The Edinburgh International Film Festival is hosting a symposium called Project: New Cinephilia. The event — a conversation about cinephilia, film criticism, and film culture — is taking place both at the festival and at its website, recently launched in collaboration with MUBI.
Chris Fujiwara, Adrian Martin and I are among the contributors. Chris’ essay is titled “Criticism and Film Studies: A Response to David Bordwell”. (The Bordwell piece he’s responding to is in the new issue of Film Comment.) Adrian’s article is titled “Creative Criticism” and is appearing in English for the first time; it was originally written for Cahiers du cinema. España. My essay is called “Taken Up by Waves: The Experience of Internet Cinephilia,” and is a reworking of two previous pieces that appeared in Filmkrant magazine and on this blog. Also: the first online roundtable on cinephilia recently concluded at the site. Finally, Damon Smith and Kate Taylor, curators of the project, have posted an editorial that explains its aims and sketches out its context.
There is a useful but not very respected mode of criticism — let’s call it “micro-criticism” — that is made possible by the Internet. Most of the criticism generated in this mode is probably not of great use. But when it is practiced well, it can be valuable, insightful, and forward-looking, while working in small, daily, and humble ways.
I think it’s a rarely acknowledged practical truth that the cinephile or critic will see many, many more films than she will write about. Even the most disciplined blogger, with free and unlimited space in which to write, and an army of films available to summon up and watch on Netflix “instant” streaming, will not be able to engage with each film in any sustained way that might be termed “criticism.” But the Internet does provide this cinephile with the next best thing: a useful means — frequently, Facebook or Twitter — to record short, sharp impressions of each film, offering perhaps a fresh and particular “angle” into the work, a fruitful and unexpected lens through which to view it and attempt to open it up. This record is often brief and telegraphic; even if it is almost never a lengthy or carefully considered reflection, it just might contain the seeds of one. I’d argue that even such all-too-brief insights can function like tiny building blocks in our ongoing construction of a structure — a structure that constitutes our personal understanding of a film or filmmaker, and indeed of cinema itself. Further: perhaps, someday in the future, the cinephile or one of her readers might be struck by a piece of micro-criticism enough to find it insightful and worthy of development or incorporation into a larger reflection or piece. In this sense, micro-criticism is a sort of “termite criticism” (as Andrew Horbal once called it in evocation of Manny Farber) that works in short moves or bursts or flashes but is nevertheless (or can be, in the best hands) a generator, or at the very least a glimmer of vanguard critical ideas and possibilities.
Examples of this kind of micro-criticism can be found on the Twitter pages of Michael Sicinski, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Steve Shaviro, and Mike D’Angelo, to name just a couple of its gifted practitioners. Such micro-criticism also finds a particularly healthy home on Facebook. (I’m not linking to pages of cinephiles and critics on Facebook here since most are not publicly accessible from the Internet at large.) The advantage of Facebook, in my experience, is that it allows conversations around micro-critical statements to germinate and grow. (I know there are folks who have mastered the art of conducting conversations on Twitter, but I’m defeated by this challenge. I find Twitter most useful for catching links and finding micro-critical nuggets of the sort I’ve been describing above. At most, I’ve managed to conduct brief “exchanges” on Twitter — never full-blown conversations. Nevertheless, I find Twitter invaluable.)
The idea of micro-criticism reminds me of a wonderful essay on the British-Swiss film critic Raymond Durgnat by Jonathan Rosenbaum. The essay first appeared in Film Comment in 1973 and is available in his most recent book, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. In it, Rosenbaum characterizes Durgnat as a “wandering troubadour” of film criticism:
An essential aspect of his wanderlust is that he rarely stays with one subject for long, at least not in the rigorous, methodical way that characterizes André Bazin, [Robert] Warshow, or [Robin] Wood. Even when he devotes a book to a single figure, like Luis Buñuel or Georges Franju, his characteristic approach is multilayered and varied, a continual shift of strategies, rather than the systematic pursuit of a single argument.
Durgnat himself responds to Rosenbaum’s characterization with an illuminating comment about the nature and function of criticism:
The business of criticism seems to me “matters arising,” and naturally varies from film to film. I’d rather be wrong but open up a perspective than be right, i.e., dismiss opportunities for the full, intellectual, sensual, emotional experience of reflective hesitation [emphases mine–G.]…
I think there’s a lesson here for Internet micro-criticism. The short, succinct form of tweets or Facebook status updates furnishes a useful freedom — to record observations, try out ideas, hazard lines of analysis, risk hypotheses, identify contradictions, think laterally rather than linearly, all in a spirit of “reflective hesitation.”
I’m curious about your take here: Do you think Facebook and Twitter have the potential to generate useful film criticism and conversation? When — under what conditions or circumstances — do you find these social media to be particularly substantive or valuable? Do Facebook and Twitter offer a useful alternative, or supplement, to traditional modes of film criticism? Finally: in your view, what are some interesting ways in which social media are enriching film culture? I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these. Thank you!
A few links:
— The second issue of the recently resurrected Movie journal includes a tribute to Robin Wood and seven of his essays published by Movie between 1960 and 1983. (Also: a link to my earlier post on the “rebirth of Movie.”)
— Christian Keathley has a beautiful 7-minute video essay on a moment in Anatomy of a Murder at Catherine Grant’s website Audiovisualcy. Also: at Film Studies for Free, Catherine collects links to writings on Otto Preminger’s films.
— Several typically thought-provoking pieces by Ignatiy, including one on Allan Sekula and Noel Burch’s new film The Forgotten Space; and the posts in his new column at MUBI, In The Margin.
— The Bioscope points to its current favorite website, the Cine-Tourist. Created by Roland-François Lack of University College, London, as a home for his studies into cinema and place, it is interested in “how films record and depend upon place, both literally and metaphorically.”
— Good news: Film International has been unveiling old pieces on a regular basis at its website. A recent example: Jonathan Rosenkrantz’s “Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary”. Also: the site features a “Picks of the Week” section in which editors of the journal recommend their favorite online articles on cinema.
— Let me share a blog discovery: Cinemiasma, written by “EG”.
— A charming Mother’s Day post by Michael Guillen at MUBI: “Mothers and Movies”.
— An interesting news story on how theaters are sometimes using 3-D lenses to show 2-D films, which severely compromises the projections.
— Jonathan Rosenbaum’s place continues to be, for me, the essential film blog. It gives me reading pleasure every single day. A recent post among many: “Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard”. Also, a link to a podcast: Jonathan, Gerald Peary and David Sterritt discuss and conduct an audience Q&A on the subject of film criticism at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
— A wonderfully helpful post by Kristin Thompson on the “graphic match.”
— Owen Hatherley in the Guardian: “Marx at the Movies.”
— At Fandor: Kevin Lee catches the latest films by Jose-Luis Guerin, Claire Denis and Jean-Marie Straub at the Jeonju film festival.
— An interesting piece in the NYT: “‘The Hangover’ and the Age of the Jokeless Comedy.”
— A resource to visit soon after you’ve watched the just-released silent Naruse set from Eclipse: a wonderful round-table discussion between Danny Kasman, David Phelps and Dan Sallitt.
— Simon Reynolds in the Guardian: “Why retromania is all the rage.”
June 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm
Let me post an interesting excerpt from Chris Fujiwara's essay (linked to above). He's talking about the "goals of criticism":
"to respond to what is open, troubling, or self-contradictory in a film, to show why things in it that may not even be immediately noticeable are deeply interesting, to reinvent it, create new metaphors for it, to find more and more of the endlessness of the film (its refusal to finish), to follow it where it leads (with or without its own knowledge and regardless of the intentions of the filmmakers) and take it where it can go, perhaps to what it can open up and invent in other films (including those that may have preceded it). Criticism doesn’t look for causes to explain some effect of the film, but seeks to heighten the effectiveness of the effect. (Frieda Grafe’s short BFI Film Classics book on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which I select more or less at random, is a very beautiful example of the kind of criticism that without seeking to explain a film brings to light, learnedly and imaginatively, the forces at work in it and the implications the film has for other films, film history, and film reception; her text is full of provocative suggestions, lightning insights, and sudden gaps, by all of which an immensity of possibilities for extending the viewing of Mankiewicz’s film becomes disclosed.)"
June 2, 2011 at 4:24 pm
If you haven't seen it, micro-criticism of a different kind by Kim Voynar.
June 2, 2011 at 4:27 pm
A-ha! I hadn't seen that, Peter.
