Monday, August 29, 2005

Thoughts on Progressive Criticism & Film

Big thanks to Paul Fileri for drawing my attention to The French Cinema Book (eds. Temple and Witt), in which there is a fantastic article by Nicole Brenez on 'Forms' from 1960 to 2004. I had, for some inexplicable reason, judged the book by its cover and presumed it was a cheesy undergrad textbook which would no doubt fall prey to the very master narratives of French cinema that it explicitly tries to problematize. But I'm glad to know now how worthy a book it is, or appears to be on a cursory look-through.

Something I cherish about Brenez's writing, her critical and philosophical stance, is that her intense air of commitment finds itself channeled through various and unpredictable circuits. As she outlines early in her article, there are a handful of avant-garde work: the 'figurative' (Bresson, Hanoun, Pialat, et al.), the socially and politically engaged (she mentions here René Vautier), and the purely formally inventive (or the 'useless' as, she says, Jonas Mekas puts it). For Brenez, all of these very different (and yet not always distinct!) formations of cinema can lead in the desired direction, namely, for her (and for myself as well), a resoundingly critical investigation of our real, capitalist world and a productive expression of freedom and beauty.

One of the symptoms of proclaimed progressivism with regard to the arts is a mind-numbing settling into critical cliches, formulas, quotas--it's almost as if one is bitterly frightened at the prospect of thinking progressively on one's toes, provisionally & multiply, where there are innumerable paths to any given end, and a work of art has a lot of different aspects. (If I can toss off this judgment so freely it's only because it applies to myself, too.) Why do a lot of progressive viewers turn the game into a checklist for mainstream movies (e.g., this black lesbian occupies a lead role, thus the film must be progressive)? And I'm not trying to belitting the genuine necessity for analysis of representation, here. But I once came across a militantly "Maoist" film review that praised Spielberg's Amistad because it taught that it is right to rebel against oppressors! And this is not the only example of such crudity and cluelessness I've come across. And, whatever the centrality or importance one assigns to Hollywood and its international equivalents (the main arena or the giant enemy), I've found that oftentimes bad (progressive) criticism and cinephilia ultimately does precisely what Brenez bravely fights against--positing the 'industrial' (commercial) cinema as the center, and everything else as the periphery, the marginal. What we need to do is not invert that so much as shatter it.

Every work of art is an argument, an experience, and a treatise, and it's a major job of the critic (however defined) to locate and open up these forms of address, to try to see which ones are of greater magnitude and which ones are of lesser, to uncover how a film or any artwork gets to where it is and what it does while it's there. We should not be obliged to play by the rules of business ...

No comments: