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Undignified

 


Introduction. This essay, published here for the first time (it incorporates and revises material from an earlier piece of 2001, “Light My Fire”), was commissioned by Simon Field for a book of essays on a “What is Cinema?” theme-event scheduled for the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January 2002. The event went ahead; but the book was cancelled. It may make for curious reading at the dawn of 2020, almost two decades later, in the wake of renewed debate about the role of lists and list-making in global film culture. [1 January 2020]

 

I will not be somebody who tries to bring dignity to cinema. I am sure cinema does not need such a thing.

            - Raúl Ruiz (1)

 

Today, there is renewed argument in all the arts about the need to establish a canon, and about the role that such canon-forming processes play. Pushed partly by the protocols of high art, and partly by the ceaseless demands of the film industry’s self-promotional machine, proposed canonical lists for the cinema are appearing everywhere: in books and magazines, in the press releases of Film Institutes, in the programs of Cinémathèques, in film festivals, even on television.

 

Yet there is also something undeniably alienating about this entire enterprise. Many of us, in our professional capacities, may grasp the opportunity to contribute to such canon-forming, perhaps out of a sense of civic duty. But, deep inside, we probably all share the reaction of filmmaker, critic and historian Bertrand Tavernier: “I don’t much like these [canonical] lists: too many beautiful and important films are missing, and they leave out the texture, the richness and life of cinema by not including all those ‘imperfect’ films which are more meaningful and alive than frozen, dated ‘classics’.” (2)

 

For film canons are odd creatures. They exist beyond us as individuals, coinciding with no list of best, favourite or important films that you or I might actually ever choose to make. Let’s go further, and propose that the list, in all its individualistic glory and variety, is in fact diametrically (and dialectically) opposed to the canon. Lists are personal, idiosyncratic, eccentric, perverse, infinitely changeable – just as we are. Canons, by contrast, exist as grey eminences. They can often strike one as stuffy, boring, dead. Or just a lazy, easily impressionable, manipulable skim off the top of reigning middlebrow taste. This is why it is dispiriting to see films like The Godfather (1972) or Nashville (1975) forever clogging international canons, however much we might be drawn to them as individual works.

 

It might be argued that canons do indeed also change over the course of time – albeit more gradually and stealthily, with less public comment. What is really mysterious, however, is our continuing tolerance for canons. We tacitly agree to regard them as somehow objective, inviolable. Or perhaps we judge them to be, at the very least, necessary: canons help to institutionalise cinema, to bring dignity and social legitimacy, to place it on a par with more established and respected arts.

 

But what price dignity? When a canon has settled – when it is adopted as a long-term program for acquiring or curating or distributing, restoring or discussing films – the fight is over. Out of the multiplicity, the confusion, the high-and-low richness of cinema in its daily phenomenality, a handful of works, of “greats”, rise to the uppermost surface and are anointed. Paradoxically, canons, in search of consensus opinion, are in fact usually sifted from many individual lists. But we end up with the ironed-out regularities of taste, not the kinky differences. Only the lofty peaks of cinematic art – never the obscure, undignified valleys.

 

Great masterpieces do indeed exist. Why deny it? There is no point in taking cheap pot shots at classics like Vertigo (1958), Citizen Kane (1941) or Rules of the Game (1939), just because they have suffered the misfortune of being embalmed in a conservative canon. (There is more point in taking aim at Lawrence of Arabia [1962] or the bloody Star Wars [1977-] cycle.) The problem is in the constant, worldwide recycling of a mere handful of titles that – in their particular constellation – embody a rather old-fashioned ideal of what cinema is, what it can be and do.

 

Today, we need new canons – plenty of them, canons that behave like lists. Partisan selections, provocative juxtapositions, reconnaissance missions. Because, quite simply, too much of cinema is missing from the present canons. Where are the documentaries of Humphrey Jennings or Fred Wiseman, the experimental shorts by Martin Arnold or Maya Deren, the comedies of Jerry Lewis or Albert Brooks, the best multimedia assemblages somewhere between film, video and installation, or the careers (like those of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Kira Muratova, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Ritwik Ghatak, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Tsai Ming-liang) that are not reducible to a single masterpiece? Where are any important, challenging films beyond circa 1980, like Rosetta (the Dardennes, 1999), The Puppetmaster (Hou, 1993), Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999), Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996) or The River (Tsai, 1997)? Canons are geared to a blockbuster mentality in the quality-arthouse sphere, such that directors like Raúl Ruiz, Chris Marker or Chantal Akerman – who have slowly, gradually, prolifically set about reinventing the medium in ways small and large, and whose influence moves in a capillary, often subterranean way around the globe – are rendered invisible. 

