Film criticism: before and after

by Serge Daney

Published in Cinémarabe nr. 7/8, 1978. The articles assembled in this special edition around the theme of “film criticism” were supposed to be discussed in the presence of their writers in Hammamet (Tunesia) and Marrakech (Marocco). Unfortunately, due to a number of reasons this colloquium never took place.

Precaution. There is little to gain from the gargarizing of words. Those used in the introductory text of this edition – words like aesthetics, criticism, culture, struggle, national, forms, popular, dynamics, etc. – have a different meaning depending on me placing myself here (France, or rather Paris) or there (for example the Arab world, the Maghreb, or the little that I know about it). I’m even not quite sure if we know very well what they encompass here, in Paris. For example the expression “film criticism”. Also, before asking oneself how an Arab criticism should demarcate itself from French criticism (Parisian in fact), I would like to describe how I see this criticism function (badly).

Before (television). Film criticism in France is undoubtedly constituted on the model – established in the XIXth century – of pictorial or theatrical criticism. The critic is not a professional spectator. In the best case (s)he lives off writing by contributing to newspapers (freelance or in charge of a column). (S)he has to have culture and a minimum of taste for writing.

(S)he sees the same films as the average spectator. Simply because (s)he sees almost all of the films, (s)he is the instance who distinguishes (or should distinguish) the good from the bad, the well-done from the failed, the fake from the authentic, the new from the old. (S)he takes on the role of conductor and regulator. (S)he gives to readers advice for “enlightened consumption”. It’s a time (before the “crisis” hit) when the whole world sees a lot of films, but when films are created according to a limited number of narrative and representational codes, tied to serial production in the Studios of Hollywood, Misr or Mohan. Characteristic of this time was that there was an ideological consensus, guaranteed by the natural adhesion to codes. Divergences can only bear on their application (more or less talented, rigorous, artisanal). The role of the critic is not make cinema loved (which is spontaneously adopted and loved by the people), but to make it accepted by those who regulate the Bourgeois Culture. This situation lasts until the 1950s. At this time the appearance of television, a medium that has an even more pronounced mass (and massifying) vocation, will gradually topple cinema into culture (via the movement of ciné-clubs). The generation of critics-filmmakers of Cahiers du Cinéma, for example, is contemporary to this mutation.

In the old-fashioned cinephilia, there was, in the connivance and the anonymity of obscure cinema spaces, a provisory coincidence between the mass audience and petit-bourgeois cinema lovers who preferred the anonymous, established, a bit prostitutional space of cinema (the prostituted image: the star) to the stilted space of theatre, place of social representation and bourgeois prestige.

After (television). This situation will change bit by bit. This will result in the “crisis” of cinema (magic word that doesn’t explain anything), which is traditionally attributed to television. We observe two things.
1. Cinema ceases to be the dominant audiovisual medium
2. Film criticism ceases to be the only discourse about cinema. Let’s expand on this.

What is in crisis in cinema, since 20 years, is not talent or the avant-garde, it’s the grand (serial and industrial) cinema, which leads to cinematic “yogurts” like Taxi Mauve (Yves Boisset, 1977). Why? Because cinema is no longer a privileged means of ideological impregnation and control of the masses. It’s no longer with films that the French bourgeoisie stages its consensus (except, by way of the US, with Walt Disney or catastrophe films, as means to reaffirm the consensus in extremis). Inversely, it’s in cinema that the crisis of consensus reverberates the most.

Cinema becomes a sensitive plate for all the debates of opinion which are already delineated by the press. Thus, decrease of popular consumption of films and increase of (intellectual and non-intellectual) petit-bourgeois consumption, in search of general (and vague) ideas. The codes that bore on the ideological consensus run out of steam, which allows for a certain room for maneuver and which makes for formal innovations (Bresson, Tati, Rosselini, Antonioni, Godard) finding their way into industrial cinema and producing small ones. This desegregation of codes, the disqualification of work in the framework of a distraught industry, are still essential phenomena today, that need analyzing.

A grave rupture is produced between the remnants of mass – or “popular” – cinema and an “art & essai” kinda cinema (“cinéma d’auteurs”). The new cinema audience accepts (which is new) being in default of a film (disappointed, shocked, bored – up until a certain point). It also accepts that a film no longer suffices to itself and requires a debate (hence a very sharp loss of acuity and spontaneity in the reaction of “enlightened” spectators). Cinema encultures itself by increasingly playing a role comparable to that of theater yesteryear. In the face of this, the remnants of “popular” audiences are heteroclites and never meet one another: remainders of family (Disney, French comedians, catastrophes, animals), gangs (karate), atomized, migrated individuals (porno).

