Grupo Kane Interview
Introduction: This massive interview (with my good self) was conducted via email over several months (from August 2009 to January 2010) by Pablo Acosta Larroca for the Argentinian collective Grupo Kane. When I was first contacted by this cinephile gang, their main project was a book on international film criticism, based on many interviews. That book never materialised. Later, in 2013, I (among many others) contributed to an extensive Grupo Kane website project containing short pieces on topics including “The Forbidden Film”. This website remained online for at least 4 years, but exists no longer. As Grupo Kane itself and all its plans seem to have evaporated entirely, I present the original interview, for the first time, here on my website. [June 2020]
A. What is Film Criticism?
1- What’s the origin of your passion for film? Which were your influences and, then, your professional training?
I came to cinema through a teenage passion for science fiction literature. Part of the SF reading culture involved (this was the mid 1970s) the absorption in fanzines: little, domestically produced magazines where fans would write reviews, post lists, etc – a forerunner of today’s Internet culture. Well, one part of the fanzines (some of which were very intellectual) was comprised of people’s lists of their favourite SF films: Alphaville (1965), La Jetée (1962), Solaris (1972) and so on. As a fan, I had to see these films – and once I did, I switched my personal investment completely to cinema and never again read another SF book! I was already reading a lot about cinema – magazines and books – by the age of 16; and watching hundreds of significant films that I would seek out from my own compiled lists. When I entered university-level classes in cinema at age 17, I already knew more than some of my teachers! So, I am largely an autodidact – I taught myself.
2- How did you begin to write critiques on films? Why attracted you about connecting with this art?
I began to write film diaries, notes on every film I saw – I still have some of them – when I was 15 years old. I have always had a passion for writing and, rather than writing stories, I enjoyed writing critiques, often in a mimicry of what I was reading in Sight and Sound, Films and Filming, and the like. At age 16, I started sending my film reviews to Australian magazines: I still have the rejection letters from editors, too! But, by the age of 19, I had already practised a lot, and I began to be accepted and published. And, since the age of 16, I have just kept writing about film almost every day, always getting a little better, I hope … It is, quite simply, the most enjoyable form of writing that I do.
3- In your own view, what is a film critic? What are their goals and/or function?
Big question! In the first place, the role of a critic is to write, and to write well. To present a case, to tell a story about a film. To get beneath its surface, to get inside its logic, somehow. To maybe draw around it a context, or connect it to other things in the world. But there are no rules in criticism, no definite procedures. Every piece written by every single person must captivate and persuade. Criticism should be surprising! It needs to include both thought and emotion, both experience and reflection.
4- What is it that criticism must talk about? What is the task of the critic?
The critic must talk about the film at hand! Pay attention to it, describe it (or parts or aspects of it) well. And then connect this sensuous description to ideas, to processes. It is important to respect the art and craft of cinema (many critics do not, often because they do not really understand or appreciate it – every critic should try to make at least one little film!). But it is also important, at another moment or level, to get beyond cinema, and use it as a pretext or a tool or an aid in the art you yourself create as a critical writer. Because criticism, too, is an art form. Maybe a lesser art form than cinema, but it is creative writing, nonetheless!
5- Should the critique be a reflection of the thoughts of the critic? Is criticism a way of knowing?
A critique can only be a reflection of the thoughts of the critic, no other kind of thought is possible! Yes, criticism is always subjective – it begins from what is personal to the critic. But then, it can move out to include the world outside the critic. It must do this! For me, criticism is not just a way to help me understand myself, but also other people, and the wider social and natural world.
6- What is the place of the viewer within specialised criticism? Does a film with a higher number “stars” (i.e., in a star rating) get a bigger public than other kinds?
The viewer is the audience one talks to, that one addresses. You are always trying to coax them, persuade them, seduce them. You are trying to incite their desire, as the saying goes. Their desire to see certain films they otherwise might never see – or their desire to re-see what they have always-already seen, but now hopefully they’ll see it differently. You are trying to incite people’s thoughts, and to feed (or goad) their sensibilities. In the best possible sense, you are trying to teach. But teachers must also be entertaining! Giving star ratings to films has become a necessary evil in our contemporary journalistic culture. It is a rather loathsome practice, but just try getting away from it – you won’t have a job for much longer, at least in the mass media! It becomes one method (not the best one, I hasten to add, and open to every kind of exaggeration or abuse) for enticing people to see a film. Personally, I would rather that people actually read the words I write, not just note the star rating. Having said all that, I retain my past star ratings in the reviews processed on my archive website Film Critic: with so many pieces, and in this format, the ratings become just one useful way for people to sort through the information. Except that criticism is never just information, so-called data …
I do not share the widespread current panic about the crisis and/or death of criticism. True criticism will always be marginal, ignored, struggling, polemical, and often ephemeral. No institutions last forever. True film culture (it took me a long time to realise this) is always a losing game in the context of the wider social world: I mean the world of government bureaucrats, newspaper publishers and editors, university chancellors, middle-class cultural gatekeepers and rich financiers. Every one of our victories is small and fleeting – that is our curse, and our glory, as cinephiles. Do we really expect Rupert Murdoch or Richard Schlagman to ever become a fan of Hou Hsiao-hsien or Luc Moullet or Pedro Costa or Chantal Akerman or Peter Tscherkassky? (1) Film criticism has nothing to do with common sense, basically. It dreams of another world, and it does whatever it can to bring that Utopia into reality. A losing game, therefore, but the only game in town for those of us who care about it.