 

Many canons today unknowingly reflect a nostalgia for a certain idea of world film culture (and of cinephilia itself) that has been in its death throes for quite some time. This was the culture in which world cinema was essentially European and American in origin, with an occasional peep from a lone, exotic master whose works were imported from Japan or India. It was an era that preceded the “rise” of Iranian cinema, the various Asian cinemas, and so much else into the educated filmgoing consciousness of people – or, at any rate, those not already living in those countries or conversant with their cultures. But every time the map of world cinema is redrawn, the challenge is always far greater than simply acknowledging the existence of some exceptional filmmakers; each nation or territory brings its own popular traditions, its own subcultures, the knotted and contested history of its own attempt to forge a film culture.

 

What if we imagined a global film scene inspired by a culture of lists rather than ruled by the gravity of a canon? What do lists have to offer? Between the promiscuous, value-free flux of everything that it is possible to encounter in an audiovisual culture, and the stingy, schoolmasterly solemnity of a canon, a list tries to stake some kind of provisional order, tries to make some kind of sense, however scatty or surreal. Above all, it poses a position, an argument. The key question that has to be asked of any film culture these days: is there still room for a good fight? I mean the kind of war that is heated and polemical, but also (this is not necessarily a contradiction) joyous, surprising, open minded – the experience where you defend your own ground but not quite so zealously that you never manage to wander into your interlocutor’s space and be transformed by what you find there.

 

Imagining a film culture driven by lists rather than canons also entails thinking through a new notion of authority and its uses. Our time has seen a massive crisis in the notion of authority and its associated terms, like expertise, professionalism, specialisation, training, and so on. We rightly applaud the postmodern undermining of certain claims to authority, when those claims are oppressive and exclusionary. Who wields authority, and over whom? These questions have been posed down the past decades by much “identity politics”. Any form of unquestioned authority, bequeathed from on high, has become the enemy.

 

Transferred to the realms of art and culture, however, the anti-authoritarian reflex wavers uneasily. Alongside the vague, niggly yearning for the certainties of an old-style canon is a dogged anti-aesthetic impulse: we banish the evaluation of films on any level from our university and media courses, and regard the hard-and-fast opinions of reviewer-gurus with suspicion. Meanwhile, Cultural Studies in the universities, with its workaday dismissal or avoidance of evaluative hierarchies, often ends up paradoxically affirming, through its rituals of critique, the same old hit parade of classics.

 

But, in the sphere of film culture, a certain exercise of authority is not necessarily a bad or oppressive thing. There is another way to regard the authoritative (not authoritarian!) activity of a critic or programmer, and this goes to the heart of what both list-making and film culture are all about. Serge Daney lamented the fact that “the media no longer ask those who know something (or love something or, worst of all, know why they love something) to share that knowledge with the public”. (3) Loving and knowing film – and being bold enough to proclaim that fact – always amounts to a brazen act of pedagogy; an act that aims to teach, to persuade, to rally people around the cause of a film, an artist, a body of work, an idea. Cultural work of this sort aims to highlight a film and surround it with an aura of desire – hype, in the best sense. This is a public, cultural gesture, a way of declaring: here is the pleasure you have missed or underrated, the challenge you must now confront!

 

In such gestures, hardline cinephilia is never far from polemic, even manifesto (hopefully more supple and interesting than the Dogme manifesto). The multiple new canons of our time should be cast as arguments with the old canons. It is not a matter of doing away with authorities, opinions or judgements – but interrogating, defending and revising them. Critics, programmers, film festival or Cinémathèque directors must assume the authority of being public teachers, as they stand up and shout: this is what you, the audience, must see, what you must know, what you must experience. That has sometimes been the case with the most visionary practitioners of these arts.