What happens to criticism and the profession of critics?
1. There is no effect whatsoever on this popular audience which doesn’t read and which is already staged by publicity
2. There is a – limited – influence on the average cinephilized layers (young and urban audience mostly)

What influence? Paradoxically: at a time when criticism has less and less effective action (as it is replaced, both up- and downstream, by distributors, managers, publicists, etc.), the circle of cinema – films to see, to think about, to make known, to criticize – is considerably widened. Especially in Paris (privileged city). The films arrive on new media (broadcast, video, super8) and moreover, they arrive from the whole world (every political regime understands, even if out of suspicion, that one has to take the audiovisual into account – see cases à la Moustapha Akkad or Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina). A critic can no longer be the common measure of everything (s)he sees. The critical activity enters into crisis as well.

Before judging one has to inform, before informing one has to inform oneself. There are no longer communal codes linking the producer to the critic and to the consumer. A film is seen. Who has made it? Where does it come from? What with, against what does it exist? Very rare are the critics who try to see from up close by themselves.

More prevalent are the critics who find everything prepared for them in pressbooks, which hey copy while adding their own signature or writing effect. The critic comes dangerously close to the “masquerade of culture”, as described by Straub. Finally, critics are transmuted into dealers of their discoveries and become press agents.

Which is fair. But there is a risk that the critic confounds the work of pre-chewed information-publicity with the work of criticism. (S)he runs the risk of becoming a sociologist specialized in cinema (in committed or African cinema perhaps) who unceasingly refers the product back to context and the context back to the product. And who, not at all knowing what the artistic work consists off, ends up despising it.

There is no evidence that activity of criticism is viable, interesting, evident today, here in France. No evidence that it is the lever which, in the Arab world, would allow for the advancement of those who love cinema and who do something with it. One has to start from something else: criticism has largely become a simulacrum, it is only a discourse on cinema amongst others. There are others. For those who continue to be mobilized by it, there is one sole weapon: the independence of thought.

(Translated by Stoffel Debuysere)

Collateral Damage: Los Angeles Continues Playing Itself


by Thom Andersen

Originally published in Cinema Scope no. 20 (2004). Thom Andersen is one of the Artists in Focus on the forthcoming Courtisane Festival (1-5 April 2015), on the occasion of which the restored version of ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’ will be shown.

Since my video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself was launched in Cinema Scope a year ago, it has had a curious career. Somehow it’s been better received than I anticipated. I thought I had gone out of my way to make agreement difficult. But not far enough, it seems. There have been so many good reviews I find myself resenting the bad ones—and taking them too seriously. When Gary Indiana, writing in Artforum, took exception to my claim that Hollywood movies denigrate the modernist residential architecture of Los Angeles by citing the “many less ‘negative’ representations” of buildings by R. M. Schindler, I actually wrote a letter to the editor asking what movies he had in mind. I knew one, but had he even seen Impulse (1990)? Did I miss something else? I never got an answer.

Continue reading Collateral Damage: Los Angeles Continues Playing Itself

Notes for a Film (on the Forgotten Space)


By Noël Burch and Allan Sekula

Notes taken from the proposal for ‘the Forgotten Space’, based on Allan Sekula’s exhibition and book project ‘Fish Story’. Published in OCTOBER 100, Spring 2002. ‘The Forgotten Space’ will be shown on 19 February at KASKcinema, in the presence of Noël Burch.

Our film is about globalization and the sea, the “forgotten space” of our modernity.

First and foremost, globalization is the penetration of the multinational corporate economy into every nook and cranny of human life. It is the latest incarnation of an imperative that has long been accepted as vital necessity, even before economics could claim the status of a science. The first law of proto- capitalism: markets must multiply through foreign trade or they will stagnate and die. As the most sophisticated of the seventeenth-century defenders of mercantilism, William Petty, put it (in Political Arithmetick, 1690): “There is much more to be gained by Manufacture than Husbandry, and by Merchandise than Manufacture…. A Seaman is in effect three Husbandmen.”

The contemporary vision of an integrated, globalized, self-regulating capitalist world economy can be traced back to some of these axioms of the capitalist “spirit of adventure.” And yet what is largely missing from the current picture is any sense of material resistance to the expansion of the market imperative. Investment flows intangibly through the ether as if by magic. Money begets money. Wealth is weightless. Sea trade, when it is remembered at all, is a relic of an older and obsolete economy, a world of decrepitude, rust, and creaking cables, of the slow movement of heavy things. If Petty’s old fable held that a seafarer was worth three peasants, neither count for much in the even more fabulous new equation. And yet we would all die without the toil of farmers and seafarers.

Our premise is that the sea remains the crucial space of globalization. Nowhere else is the disorientation, violence, and alienation of contemporary capitalism more manifest, but this truth is not self-evident, and must be approached as a puzzle, or mystery, a problem to be solved.

The factory system is no longer concentrated in the developed world but has become mobile and dispersed. As ships become more like buildings, the giant floating warehouses of the ‘just-in-time” system of distribution, factories begin to resemble ships, stealing away stealthily in the night, restlessly searching for ever- cheaper labor. A garment factory in Los Angeles or Hong Kong closes, the work benches and sewing machines reappear in the suburbs of Guangzhou or Dacca. In the automobile industry, for example, the function of the ship is akin to that of conveyor systems within the old integrated car factory: parts span the world on their journey to the final assembly line.

The function of sea trade is no longer a separate, mercantilist enterprise, but has become an integral component of the world-industrial system. We are distracted from the full implications of this insight by two powerful myths, which stifle curiosity. The first myth is that the sea is nothing more than a residual mercantilist space, a reservoir of cultural and economic anachronisms, fit to be viewed only with nostalgia. The second myth is that we live in a postindustrial society, that cybernetic systems and the service economy have radically marginalized the “old economy” of heavy material fabrication and processing. Thus the fiction of obsolescence mobilizes vast reserves of sentimental longing for things that are not really dead.

Our response to these myths is that the sea is the key to understanding globalized industrialism. Without a thoroughly modern and sophisticated “revolution” in ocean-going cargo-handling technology, the global factory would not exist, and globalization would not be a burning issue.

What began in the mid-1950s as a modest American improvement in cargo logistics, an effort to achieve new efficiencies within a particular industry, has now taken on world historic importance. The cargo container, a standardized metal box, capable of being quickly transferred from ship to highway lorry to railroad train, has radically transformed the space and time of port cities and ocean passages.

There have been enormous increases in economies of scale. Older transport links, such as the Panama Canal, slide toward obsolescence as ships become more and more gargantuan. Super-ports, pushed far out from the metropolitan center, require vast level tracts for the storage and sorting of containers. The old sheltering deepwater port, with its steep hillsides and its panoramic vistas, is less suited to these new spatial demands than low delta planes that nonetheless must be continually dredged to allow safe passage for the deeper and deeper draft of the new super-ships.

Ships are loaded and unloaded in as little as twelve hours, compared to the laborious cargo stowage practices of fifty years ago. The old waterfront culture of sailor bars, flophouses, brothels, and ship chandlers give way either to a depopulated terrain vague or-blessed with the energies of real-estate speculators-to a new artificial maritime space of theme restaurants, aestheticized nautical relics, and expensive ocean-view condominiums. As the class character of the port cities changes, the memory of mutiny and rebellion, of intense class struggle by dockers, seafarers, fishermen, and shipyard workers-struggles that were fundamental to the formation of the institutions of social democracy and free trade-unionism- fades from public awareness. What tourist in today’s Amsterdam is drawn to the old monument commemorating dockworkers’ heroic but futile strike to prevent the Nazi deportation of the Dutch Jews?

If the cargo container represents one instrument of maritime transformation, the companion instrument is not logistical but legal. This is the flag of convenience system of ship registry. Here again, the Americans were in the lead, seeking to break powerful maritime unions in the wake of World War II. If globalization is understood by many in the world today as Americanization, the maritime world gives us, then, these two examples of the revolutionary and often brutal ingenuity of American business practices. The flag of convenience system allows for ships owned in rich countries to be registered in poor countries. These countries sell their flag for a price. This explains the often mysterious and obscure banners that fly from the sterns of vessels: Malta, the Marshall Islands, Liberia, Panama, and so on. The system was created to obscure legal responsibility for safety and fair labor practices. Today’s seafaring crews are drawn from the old and new Third Worlds: Filipinos, Chinese, Indonesians, Ukrainians, Russians. The conditions they endure are not unlike those experienced by the lascars of the eighteenth century.