8- There is a question that I haven’t got clear yet, and I’d like your opinion on it. I sometimes find a great difference between what should be a specialised critique and what is published, most of all, in the mass media – such as newspapers, which are often restricted by a matter of space, but where, most of the time, the creative freedom of the critic appears to be absorbed by the media he or she belongs to, as if there was a previous very strong editorial way of thinking that hides “secret publicity”, or (the other way round) as if it were a commissioned critique.
I worked in newspapers as a critic for 15 years, but I would never to choose to do so again, at this point of my existence. Time is too short, and life is too precious! The era (now and then, here and there) when serious critics received good, respectful space in newspapers was fleeting, a mere historic interregnum, and now it is rapidly closing. We should all have seen it coming! Newspapers are not the natural home of criticism; they are, in fact, its natural enemy. The public sphere does not care about criticism; it only cares about capital, about consumption, about lifestyle, about greasing the wheels of the system. Hence the truth of what you say about advertising, for instance – which totally rules newspapers. Almost the entire mainstream publishing world is profoundly mediocre in its vision, cripplingly conservative. Did we really ever expect it to be any different? True criticism is always an outlaw activity, always smuggled in (successfully or not), contraband, subterfuge, a passing sleight-of-hand. Some of the greatest critics managed this, for a while. But it is not in the nature of the institution to allow it for long!
9- Another thing that strongly catches my attention are the imposed tendencies, for instance when everybody talks about Asian films and, suddenly, it seems to be the only thing that exists. They boast about some filmmakers, and maybe the following year nobody talks about them. What can you say about that?
It’s crap, that is what I can say about it! Cultural or intellectual fashion is seductive, sometimes it is a game you must play to get people to listen to you for a moment or two – the number of times, for instance, I have been asked to contribute to some idiotic “symposium” in the popular media on the subject of postmodernism, maybe 15 years too late! Film culture – especially on the festival circuit – is ruled by the fickle thrusts of fashion. We have to be ceaselessly vigilant to fight against it – to keep film history, in all its dimensions, alive. In my experience, teaching can be good for this, when it works, when the conditions for it are good.
10- Cinema and ideology. I consider two cases, par excellence: The Birth of a Nation (1915) by D.W. Griffith, or Triumph of the Will (1935) by Leni Riefenstahl. Is it right to consider a film through its cinematographic achievements, its forms, without taking into account its ideological content, even if it is opposed to one’s own ideology?
This is a question that will always divide everyone involved with cinema. My response, in short, is that ideology and form are always imbricated in each other, interdependent. How could this not be so? Forms happen in history, they come out of and respond to the social world, just like politics and ideology! At the same time, one has to break apart the notion that certain forms are necessarily, and for all time, ideological in a single way. History, once again, keeps re-allocating particular forms to particular contents and ideologies, or particular sensibilities (as I prefer to say). We can take Riefenstahl’s spectacular form or Griffith’s classical form: is the former always Nazi, is the latter always racist-sexist-imperialist? Of course not. I use clips from Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1936 – the incredible high-diving montage) to teach first-year film students about framing, rhythm, expressionism, lyricism. I am not intending to subliminally instil in them the Aryan ideology! Although, of course, we can extrapolate from Riefenstahl’s grand vision of bodies in space to the ideological sensibility of her moment (and implication) in a particular historical movement. All styles and forms in cinema are open to many, wildly contrasting ideological uptakes or appropriations. Soviet montage had a radical purpose, but by the time Stallone uses it in Rocky IV in 1985 – a film in fact full of virulently anti-Russian sentiment – it means something else entirely! Tracing these sorts of changes is part of the adventure and challenge of film criticism. And when it comes to films opposed to one’s own ideology (as you put it), I think it is important to confront them, analyse them – not reject them out of hand – because then one can be a part of the whole movement of actively changing the political meaning of a form or style, not just passively observing it.
