Monday, August 8, 2011

The end of Art History, or How I learned to stop worrying and watch the Film

I think ‘The Tree of Life’ is a piece of shit. It’s so overrated because it’s Terrence Malick.
-Uwe Boll

(from The Tree of Life/2011)

I.              Films and everything else

The relationship between the artist and the critic has always run from respectful to dysfunctional, but it is perseveres. An artist should ideally keep the critic’s views in check by being successful in their craft; a critic should expose to the artist, and the public, what it is they might really be doing in the grand scheme. If you are dealing with a relatively recent art form, like film, then the relationship between the artist and the critic should ideally be even more important. But it isn’t that the relationship between filmmakers and film critics runs from respectful to dysfunctional; it has seemingly run the gamut from thin to non-existent.
Every art form excluding cinema has a visible relationship to its criticism. The most abundantly strong relationship of them all is that of literature and literary criticism. Both are forms of writing. Both employ the same grammatical rules, the only difference being that a critic is less likely to bend them. Both employ the same principles about adjectives (useful only when a descriptive style is unnecessary), verbs (adverbs are awkward, many regular verbs are clunky and vague in themselves) and clichés (“Endless,” “Work of Genius,” “Tragic”) and all other linguistic structures. In short, a literary critic is a writer, and this brings him within breathing distance of his subject, meeting it at eye level even as he critiques. The literary community celebrates this symbiotic relationship. Critics are nominated for and awarded the same prizes and fellowships as writers of fiction and poetry. Many of them do double duty, at least on occasion. Robert Penn Warren, John Frederick Nims and A.S Byatt are a few writers of fiction and poetry who also built up an extensive body of criticism and were rewarded for both. The New York Times Books Review regularly features reviews and columns by established fiction writers, commenting on other fiction writers with an ease that makes the filmmaker-critic—a rare enough beast—envious.
Theater, Music, Dance, Visual Art: these forms do not have that same symbiotic relationship to their critics as literature does. And yet there is still something there that lends them appropriately to written criticism, or at least makes criticism seem appropriate.
A music critic such as Alex Ross of The New Yorker is able to make Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” come to life, but not just because he is a vivid communicator of emotional experience or a writer armed with specific descriptions of key musical passages. It is also because he can describe the very deep history of “Das Rheingold”; its origins in German mythology, its many musical performances, its many interpretations. In his article “Secret Passage,2” Ross mentions Hitler’s appreciation of Wagner, Wagner’s anti-Semitism, his relationships with women, and two recently published academic studies of Wagner’s music. All are convincingly welded in to an article about the peculiarities of listening to such a longstanding work of historical importance. He provides quotes from musicians and singers who give their own interpretations of Wagner’s epic to back up his analysis. Ross is able to delve into technical terminology and make it relevant because it is actual terminology, used by musicians, conductors and singers along with critics. The form he is working in may not fit the form of his subject—music—but it comes damn close, and one gets the sense that the artists are with him, or at least able to comprehend him. A certain unification between art and critique is intact.
In art, dance and theater, critics such as John Berger, Edwin Denby and Kenneth Tynan have all had the status of greatness assigned them. They were all able to influence artists and public taste alike, but more importantly, they had a historical backing—or call it a blessing—that gave their subjects inherent reason for critique.
Music, art, theater and dance are centuries and centuries old and have been through culture after culture after theory after opinion. Film has not. Film has existed for roughly one century and seventeen years. It has been through a few wars, dictatorships, many droughts and famines and proclamations. But it is still very young, and still has not
escaped the perception of being sprung from the other arts. To be a film critic, all you have to be is a would-be literary, music, art, dance or theater critic; someone well versed in art history who thinks that movies are kind of interesting too. Plenty of critics have gotten by this way; John Simon or Anthony Lane are working examples of the art snob-cum-film-lover.
The gap film criticism has created between artists, viewers and critics is large, but first, we must consider one of the few historical truths we can observe about film. It is an art of the individual in a century of the individual. Films, as Pauline Kael observed in her notorious essay “Trash, Art and the Movies” (1969), show us how to live, what to wear, how nice it would be to go on such and such an adventure. That is their appeal. Thus films, like film reviews, have long been individual declarations. Sometimes these individual declarations look so similar to other declarations that we find ourselves lumping them together. We have long been attracted to what certain directors and actors have to show us, or what a certain type of film shows us repeatedly, just as some readers have always preferred Kael to Andrew Sarris, or the French Young Turks to American critics in general. The love of individual films for their unique qualities seems to have begun in a very big way with the emergence of Citizen Kane (1942), with its stunning cinematography and ballsy social commentary. Prior to Orson Welles—the Auteur of Auteurs—there was a more holistic attitude about who produced films. “The Talking Pictures;” “The French films;” “Biograph films” were the makers. We can still see this approach in some of the early film criticism of the 20th century. Only after this approach was discarded, and the idea of auteurs had gained full steam, did we finally decide that there were classifications of films that might be called “waves” or “schools.” And for just this once, there also developed waves and schools of film criticism (to say nothing of academia) that individually important critics belonged to. 
This concept of films and film criticism—that there are individuals who belong to schools-- is one of the very few things the two have in common.