 

This is the kind of authority that has to be won anew, every time, in the ongoing contact and contract between a cultural activist and her or his audience – it is not simply granted from somewhere higher up in the social hierarchy. Another of Daney’s phrases about the impact of cinema on its spectators – a “popular elitism” which can “work for everybody” – rings true also for the pedagogical drive in film culture. James Naremore has provocatively argued: “We are now at a point where we need less theory and more canon building. The monuments erected by such activity are not engraved; they exist discursively, in critical debate, and they do not necessarily honour Dead White Men. Without canons, Hollywood wins; we are left with no values – only facts, box-office statistics, and quasi-scientific explanations of ‘systems’.” (4)

 

All the same, film culture needs to be careful and diligent about how it maps and tracks its object – the vast expanse of films around the world, past and present. Many magazines, critics, filmgoers and film festivals alike are obsessed (it is an inevitable trap) with the new, the latest, the fresh batch of names and titles: from Cannes through the entire year’s event calendar around the globe, we track the buzz feed ... only for that fertile ground to be ploughed under the following year. We live in cinema’s eternal present, which is not a bad thing per se – at least we may be attune to signs of freshness, life, innovation, provocation.

 

But cinema has a geology as well as a geography, an ever developing and mutating history of forms as well as a forward march. The past – as Godard and an army of found footage artists have shown us – has not even passed, it’s still growing and mutating, having itself rewritten and rewired all around us, even (or especially) when we are not bothering to notice it. There is no such thing (at least, there shouldn’t be) as old cinema, films as museum exhibits, understood and annotated once and for all.  The cinema is all about connections, seeing things anew; surely one of the tasks of any decently progressive Festival – beyond its function as a showcase of the latest and the best – is to provide the possibility for seeing and making such connections.

 

Again, polemics and pedagogy are paramount in this ongoing adventure. For example, film culture can never cease trying to overcome its own prisons of taste. The lines that segregate worthwhile from worthless, interesting from uninteresting, useful from useless, are springing up around us all the time, while we are unaware. Cinephiles have long combated the reign of middlebrow taste. They champion extremes, voting for the highest and the lowest: the most difficult, severe, rigorous, minimalist, experimental films; and, equally, the often despised, maligned and overlooked products of popular culture like vulgar teenage comedies, gross horror, trashy exploitation, ultra-violent action, even pornography. At both extremes, excess and intensity are honoured, no matter in what strange form they manifest themselves. A piece of this aesthetic credo is summed up in the words of Paul Willemen [1944-2012], who once proposed “frenzy, madness, neurosis, extravaganza, monstrosity, etc.” as “positive values” in a work of art. (5)

 

Yet these critical battles are never won or settled once and for all. Horror films, for instance, have now been recognised by many. But where is the progressive horror cinema eulogised and illuminated by the intelligentsia of the ‘70s? When such cinema is left only to the devotional non-critics in fanzines and on slavish websites, the real work of excavating the genre and enlarging its cultural significance falls into disrepair. And the same could be said for many once-overlooked popular forms. The much-vaunted democracy of cyberspace is not enough to make a cultural revolution; what we need are the pedagogues, the autodidacts, the visionaries.

 

To flip the example, let’s consider experimental cinema. The avant-garde is always in danger of being marched into the museum and entombed there as the glorious, outlaw exception to mainstream film. The more that its subversive marginality is extolled, the less connected it seems to the rhizomatic history of cinema’s forms. But for all its proud conceptualism and intractability, experimental cinema is a laboratory for primal, instantly accessible energies and intensities. The transmission of film history – in courses, retrospectives, on TV – needs to liberate the long-dulled electric voltage of the old Luis Buñuel and Jean Vigo classics, route that energy through the fractured narratives of Samuel Fuller, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, and clinch the circuit with the hand-painted abstractions of Stan Brakhage, the montages of Abigail Child or Ulrike Ottinger, the rock-musical structures of Sogo Ishii. We need new diagrams like these to help us perceive and celebrate the medium’s sensual materiality and its capacity for action.