A consequence of the global production-distribution system is that links between port and hinterland become all the more important. It is not just the port that is transformed, but the highway and rail system, the very transport infrastructure of a country or a continent, as evidenced by the Betuwe line in Holland, or by the frequently catastrophic pressure of truck traffic on Alpine tunnels.

The boxes are everywhere, mobile and anonymous, their contents hidden from view. One could say that these containers are “coffins of remote labor-power” carrying goods manufactured somewhere else, by invisible workers on the other side of the globe. We are told by the apologists of globalization that this accelerated flow is indispensable for our continued prosperity and for the deferred future prosperity of those who labor so far away. But perhaps this is a case for Pandora, or, better yet, for her more clairvoyant sister, Cassandra.

Our film moves between four port cities: Bilbao, Rotterdam, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong. It visits the industrial hinterland in south China, and the transport hinterland in the heart of Holland. Of the four port cities, three can be classed as “super-ports,” the largest in the world. Here we encounter functional hypertrophy. Bilbao, a fading port with a brave maritime history, has become the site of radical symbolic transformation of derelict maritime space. In Bilbao, functional atrophy coexists with symbolic hypertrophy, a delirium of neo-baroque maritime nostalgia wedded to the equally delirious promise of the “new economy.”

The challenge of responding adequately both to this symbolic overload and to the sheer mute giantism of the functional maritime world has led us to imagine a film that is, first and foremost, a “documentary,” precisely attentive to the materiality of social processes and testimony, and, at the same time, welcoming to the hyperbole and carnival of the puppet show, animation, and the staged micro-drama….

Do you remember future?


By Bojan Vasić

Written in Belgrade, August 2014, after a screening of ‘Do you remember revolution?’ by Loredana Bianconi. Translation from Serbo-Croat to English by Jovana Savic. Loredana will be our guest for a DISSENT! session on 16 October.

This is not one of the films I am used to. This one has no subject but rather an experience talked about by four collocutors. What we have in front of us are, simply, the answers: four women activists and one more, although invisible – the one behind the camera, asking questions. The difference between this and the other films I’ve seen becomes visible especially when we compare this art piece to other motion picture films which deal with the same topic. Most of the films with the word ’revolution’ in their titles are reducing a complex, extended and specific, not easily understood experience, to yet another sensation that should ’make us think’, ’excite’ or simply entertain. A revolution rarely goes further than filming someone’s phantasm about a revolution, filming a prejudice our time has towards the possibility of it’s own end. A revolution is, thus, unimaginable – more un-thought of than unthinkable – and all those revolutions that dared to really happen, are bound to, judging by our sound reasoning, fail because they do not match with our phantasm about a revolutionary change. When we talk about revolution, we most often talk about precisely a phantasm. Saying the big ’R’ word very often, being too quick to thematize it, put it on posters and billboards even, it becomes clear that we are not talking about a change in our experience but about the present spreading at the very notion of revolution, contaminating it and drowning at the end, absorbing it into it’s own self and judging according to it’s own criteria.

This particular film I wouldn’t call neither a motion picture nor a documentary. Perhaps the very experience of a motion picture is such that is seems like mostly staying outside when it comes to the experience of revolution. Even those, undoubtedly successful films, as are Godard and Žilnik’s films, constantly oscillate, among all, between three external points (in relation to revolutionary spirit): the author’s comment on the struggle and it’s participants, achieving a filmic believability of the plot and an effective film image (the scene). And precisely because of that aesthetic success of these films we don’t expect a replay of a revolutionary experience, but what we always expect from any good work of art – an aestheticized subjective author’s point of view towards the topic of their work.

However, this is not a classic documentary either. It barely has any documentary material interpolated into the conversation. A few shots from the trials are shown only in the introductory scene, but they are soundless, so they are put into the film crippled, edited, incomplete. The entire introductory scene is missing any sound. Even the rest of the film is done without any musical background to follow the interviews. This radical minimalist idea in fact comes between the viewer and the viewed. Giving up the usage of archive footages, the barrier of ’specific historical situation’, which could set the shown experience in time and space of its happening, is breaking. By turning off the sound, reducing the shown to an enclosed space where there are only bodies and voices of the protagonists, the assumption of our subjective viewer’s detachment, our position expressed by emotions contained within the background music and by the distance implied in a double, parallel image and sound which doesn’t belong with it, is being erased.

