The Middle Distance

Pierre Bonnard Autoportrait

Pierre Bonnard autoportrait

Bonnard Examining Leaves , Marthe Bonnard, 1900

~

„Bonnard, the great master of the blur. To create the blur in art, the hand must be precise, firm, like that of a surgeon.“

– David Perlov

yoman-naomi-perlov

„It is necessary to see them in the middle of the field, moist fingers raised to catch the wind and ears pricked up to hear what it’s saying. So the most naked sensations serve as a compass. Everything else, ethics and aesthetics, content and form, derives from this.

–  Serge Daney on  Trop tôt / Trop tard  (trans. Jonathan Rosenbaum)

 

REMARKS ON NEW CINEPHILIA

A note for transparency: the bitterness in my response to Girish Shambu’s manifesto For a New Cinephilia is only partly caused by the text in question. I do see it as an elemental representation of tendencies I find inconsiderate – but however facile these tendencies may be, my strong antipathy is mainly aimed at those who wish to authoritatively misuse the powers released by these supposedly new ways of relating to cinema. Misuse means the mendacious generalization, fictionalization and arbitrary tailoring of oeuvres to make them fit the intended narrative. The lighter consequence of this attitude is the uncritical acceptance of commonly agreed upon, classifying interpretations, a failure in noticing contradictions, complexities and polemics. The harsher manifestation would be the laundering of film history, to be constantly on the alert for deleting abusive directors from a shared notion of canons, as prescribed by Shambu. It’s important for me to clarify that readers who find Shambu’s text enlightening or emancipatory are not subject to my criticism at all. It’s all the more important because I’m unsure who the actual target of Shambu’s manifesto might be. As I will argue below, critics, festivals, archives bask in all types of film appreciation, because all types coexist.

In his text, For a New Cinephilia, Girish Shambu offers an inconsistent portrait of what he calls “old cinephilia” and uses imprecise or misleading arguments to make a point. Doing this for the “right cause” and presenting it as a matter of morality makes his proposition all the more disturbing.

Shambu composes his article as a fierce and defiant manifesto, a sort of “counter-text” – when it perfectly aligns with a well-established contemporary way of thinking which enjoys a lot of currency not just in academia but also in corporate policies: an understanding of the need for “representational justice” in the face of “dominant identity groups” and “false universalism”.

At the same time, he ignores the complexities of past cinephilias, the vast accomplishments of feminist, avant-garde or simply non-auteurist writers and subcultures. Because of this ahistorical obsession with the present moment, relevance and (pseudo-)revolt, he neglects the fact that there never was such a thing as a singular, homogeneous film culture and that diversity played a role even among the staunchest auteurist critics of yesteryear.

My remarks are not meant to be extended to Shambu’s career as a scholar and critic.

Many of his efforts are inspiring to me, particularly the foundation and editing of the online journal, LOLA.

Below, I will react to Shambu’s claims point by point, keeping in line with the structure of his original article.

 

1

In the web of explanations Shambu constructs to define old cinephilia, the first one is the most fundamental and systemic – in his view, it has been the dominant mode of film appreciation or moviegoing in general since the end of World War II. As his reasoning unfolds, it becomes clear that he ascribes the hegemonic nature of this cinephilia to the impact of André Bazin and his disciples (whose stance on various subjects often placed them in opposition to Bazin – something that Shambu makes no effort to note). Thus, the large-scale hypothesis shifts somewhat as Shambu locates the origin of what he perceives as the universally presiding film culture: it is a rather specific one, formed by a minority group. He is certainly aware of this shift, it is the very subject of his criticism – a minority group dictating a quasi-absolutist vis-à-vis to cinema. In comparison, “new cinephilia,” which is what he champions, would acknowledge the manifold relations to the artform.

The ways of movie love need no acknowledgement or validation from any group of experts, they just exist. If for the “new cinephilia” the unity of a film culture is a nostalgic fantasy, why doesn’t it acknowledge the parallel existence of differing film cultures? Despite the self-consecration of certain auteurist critics, there has never been a homogeneous film culture in the Euro-Western world because different influences kicked in at different times in different places to different degrees – the instances of which could be listed endlessly. Here are three cases to sum it up.