June 2, 2011 at 5:03 pm
Re "micro-criticism" you might want to check out "Laconia" by Masha Tupitsyn http://tinyurl.com/3r64oug
Just Another Film Buff
June 2, 2011 at 5:08 pm
Lovely post, Girish. SO much to surf and as much to chew on.
Of course, I find Twitter invaluable (and Facebook, still, cluttered).. And I really have no contempt for Twitter reviews except when they yearn to be chaff.
Twitter is like word-of-mouth for me and for those of us who can't go to festivals or screenings, there is no better way to get connected.
And since it all barges in to your feed, it is more likely that you'll find something of interest (flamewars, conversations, recommendations, news items) than through established avenues, where you find only if you seek.
I love this "accidental education" that sites such as Twitter provide. And that really enables me to form personalized canons.
Moreover, owing to its character limit, Twitter enables/forces/allows micro-reviews to be abstract, which is an extremely good thing. It's the sort of thing Godard would toss in in his films, to get a train of thought running. Much value is to be found in this rhetorical/fragmented facet as well.
It is impossible to deny, however big a cynic you are, that feeds like those of Mike Sicinski, Mike D'Angelo, Victor Morton, ZGuy Lodge, Niel Young, Vadim Rizov and, of course, the queen of Twitter feeds, Catherine Grant are doing what traditional channels of information dissemination can't. And it's not that none of them are worthy to be called criticism. On the contrary. To paraphrase Dan North: Bresson would have tweeted NOTES ON CINEMATOGRAPHY if he was alive.
(I hope I justified the $10 that Twitter gave me)
Off to catch up with new Cinephilia articles!
June 2, 2011 at 5:44 pm
I'm missing out (I guess) on Twitter, since I have had the common impression that it largely consists of reports on what people have had for lunch. Perhaps I will succumb, following your recommenations. Girish (and his followers) of course exhibit exquisite taste and so I don't doubt that the examples of micro-criticism you are thinking of are indeed often precise gems, even (as you suggest) potentially generative of later, more sustained criticism (by the original author or others). But I have to wonder how we can distinguish a work of valuable micro-criticism from the dreaded blurb? What easily isolates a critical insight from mere enthusiastic praise or dismissal? The succinct one-line review (if it's positive at least) lends itself to advertising, whether it's take up for that purpose or not.
Does micro-criticism threaten to follow in the footsteps of "two thumbs up" being offered as critical assessment? Despite these qualms, this topic has me thinking of other possible precursors — such as the short reviews (often excerpted from longer reviews) that appear in the New Yorker listings or other similar locations, the entries in film guides like the Leonard Maltin volumes, or perhaps even the often invaluable short artist's statements provided to the catalogs for Canyon Cinema or the Filmmaker's Co-op? Yes, my tendency when faced with the present and future in the form of tweets is to revert to a consideration of possible historical precedents!
June 2, 2011 at 6:19 pm
Thanks for the tip, Larry. I own the other releases from Zero Books — by Steve Shaviro, Nina Power and Mark Fisher — and didn't realize that another one had just come out!
Srikanth, you make an interesting connection between Twitter and JLG's penchant for aphorisms! I must say: As I was writing the post I had in mind your recent wonderful project of multi-part Altman tweets as you were watching his films.
Corey, your guarded skepticism is extremely warranted! As I mentioned in the post, the vast majority of tweets in the film-twittersphere (or is that twitterverse??) are (to be blunt) not of much use. What I'm pointing to and concerned with here is the potential for Twitter (and, more importantly, Facebook) to generate critical insight that comes to us in a "non-traditional" format (i.e. not in reviews, essays or books). There is a freedom and fleetness to this way of recording impressions or ideas inspired by a film, and I think this can potentially be of some value. It can feed into larger endeavors (like essays or books) or, simply, a Facebook comment or a tweet by itself can (occasionally) unlock and open up a new way of looking at a film or a filmmaker. Off the top of my head: I'm remembering terrific Facebook conversations on Chris Fujiwara's page (about Tourneur and Preminger) and an epic thread on your page about BLACK SWAN, both spurred by little "micro-critical" statements made by one person or another.
We all know that traditional modes of film criticism — reviews, essays, books — have proven their usefulness, but I'm trying to explore here whether smaller units of criticism — enabled by Facebook and Twitter — can, in their own particular ways, be useful too…
P.S. I love the historical precedents you cite! I hadn't thought of them…
June 2, 2011 at 6:34 pm
"But I have to wonder how we can distinguish a work of valuable micro-criticism from the dreaded blurb? What easily isolates a critical insight from mere enthusiastic praise or dismissal? The succinct one-line review (if it's positive at least) lends itself to advertising, whether it's take up for that purpose or not."
Corey, to add: this is a challenge! To separate the wheat from the chaff, one must prune one's Twitter feed — or, for that matter, one's Facebook news feed. This is going to sound harsh: I've blocked the news feeds of a couple of hundred people on Facebook because, to be honest, I found over a long period of time that they "taught" me little. (And I assure you: I've always tried to conceive of "learning" or "interest" in a very broad way.) It's the same with Twitter. The blurbs, the self-promotions, the self-congratulations, the minute-to-minute monumental banalities: all of these thrive on Twitter (and Facebook), but it's easy to unsubscribe to feeds that make a habit of this. On the other hand: each time I see a tweet or Facebook post from someone like Steve Shaviro or Ignatiy or Michael Sicinski (actually, Michael is not on FB, only Twitter), I know that it will almost invariably be of interest to me. So, really, the way to begin with Twitter (if one wished to) would be to start by following a very small number of feeds–and add cautiously from there on.
June 2, 2011 at 6:37 pm
"To separate the wheat from the chaff, one must prune one's Twitter feed…"
Wow! Way to go with the mixed metaphors, old man!
June 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm
I appreciate Harry Tuttle's contrarinism but with his hectoring criticism of this new project he's bordering on comical.
June 2, 2011 at 11:18 pm
Twitter plays a crucial role in knowing critics' impressions on a certain film in one sentence (or rather 140 characters). I think micro-criticism has to do with the nature of the age which is fast-paced. So, usually, it's a one sentence, followed by a link to the review. I find this very practical whether to those who are only interested in hearing a general opinion on the film, as well as those who are interested in a detailed review.
June 3, 2011 at 4:29 am
Facebook seems to me different from twitter and blogs in that you have to be part of the community at the outset to be able to join into the debate. As such, it seems a much more hermetic way of handling critical discussions, more apt to create or consolidate groupings of the like-minded than to, say, analyse differences. It doesn't seem to me to have the same potential for discovery of unexplored regions as blogs (or twitter, but since I don't have a twitter account I don't know about that).
Not that discussion among friends with similar tastes is not fertile, mind you. But I'd argue that it's qualitatively different from blogging, where the text is at least open to anyone with an internet connection, even if the blogger doesn't consciously attempt to have a wide following.
June 3, 2011 at 4:40 am
Also, I have to admit I'm torn about Harry Tuttle's comments. He criticizes the project for being exclusively anglophone, and then offers an alternative list that is exclusively francophone! Well, the new cinephilia of the 1980s (which most of hsi french articles refer to) is not the new cinephilia of the 2010s. And in fact, though I'd agree with Adrian that Nicole Brenez is one of the best critics working anywhere at the moment, she's very much one of a kind, and has nothing like the influence Daney had at Liberation, for example (an example that Adrian forgot about in his Rotterdam swipe at journalistic film reviewing!). In fact, some of the more interesting initiatives in French criticism (Independencia, to take the most obvious) have taken a fair bit of inspiration from english-language film criticism.
And yet… there's something about the Edimburgh project that strikes me as jumping onto the bandwagon. As if the things that a lot of the people they look up to have been fighting for were held up as a new cannon. It seems to me that the lesson should rather be to learn from the attitude of intellectual curiosity and refusal to stay within predefined "territories" of cinema, even if that then leads you to tastes, interests and conclusions very different from those held up by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dave Kehr, Adrian Martin etc.
June 3, 2011 at 1:35 pm
Sarah, my question is again (and simply) what the significant difference is between the twitter one-liner and the letter grade provided by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, or the number of stars, or number on a scale (3 out of 5), or "thumb's up" summary — or the blurb (if positive) that offers a ready-made excerpt for advertising purposes — already common in so many other venues. I recognize of course that one comes to trust the short takes of some critics over others (which then may motivate the trip to the longer review if one exists), but I'm having trouble seeing how the short review via new technology differs significantly from the short review that had already become commonplace in film criticism some time ago. Is the difference just proliferation (which may offer a few more valuable short critical statements than before)?