11- What kinds of films interest you the most for analysis? What elements do you value in a film when it comes to writing a critique?
Well, I have a very wide-ranging set of interests, and I try to stretch myself to study many kinds of films. I guess I have a bias towards highly lyrical, stylised, poetic and fictive film-forms, more than (for example) documentaries. I am most excited by concrete, detailed micro-analysis of film scenes, segments or moments, and there are certain directors who richly reward this kind of approach: from Boris Barnet and Vincente Minnelli to Ritwik Ghatak and Jean-Luc Godard, from Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang to Costa and Raúl Ruiz, from Mikio Naruse and Stephen Dwoskin to Jacques Rivette and Tscherkassky, from Max Ophüls and Otto Preminger to Claire Denis and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I am always looking for the cinema effect, the magic fusion of image, sound, gesture, performance – the achievement of a certain energy or intensity in film. I am always looking for the secret of how great or good filmmakers manage to do that – because it’s not easy! I probably favour dynamic, kinetic, flamboyant films, where you receive the thrill of a cut, a movement, a blast of music or sound, a decisive turn of fiction, etc. If I can manage to describe, evoke and communicate some detail of all that, I feel I am doing my job well as a critic!
12- Critics are always related to releases or novelties, i.e., they always work with the latest news. Let’s suppose, as in a game, that you haven’t seen a well known film, for example Cat People (1942) by Jacques Tourneur or Dead Man (1995) by Jim Jarmusch, just to mention a few. Is it worth it to write a critique on an already released film from a “virginal” point of view? Why are there no critiques of already released films?
I am with you here! One of the greatest struggles in film publishing is to get to be able to write on “old” films – and, these days (as you indicate) even Dead Man from 1995 is considered old! And for me, personally, the most important thing of all is to enable comparison or networking of films from all times, places and movements: not just to say “that old film influenced this new one”, but to discover what has been called the secret, true history of forms in cinema – how techniques, impulses, experiments, leap from one mind to another (without, sometimes, anybody consciously knowing it!), one film to another. That is the great adventure of cinema worth observing and testifying to. I find it frustrating that critiques of already released films are tied mainly, today, to the DVD release market. That opens an opportunity, but also seems to limit and circumscribe it. Only rarely can we write with total freedom about an old film of our choice. Everything is subject to market considerations, it seems, to a certain value of timely currency: what’s on at festivals and museums, what Criterion is releasing this month … In my editorial involvements, I’ve tried to be a little more untimely about it (as Nietzsche said), to follow the whim of interest and passion, but any such venture is also subject to what is out there to see at any given moment. Critics need to be (as we said above) people who incite desire to see films – not just people who follow an already-primed desire! However, to return to your idea: is it good to write on an old film from an innocent viewpoint, not soaked in cinema history? Yes, definitely! Sometimes, too much historical knowledge is a burden, and leads just to the same old analyses and opinions (such as on neo-realism, for instance …). A fresh eye can suggest – however naively – a totally new perspective, a new lateral connection between a film of then and the world of now. No one should censor themselves from writing, based on the thought that they have not yet read all the film history books – most of those books are not terribly good or comprehensive, anyway. Each of us writes (and lives) our own personal History of Cinema, so start today!
13- Some of the most prestigious Cahierists, such as François Truffaut, Godard or Éric Rohmer (just to mention a few), left critical writing and theory for good, and went into filmmaking. Nowadays, there are also some critics that have entered the field. For example, during BAFICI, I had the opportunity to see Kent Jones’ Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007), Sergio Wolf’s Yo no sé qué me han hecho tus ojos (2003) and Thierry Jousse’s Invisible (2005). Do you think it’s possible to perform both activities? Have you ever wanted to direct a film?
It’s possible, but strange! Mainly, I believe that critics, if they remain critics, are not really ideal filmmakers; and that most filmmakers who are ex-critics (such as, today, Miguel Gomes) have had to truly break with the critical mindset of writing about the films they see – even if, you talk to them, they are still full of opinions and ideas (often very elaborate ones) about all of this. That is why some ex-critics-turned-filmmakers – plus some filmmakers who never were official critics – become great interview subjects, because that becomes their forum for criticism (see, for examples, José Luis Guerin, Olivier Assayas, Jean Eustache, James Toback …). Or they express themselves in the more special and private, quite protected space of teaching (like Abraham Polonsky, Alexander Mackendrick, Miloš Forman, Pascal Bonitzer, Chantal Akerman … ). I do not wish to be hard and fast about this; there are no rules, in this as in anything. And I leave the door wide open for interesting, even rich hybrids of film and critique, like the pedagogical cinema of Hartmut Bitomsky, or so many intriguing documentaries about filmmakers made by critics down the years … It’s a whole substratum of cinema we have yet to document, or appreciate. But the grand cinema is Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, Renoir, Barnet, Akerman, James Gray, Tsai Ming-liang, Michelangelo Antonioni – and these people were not (or not for long) film critics. Which, as far as I am concerned, proves my point!