  1. Let’s say a certain middlebrow, elitist-aspirant group wants an introduction to cinema through tastemakers based on their non-film-related output. The ideal intellectual is mainstream enough to serve as a comfort-providing, unquestionable authority but also obscure enough to satisfy that group’s need for distinction or snobbery. At a very particular moment in time and in a very particular place in the world, it may well be Susan Sontag – and this group may well learn that Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini are what makes film an art form. But it’s just as likely that within that same limited cultural sphere and in that same fragile, fleeting moment of history, they decide to open The New Yorker only to encounter the most powerful anti-auteurist critic in the history of film culture, Pauline Kael. They both represent the very mainstream denounced by Shambu, yet they represent complete opposites. Dark powers keep out names and tendencies from their own, fabricated version of film history. In some cases, these sins are committed with an auteurist sense of entitlement; in others, the same sort of self-satisfaction is applied to an opposing ideology. The totalizing effort on Shambu’s part, therefore, doesn’t describe forms of cinephilia at all. It only describes a certain sociological phenomenon: the competition between celebrity intellectuals and their respective (in themselves rather varied) groups of adherents.
  2. The second counter-example is not about an institutional mainstream but a quantitative one. Shambu knows that audiences watched films with all kinds of intentions and backgrounds throughout the 20th century, yet he poses as a redeemer (realizing the obvious becomes an act of moral compensation, necessitated by the ignorance of François Truffaut or Andrew Sarris). One of these intentions was to have a good time, to be entertained. And those millions in the German Federal Republic who chose to have a good time when buying a ticket for Old Shatterhand in 1964 were not tyrannized by those who were still raving about Helmut Käutner’s Die Rote and its nouvelle vagueish qualities. Nor were those few to whom Peter Nestler’s Mülheim/Ruhr meant the most that year. Large terrains of culture weren’t affected by auteurist critics, not in a bad way, not in any way. These groups, of course, always intertwined and co-existed (and they still do) – they all are film culture, together and in parts and there’s nothing homogeneous about it. Businessmen who keep films from being seen are much more likely agents of a desire for hegemony – and they indeed often dictate and define, unfortunately sometimes even archival policies. But they are rarely interested in theory – and based on Harvey Weinstein’s ideas about Wong Kar-Wai or Jim Jarmusch, auteur theory is no exception. Of course, Weinstein cashed in on the marketable label of the auteur – most evidently on the films of Quentin Tarantino – but this phenomenon is only symptomatic of the festival market and not of the specificities of the theory in question.
  3. Synchronicity is just as problematic an idea as homogeneity, so my third case is that of geographical terrains that managed to survive the violent terror of Cahiers du Cinéma – places like my home country, Hungary. It is part of the Euro-Western film cultures, and a few Hungarian filmmakers are even internationally celebrated based on the “cult of mise-en-scène.” Yet, at the highest levels of academic film theory in Hungary, it’s still a matter of complete insecurity what the auteur policy actually declares. Serious people can publish books in which they claim that Bonnie and Clyde predates Hollywood’s first auteurs. This is caused by lack of interest: serious thoughts are hard to come by about whether John Ford is an artist or not because film itself is not so much introduced and discussed as an art form – yes, I’m speaking about the country of Balázs Béla, duly noted. And I am sure that there are a number of other countries where film culture is so marginal that it is not defined by its internal conflicts and theories but by literature, fine art or music. Film culture is constituted by every person who participates, every subculture they form (purposely or unknowingly) – and that includes the avant-garde, the feminist circles, or filmmakers who proudly and unapologetically believed in participatory documentaries and film collectives, long before “new cinephilia” arose.

Disagreements within the group of young French critics during the 1950s may be less important but they obviously existed, and Shambu’s handling of their ideas is another instance of generalization. One of the several lines along which disagreements between Bazin and, for example, Jean-Luc Godard occurred was the matter of long takes and montage. And one of the reasons to disagree was how the implementation of these cinematic devices contribute to the film’s substance – which I highlight because at a later point Shambu deceptively suggests that “old cinephilia” exclusively cares for aesthetic satisfaction.