June 3, 2011 at 3:42 pm
Hi girish. You should also add Tumblr to your list of micro-criticism community sites. I have neither Twitter nor Facebook, but I do use Tumblr exclusively for film posts. I think Tumblr has more flexibility for this sort of thing than something like Twitter/Facebook.
I tend to enjoy the various micro-commentaries on the web. The poster is not bound by standards and can stress their personal experiences. My own online film log is simply an electronic replacement for my handwritten one, but it is much more fun because I can add pictures and links and such. While I am not sure micro-criticism will ever be as important as standard, journalistic criticism (and will certainly always be a trifle compared to academic criticism), it is impossible to deny that our ideas are increasingly shaped by this new form. Even when most micro-criticism can be categorized as garbage, we can clarify our own thoughts by separating our arguments from the criticism we deem unworthy.
That said, I agree that the challenge of picking the good micro-criticism out from all the bland is incredibly difficult. I think it will get easier once we've begun to identify worthy micro-critics and starting building a micro-critic culture. Your post seems like a good first step.
Does anybody who read girish use Tumblr? I would love to follow such people.
June 3, 2011 at 8:56 pm
JAFB comments that Twitter's character limit is "an extremely good thing" because it is an abstraction; the point being, he writes, that this abstraction will elicit a productive discourse not unlike Godard's simultaneously polemical and enigmatic assertions peppered throughout his films. I think useful criticism is more beholden to rigor, accuracy, and explication, although I see the benefits of being piqued by a comment and then led to a longer review, as Sarah mentions. Godard's films may contain aphorisms, but the films are typically more than an hour long, too. Ideas tend to gestate and develop in fascinating, useful ways over a period of time and with unlimited characters.
My biggest complaint with the shorthand of Twitter and Facebook is the reactive nature of its format. It permits a kneejerk response that is symptomatic of Internet criticism. The "flame wars" that erupt in the aftermath of some thoughtless comment are usually based on misunderstandings resulting from factual errors, sweeping claims, the anxiety to scoop others, and, worst of all, the unclear emotional tenor of, for example, tweets. I can't tell you how often a commenter has had to back-pedal and claim that her words were meant as a joke rather than spite–but not before a dozen others respond with their own hasty invective. I don't think this contributes to anything but a general sourness and the kind of entrenched attitude that Raymond Durgnat would deplore.
A tweet usually falls into two categories when it comes to film writing: it can either be a means of reaching a linked article (expediting research), or a veneer-thin reaction to a film experience, along the lines of, "TIFF update: I just saw Miike's latest and my head is swimming! :)" What exactly is this an abstraction of?
I welcome exceptional "haikus" of criticism, some of which have been recommended on this thread, but beyond the hyperlink and a showtime listing, I don't see much use for this kind of criticism. Perhaps a more accurate description–rather than "micro-criticism"–would be "micro-belles-lettres"? This would emphasize the comment-for-effect nature of tweets. Then, perhaps, I could get behind it!
June 4, 2011 at 2:04 pm
Girish, might you or others identify some of the rare gems of micro-criticism you have come across? So far most comments have allowed that these must exist, but I'd like to see this assumption more fully demonstrated … in any case, I'm glad to see my reservations confirmed, but with hope kept alive for the possibilities …
June 4, 2011 at 2:33 pm
Corey, I'm more or less of your opinion. I don't use Facebook or Twitter myself.
I like how the internet makes certain articles easier for me to access, and it certainly was important in my early formation as sites like Senses of Cinema opened up my awareness of what kinds of films and what filmmakers were out there that I wouldn't have come across otherwise.
But I'd much rather take a long, well-thought out article and print it out or get a book and spend a lot of time reading, re-reading, engaging with it and reflecting on it, than read someones off-the-cuff one liner about the film on Twitter. I dislike the overflow of information that the internet provides and I wonder if having a ton of articles to read from a blog feed rather than one or two that you can spend a lot of time with, is really an improvement.
June 4, 2011 at 7:05 pm
This is such a great entry and reveals, yet again, how you keep your finger on the pulse of internet cinephilia. Thank you.