II. The Gulf

In a videotaped talk between Bela Tarr and Howard Feinstein at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis3, Howard Feinstein asks a black-clad, unapproachable-looking Tarr about his films. Tarr responds to his questions in thickly accented English, struggling to find the right words, while Feinstein plays the part of the polite nerd, dressed in a kinder shade of black. Near the start of their conversation, Tarr says that if one goes through all of “our” work (“Because I am not working alone”) one will find the basic concept of human dignity. Feinstein responds that it is interesting that Tarr uses outsiders, and those marginalized by society, to express this concept. Tarr responds; “They have human life. What do you mean outsiders?”
            In this section of the interview we begin to see why filmmakers and film critics are not talking about the same subject.
            The view many filmmakers have frequently taken of the critic is a version of the old maxim that those who do, do, and those who cannot do, teach. Directors think that critics are either amusing people who frequently miss the point, or complete know-nothings, to be avoided at all costs. Tarr’s retort may have been honest and provocative, but behind directors feelings towards critics there is often a dislike of people who merely dislike their work. In 2010, Daron Aronofsky had an onstage verbal spat with Armond White, who had negatively reviewed Black Swan, at the New York Film Critics Circle Award. This repeats the feuds between James Cameron and Kenneth Turan (who trashed Titanic) and Pauline Kael and a host of directors (George Lucas named a character in his screenplay for Willow “General Kael.”) These sorts of conflicts reflect poorly on both critics and filmmakers. It makes film discourse look shallow, cynical, and above all, trashy, reflecting nothing but raw opinions back and forth.
But the greater problem, on the side of the filmmakers, is: what discourse? Filmmakers are the most resilient of all artists towards offering any interpretation of their work, or acknowledging a larger tradition they come from. So many filmmakers have attested to not watching many films. David Lynch, such a major inspiration to art film lovers, has said that he rarely watches films because he gets nervous and can’t stop thinking about the director. Werner Herzog claims to gain his greatest inspiration from music. Stanley Kubrick once tried to rationalize this same inspiration, saying; “A film is, or should be, more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings.” But rationality is a problem for filmmakers, too. Many great filmmakers are disastrous interview subjects; they simply don’t think they have anything to say about whatever “art” is in their films. Alejandro Jodorowsky is quoted as saying, with perhaps more honesty than he intended, “I make films with my testicles.” But the most blunt “no comment” statement from a filmmaker came from Frederick Wiseman; ironically, one of the most observant of all documentarians. For an introduction to a book showcasing a recent retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, he ventured to state that just as he does not understand himself, he does not understand his own films. When even a documentary filmmaker—someone who examines that which really happens, or happened, lending their work more easily to critique—claims blissful evasion of all serious analysis, the film critic will have to make a hard decision on which side of the gulf they’re on. Is this a deliberately indescribable art we’re dealing with? Or can it be treated like one of the cultivated art forms of centuries past?
It doesn’t seem that too many of them have made that decision. The idea that directors are the authors of their work in the same way as a writer is the oldest idea that critics still cling to, and more theories and models have followed, some confined to academia, others more widespread. Feminist films, Marxist films and Gay films are not just valid categories, but categories that make films inherently serious works of art. Less academic property would be the category of mumblecore movies. Yet even this label has been considered and handled by critics, even if most filmmakers deride it. Critics have all kinds of reasons for justifying why these films are important and what distinguishes them. But they are categories that involve, if not auteurism, feminism, Marxism and sexual orientation, then “New Waves” and cinema representative of a culture’s status (the new Chinese cinema, for example, which must surely indicate Chinas rise to a market friendly powerhouse). In other words, categories that not a single good filmmaker—a filmmaker with a shot at longevity—takes seriously.
 To stick with the literary comparison: in literature, the artist has no practical blocks to his craft; he has a pen and a paper. His art is a cerebral one, and he is willing to discuss its intricacies, the dynamics of language, and the perception of his work. So it is that literary critics and writers share the same interests, and folks like Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell could pal around with one another, speaking the same language about the same art, and produce good poetry and criticism. It essentially comes down to the idea of the artist as an intellectual, which most serious writers believe in, as do their critics. Most film critics believe in the intellectual also, but filmmakers will have none of it. They will continue to evade interpretation of their work as long as critics continue to use academic and literary approaches to dissect it, gaining only inner gratification from these models. Similarly, most writers will continue to read many books, as will literary critics. They will speak of their work as joining a great conversation with those other books. The film critics will continue to watch films (and read plenty of books), but most filmmakers will continue to seek only vague, sporadic inspiration from the other arts. There are two conversations about film, and critics and filmmakers are simply not having the same one. And while both sides look very silly, the film critic might do well to forget about literary standards and admit something that filmmakers, in their better moments, try to say; that film is not an art of intellectuals, and not an art that lends itself well to discourse. It speaks of things more sporadic, more immediate, more primal than what we’re used to discussing.