While it’s an important argument for me that “old cinephilia” was never all-powerful, its impact was evidently immense and, for certain people and in certain cases, irreversible. That is because the young critics of Cahiers wanted to be effective, wanted to self-authorize their place in journalism and in production, they sought power to use it for their own benefit. Of course, this is partly what Shambu denounces, yet it’s rather bewildering how he himself follows the tradition-defying, effect-seeking methodologies of Godard and his circle.

He also lets us know that “new cinephilia” lives comfortably on the internet. Strictly speaking, it’s not cinephilia then. The word cinephilia refers to the cinema. It doesn’t refer to the moving image, not even to celluloid, but to the cinema experience, to the communal experience, to the physical commitment one takes to learn about cinema, to the relations between cinemas and other urban spaces.

For most of us, television, the computer’s screen and other surfaces essentially and enjoyably form our insight into cinema. However, the transition of platforms, materiality and what is being lost at the cost of accessibility entail questions that should not be overlooked.

Finally, I am not sure what’s “old” and what’s “new” here.

Many effective cinephilias came decades before the prevailing of the symbolic Cahiers critics. Jean Epstein and the countless other prewar film society organizers may not be vitally important to Shambu’s point, but it would have been reassuring to know that he is aware of their socially very much committed and culturally enlightening actions.

Moreover, well-known articles about the end of the Parisian cinephilia and about a “new cinephilia” have been coming out at least since the late 1970s, or even earlier. Later on, this debate actually inspired one of film culture’s great correspondences, Movie Mutations. This, and Movie Mutations in particular, is treated with much greater awareness in Shambu’s first edition of The New Cinephilia (Caboose, 2015) – in the manifesto, all this seems to be missing due to the dulling effects of the censoring counterrevolutions that took place in the meantime.

2

The pleasures of the “old cinephilia” are not predominantly aesthetic. The respect for and interest in mise-en-scène never implied the unimportance of the social aspect. The films of John Ford are documents of a country learning to be a democracy, their popularity is an evidence of the general public’s interest in the origins of their community and his auteurist appreciation is partly based on that. Douglas Sirk, who according to Jacques Rivette was “always a real director”, made films about racial inequality, harmful insularity and suffering housewives. Charles Chaplin, one of Andrew Sarris’ “pantheon directors” is widely saluted because of his politics; Jonathan Rosenbaum even uses this as an argument against those favoring Buster Keaton.[1] François Truffaut condemned the French films of his youth because of the absolute absence of social and historical truth or relevance in them. In his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, Martin Scorsese – the auteurist auteur par excellence – could have talked about Allan Dwan’s style (according to Dave Kehr, Dwan “was the most expressively kinetic director in American film” after Raoul Walsh), but he chose to talk about Dwan’s politics – and did the same in regard to Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller and Otto Preminger.

Besides, since when are aesthetics separated from commentary, social contribution or substance? Bazin’s mentioned preference for undisturbed long takes is also the preference for a cinema that is rooted in the world, in dialogue with reality and thus with politics, society and people. Chaplin’s artlessness is part of his emancipatory genius. The images used by Erich von Stroheim in order to tell stories of deceit are themselves shady, they are images created by and for an impostor reflecting a borderline satirical approach to power structures and male behaviour. The hectic stylistic method employed by Lizzie Borden to reconstruct Regrouping in itself helps the audience to understand the polemical workings of the filmed group.

Finally, to suggest that viewing “cinema itself as part of a larger cultural-activist project” could be a novelty and will only be accomplished by the “new cinephilia”, is ludicrous. Doesn’t this concept remind Shambu of a certain, quite old cinephile?

3

The issue of list-making was a matter of intense debates last year, started by Elena Gorfinkel’s[2] manifesto. With that in mind, I don’t intend to comment on Gorfinkel’s text in the paragraph below. I find it fierce, well-written but personally unrelatable.