Have I ever wanted to direct a film? I have helped write some films (mainly unproduced: that is the hidden river of cinema history, all of its planned and unrealised projects, literally millions of them …); and I have been around the edges of many others, commenting, advising, script-editing, and so on … In fact, that is an interesting, seductive, but also difficult possible role for a critic: to be able to offer their critiques before a film is finished, and hence to influence it, maybe even improve it (well, that happens in film-training schools all the time). Some filmmakers welcome and encourage this input, such as Australia’s James Clayden. Of course, I think this means such filmmakers are smart: they know how to work that edge, get that advantage from criticism. (Perhaps Italian cinema has long realised this: Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone and many others regularly transformed their preferred critics into their partner-screenwriters! In the Hong Kong industry, something similar has happened. And Truffaut paid Rivette to rip his scripts to shreds!) But people like Ruiz are truly the exception among filmmakers: most of them mistrust us, or hate our guts, and sometimes quite rightly so! Because we don’t really understand their craft, or their processes; and because what we write, finally, is often completely irrelevant or useless to them right now, or in the future for what they will go on to make. That is why filmmakers often retreat behind the old anti-critic clichés: “They have never made a film, and never could!” Sometimes (perhaps oftentimes) this is quite correct! So we return to the autonomous, occasionally overlapping spheres of film and criticism (see my response to the next question), and that I believe is the reality of the situation.
But I dodged your question! Yes, I have dreamed of directing a film. I have several in my head, in fact. And I am only 50, the digital technology is light and cheap these days, so who knows, I still have “world enough and time”, as E.A. Poe said … Ask me again when I am 60! But I do believe that directing a film would necessitate a divorce from critical thinking, in order to make the creative and craft process work. For I dream of making not an intriguing hybrid (as we were describing such objects beforehand), but a real film! It’s like going into psychoanalysis, I reckon: to really abandon yourself to free association on the couch, you cannot go in remembering or pondering too much Freudian-Lacanian theory, trying to second-guess or outflank your appointed analyst! No, you have to let it flow. And making a film would be another way of letting it flow … That would be the challenge of it for me: not to totally turn off my critic’s brain, but to somehow rewire it for art’s sake! Can I do it? Only time (and experimentation) will tell …
B. Cinema and Theory
14- Somewhere, Béla Balázs said that “no art has achieved greatness without theory”… Can cinema exist without theory? And without criticism?
Cinema often, regularly, maybe usually, exists without criticism and theory! But, by the same token, criticism and theory will always exist (I hope!). Theory and practice are two independent, autonomous streams that sometimes cross, and more often part ways. That is not how it should be, perhaps, but that’s the way it is. When they cross, meet, even collaborate, it can be great – but that will always be a fleeting encounter, in my opinion. They are two different activities, they come from two different parts of the human brain, the human person. Art can never emerge wholly from theory – when it does, it’s monstrous! (And monsters can sometimes be interesting.) And theory or criticism cannot be tied exclusively to the craft or the industry of filmmaking – that kind of incest can also lead to disaster! Of course, we all know the wonderful, ideal cases of interesting critics who became great directors (like Godard), or filmmakers who continued to dabble brilliantly in reflective writing (like Sergei Eisenstein or Pier Paolo Pasolini, Víctor Erice, Ruiz or Chris Marker). We also have the less-than-ideal cases of so-so critics who became not terribly good directors (Paul Schrader, or lesser Cahiers lights) … and good directors who were never terribly prolific or distinguished critics (Claude Chabrol) … and very many filmmakers who, once they cross over from theory to practice, militantly never go back across that Rubicon (Jean-Marie Straub, for example). But there can be no rule, no program about this. Maybe some German directors, especially from a particular period – Harun Farocki, Bitomsky – best achieved some intriguing synthesis of essay-filmmaking and criticism/theory/pedagogy. But that is a special case, not a general model, god(ard) forbid!
15- Is it important to know the background information about a film or the work of the filmmaker to write a critique?
