Eyes Wide Shut: Notes Toward a New Video Criticism

By Damon Smith

In the embarrassment of riches that is the new digital age, we are not lacking for critical voices. There are far too many good blogs and web sites and film-news outlets to keep up with at present, many built on the ashes of defunct print magazines and journals (Bright Lights or Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, for instance), others erected by thoughtful cinephiles (Girish Shambu) or maintained by seasoned professionals (Dave Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum) who have much more to say than the shrinking newshole at their current or former outlet normally allows for. Consider those published in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, German, Hindi, Arabic, and other major languages, and it’s easy to be not only awed by the choice and variety of quality sites devoted to cinema, but almost oppressed by their multitudinous manifestations. On the Internet, anyone can operate a fanzine or film journal, and for the most part, we benefit immeasurably from this cinephilic outpouring.

The availability of cheap digital technologies extends beyond the realm of publishing to video production. Nowadays, it is easy to capture video and record audio on any number of devices, and editing software is simpler than ever to use, whether professional grade (FinalCut, Avid) or targeted for home users (iMovie, Adobe Premiere, Vimeo’s smartphone apps). So what can be said of the efforts some critics and academics have made to utilize these tools for the purposes of film analysis, to practice the art of film criticism on high-definition video, as it were, rather than with the proverbial pen?

Certainly, the varieties of approach differ as drastically as the films under consideration, from Christian Keathley’s “Pass the Salt” (a disquisition on one key scene in Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder) to Jim Emerson’s ruminative “Close Up: The movie/essay/dream” to Matt Zoller Seitz and Kevin B. Lee’s multi-part analysis of Oliver Stone’s filmography, “Follow the Leader.” Are these valid attempts at critical inquiry worthy of greater consideration, or (to posit a less generous formulation) the passion projects of devoted cinephiles looking for new means of expression? Would we classify them as “essay films” or something else? How should we differentiate these pieces from professionally produced DVD commentaries? Leaving aside the issue of low production values—something that plagues many hand-crafted attempts at interrogating the medium from within—is there more to be demanded from this filmic practice? Finally, in the most accomplished critical experiments on video, are we witnessing a new artform taking shape?

If the answer is yes, then it’s important to delineate some of the main characteristics and habitudes of video criticism, and determine how this larval genre does or doesn’t fit prevailing ideas about that subspecies of documentary known as the essay film. Coined in 1940 by avant-garde filmmaker Hans Richter, who wrote in “Der Filmessay” that such a form should “make visible” the world of thought and imagination, the term essay film is itself a wobbly and contentious category. For the great critic André Bazin, writing on Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia in November 1958, the function of language or commentary is integral to the essay film’s expressive qualities, locating it in the realm of the personal and social, and enabling its practitioner’s univocal insights to refract beyond the frame into the world itself. In this sense, Bazin’s ideas echo Richter as well as Alexandre Astruc, theorist of the cámera-stylo (or camera-pen), who a decade earlier calls for an avant-garde cinematic practice that would no longer be a “fairground attraction”—a spectacle tyrannized by the image for its own sake, that is—but a genuine means of expression for “the most philosophical meditations on human production, psychology, metaphysics, ideas, and passions.” Aligning cinema with literature as an emergent form that can express thought, Astruc predicted that “the day is not far off when everyone will have a projector, will go the local bookstore and hire films written on any subject…from literary criticism and novels to mathematics, history, and general science.” Furthermore, he declares, “it will soon be possible to write ideas directly on film without having to resort to those heavy associations of images that were the delight of the silent cinema.”

Given how sanguine Astruc was about the possibilities for this new cinema writing, one that could bear the weight of novelistic ideas, it is interesting to find Phillip Lopate lamenting the sorry fate of the essay film in a great piece for The Threepenny Review entitled “In Search of the Centaur,” included in his 1998 collection Totally, Tenderly, Tragically. He throws the gauntlet down right out of the gate: Despite Astruc’s “utopian” hope for cinematic writing and Marker’s “sterling example,” he argues, the essay film “barely exists.” A contentious point, to be sure, but it’s important to note that this seldomly practiced genre has very specific contours for Lopate, who connects it with the great literary tradition extending from Montaigne down to Emerson, Benjamin, Barthes, Joan Didion, and William Gass. First and foremost to his mind, an essay film must contain eloquently written or spoken text; it must represent a single voice, with a strong and personal point of view; and it must comprise an attempt to work out a reasoned line of thought. “An essay is a search to find out what one thinks about something,” he maintains. There’s much to savor and debate in Lopate’s discourse on the essay form, not least the nitpicking appraisals of Ivens, Rainer, Godard/Gorin, Welles, McElwee, and others (where only “shards” of the essay film are to be found) as well as the sometimes frustrating contradictions of his shape-shifting definition of the genre, initially identified as a “grope in isolation toward the truth” and elsewhere as a definitive “pinning down of one’s thoughts.” Needless to say, the parameters he establishes are, if elusive and paradoxical, also dazzlingly allusive and rich to consider in relation to the new video criticism.