The problem of “evaluation”, as derived from aesthetic pleasure, is another core of Shambu’s criticism of the “old cinephilia.” And he immediately conflates it with list-making. But list-making is not evaluation; evaluation could be defined as thinking about and outlining the obvious or discovered characteristics of the artwork and relating them to the systems of value that are held by the critic in his/her culture. Sheer listing is evidently pointless and has no intellectual substance as such. Yet, many things can start with listing, a great film program, a perceptive selection of forgotten, underrated or oppressed films or simply a path of learning, on which it is natural to look for recommendations and guidelines.

Also, listing can be accompanied by evaluation – if it’s done well, it adds up to another level of education: it doesn’t only teach the curious reader about films but exemplifies honesty and openness about taste; how one confronts their own limits, how one comes across new interests and how one admits particular doubts.

Nevertheless, lists do service to marketability – some to the selling of a huge Hollywood production, others to the establishment of an art film’s unquestionable intellectual importance. The lists I deem deserving of defence share a contradicting quality – they’re documenting impurity, conflicts and interest in films that elude classification. These are relevant because both evaluation and lists have to do with taste, which is what ultimately the “new” cinephiles have as well. If they don’t fight for their own, the industry will.

There is another problematic aspect in the “new” cinephilia’s “expansive notion of pleasure and value”. The assumption that films which “center the lives, subjectivities, experiences, and worlds of marginalized people automatically become valuable” diminishes the achievements of actual great works of auto-representation and portrayals of the underprivileged. I might add that such “automatic” values inherent in a certain subject matter (vis-à-vis those produced by acts of “evaluation”, accounting for all sorts of pleasure) inevitably remind me of that very “old” moment when it was fashionable to consider Stanley Kramer the bravest of all Hollywood filmmakers because of the topics he chose.

In fact, equating the most disturbing subject matter with the best film is already the policy of various documentary film festivals – such as Budapest’s VERZIÓ, DOK.fest München or This Human World in Vienna. Their programming and awarding prioritize urgency which unfortunately results in the reverence for films that substitute personalities with a set of disadvantages. At the same time, academia often strengthens the understanding that the history of film is a history of representation (and not that of art, let alone technique or economics), thus this policy prevails, as it has already in the 1960s.

At the same time, the type of subject matter that is allowed to be portrayed is, again, very arbitrary. Whereas the mindful representation of the powerful can amount to important and intelligent criticism, it is being rejected out of hand, hence the utter misunderstanding of The Wolf of Wall Street or the complete disregard for Erase and Forget. In relation to that, I’m also puzzled by relation to the realistic and/or empathetic depiction of suffering, the suffering of women for instance, hence the controversial, changed ending of Carmen in Florence’s Teatro del Maggio Musicale. The idea that such depiction goes against empowerment and licences violence also affects cinema culture, hence the sudden hostility against Mizoguchi Kenji. In contemporary discourses, he often appears as the one who actually stimulated the position of women captured in the films (as opposed to Tanaka Kinuyo, let’s say) – yet, the historically ever-changing, sometimes contradictory receptions of his work exemplify how this artificial tailoring may not be so new after all, although the carelessness for homogeneity-defying films like The Victory of Women is stronger than ever.

4

To me, this may be the least problematic segment, although it fails to acknowledge the existence of various understandings of auteurism – not all of these prioritize the oeuvre. Wanda is obviously a film by its auteur, and the fact that this auteur is its prime and most influential creator doesn’t need to be proven by other films from the same creator. Shambu is happy to neglect all the feminist journals and mainstream critics[3] who, because of vast research or by accident discovered, covered or celebrated films by women upon their first release. Also, in synchronicity with the “new cinephilia,” people who surely don’t belong to it produce extensive writing on female directors, such as Richard Brody whose articles on Elaine May, Juleen Compton, Sara Fattahi, Shirley Clarke or Josephine Decker contributed greatly to the status of these filmmakers.