It can help – and it can also hinder. Too much prior baggage, too much information from Internet or press kits or from the annals of film criticism, can overly influence or clutter up what you write. In general, though, such knowledge is simply the research that one must do, and that you need to have at your fingertips. But use it as a tool – don’t let it guide you. Some auteurist-slanted writing that bangs on and on about the director – their past, their career, their personality, their drives, their signature, their recurring themes and motifs – can be boring and super-predictable, like it was written by an auteurist computer, or a very diligent first-year university student very eager to please his or her teacher! Sometimes the director is what you have to leave behind, or displace into the shadows for a few delicious moments, in order to write well about a film.
16- What, in your opinion, is the function of a researcher or film historian? What is their importance within the field of filmmaking and, in particular, for criticism?
Film historians are crucial for the field of film criticism – and, perhaps most particularly, film archiving and restoration, the entire museological function of cinema, which is becoming increasingly important in our 21st century digital age, as a certain kind of popular cinema experience is becoming more remote. Film historians have a creative, visionary role – look at Henri Langlois yesterday, or Peter von Bagh [1943-2014] today – and they also have an extremely practical role: to find, preserve, restore, screen and circulate rare prints of many thousands of important films! The usual kind of critic, like me, does not do (much of) that kind of work; we lack that particular, special expertise. In a way, I would like historians, critics and academics to talk more with each other; our total field of film appreciation would only be stronger for it. It happens, at certain junctures. Contemporary filmmakers, on the other hand – with notable exceptions, from Martin Scorsese to Bertrand Tavernier – are not as interested in film history as they should be. They tend to know little of it, and are not curious about it. This is something that needs to be addressed at the level of filmmaking education. I spoke recently to an audience of young Australian filmmakers in training who could not see the contemporary relevance of studying the stunning mise en scène of Douglas Sirk’s films – can you believe that? Filmmakers always have the latest fad in their mind, because they have to keep up with the trends: that means they worship David Fincher or Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton or Michael Mann – and no one else! If they know art cinema, it is only as far back as Kiešlowski – who is a kind of Polish Kubrick to today’s filmmakers, all channels firing at once. Even people like Godard, Fassbinder and Pasolini are often unknown to them. Robert Bresson seems entirely weird and alien to them, “anti-cinema” as he was described to me by one student! That poor Bresson guy, he’ll never make a buck in this profession! But – even on a practical level – I point out: if you want to know how to make a very low-budget movie look and sound good, study what Godard, Fassbinder or even Peter Greenaway (whose work, in general, I loathe) have done with little money – not the American indies, who make talkative films with three people improvising badly inside a room or a house!
17- Who are the theoreticians and/or film critics that you have most interest in, nowadays and historically? Which of them has influenced your own views on cinema and criticism?
A long list. I have a complex family tree of critical influences, with many different branches. On the one hand, the patient, lucid, elegant, rationalists: Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, Shigehiko Hasumi, Gilberto Perez; I would even add Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema books here, which are a giant taxonomy of cinematic forms. Then all those who practise inspired creative criticism (as I have called it), criticism as literary art: Manny Farber, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Vachel Lindsay, Walter Benjamin, Parker Tyler, Lesley Stern, Petr Král … And then everyone in-between, who mix the different modes in brilliantly judged, ever-shifting doses: Serge Daney, Meaghan Morris, Chris Fuijiwara, Frieda Grafe, Raymond Bellour, Yvette Bíró, Judith Williamson, Jim Hoberman, Bill Krohn, Raymond Durgnat … I, too (I hope), am in-between: I try to merge the logic of rigorous analysis with the inventiveness of creative writing. I am still working at this combination, 30 years on!
18- What works or films are compulsory if you want to enter the field of film analysis and criticism?