 

It seems to me that even the most advanced or informed types of cinephilia must stay vigilant against their own rigid taste barriers. Everywhere, in every intense cell of film culture activity, severe lists of who-is-in and who-is-out reign. This is fine, and even necessary – as long as the process remains fluid, and is consciously revised rather than blindly followed. But the cinema landscape is littered with victims of fashion, filmmakers who are suddenly, brutally judged to be untimely, no longer of interest. Perhaps the final frontier in any film argument today is the middlebrow itself: isn’t there something, even there, that cries out to be revisited, reclaimed, seen anew? We dismiss Pedro Almodóvar, Agnès Jaoui, Roberto Benigni or Jean-Pierre Jeunet at our peril. A cursory look at the canons of old will show that there is always a vast, buried territory in world cinema: films we missed or dismissed or didn’t even know existed, directors who we did not yet have the tools to understand or value. As Beau travail reminds us: “Viewpoints count – angles of attack”!

 

Angles of attack count in another way as well. “It is never with arguments that one wins over a person”, wrote Andé Bazin in his text “In Defence of Rossellini”. “The conviction one puts into them often counts for more”. (6) This reflection, from one of film criticism’s most reasonable, rational and logical practitioners, is revealing and inspiring. Conviction is passion. And film culture is fuelled, at a profound level, by a fully irrational passion. Love of the cinema, of a film or a director, is a fantasy – which is not necessarily either a negative or positive thing, it is a fantasy simply in the sense of being an emotional and psychic investment of energy. Investment leads to the formation of belief systems, feverish defences and attacks, elaborate rationalisations. Most theory and criticism, even when avowedly materialist, is the result of such rationalisation.

 

But I do not mean by this that anything we say about cinema, or do in its name, is thereby mad, deluded, useless. Quite the contrary! Conviction and passion drive us, in our imaginations, to create – and endlessly re-create – the cinema that we love, just as it drives filmmakers to produce the work in the first place. True cinephilia is precisely this: a prodigiously inventive passion. The love of cinema – and the will to publicly champion and fight over it – is a magnificent obsession. It is also, necessarily, undignified, because of the intensity, the raw nerves, that are constantly surfacing within debate.

 

One of the abiding problems with the established canons is that they resolutely erase this heart and soul of cinema, our passionate experience – both love and hate – of it. Canons offer one construction of film history – clean, linear, progressive, teleological, sorted into good and bad, great and mundane – while cinephilia, with its constant list-making, offers another. Not one history, but many histories – or stories. The passionate encounters that each of us have with cinema – personally discovering this film or director, being struck by a comparison or an interpretation – form the potentially infinite number of stories we make public as critics or programmers. These are histories of cinema without a set map, itinerary or timetable.

 

Remember Godard’s observation to Daney, that what drove the agenda of Cahiers du cinéma, and later the Nouvelle Vague, was a highly creative and resolutely unofficial sense of the formlessness of film history, nurtured by Henri Langlois’ militantly mixed-up programming at the Cinémathèque: “When [Éric Rohmer] saw Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life [1956] and a film by Murnau, I’m not sure that he talked about them with the clear notion that [Nicholas] Ray came after [F.W.] Murnau”. (7)

 

It is from such confusion that connections are made, relationships forged, secret affinities revealed. Any film festival or cultural event worth the name strives to set the agenda of such creativity, but it cannot dictate its ultimate outcomes – that is up to spectators, in their infinite, unruly and impassioned variety.

 

 

NOTES

1. Raúl Ruiz, quoted in Adrian Martin, “Never One Space: The Cinema of Raul Ruiz”, Cinema Papers, no. 91 (January 1993), p. 30. back

 

2. Bertrand Tavernier, in 360 Film Classics, special supplement to Sight and Sound (1998), p. 36. back

 

3. Serge Daney, “Falling Out of Love”, Sight and Sound (July 1992), p. 14. back

 

4. James Naremore, “An ABC of Reading Andrew Sarris”, in Emanuel Levy (ed.), Citizen Sarris: American Film Critic (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2001), p. 177. back

 

5. Paul Willemen, in Claire Johnston and Willemen (eds), Frank Tashlin (Edinburgh Film Festival, 1973), p. 17. back

 

6. André Bazin, trans. Hugh Gray, What is Cinema?, Vol. II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 101. back

 

7. Serge Daney and Jean-Luc Godard, “Godard Makes “Hi(stories)”, in Mary Lea Bandy and Raymond Bellour (eds), Jean-Luc Godard: Son + Image 1974-1991 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), p. 160. back

 

 

© Adrian Martin November 2001


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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