junket for A History of Violence and a critic from a certain magazine was invited to attend. He asked the following question: “Mr. Cronenberg, I admired your film very much. And I wanted to ask you to talk about the obvious influence of M. Night Shyamalan on your work in general and on this film in particular.” There was a brief pause, and then Cronenberg answered, “I HATE that guy! Next question.”

I’m sure that for many of us, probably all of us taking part in this discussion, the very idea of David Cronenberg being “influenced” by M. Night Shyamalan is ridiculous. But it’s the spectacle of a young critic thinking nothing of asking a director about the obvious influence of one of his younger contemporaries that strikes me as germane to the topic at hand. For this young man, and for many others, I believe, cinephilia is a very insular affair, any given film is an opportunity to interpret rather than a work to be engaged with, and the filmmaker is nothing, just a checkpoint.

Daniel raised the issue of filmmakers and critics in dialogue. There are many instances of such relationships past and present. It has been a constant in the proud history of the American avant-garde, where there has always been a just relationship between the artist and the critic. It is, of course, something of a tradition in France. And there are certain critics whose deep engagement with any and every film merited the respect of filmmakers, who later sought out their company and, in some cases, hired them. I suppose that as a general rule, the more independent or economically marginalized the filmmaker, the less complex and multi-tiered their concerns, and the greater the possibility of parity with their critics.

This actually leads to another, more vexing issue. To my knowledge, Manny Farber is the only critic who ever addressed it in a meaningful way. In 1965, he wrote a piece called “Nearer My Agee to Thee” (curiously, it’s the second piece he published by that name) in which he stood up for the then-demeaned 40s criticism of Agee and others (including himself, one assumes) and, in a sidelong reference to auteurism, mentioned that the “shadowy conditions” behind the creation of “all this now overrated Hollywood art” were all but effaced by Sarris and Bogdanovich. A few years later, he and Patricia Patterson wrote one of their best pieces on Raoul Walsh, and they nailed what is, for me, the problem at the heart of auteurism and, by extension, cinephilia. “Walsh deserves to be re-seen through a modern looking glass, but to dissolve the studio influence from any discussion of his films leaves him a fantasy figure of this or that rating system, dated, easily read.” Cinephile-based criticism treats pretty much everyone like an auteur, and this reverts back to a fundamental flaw in auteurism. The idea was that a Borzage or a Dwan or a Walsh “transcended” studio influence, and in one sense that’s accurate. But the transcendence did not happen on a broad, career-long level. It happened in flashes, or in the sustaining of a certain tone or mood, or in the divining of certain values outside the official “theme” or thrust of the movie, and it always occurred in reaction to and/or in concert with studio conditions. The pressure to create work with a broad-based appeal, to embrace officially sanctioned values, to maintain a certain decorum in the groupings and interactions of people and the constancy of light, to severely limit any documentary impulse, to cope with the Production Code—these limitations and restrictions and demands are all but ignored by cinephiles intent on seeing every director as if he or she were a Monet or a Stravinsky. This selective vision has been so pervasive over the years, and at this point, there’s nothing but the film, the career development of the filmmaker’s “mise-en-scène” (an extremely fragile term that has been regularly abused over the years), and the feelings evoked in the cinephile. The world is remade with every new review or commentary.

Will cinephilia “self-immolate,” as Michael asks? Of course not. As loopy as a lot of it is, it’s based in love. Which is why, on a very basic level, there can’t be such a thing as non-cinephile criticism. Otherwise, you wind up with the idiotic rants of Clive James. But I wish that more people would start paying attention to that in-between state described by Genevieve and the dazed, post–Tree of Life state described by Michael. This allowing both the film and the world around it to sink in before the commentary begins.

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