It starts, in the credits, like an ad for the Criterion Collection (or Channel): after the sound (over black) of a projector whirring into life, grabs from (among others) The Big Parade (1925), Metropolis (1927), Un chien andalou (1929), Citizen Kane (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Third Man (1949), The 400 Blows (1959), Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960), Eyes without a Face (1960), Amadeus (1984), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a couple of Kubricks … a comforting canon of World Cinema that would already have been familiar to many film fans, in most of its particulars, 40 or 50 years ago.
Never mind the fact that, beyond a few Asian action-oriented films and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the entire subject pool of Voir will be all-American, from Jaws (1975) and 48 Hrs. (1982) to Heat (1995) and – repeatedly – a fistful of Scorseses.
The framing imagery for this inaugural cavalcade of looks and gestures: a blinking, receiving, eventually closing eye. Followed by – in no less than three out of the six episodes – a woozily recreated staging of the “pre-pandemic” moviegoing experience, seen through a lens smeared with nostalgia: dark room, big screen, ray of light, transfixed spectators hunkering down, the inevitable tub of popcorn … One of our “storytellers” here (episode 3, “But I Don’t Like Him”) will even stay there in that cinema seat, like in literally almost every TV segment in existence where an expert talking-head is stuck into the nearest available cinema aisle (real or faked) to be filmed yakking.
Almost four decades ago, I wrote a testy essay of art criticism titled “Eye, Image, Picture, Screen, and All That Junk”. It was prompted, at the outset, by the fact that every bit of available graphic design that referenced cinema – whether on posters, book covers, in magazine advertising, or the credit sequences of TV shows – kept using the same old iconography: an eyeball, a camera, a projector beam, a transfixed head in silhouette, a reel with its film strip dancing away, a blank white movie screen. This repertoire of handy signs was a total cliché already, in 1983! And it is all the more so today, as we gaze into the weary, digitally-colourised eyeball of Voir.
What is Voir about? The tagline brandished on screen is: “A collection of visual essays … for the love of cinema” (emphases included). We could spend a long seminar on virtually every part of this proudly wishy-washy declaration. First: love of cinema is the polite, supposedly non-elitist , Netflixed way of announcing cinephilia. And cinephilia really has something to fight here, since Voir’s flaunting of cinema-love is scarcely different to the kind of promotional campaign that folk including Guy Debord and Serge Daney once mercilessly mocked: “If you love life, you love the cinema!” In other words: total, meaningless twaddle.
Second, nomenclature: visual essay. Almost everything I hate about the modern world is somehow concentrated in the choice of this term by the producers of Voir.
Visual: no sound, then? A silent Netflix series? Silent like Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011) or Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha (1999), solely with musical accompaniment? Of course not. Don’t be such an obtuse troll, Adrian! But someone, somewhere down the line, obviously made a conscious decision that audiovisual essay sounded either too intellectual and pretentious (why a classy French verb for the series title, then?), or too mechanical-technical.
How about the by-now generally accepted stand-by of video essay, then? If it’s good enough for Sight and Sound … Perhaps it was taken to be redolent of musty old videocassettes; or of new-fangled but way too homely YouTube. A visual essay is surely a new form of human communication, a genuine novelty! Documentary rebooted! Or: a televisual way of hijacking a form already well developed elsewhere. We’ve all seen this kind of mainstream appropriation before. Ho hum.
Whatever a visual essay is for the Voir team, it’s slick stuff. Crews have been dispatched to shoot new material, complete with sets and actors: re-enactments, lyrical sub-Malick imagery, landscapes. And interviews with practitioners – including a sole film scholar: Lisa Coulthard. We are a long way from the pure et dure audiovisual essays of our time, comprised only (or mainly) of found footage from elsewhere. In this series, only episode 2, “The Ethics of Revenge” by Taylor Ramos & Tony Zhou, gets close to that mode in its fast dazzle of audiovisual citations.
Here, the copyrights are cleared, or at least the legal fair use (American-style) regulations have been scrupulously adhered to – hence the fast editing, and the insistent “transformative” or pedagogical voice-over. I’m not sure Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma could ever have surmounted the Netflix wall in the USA. As for something like Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) or other Thom Andersen skyscrapers with their much longer, luxuriant clips – forget it.
