18 May 2012

Always at the crossroads: Listening to crickets as modern media evolves

Prompted by reading a few skeins of Twitter abuse hurled toward film crickets who are tweeting from Cannes 2012, I went looking for the phrase "pecked to death by ducks." I found this article, originally published in Newcity in a slightly different form in February 2007 (and not online), and I almost cringe at the thought of re-reading this snapshot of a moment that passed over five years ago.

MEDIA AND MARKETING STRATEGIES SHIFT BY THE DAY: a prime example that affects how one writes about movies has been the increase in Tuesday night screenings for the bulk of Chicago film critics of movies like Breach and David Fincher’s Zodiac. (Paramount was kind enough to send out a creepy reproduction of “an authentic Zodiac letter scanned directly from evidence.”)

Are the films bad? In these cases, no. (The Thursday night screenings of Reno: 911: Miami may tell another story.) What it changes is the ability for a reviewer to be part of the conversation on the opening weekend. The critic Robin Wood made a simple distinction last year between a reviewer and a critic: "The reviewer writes for those who haven't seen a film, telling readers whether they shouldn't and offering a fairly clear idea of what the film is and does; the critic assumes the reader has seen it, making a plot synopsis superfluous, and attempts to engage him or her in an imaginary dialogue about its content, its degree of success, its value. The great literary critic F. R. Leavis summed up very succinctly the ideal critical exchange: 'This is so, isn't it? ' 'Yes, but...'"
Inadvertently, the role of the writer who covers the movie beat to champion a small or strange film and have an impact on its opening week attendance could tail off to nothing if these practices were to become widespread, and yet without the commercial consideration, a fresher form of “criticism” could emerge. But that’s Pollyannish, leaving out as it does what’s happening to print media, where dailies and weeklies alike are cutting space and migrating extended content to the Internet. (Still, I have to admire the Toronto critic who left a Thursday night screening of Ghost Rider and immediately composed his notice on his BlackBerry.)

Even a couple of hours with your trigger finger working the keyboard can convince you, via the internet, of the death of many things large and small, and that would encourage the genre of aware and worldly film criticism. "Suicide by paying attention," a colleague called it, after sharing a barrage of blogs that held a heavy baggage of contempt, contumely and cultural discontinuity. Read the comments section of any site with 4,000 hits a day and it’s the sort of slow death that the journalist Tim Cahill memorably describes as being "pecked to death by ducks."


To pick one shining, contrary example, the great film analysts David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson do exemplary, extensive work describing the elements of filmmaking they’re fixed upon. Yet two pieces shone for me while considering this subject. The first is a passage from the poet Mark Doty’s “Still Life with Oysters and Lemon,” after three separate friends in one day reported their astonishment with Children of Men (each wholly unaware of the myriad forms of spite piled upon Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s masterpiece online): “The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away… Someone has left this knife resting on the edge of the plate, it’s handle jutting toward us; someone plans, in a moment, to pick it up again. These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refused perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection, this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time… [S]omething of the imperfect, the quickly passing, the morning meal with its immediate pleasures has been imported into the realm of perfection, into the long, impersonal light of centuries.”
There is a thrilling analogue to what I love about the potential of filmmaking for the transporting moment; of the practice of criticism, a fourteen-page interview with the exceptionally insightful Australian writer Adrian Martin recently appeared online, entitled “Responsibility and Criticism.” It's the most lucid and bracing exploration I've read in some time about what ought to be going on before and after the lights go down on the professional film cricket. "[W]riting about film is always about capturing fugitive sensibilities as they form and die, at a very rapid rate, within the cultural sphere… [N]o film is truly old, or in the past! Every cinephile should have the experience of watching a silent film. I had this experience watching some Jean Epstein films recently-and suddenly feeling confronted with something that is still, today, newer and more modern than we ourselves are as spectators. There is a good, simple reason for this: the cinema is always a laboratory, a field of experimentation: experimentation with image, sound, performance, gesture, light, colour, music, rhythm, storytelling, etc. No experiment is ever exhausted, and no aesthetic or cultural problem is solved for all time. So, when we return to old films, we therefore see that they are completely contemporary to us and our concerns, if we are open to the traces of experimentation in them-there are always new ideas in old films. I do not regard the 'cinema of the past' as something neat, clean, classical, canonical. Cinema is always 'at the crossroads', at every moment of its existence, and so are we.”

And in breaking news, Ron Howard intends to remake Michael Haneke’s serenely savage critique of representation and the bourgeoise, Cache. And so on and so forth, and so on and so forth, Et Cetera, Et Cetera. Death comes slowly.

[Here's the PDF of the Adrian Martin article.]