III.         Just shoot It

The inevitable question to ask now is; what, then, do filmmakers think they are doing? Don’t they believe their craft goes beyond mere personal whim?
The filmmaker, as with other artists, wants to tell stories and to be good at telling them. The difference is that while the concept of story is fixed in other arts, the concept of story varies widely in film. Paintings are either impressionistic, expressionistic, romantic, or a part of any of the other four or five major styles. One can make a film that is impressionistic and expressionistic at the same time. A narrative drama and a surrealist comedy are equally valid stories, which not only work onscreen, but that can be easily gelled to other styles. Thus we have surrealistic-horror-satires, such as Blue Velvet, and impressionistic dramatic narratives with doses of the moral story, such as The Tree of Life. Filmmaking came of age after all the art movements, or as they were sputtering out. Because of this timing, filmmakers can liberally utilize the tropes of these movements; often without even knowing what it is they are utilizing, or caring. The guy with a video camera who records natural scenes in his backyard may have unknowingly created an impressionist short; maybe even one that critics will like. Michael Bay might create pop art reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings, sans irony. What does he care as long as it has explosions? That film is always naturally suited for the most important form of storytelling, the dramatic narrative, means that it can easily fall back on this form if all the impressionism and expressionism and horror is not working. In this sense it is an egalitarian art form, an unpretentious form of participatory, mish-mash, creative democracy.
But this democracy does not just include the means by which works are created. It also includes the individual filmmakers themselves and how they came to their craft. The romantic idea of being “born to do” such and such, which has applied loosely to artists of the past, does not apply at all to the filmmaker. The filmmaker is born in an era when anybody is born to do anything (or is it everything at once?). Thus so many filmmakers started out doing something entirely different; Buster Keaton was a circus performer, Nicholas Ray was an architect, Terrence Malick was a philosopher, “No comment” Frederick Wiseman was a law professor, cinematographer Christopher Doyle worked on a fishing boat. The previous professions of these respective men have influenced their work in film to varying degrees. But in each case they signify a sort of people who have taken advantage of the open-endedness of film as a profession. Any and every sort of training can work its way in to any and every facet of film production. If this doesn’t make film a genuine art of the people, rather than intellectuals and theorists, then it makes film an art of options; you can contribute to this form if you want to, so why not?
By all these standards, film an of end-of-art history medium. But the filmmaker does not have to care about whether or not it’s art. To him, it’s only 20% art, and 80% raw work; raising the money, networking, meeting with actors and producers, scouting locations, hiring a catering service, getting local cooperation. This is how filmmaking transcends even the artistic democracy; it gets in to the realm of practical-skill democracy. Anything and everything could be useful for making a film; a shoemaker could end up being the most important part of a film crew, given the circumstances. It is for this reason that that not only is it not possible to have the director as the sole artistic force behind the project, nobody has to even try to be the artist. The filmmaker doesn’t worry about where his art fits, what tradition he’s working in. If he is an analytical person, he gradually learns to throw analysis out the window when it comes to getting the shot in the can (or on the computer). All the filmmaker usually is, is a very curious person with a camera.
The critic, on the other hand, should care about the fact that film is the end of art history. All their analogies with literature, their presumptions of artistic intent, their literal readings of how films fit in to the art movements of the 20th century, could give way to a more interesting discussion on why film is positioned at the end of all other arts, how it might progress, and to what extent it may actually be “art.” Nobody is having this discussion today.