In the overwhelmingly DIY world of audiovisual essay production before and beyond Voir (a world in which I participate), we return to an almost artisanal contract of expression and reception: the advertising doesn’t lie, since the name of the person speaking on the soundtrack or inscribing text on screen is usually also the director, the writer, the editor, the distributor, the works. It’s a radically auteurist situation to such an extent that the credit ‘directed by’ is very rarely used, in fact. Because direction is not separate or distinguishable from the most basic selection, sequencing and mixing of the sampled material. The assembly, the montage, the discourse, the dispositif, and finally the access provided on one or another digital platform: all of it comes to you (relatively) direct and unmediated, straight from the critic-artist to you. Don’t talk to me (yet) about digital algorithms and that whole dust cloud; on the ground, where it matters, the artisan rules, OK?
Watching Voir, I realised that the long “moment” of the audiovisual essay (it seems still to be going, and some of its practitioners have been in it since circa 2009) has provided an unexpected island of non-alienated labour, in a genuinely Marxist sense. For not only is the sound dimension implicitly severed from the hyper-fetishised realm of the “visual” as construed in Voir; even worse, the maker-author of a visual essay is also severed from his or her work. And here we come to the absolute screwiest element of the series’ self-presentation.
Each episode begins with a specific authorial-proprietorial credit: Narrated by … . That is, the speaking voice on the soundtrack is identified as the maker. But this is not so, at least not in any simple, uncomplicated way. For instance, “Narrated by Taylor Ramos” heads up an episode (no. 4, “The Duality of Appeal”) that is, in fact, directed by her and Zhou – as indeed their fans know them to be, creative collaborators. The episode “Narrated by Sasha Stone” turns out to be written and “produced” by her (presumably in the mainstream sense of that credit: overseen, guided, approved etc.) – but it’s directed by someone else entirely, David Prior.
“Drilling down” (as the nerds love to say), we will discover further, potentially disturbing levels of alienation: an episode narrated by Zhou and scripted by he and Ramos is also co-edited by Zhou and another person. It’s all the usual, tiresome check-and-balance filters of “professional” production, with its fearsome hierarchy of advisers, revisers, toucher-uppers, note-givers, imposed collaborators each in their specialisation (editing, music, design, etc.), and all the rest of it – just take a gander at the credit roll at the close of each episode. Can you imagine Mark Rappaport – who arrives at his voice-over not through prior scripting but the semi-improvisation of “talking to the screen”, then reworking the audiovisual montage from there – ever fitting into the production-chain of Voir? The same would go for most of the independent audiovisual essayists working today.
Who’s behind Voir? Netflix is the boss and funder. David Fincher is on the marquee as executive producer. A raft of others share his role of seniority, including David Prior, who took the lead in pre-promotion. Three out of six episodes mark the public return, in force, of a celebrated American team: the already-mentioned Taylor Ramos & Tony Zhou, of Every Frame a Painting (2014-2016) Patreon legend. Which dude recently pronounced, in all confidence, that genuine film criticism had long ago died or migrated to the ivory towers of academia … except, that is, for Every Frame a Painting online? Print that legend! Even if it ignores almost the entire history of film criticism (in all its forms) on the Internet …
Beyond the feted duo of Ramos & Zhou, a bunch of critics have been invited to the Voir-ing table. Wow! And who are they? Who did we reasonably expect? Let’s simplify the logistics and restrict our imaginations by retaining the inevitable all-American bias. David Thomson, Molly Haskell, Kent Jones, Amy Taubin, Jim Hoberman? The latest Criterion stars like Imogen Sara Smith or Farran Smith Nehme? Some youthful hotshots on the scene, like Devika Girish, Nick Pinkerton, Kier-La Janisse or Scout Tafoya?