Nothing is compulsory! There is no canon worth a damn – except for the one you compile and use for yourself (like I did when I was 15) to search, watch and think with, as you explore cinema. But you can start anywhere, and go anywhere. Cinema is a rhizome, it’s true! I don’t care if you reach the theory and practice of montage through Eisenstein or Russ Meyer or Jean-François Richet or music video – the only thing that matters is that, somehow, some day, you reach it! To appreciate animation, I don’t mind if you come through Tex Avery or Jan Švankmajer – except I might hope that, eventually, you would encounter and come to love both! I don’t care if you come to dance films through The Red Shoes (1948) or through Center Stage (2000) … and so on and on. There is always, everywhere, too much snobbery in film culture, too much cultural capital (to employ Pierre Bourdieu’s famous term). But you can use anything and everything to knit together your personal history and vision of cinema. And that is what we are after, finally: our own, secret cinema, the one we have built for ourselves, in our heads and hearts. The critic is the person who gets to share, slowly and sometimes slyly, a word at a time, that secret cinema. (I have spent 30 years so far dreaming about writing a book called, precisely, A Secret Cinema. Maybe it is the book I will live, rather than actually ever write down …)
Did he assert that? If so, you know more about Burch – and maybe also about Godard – than me! Seriously, I cannot quite figure out what Burch means (or once meant: he changes his mind and his intellectual orientation so often!) by this statement. Maybe he is referring to the Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) – which is not really theory, or rather it is crazy, living theory-in-action, theory-in-motion, in other words, nothing much (finally) like theory at all. If Burch is talking about Godard’s early critical writings from the pre-postmodern ‘50s, then I understand him even less! So, I guess I must respectfully disagree with Burch, or at least with the statement you have quoted. But is JLG the great filmmaker/artist of postmodernism? I tend to think of him as a great modernist artist across the whole span of his career, and postmodernist only for a specific and very rich moment: the years of religion/faith interests, classical art (re)immersions, and returns to grand mythic narratives, from Passion (1982) to Hail Mary (1985), and a bit further on through to Hèlas pour moi (1993). That is, for me, the only postmodern period – or postmodern condition! – I find truly interesting: when there is crisis of faith, both a pervasive sense of loss and a sudden, desperate overinvestment in religion and great art, played out in the cinema, mainly in the ‘80s. Look at what Jean-François Lyotard said in a Flash Art interview of 1985 about Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), it’s all there … (2)
20- I would like to mention a few names and let you choose from three to five to say briefly what you like [a list of 50 names followed].
Just three to five?! OK, here goes, and very freely and spontaneously: first, Siegfried Kracauer. For a long time we all misunderstood him, we thought he was the naïve realist of Theory of Film (1960). But, thanks to Miriam Hansen and many others, we have rediscovered his early writing of the ‘20s and ‘30s, his popular culture criticism, and this has completely altered our (certainly my) view of his entire trajectory. His theory is rich, open, yet very systematic, quite coherent from the first to last work he did. There is a poetic richness in his vision – based on cinema’s transformation and redemption of everyday life – that we can still mine and understand far more deeply. Next, Yvette Bíró; what an extraordinary path she has had, her first critical/theoretical works appear in Hungary in the early 1960s, and her work as a screenwriter begins in the mid ‘50s, eventually including collaborations with Miklós Jancsó. Her long-term work as a teacher of screenwriting has had a huge effect on several generations of filmmakers, including Debra Granik and Lodge Kerrigan. Into her 80s now, she writes about the films she sees in Paris, where she lives. Her book Turbulence and Flow is a masterpiece, the fruit of lifetime’s intellectual and poetic reflection. Lastly, Raymond Durgnat: he is a real model and inspiration for me. He always worked at the level of furious brainstorming: always making connections, links, speculations, drawing associations between very distant things … and he wrote in the same haste: the prose is not always perfect (and his memory is sometimes faulty, particularly pre-VHS and DVD), but the thinking is always fertile and surprising. I can truthfully say there is not a single piece by him, no matter how short or scrappy, that has not taught me something, or led me along some new path of reflection.
21- And from Argentina?
I know the work of too few Argentinian critics. I am aware of and like Quintín’s provocative, lively work, partly because some it has appeared in English (and he writes in English sometimes, too). There are a number of writers, of several generations, in El Amante that I admire, from Eduardo Rojas to Javier Porta Fouz. On the academic front, I have enormous respect for David Oubiña. There are people, like me, who move in a fertile way between the university, criticism and journalism, between books, reviews and essays. I have met many passionate Argentine cinephiles and teachers at BA FICI and elsewhere. I follow predominantly student-based websites such as El ángel exterminador [which lasted to issue 56 in 2017]; and I am excited by Diego Batlle’s Otros cines site [still running in 2020], which keeps me informed of many key developments across many sectors of cinema. And in the world of bloggers and film-culture movements, I tip my hat to Roger Koza and his “eyes wide open” [also still running in 2020]. But I realise there is an entire history of Argentinian film criticism that I have yet to know. My ability to read Spanish is improving every day, however, thanks to all the translations of my own work in Chile, Argentina, Spain and Cuba!