5

If the “old cinephilia” is that of Sarris and the Cahiers, then it certainly doesn’t claim to be open and eclectic. The very reason for The American Cinema to exist is to outline the boundaries Sarris ascribed importance to. In his notorious interview, Jacques Rivette strips even Vincente Minnelli of an auteur status.[4] In the already quoted Movie Mutations, impurity, openness and eclecticism is a vivid topic but it mostly comes up in opposition to those who mourn a classical, pure cinephilia. In Nicole Brenez’s experience, young people (in the 1990s) were equally interested in Der Tod der Maria Malibran, Robert Bresson, Tsui Hark and avant-garde programs, too. What kind of cinephiles are these people? “I assume that my cinephilia, which looks for all cinema beyond the ‘High & Low,’ has its origins in this conscious blending and contaminating of various pure doctrines.” To which kind does Alexander Horwath belong, who wrote this in the same correspondence? The most basic problem with Shambu’s labelling is that it’s unnecessary.

To me, the most unimaginative (and worrisome) tendency of “openness” is the extended application of the Sarris canon – for instance, the presentation of Henry Hathaway, Mark Sandrich or John M. Stahl as auteurs. As far as I can tell, it is certainly not, or mostly not, the “old” cinephiles who are responsible for this. On the contrary; the desire for purity, the denial of unevenness and unclassifiable turns in artistic biographies are drives similar to those of Shambu. They don’t recognize that more often than not, filmmakers make great films which do not amount to anything coherent in relation to the rest of their oeuvre – he doesn’t recognize that film history shakes off catchwords like his, those impossible to embellish.

True inclusiveness is a misconception. It is the act of the historian from Hollis Frampton’s For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses[5] with the underlying and contradicting desire of the text’s metahistorian. It calls canonizing forces to account for their arbitrariness, yet it lays open its own selective guidelines very clearly. It ascribes significance to a mainstream only to criticize and point out its shortcomings but fails to naturalize that exclusion (of women, ethnic minorities, geographical terrains, historical periods, production methodologies, genres, styles, topics) is inseparable from writing (and re-writing) art history. Thus, I can’t help but feel that it’s a will to be accepted and included by the above-mentioned businessmen. Avant-garde groups and underground cinematheques are guilty of underrepresenting women filmmakers. Yet, it seems to me that these debates are not about the particularities, and how those could be improved. Its labelling mostly helps the market which then will commit further exclusions, perhaps at the expense of new victims. True inclusiveness questions the very relevance of subcultures; it stands for an accessible mainstream that forms a non-evaluated, quota-based canon.

6

Much like this paragraph itself, #MeToo is authoritative, takes an inherently undebatable ethical position and operates with condemnation instead of consideration (and in contradiction with the foundational stance of a Rechtsstaat), which is why I find it alarming that a person with an autonomous intellect needs initiations like this to invest time in history and research the horrific events and unjust social relations of the past. Here, Shambu demands the very type of decisive power he criticizes more clearly than anywhere else – to reevaluate the corpus of cinema. Not according to a social or aesthetical proposition but based on the director’s certificate of criminal (moral) record. And what does that mean? That if somebody is a proven sexual predator, we can erase him or her from that corpus? What exactly does that solve? To what other versions of wicked people will that be expanded? Nazis? Stalinists? Liberals? To engage with culture necessitates the openness to the possibility of encountering things that will be harsh, irritating, offensive or unbearable. The main difference between legislation and morals is that the former aims to regulate society on a systemic level and some moral matters cannot be dealt with in that way. The relatively recent scandal around Jonas Mekas[6] gave me some patriotic, Central European pride. It seems to me that my everyday knowledge of life stories from the times of continuous occupations conditioned an aversion to martial law and not the acceptance of flaws or sins but the acceptance of the existence of flawed biographies and sinning people. Complexities of human behaviour are ignored and perspectives are getting excluded from consideration as their fashionability expires.