The chosen ones turn out to be: Sasha Stone, Walter Chaw and Drew McWeeny. I will confess: I had to look up these names. They are not people whose writings or media appearances I consult from week to week; they happen not to be a part of my particular film culture. That’s alright; let’s generously assume they are a part of someone’s film culture (Fincher’s, maybe), somewhere. From where do the members of this elect come? Answer: from Awards Daily, Film Freak Central and Ain’t It Cool News. No wonder I’d never heard of these three critics before. On cinephilic principle – for the love of cinema! – I choose not to look at those accursed sites.
One of the most striking things about Voir is this: no film theory (it would seem) has ever touched anybody involved in this series. Film criticism, reviewing, reportage, professional practices of making – yes, all of that is (to varying degrees) in the collective skill-set gathered. But absolutely no theoretical idea about desire or ideology, gender or identity, form or textuality. If anybody involved ever encountered this stuff at college or university level, they have since either forgotten or renounced it. Or just never met any of it, to begin with.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not asking for Metz 101 (The Grand Syntagmatique Lives!), or yet another garbled rehash of the bare tenets of Laura Mulvey’s ancient “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. But let’s point a finger right where there’s a glaring discrepancy: the case of Jaws.
Few movies were as central – in a pulse-of-the-moment type of way – to the film theory revolutions of the 1970s and ‘80s as Jaws. Serge Daney wrote about it as a “fantasy screen” (a piece that Jean-Baptiste Thoret, of a younger generation, says shaped his sensibility as a critic); Stephen Heath wrote about it – and neither of them in some stuffy academic journal, but in magazines such as Framework or Cahiers du cinéma and quasi-newspapers like Times Higher Education Supplement. Fredric Jameson was on the case of Jaws; Andrew Britton, too. Revisiting these texts today (I surveyed and compared a few of them in my 1986 essay “The Amazing Performing Film”) can give you a jolt: such intensity and significance was uncovered in what was on or off screen, whose POV (human or animal) was deployed, and what the path of viewer-identification was at any given moment of the drama.
As a “pop culture event”, Jaws was as important as Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) or Blue Steel (1989) to the ongoing, daily discussions, in and out of the classroom, about sexual objects and subjects, about spectacle and violence, about ideology and excess. You didn’t “have to be there” to appreciate this; the traces are in the historical record, clear and easy to read. One indication of that is an audiovisual essay made in 2016 (I didn’t like it much, but it exists and made its mark) by Jonathan Wysocki: A Doll’s Eyes, about how a childhood-cum-adolescent obsession with Jaws came to queasily trigger and mess with a slow recognition of queer identity.
So what does Sasha Stone tell us about Jaws in her Voir episode, the opener “Summer of the Shark”? That it was part of her childhood: a banal fact, common to literally millions of people. That it scared, thrilled and exhilarated her: further banality. That it sparked her love and appreciation of cinema: an origin tale, uninteresting in itself unless it takes us somewhere, shows us something – about either the culture and the times, or the film as a text (sorry for the ten-dollar word there).
Yet Stone hardly even tells us anything intriguing about herself (I kept waiting for the Smooth Talk-type revelation of blossoming teenage sexuality, nice or nasty). She had a sister; she watched a film; she liked it. Big deal! At most, we imbibe the lesson that girls, too, love movies – perhaps this carries the force of revelation in the stunted, boyish world of Ain’t it Freak Awards.
Of Jaws, she says she would come to learn, in distant adulthood, that it was “a great story, brilliantly told” and that it had – good god! – “complex characters”. Oh, and that it started some kind of vague trend toward movie blockbusters in the era of Star Wars (1977) that arrived on its heels: a Wiki fun fact, instant sociological history reduced to a nutshell. That's all a film critic needs to know these days, clearly! And, amidst all this nostalgic mush, not a smidgin of any of the heated sex-and-ideology-and-spectatorship debate that once raged around Jaws – and might still rage, might still matter for some viewers previously unaware of it, if Voir would bother gave it an airing.