A must? In 1953, 1966, 1978, 1984, 1995, maybe … but today? It is suffering every crisis and convulsion possible at present; by next year, or “this time tomorrow” (as The Kinks sang), it may not exist. (3) And if so, it was not meant to go on existing. We want too much these everlasting, eternal monuments in film culture, when in fact the best sites, the best explosions of activity, are always ephemeral … In recent years, the now-vanished French magazines Admiranda or Cinéma have meant more to me than the mythical Cahiers (despite this or that terrific moment, piece or intervention in its pages, in any of its periods) – because the myth and the reality have been far apart, for a long time. Still, I hold out some hope for its future, there are some good people that I like very much involved right now, a young-but-not-too-young generation like Stéphane Delorme, Charlotte Garson, Cyril Béghin, Vincent Malausa, Nicolas Azalbert who has made films in Argentina …
23- And De Filmkrant and Rouge?
Hey, I like that Rouge website! And De Filmkrant is one of the many brave little ventures around the world – like Ekran (Slovenia) or Ray (Austria) or Moviement (Italy) or Cahiers España [renamed Caimán since the start of 2012] (4) – I write for all of these and more – that still believes in hard print, real copies in your hand (and, hopefully, in the world’s libraries), that reach for that tiny claim on literary history and posterity. I salute them all, and all my friends who are in charge of them – even if I tend not to believe, finally, that old-fashioned, ink-on-paper publishing is the best way to serve, today, international film culture … or the best way to run a railroad, in terms of an economy of scale of money spent and people reached. However, history may prove me wrong, and perhaps I will one day return full-circle to my teenage SF days and co-produce (in my old age) a photocopied fanzine, in an edition of only 50 copies! Come and get it, if you can …
C. Cinema and Virtuality
24- What is the cultural breakdown produced by virtual reality? What could be its contribution to art?
Fucking hell, what a question! Is it a cultural breakdown? Well, culture is always breaking down – it was designed to constantly break down – but I am not sure we can blame that, exactly, on virtual reality (or Reality TV, or computers, or mobile phones, or Britney Spears … ). The way I see it, digitalisation is not a radical break in culture: rather, it should best serve to refocus our attention on a neglected aspect of what cinematic art (indeed, most art in any medium) really is: artificial, plastic, graphic. Not the photographic index of reality, which for me is a terribly overblown and over-invested notion, a kind of corruption of Bazin (who always had a more dialectical view of this, and of everything). Daniel Frampton’s book Filmosophy (2006) also argues this: that film is not the trace of reality, it has always been a manipulable image-bank, always artifice. There are always going to be cameras, and people pointing them at things, on the one hand; and there are always going to be ways of downloading and treating that raw material, on the other hand. The technology has changed a lot, but not (entirely, anyhow) the conceptual processing or sequencing of these stages or steps. Michael Snow did an audiovisual gallery installation in 2009, Serve, Deserve, comparing cinema to getting food served to you at a restaurant: everything is always in the process of being “delivered”! Meaning that it is captured, worked over, transformed, and finally packaged … That is a wonderful homely metaphor or analogy that bridges film and digital, art and life. We are still dealing with what Godard named the problematic of the world and its double, even if you double it on a shitty little mobile-phone image-capture …
25- In what way have Internet and DVD influenced film lovers? In criticism, is there a before and after the digital era? Isn’t the freedom these formats give, through repetition of the same information in thousands of systems, somehow illusory?
This I agree with: that the freedom is illusory. Because every freedom is illusory, “the dove is never free” (Leonard Cohen) … Today, we are dealing with both the reality and the myth of access. The reality: yes, there are many, many films I can experience today that I could not experience twenty years ago – unless I happened to be in the right city in the right country on the right day at the exact hour of projection! The myth is that of total access; we often assume (quite wrongly) that everything is out there. But I was thinking recently of the case of a truly great filmmaker, the ex-American independent-experimentalist Jon Jost: because he is not currently the darling of programmers, and because very little of his career is on DVD at the present moment, (5) he is almost completely forgotten, unknown. And he is a figure on par with Abel Ferrara, Snow or Godard! The reality of access hits me when my students go on YouTube and watch things like Guerin’s In Sylvia’s City straight after I mention it in class … and the myth of access hits me when I realise how few people outside of a few European cities today know who Carmelo Bene is. In film culture, we are always struggling to get below the upper-surface-layer of the currently circulating and promoted names and titles. Because – it’s true – we all need guidance, a pointer, a helping hand. It has always been this way. Simply saying that everything’s out there to be downloaded in an exclusive Internet club does not really change this situation; it’s like saying “the world’s your oyster”: you still have to decide, somehow, what is worth your time and energy to visit!
Is there an “after” the digital era? We cannot know! I tend to believe the prophesies of the great thinker-essayist Vilém Flusser: that we have entered the age of techno-images and thus of techno-imagination (so different to the age of writing and its attendant form of imagination), and that we will likely not be dealing with anything else in our immediate lifetimes. As they say in pop culture: learn to live with it!
