Responsibility and Criticism:
Cinemascope (Italy) Interview


Responsibility is a big and scary word. The question ‘what is a film magazine’s responsibility?’ has a threatening tone, as if there will only be one correct, politically progressive answer. One could just as easily argue, as a counter-provocation, that a film magazine needs to be irresponsible, to open up spaces of imagination beyond the straitjacket of any one ideology, whether of the right or left.


And yet, I take the question seriously. Once, when working on an Internet film journal in the early 2000s, I realised that everyone working on such a publication must be able to draw a line – a line over which they will not cross! An ethical line. In concrete terms, that means being able to say, absolutely, what kind of thing you are not willing to publish, under any circumstances. That instance – and hence the nature of the ethical line – could be anything: an article extolling the latest Spielberg blockbuster; or an indulgent article on pornography; or a tasteless exercise in proud political incorrectness (there’s a lot of that reversal around in these Borat days). Feeling your way, case by case, through what you are willing to publish is easy; the sky’s the limit, and there is always so much more cinema to explore. But drawing the line is hard: it can feel like enforcing censorship rather than taking an ethical stand. Nonetheless, one must strive for an ethical standard in on-line publishing, and not let the moral slippery slide begin.


That slide is usually inaugurated, in the film magazine business, by one thing: money. And most particularly: advertising. The moment you allow advertising onto a site, you have bought into compromise. Can you be truly critical, any longer, of those distributors, exhibitors or publishers who are helping to subsidise your site? It is better – and certainly ethically easier – to fudge one’s critical opinions, to keep powerful friends, to hold open the sources of precious revenue. Institutional support – such as might come from a government arts body, a university, a council, a cine-club association or a special public fund – can sometimes come with ‘necessary conditions’ (to promote a national or local cinema, for instance) which can be debated, deflected or subverted; advertising money, however, comes with the pulverising force of capital and its sole aim, which is to sell, to expand itself, and to win passive social consent.


A film magazine should set itself against such passivity – such complicity. This is one of the most socially and politically responsible things that a publication can do: resist complicity with the system, the industry, the establishment. It is easy to be idealistic about this, but idealism often corrodes quickly in a difficult material world. There is so much pressure, one way or another, to conform to the film industry: to cover only those latest films which the commercial industry wants you to see; to engage only in the kind of discourse (pro or con) that greases the wheels of the mass movie-going system; to overlook what the cinema of the past has been, or what truly alternative cinema is today. This is the ethical responsibility of a film magazine: to seek an alternative, and then to communicate it, understand it, transmit it. To ‘promote’ this alternative, in a sense, but not in the empty way that the industry promotes its products: for a quick fix, for planned obsolescence, for immediate forgetting, for the sake of a serial, assembly-line consumption of absolutely alike items. Time without pity, and without memory.


As always, we return to the task that every severe, inspiring soul before us – Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord, Serge Daney, Frieda Grafe – has confronted and ceaselessly renewed: how to be truly critical, in a world that silences or castrates critique? How to get beyond those cinephilic procedures that are, at the right moments, fruitful and inspiring – like identifying a new auteur, or acclaiming some (any) New Wave on the film festival circuit, or applying a new theoretical grid – but can so easily become endless distractions, hermeneutic spirals, self-sufficient parlour games, evasions of the real?


Of course, we all know that The Real is not something we can simply touch, shine a torch on, and gaze at steadily in an eternal Enlightenment; language, desire, strategy, poetic imagination will always be needed to pierce the veil or take one groping step further in the treacherous mist. We can never entirely know (in the old Communist slogan) what is to be done – or what is to be said – about cinema. If we could know these things in advance, there would be precisely be no use in trying to say any of them in public – and this is the problem of relevance (or rather, irrelevance) of a certain Marxist film critique today. Culture – an alternative, critical, counter-culture – can never be known in advance. Its canons are unclear, to be reformulated from day to day. Doubt and mystery and poetry must be accepted as vital ingredients of any political practice (as the Surrealists and their kin knew). But once, again, an ethical orientation is possible: a direction, an intuition towards the future. Like the brave indigenous children in that fine Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence, progressive cinema magazines must find that fragile marker in the harsh, brutually colonised landscape that both guides and protects them, as they stumble tenaciously towards the unknown tomorrow.


© Adrian Martin 15 December 2006

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search