7

Depiction is not endorsement. The onscreen portrayal of all types of behavior listed by Shambu (“obsessive, dominating, abusive, violent”) can amount to auto-critique, to unreflected self-glorification, and to many other different things. Every viewer should be given the possibility to individually “evaluate” the film they’re seeing. To give a personal example, I safely and in accordance with many people think that John Cassavetes’ Husbands is a deep, absorbing and greatly self-questioning work, while James Toback’s Fingers is a film by a self-satisfied epigon. Women make confrontational cinema, it can be dark, twisted and provocative; and fortunately so, because it is often breathtaking and mind-expanding.

8

The serious problems that serious people have with the current role of identity politics is  most certainly not that it’s an obstacle to a united (film) culture.

This manifesto is not “too PC”, it’s just very thoughtless. Also, there are numerous directors whose films are harsh, provocative and don’t always respect the sensibilities deemed important by Shambu, yet, according to the manifesto, should be valued by the “new cinephilia:” Valie Export, Claire Denis, Med Hondo, Jack Smith, Wang Bing, Věra Chytilová, to name just a few.

THE IMAGE

There’s an image in the article, a still from Todd Haynes’ Carol, which is supposed to represent the type of film “prized by the new cinephilia.”

The film as well as the particular photograph may have been chosen by an editor or from a restrained image bank. The use of images in film-related texts is a problematic matter on its own right. Shambu’s misstep to choose or consent to such a recognizable and promotional still in a text that takes a stand against capitalism isn’t unusual. It must be noticed however because of substantial connotations.

If the word auteur makes any sense outside of the studio system, Haynes is an essential auteur of the style-over-substance type and Carol is the zenith of many of his preoccupations, much like Boyhood, Certain Women, The Master, The Grand Budapest Hotel or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are for their respective creators. He would have been acknowledged regardless of the story’s relevance or the fact that he has adapted a female writer’s work. If I understand the manifesto correctly, the type of work “prized by the new cinephilia” should either be a film that would be overlooked by the “old cinephilia” but is highly valuable in representational terms, (a film like Can You Ever Forgive Me?) – or a film that defies authorship even in its methods of production, let’s say a film by a lesbian film collective.

9

In segment 9, Shambu seems to make some reasonable points even if neither of his made-up categories live in me.

10

Cinema is not separable. Cinema is part of the world, the various methods of film production are influenced by, documented and can even investigate the surrounding political, economical and ecological situation. As I pointed out earlier, many representatives of “old cinephila” dedicated their oeuvres to not only thematize matters of the world but to study the technique and the tools of their chosen medium that simultaneously extend to the film form itself.

Therefore, the assumption that a “life organized around films“ isn’t a life organized around political matters is not true. At the same time, the need for “a cinephilia that is fully in contact with its present global moment” not only fails to acknowledge the heterogeneity of cinephilias but fails to understand that every small community of the world (and their film cultures) experiences differing moments to establish this contact– which also explains the natural phenomenon of different subcultures showing interest for different type of films.

Even more than these or any other shortcoming of the text, I am truly repulsed by its self-satisfied, moral superiority that makes disagreements impossible.

 

[1] About Modern Times, „I don’t have much patience with colleagues who dismiss Charlie Chaplin by saying that Buster Keaton was better (whatever that means). To the best of my knowledge, with the arguable exception of Dickens, no one else in the history of art has shown us in greater detail what it means to be poor, and certainly no one else in the history of movies has played to a more diverse audience or evolved more ambitiously from one feature to the next.

[2] https://www.anothergaze.com/elena-gorfinkel-manifesto-against-lists/

[3] Wanda for instance was recognized by both Vincent Canby and Roger Greenspun

[4]I’m going to make more enemies…actually the same enemies, since the people who like Minnelli usually like Mankiewicz, too. Minnelli is regarded as a great director thanks to the slackening of the “politique des auteurs.” For François, Jean-Luc and me, the politique consisted of saying that there were only a few filmmakers who merited consideration as auteurs, in the same sense as Balzac or Molière.

[5] http://hollisframpton.org.uk/frampton16.pdf

[6] You can read about it here: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/06/07/jonas-mekas-i-was-there/ I recommend J. Hoberman’s take in particular: http://j-hoberman.com/2018/06/why-i-cannot-review-jonas-mekass-conversations-with-film-makers/