This I know, and have always sensed: that cinema is just image-and-sound, audio-vision. It’s slides plus a tape, an art gallery video installation, the thing on your computer or your phone – as well as everything at the movie theatre or on your TV set. It’s representation, figuration, through the looking glass, wherever and however it is happening. We can go still further. In about 1982, I heard the artist Marcus Bergner say (and it really affected me): “I can make a film by doing a painting, or making a gesture in the air ... ” – and he was absolutely right! Because cinema has always been as virtual as it is actual: it begins, and takes place, and expands, in our imaginaries; that is its true and ultimate reality, as mental audio-vision, or as lived memory (which is all you’ll retain of it at the moment of your death, that’s for sure) … The 35mm film print has no ontological primacy whatsoever. I do not share the widespread archival/curatorial nostalgia for celluloid – if you want to actually hear films, for instance, and study sound design, DVD is infinitely better. The real gain, and the real loss, is in the question of audiences: to have or have not! I heard the great scholar Thomas Elsaesser say at a museum event in Barcelona in 2006: “If there’s no mass audience, then there’s politics in cinema” – the scene of the political then shifts to some different, more subjective plane (which is also social, but in a different way to the old-fashioned public sphere of the movie crowd). But even these once obvious matters of clear-cut publics are becoming less easy to determine: do we really need an agglomeration of bodies in one room to constitute an audience? Are we really only just, these days, fish passing each other mutely in an aquarium (to use Thierry Jousse’s image)? (6) Maybe not.
27- In the past, Godard, Daney and Susan Sontag announced the death of cinema. How do you see or imagine its future?
Cinema has not died, is not now dying, and never will die! As long you can watch audio-vision in any form or format, cinema lives. Or as long as you can store that experience in your human memory-banks – even if all the technology broke down tomorrow! In this age of digital new media, I do not believe that cinema is dying – despite what many people have said. (But they didn’t always really mean what they said, or have been taken to say! Sontag, for instance, was lamenting the death of cinephilia, not of cinema; of course, she was dead wrong! For Godard, the death of cinema is eternal and recurring – he has been saying that since 1965! – and it is a kind of poetic trope for him that enables his creativity, which is fine with me.) In any medium of audio-vision – whether a big screen or a mobile phone – the problems of creation are exactly the same as the ones Griffith or Eisenstein or Alfred Hitchcock faced: how do you stage, how do you frame, when do you cut, what sound goes with the image? Mise en scène, montage, rhythm, the use of bodies in performance, the creation of a total form for your work: none of this has changed, especially from the viewpoint of those who produce – today, we spend maybe too much time looking at these questions from the viewpoint of those who consume (who are, of course, always restless, fickle and looking for the Next Big Thing – and they like to judge the entire world within their framework of their exacting consumer desire). The support (in the material sense) changes – digital signal instead of celluloid film print – and the modes of consumption change; but not the essence of the audiovisual medium itself. Cinema is not just celluloid, it is the combination of image and sound! And remember, there was cinema before celluloid too, such as in our nocturnal dreams … I like Bazin’s idea of a Myth of Total Cinema, as long as we accept that this total cinema has always existed as a virtuality in our minds, it does not arrive on the Last Day of a technological Apocalypse!
Get a wealthy patron! Seriously, no one ever gets rich being a film critic. It is not the path to media celebrity – its fame (if you’re very lucky) is tiny, secluded and fleeting. History is unlikely to be kind to you; you will be forgotten even before most of the films you wrote about are forgotten – remember, even Serge Daney’s collected writings were considered outdated by a certain prestigious British publisher, hardly three years after his sad and untimely death – and there wasn’t much he could do to fix that situation from the grave! The inestimably great Carmelo Bene said it right in his marvellous 1983 book I Appeared to the Madonna: “It only takes turning your back for a moment, and you no longer exist. You never did”. (7) Criticism is always bound by its time and place, its currency: once again, that is its curse and its glory … We are, each of us, stuck with the slice of cinema we were born with, grow with, die with. We have no other story to tell, only that given, contingent history and what we make of it. For me (for example), that means I am destined to live to tell (as Madonna sang) what it was like to happily experience thousands of teen movies, thrillers and horror films during the 1980s – and all that alongside the new narratives of Godard and Ruiz, the film-essays of Marker and Robert Kramer, the sensuous minimalism of Akerman … while, all around me, people currently declare that the ‘80s was, in cinema, a null and void decade! “Hope I live to tell the secrets I have learned / ‘Till then, it will burn inside of me”: that is the dream, the wish, the secret biography of every true film critic.
© Adrian Martin August 2009 – 7 January 2010