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)