But even as I say that, I am fuming at my desk over being chided by a festival publicist for what they felt was an "inappropriate" comment on Facebook about the poor sound mix on a festival screener. My immediate response when I received the email: "This is a bad use of Facebook" was to respond, "No, a publicist policing Facebook is a bad use of Facebook."
As useful as microcriticism on social media undoubtedly is for internet cinephiles, there is a sticky middleground of the internet cinephile who is also accredited press and the rising trend among studio and festival publicists to delimit the commentary on FB and Twitter. Many press announcements are now asserting a qualified press embargo that does not allow an accredited journalist to write about a film on social media before its theatrical opening.
First of all, I don't know how they think they can police this. But it truly does concern me that the value of microcriticism, which you so elegantly defend in this entry, is under attack by publicists.
June 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm
Honestly, I enjoy Twitter more than Facebook. It's smoother, simpler, and quicker. Twitter almost always leads me to more interesting articles/thoughts than FB does. True, Twitter doesn't engender conversation well, but I don't need it for that. For that I have MUBI. Twitter lets me enter the stream and ride it, MUBI lets me swim around in the lake.
I try to use Twitter as a de facto screening log and it works in that sense. But I do find the character limit a bit…limiting. I notice that my responses/reactions to the films are often bland and unexpressive. But I keep using it, and sometimes I hit on a way to state something unique and succinct about a film. My batting average may not be so hot but I've only been in the league for a year or so.
June 5, 2011 at 2:14 am
Thank you so much, everyone, for these thoughts! I shall post replies by tomorrow evening. Hope you're all having a good weekend.
June 5, 2011 at 4:01 am
I like how the internet allows certain battles to be fought, like these three posts on Mubi in which I try to complicate the simplifications Richard Brody has attempted to create in the discussion around Godard's Film Socialisme, released this week in New York:
Just Another Film Buff
June 5, 2011 at 10:21 am
Thank you, Girish! I thought I'd have lost a few followers with the slew of Altman related tweets!
Corey: I'm not able to think of actual tweets per se, but was listening to this marvelous roundtable on mainstream film criticism (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ignatiy Vishevetsky, Wesley Morris, Farran Nehme), in which Ignatiy says "Jean-Claude Van Damme is the Buster Keaton of our times", which is the kind of provocative aphorism that I meant. Of course, the substantiation must follow in long form, but this sort of nudging tries us to approach both actors through different directions.
But it is true that Twitter is ripe for lunch time banalities. NO question about that.
June 5, 2011 at 9:05 pm
JAFB: Thank you for that link; it is particularly interesting to me to hear Rosenbaum say that information is the most important contribution that a critic can make, and then listen to Vishnevetsky's description of his writing as something that accurately captures his palimpsest thought process–a style replete with em-dashes, parentheses, and semi-colons. (Perhaps not unlike my own…) On one hand, the critic should provide a basis for his beliefs–an afterlife of opinion; on the other, a critic's style has a persona that reflects the layered and incremental formation of an opinion–a belief in utero.
Returning to your original comparison of "micro-criticism" to the aphoristic statements in Godard films, I am struck that even while Rosenbaum contends that sharing information is important (presumably sources, contexts, etc.), he seems more enchanted by something Godard said during an interview: "I want to be used as an airplane, not as an airport." Indeed, he continues with a thoughtful analysis of this line that, for me, is more revelatory and interesting than the original epigram. But, as you say, this analysis perhaps is inspired by the original statement.
Godard's remark has the easy magnificence of the Vishnevetsky line you quoted: "Jean-Claude Van Damme is the Buster Keaton of our time." (Yes, JCVD has a stony face remarkably similar to BK–and of course, the mad physical skills of the latter, if not the directorial ability!)
The straplines that I indulgently admire remind me of Donald Barthelme's satirical story "Conversations with Goethe" in which the Boswellian Eckermann (refashioned as a sycophant) responds fawningly to Goethe's epigrammatic, anachronistic proclamations: "Art, Goethe said, is the four percent interest on the municipal bond of life." When Eckermann tries his hand–"[Critics] are the extra baggage on the great cabriolet of conceptual progress"–Goethe merely replies, "Eckermann… shut up." Which is to say, I think, that we indulge those we admire in permissive ways that are rarely tolerated in return.