If the task of criticism is connected to the adventure of writing, as Kent Jones suggests in his first post to this symposium’s Online Roundtable, and the act of writing an essay is fundamentally a testing of ideas, as Lopate suggests, then video criticism should reflect the most eloquent (spoken or written) expressions of those taking up the form while also leaving plenty of room for experimenting (visually and formally) with how those ideas are proposed, presented, and tested. This is not to advocate for free-form collage outfitted with random bits of superimposed text and searching, but essentially aimless, voiceover narration. Self-indulgence mars plenty of video-art installation work as it is; the critic should seek to unlock something within the film that contributes to our understanding of how it operates and thinks and creates meaning, and how its overall effects resonate in the world outside the screen. It is not necessary to know ahead of time exactly what truths one will extract from this exercise, but it should be clear by the end where the search has led, even if the results are fragmentary and no evaluative judgments, strictly speaking, have been advanced.

Under what circumstances does an act of film criticism practiced on video become art, rather than mere commentary? Should video criticism even aspire to artistic pretensions? Perhaps there are answers to be found in the writings of a theorist sympathetic to the idea that criticism, at least in its ideal written form, has aesthetic value in its own right. In “The Essay As Form,” the great dialectician Theodor Adorno opposes the essay model to “organized science” and the dogmatism of positivist thinking, comparing the true critic, in characteristically politicized terms (he was writing from Frankfurt in the mid 1950s, after eleven years of exile in the U.S.) to a Jew under Nazism: “The person who interprets instead of accepting what is given and classifying it is marked with the yellow star of one who squanders his intelligence in impotent speculation, reading in things where there is nothing to interpret. A man with his feet on the ground or a man with his head in the clouds – those are the alternatives.” More importantly for our consideration, Adorno notes that to perform the work of critical interpretation is to disclose “the objective wealth of meanings encapsulated in every intellectual phenomenon,” which “demands of the recipient the same spontaneity of subjective fantasy” that went into the creation of the artwork under consideration. In other words, while not equivalent to art, the critical essay has a kind of “aesthetic autonomy,” one that allows for expressive impulses and manifold artistic presentations “devoid of resemblance to the subject matter.” And that is precisely where video criticism, as it currently stands, needs rethinking.

It seems to me there are two main strands of the new video essay at present, one I’ll call Standard Video Criticism and the other Nonstandard Video Criticism. The first will be familiar to anyone who has seen a Ken Burns documentary: an authoritative voiceover presentation is paired with footage, still photos, or archive that match and illustrate the points made by the offscreen critic. In the right hands (Tag Gallagher, for instance, has done some fine work for the Criterion Collection), these videos can be hugely effective. They can also be deadly boring, too tidy and comfortable and tightly knotted to be of much interest, especially if the movie footage is left wholly unmanipulated and the “voice” of the piece feels hieratic or didactic. Such pieces certainly wouldn’t fit Lopate’s criteria for an essay film; I’m not entirely certain they qualify as criticism, either, since the conveying of facts and information, filtered through an objective point of view, brings us closer to traditional documentary than it does to the weightier tasks of the (video) critic. The Nonstandard Video Criticism, by contrast, incorporates elements that do not belong to the film or films under consideration (interviews, re-enactments), and might be meditative or overtly obsessive in its scrutiny. Such a work of video criticism (which is largely imaginary at this point) would find unique means of testing hypotheses (or hunches), using the tools of cinema itself to assist in the intellectual trajectory of the essayist. Sound design seems an especially rich element for isolating—even remixing or deploying elsewhere in the film—so we can come to terms with its effects in and/or through the image. Camera shots and angles, the compositional strategies of filmmakers and cinematographers (whether known or under-recognized), the architecture of film itself: how better to understand these than in the attempt to recreate them? (Mimesis, it must be said, is neither the impulse nor the goal of such an exercise; rather, it is the impossibility of such perfect duplication—the assay, as it were—that spurs critical thought.) Shouldn’t such interrogative practices be at least one aspiration of those who seek to “compose” criticism on a visual art (film, cinema, TV) from within a visual medium (video)?

Which brings me back to the question of how the new video essays on film measure up to all that the form allows and seems to demand. Like Lopate, I find myself searching in vain for the centaur, not only because so few established critics have tried their hand at video criticism but also because so many of the first-wave attempts leave much to be desired, aesthetically and intellectually. Perhaps it isn’t fair to invoke Jean-Luc Godard as the model practitioner of video criticism, given his highly idiosyncratic mastery of cinema and empyrean reputation in the estimation of cinephiles the world over. But the filmmaker’s long-gestating video project Histoire(s) du cinéma is an exemplary case of how Nonstandard Video Criticism can assume shape and illuminate entire swaths of cinema and its world-historical legacy through a variety of filmic techniques, as well as a heady dose of personal reflection. (And yes, as many have pointed out, there is a continuity between Godard’s written criticism and his film work, something he has always emphasized. To wit: The first shot in Histoire(s) is of Godard at a typewriter, with the nonsynchronous sound of clacking keys to accompany his musing.) Since I have seen very few instances of video criticism as such (Catherine Grant has a good collection here), some of what I have proposed must anticipate the works to come. One can only hope, as Hans Richter did, that the mavericks and innovators simply need some encouragement: “Use everything that exists,” he implored the aspiring film essayists of his time—from “objective representation to fantastic allegory and from here to an acted-out scene”—so long as “it can serve as an argument for the visualization of a basic idea.” For the new video criticism to find its feet as an artform that can creatively intervene in film culture, there seems to be no better advice.

Damon Smith is a curator of Project: New Cinephilia and a co-producer at Reverse Shot Video.

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