(Ingmar Bergman with camera/ 2002)

      IV.   The Camera

The camera notices everything. This is a common maxim, though it might be changed to “the camera notices anything.” There are whole worlds outside the frame that slip away as the director shoots, which will never come back. The director can only bounce across as many images as he filmed during the editing process. Unless there are reshoots, the film is in the can. The director, then, is a person who tells us what to notice. The other people who decide what to notice? The audience members. This allows them to decide what they liked about the movie, what its strengths and weaknesses were. What the director saw is filtered down to what the everyday critic--the regular viewer-- saw. Yet even before the audience sees anything, the film editor cuts out swathes of footage, based on what they want to see. The entire process is a process of scrutiny, of decisions, and of rationalizations. It is one large critical process. Can’t the director see this? Can’t the filmmaker join the ranks of artists who realize that criticism is important because it’s vital to getting the film completed? Once the filmmaker has admitted this, he has bridged an important step in the gap between what the critic sees and what he sees. The only thing on his film set that saw nothing selectively was the camera.

(from Histoires du Cinema/Jean Luc Godard, 1998)

 V.            How to Believe

In all other art forms, it is asked that the critic share the artist’s ability to some degree. Alex Ross clearly understands the nuts and bolts of opera. Same with the dance critic, who must understand the grace of body movement. Same with the art critic, who must understand shadings and color palette. The final and most important disconnect that film critics experience from their subject is the fact that almost none of them have ever come close to understanding how films are made. The pen and paper, the office at a magazine or newspaper building, the keyboard, are all things very far removed from fundraising, dragging around heavy equipment, running around a space with headphones on and yelling at people. There have been filmmaker-critics; Jean Luc-Godard and Francois Truffaut are the best known, with the list also including Lindsay Anderson and Amos Vogel. There have been attempts at works of film criticism on film. Godard’s Histoire Du Cinema being the most ambitious, and Chris Marker has filmed self-reflexive film and video works of critique. The earliest piece of filmed film criticism has to be Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, a film made in 1929, when film criticism was in its infancy, and film itself was a teenager. Films such as theirs are hopeful, even if they don’t necessarily work. The critic who is also a filmmaker may be able to meld film and critique by more honest means if he is careful. But then of course, the most serious question arises; if film criticism becomes a film, does it stay criticism?
Like all good questions, there is no real answer. All we know is that despite the experiments of Vertov, Godard and Marker, which are few and far between, critics have been silent when it comes to the actual process of making any film. There have been critics who have understood the essence of film; that it moves, that it be physically charged, that it is unrefined, flexible, and not always professional. That it stirs our basest emotions and instincts. But would the Pauline Kaels and Manny Farbers and David Thompsons of the world understand the other side of the camera if they were faced with it? Would they understand the physical reality of the process, the creation of movement, the creation of new professional standards for the film’s purposes? The only reason this question must follow is that the critic who wants to be an honest critic—who wishes to make a film—may not appreciate the tedium, the intellectual irrelevance, of what he or she is faced with.
Whether or not critics need to, want to, or are able to understand the process of filmmaking is actually too open-ended a question. It brings us into the realm of pure intellectual guesswork. The last thing film needs is intellectual guesswork. Because there are some of us who do make films. We strive very hard to be thinkers and doers. We try to get our projects off the ground, cerebral or physical. We’ll admit that we aren’t so sure about this whole criticism business, but unlike other filmmakers, it still interests us. Does criticism matter? Yes, it has to! We cry. When will filmmakers and critics be able to shake hands and agree on some ground in between the focus pulling and the theorizing? Who cares! We only want to get the cameras rolling. Our films are not art pieces that make important statements. They are not just blobs of motion that came out basically the way we wanted. We all know that don’t we? Don’t we?

(Pauline Kael)

1 Ebert, Roger, “Film Criticism is Dying? Not Online.” From The Wall Street Journal, January 22nd, 2011.

2The New Yorker, April 26th, 2011, p 80.

3The talk can be viewed at