Deducting some of the basic components of the film we get a story that is historically defined, but not objectively separated from us as something belonging to the past. Excluding the original photographs and footages connected with the Red Brigades’ or Prima Linea’ actions is preventing the monotony of narrated experience and its musealization. Nothing of the narrated has anything documentary in itself, because a live statement doesn’t have to have anything compatible with the logic of the document. Similarly, these statements are specific because they lack the closure of what we could call a subjective view and which emerges by evoking – only, the subject evoking and the one being evoked would radically differ from each other. These stories definitely are individual, but not personal in a way life stories we could identify ourselves with are, those which awake the empathy because they are told viewed from a ’normal’ position, close to us. What separates us from that is a complete focus on the ’topic’ , but also that the interviewed women subjectively haven’t given up. The viewer is not being offered just the expression of the live individual relation to the same, but former life experience which, by itself, overrides the subjective, but precisely the continuation of it unfolding. In a word, we hear and see four persons dived into a militant experience of illegal underground struggle, marked by it, marked, in fact, still, by their own choice. There is no distance, because the loyalty to the choice is what endures, what exists still, even when the time of struggle and incarceration, a result of that choice, ends.

And that is what the minimalist, carefully thought of, aesthetics of the film Do you remember revolution? achieves. Its time is a time of decisions, the eternal presence of the inner space of the subject confronted with the possibility of ethical and political choice. The minimalism of the means creates a space for existential between the historical and the personal. And that is a space we all potentially share. In that space a viewer meets four voices, like hypothesis of the achievement of one’s own freedom. Somebody made a choice which we didn’t make ourselves, somebody risked joining their own life and freedom with their beliefs. And that space of subject’s potential entering into the field of open struggle is a space of our inner truth and not of the Italy in the 70s.

’’What would I do?’’ was my first reaction to the subjective presentation of those situations opened by decision. The speech of the protagonists is not representing four personal stories about the fight but four individual aspects of reliving the same decision. And the editing contributes to this impression most directly. The expressions are interwoven following the chronological clock of being loyal to the chosen way of struggle. Each of the four voices makes the given picture complex and enriches it, showing that countless voices could emerge after them and that line naturally ends with the question ’’What should I do?’’, here and now.

The aesthetics of this film, carefully used for ethical purposes, could be carelessly interpreted as the absence of an aesthetic. Which is not a coincidence. The filming process is well aware of itself and its role to be successfully put aside, turning into a perfect medium for the interviewed women’s messages. However, the form is not natural and it doesn’t retreat, simply, in front of the authenticity of the content. It enables it to be heard and with great effort in reducing the tension between the elementary formal requests of such a medium and the statements which are the contents of the film. And one of the voices equally heard is, by all means, that of the author, the voice of the fifth collocutor. The minimalism enables the silence every sound so that we hear Barbara, Susanna, Adriana, Nadia and Loredana dived into the experience of Red Brigades’ actions, that their every sentence and movement sound strong and clear, as an object – whether we agree with them or not – and remind us of the loneliness and strength in which they existed in their time while simultaneously asking that we take responsibility in our own.

Straub on Pasolini


Written on 26 January 1981 in Rome, addressed to Jean Narbori for the Cahiers du Cinéma Hors Série on Pasolini.

Dear Jean,

This is what has touched us in some films, happy few, of P.P.P. :

Gib mir dabei, mein Gott! ein Samariterherz,
Daß ich zugleich den Nächsten liebe
Und mich bei seinem Schmerz
Auch über ihn betrübe,
Damit ich nicht bei ihm vorübergeh
Und ihn in seiner Not nicht lasse.
Gib, daß ich Eigenliebe hasse,
So wirst du mir dereinst das Freudenleben
Nach meinem Wunsch, jedoch aus Gnaden geben.

Give me as well, my God! a Samaritan heart,
so that I might also love my neighbor
and at his suffering
be myself also troubled,
so that I will never pass by him
and leave him in his need.
Grant that I might hate self-love,
so that one day the joyous life, my desire,
You will grant me out of grace.

In friendship,
Jean-Marie Straub

Danièle *

(From Bach cantate BWV 77 – “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben”)