Just to be clear: I think all of the capsule statements above–whether intended ironically or not–are rather beautiful. And I agree that they are often the best thing that a tweet can summon.
June 6, 2011 at 1:24 am
Jonathan Rosenbaum has made this claim for the value of (undervalued) information in film criticism often, and I frequently cite his point in my classes, especially for graduate students who can be dismissive of any contribution to film studies that isn't obviously theoretical. But information does seem especially hard to reduce to short statements without becoming a mere list of undigested facts. In Jonathan's work, information isn't merely data presented neutrally, but the construction of context, carefully selected and arranged in order to enhance the meaning of a film or director. The information I want about films isn't trivia, but akin to what anthropologists famously called "thick description." (For my own teaching of Hindi cinema, I've decided that students need to know a good deal of information about the history of India, Indian languages, Sanskrit poetics, and Hindu and Muslim viewing practices, for instance. Such information commonly informs films too easily dismissed as Bollywood froth.) I like a witty aphorism as much as anyone, but can this discursive form really provide what counts as useful information?
June 6, 2011 at 7:27 pm
Thank you, everyone!
I wanted to respond to Corey's request for some examples of good micro-criticism, but before I do, let me reiterate: this is intrinsically a "small, humble" form, so we should not expect any one entry or example to provide blinding, revelatory enlightenment. Instead, the most we should hope for is for it to provoke us to have a thought (about a film, a filmmaker, a genre, etc) that we haven't had before — a thought that might inflect future criticism in ways big or (more likely) small. Also, I'm not making any claims here about the relative value of different forms of criticism (essay vs. book vs. review vs. status update vs. tweet); that would be foolish of me. Instead, I'm simply pointing to a form of criticism — of some potential value — that we don't normally consider as such.
Okay then, a couple of recent examples, culled from Twitter feeds.
— Mike D'Angelo, today, from a tweet about Jonathan Demme's SOMETHING WILD, recently released by Criterion: "Quintessential Demme Moment #1: Liotta steals a car, has to deal with toys left in it by owner's kids. Quintessential Demme Moment #2: New tenant tells Daniels Griffith no longer lives there, calls him back, asks if he knows what her rent was. (The latter was most likely in Frye's script, but it's still essence of Demme in the way it suggests a teeming world beyond the story.)"
— Michael Sicinski, from a tweet about Alain Corneau's LOVE CRIMES: "First 20 mins, thought I'd stumbled upon a stealth masterpiece. Antiseptic environments, frighteningly bland organization of space, seemed remarkable in purely plastic terms. As it goes along, it devolves into 2nd rate iteration of late Chabrol."
— Some tweets by Steve Shaviro:
"I only get to understand movies, or philosophy books, better by painfully struggling to write about them — not, alas, by teaching them."
"Georges Bataille was a better social theorist than he was a pornographer or a mystic."
"Renoir, The River (1951): I love the color, & articulation of space & of character, as much as I loathe the script's colonialist banalities."
For dozens of examples of stimulating "small-scale criticism," Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's blog "Sounds, Images" is a virtual ur-source. The archives (not just the current posts) make for great reading too.
Ignatiy also uses this "micro-critical" mode on his TV show (e.g. the comparison he drew recently between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Buster Keaton) where he often tosses out fascinating and intriguing parallels and contrasts without having the time to expand on them and flesh them out (this is a characteristic of the micro-critical format), which then point the way to future elaboration by him or others.
June 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm
Kent Jones has a piece at the Project: New Cinephilia website called "Beyond the Romance of Cinema."
June 6, 2011 at 7:36 pm
Ian, I need to acquaint myself with Tumblr. I follow only a couple of sites on it, including (since we're talking about him) Ignatiy's site, which is called Direct Transmission. Which reminds us that "micro-criticism" doesn't just have to work in text format, but can deploy images as well.
June 7, 2011 at 2:16 am
The Kent Jones piece is (as usual) great, but which Edmund Wilson is he talking about?
"In Wilson’s writing, like Manny’s, judgment really is beside the point. Like Manny, he felt no need to elevate something in order to appreciate it."
Could this be the same critic who famously dismissed H.P. Lovecraft, Joyce's Ulysses, and the entire detective fiction genre?