I’ve lingered on “Summer of the Shark”, but similar problems of non-or-anti-intellectual myopia bedevil all other episodes of the series. It’s true (at a slightly lesser level of intensity) of all three Taylor & Ramos contributions, which must disappoint even this duo’s fan brigade. “The Ethics of Revenge” swims in a comfortably Tarantino sphere of argument: there’s something timeless and universal about revenge plots in cinema, viscerally violent but also a matter of justice – and revenge is messy, hard to control, possibly dehumanising to its inflamed perpetrator! Not much political curiosity here. Nonetheless, it ‘s a well-edited survey (of mostly obvious examples), and the comparison of a nasty scene from Goodfellas (1990) with its watered-down, rejigged TV equivalent is revealing.
“The Duality of Appeal” (ep. 4) had me scratching my head, because its initial burning question (with particular reference to animation) is: “What is appealing?” – an oddly formulated aesthetic query I have never asked myself, or heard anyone ask, in all my years of studying film. Pleasure, spectacle, affect, fascination? Sure. Appeal? Never. Yet this is presented as the yardstick of all analytical rumination by critics and makers alike.
As for “Film vs Television” (ep. 5), it treats us to a dreary accumulation of commonplaces about the differences in these media (the “cinematic” is defined as the “immersive” and vice versa – plus it has “figurative subtext”) and, once these distinctions have been dutifully blurred by the digital revolution, ends with the underwhelming wisdom that “At the end of the day, what really matters are the stories that capture your imagination”. There’s zero distance between it and a thousand routinely reflexive TV-archival compilations (Spanish TV specialises in this genre on an almost nightly basis) that wax on about “radio with pictures”, “the box in the corner”, remote control democracy, viewer distraction, “cinematic TV”, blablabla.
That leaves the final episode, “Profane and Profound” (which has two directors, Keith Clark & Julie Ng, neither of whom are the writer-narrator-guest-critic Chaw). Televisual oddity to note: this discussion of one film, Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. (yes, I like it, too), begins and ends with stills (mostly on-set photos) in black and white. You know the mindset: 1982 was so long ago, man, ancient history! Stupid televisual logic, once more, to go with the popcorn, and kids hanging out of moving cars.
I have an aversion to the buzzword conversation – as in “the current cultural conversation we all share”, which these days means what’s trending on Twitter in the current 24-hour cycle – and Chaw leads with this quadruple-zinger: in ’82 (when time began), Hill’s film offered an “edgy, dangerous conversation about race and identity in America. It was a conversation I was ready for. A conversation about us. A conversation about you and me”.
Chaw (author of a threatened forthcoming book on the director) refers here to his own mixed race-and-culture identity as a Chinese American. Fair enough; at least biography and origin story are hitched here (unlike with Stone) to a bigger, social world (the definition of “us”-hailing familiarity halts at the perimeter of the USA, naturally). He mentions the film’s cop-buddy genre, its release-calendar context, the launching of Eddie Murphy’s star career; but the big point is that 48 Hrs., as it collides “commercial and inflammatory” elements, becomes “a challenging, even at times progressive treatise on race relations in the United States”. A great deal of retelling the story (Scorsese-movie-doco style, except with more b&w stills inserted) follows, with this clincher: a genre movie it may be, but 48 Hrs. ultimately “elevates” itself to the level of an “important” (American) “tragedy”.
None of these assertions are entirely wrong. But they float airily in a context lacking a grasp of film history or social history any deeper than a few decades, or any wider than an only-slightly-off-mainstream set of references. (Describing Murphy’s persona in 48 Hrs. as an “existential threat” gives the game away.) And they parrot a second-hand, unexamined set of critical principles about what makes a popular movie “transcend” its generic formula, and what allows it to address “the riddle of race and representation in the United States”. It’s the kind of pseudo-serious blather (no doubt sincerely meant) that we hear on every second DVD audio commentary in the early 2020s, especially when the subject is Hill, Friedkin, Kotcheff, Ritchie, Romero and similar “progressive” filmmakers labouring within the system of the ‘70s and ‘80s: a mixture of sociological truism and posturing, hardnosed insight into filmmaking craft (hey, Hill really knows how to direct a fight scene! Ain’t it great?).
However smoothly and slickly you wrap that package up, it’s just not enough to count as good, serious, insightful film criticism – whether “visual essay” or any other kind of essay.
© Adrian Martin 5 & 6 January 2021