June 7, 2011 at 4:40 am
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June 7, 2011 at 4:41 am
Wilson never dismissed Joyce's Ulysees–but in any case, it's certainly true that his writing is full of value judgments. So is Manny Farber's, for that matter — even if, to his credit, he never could be used as any sort of consumer guide.
June 7, 2011 at 5:35 am
Right, he obviously appreciates its achievements, but also feels necessary to qualify any praise with stuff like:
"There must be something wrong with a design which involves so much that is dull, and I doubt whether anyone will defend parts of Ulysses against the charge of extreme dullness."
"Even if it were at all conceivable that this sort of thing could be done successfully, Mr. Joyce would be the last man to do it."
"surely Mr. Joyce has done ill in attempting to graft burlesque upon realism; he has written some of the most unreadable chapters in the whole history of fiction."
I was exaggerating for the sake of parallelism, but my point stands–this is hardly Sontag's "erotics of art."
Interestingly, I think the whole 'resistance-to-evaluation' mode advocated for in a couple of these pieces is basically the project Bordwell has been advocating for several decades now. For an interesting, well-argued (and non-academic) defense of critical evaluation, I'd point to J. Rosenbaum's discussion of canons in the introduction to his Essential Cinema.
June 7, 2011 at 6:26 pm
Girish, as I mentioned to you that one time in the tiff.shop, I finished the book review of Durgnat on 'WR – Mysteries of the Organism', as part of the BFI Modern Film Classics. I hope it of interest: http://torontofilmreview.blogspot.com/2011/04/raymond-durgnat-and-wr-mysteries-of.html.
June 7, 2011 at 8:21 pm
David, I love that monograph: it's one of my favorites in the BFI series.
June 9, 2011 at 12:05 pm
A few more recent posts/pieces at the Project: New Cinephilia site: Michael Koresky's new post; Kent Jones' new post; and an excerpt from a book I've been awaiting a long time: Timothy Corrigan on essay films.
June 13, 2011 at 12:27 am
For any Durgnatians out there,
I am happy to hear that the BFI Silver series, which already has out 'Long Hard Look at Psycho', will put out in the Fall Durgnat's 'Mirror For England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence'. Call me "French" but reading Durgnat's 'Films and Feelings' (MIT Press) was the first text to really get me interested in British cinema. I
June 14, 2011 at 10:33 pm
It's also worth reporting that the Raymond Durgnat web site will be returning soon; someone I heard from recently has been at work setting it up.
June 15, 2011 at 3:11 pm
Jonathan, that is fantastic news about the resurrection of the Durgnat website!
David, I'm looking forward to the new BFI Silver edition. Do you have his Nouvelle Vague book? It's OOP and difficult to find. I've put out an inter-library loan request for it but no action so far.
June 15, 2011 at 6:34 pm
Durgnat's Nouvelle Vague book is one of those mythical books that I was never able to locate, though his remarks on French cinema are quite thorough in the Renoir book. I liked how on the back of 'Eros in the Cinema' it describes him as, “Raymond Durgnat is one of the youngest and most informed film critics at present working in England.” He would of been 34.
June 16, 2011 at 6:00 pm
Not to brag, but I'm the only one I know who has the Nouvelle Vague book–which is a pity, because it's quite good, and should be reprinted. It exists only in paperback form and wasn't terribly well bound, so it's rather perishable. No illustrations, either.
June 17, 2011 at 10:34 am
I have one too ! A copy found in a second-hand shop purely by chance, it cost me 50 cents !! A quite remarkable text, very prescient of many things. Actually, his EROS IN THE CINEMA is even harder to come by these days, but a copy emerged from a box that hadn't been opened in 35 years, belonging to a long-extinct Film Club at my University !
June 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm
Jonathan, Adrian, good news: my college library just sent me a note to say that they're holding a copy of NOUVELLE VAGUE for me. I'll be curious to see which library loaned it out. I stumbled upon a copy of EROS IN THE CINEMA in a Toronto bookstore some years ago and picked it up, not knowing how rare it was. Also, this week I purchased Durgnat's Garbo book online.
June 17, 2011 at 7:58 pm
I like to keep Facebook and Twitter extremely apart. As much as I update friends on Facebook, I follow only few of them on Twitter. 98% of my followings are film criticism and news about cinema. Still, I prefer a tweet that points me to something more than 140 characters. That's why I keep writing on my blog long boring stuff about the movies I love, for instance.