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Friday, July 23, 2010

Being Cassandra (Nick James 2)

In April, Sight and Sound told us that festival programmers couldn't do their job, that critics revered bad films. Basically, S&S excludes itself from the artfilm system, and Nick James is better than all festivals and all critics combined (which is a facile self-affirmative presumption!).
In June (graciously invited at the Budapest's Titanic Film Festival), Nick James declares that their line-up sucks (to copy what Gavin Smith did with Rotterdam earlier!) because this "regional festival" is too small for him.
In July (in response to my articles he was kind enough to read!), he proceeds to back pedal in a passive-aggressive manner. This time he tells us that the readers of his column, international cinéphiles (aka "cheerleaders" according to Adrian Martin), fail to stir up fiery debates (I also wish his readers were less complacent towards whatever he publishes!), and that international film critics are a "too quiet critical fraternity" (I agree on that bit!).
Basically his April editorial was just a prank on his sleepy readers. He never meant what he said, yet he "stand[s] by what [he] wrote".
Gavin Smith (Film Comment, Mar 2010) : "Art cinema is really in danger of becoming narrow and predictable in its range of expression"
Nick James (Sight and Sound, Jul 2010) : "'Contemplative cinema' is in danger of becoming mannerist, and the routine reverence afforded to its weaker films by critics is part of the problem"
Paul Brunick (Film Comment, Jul 2010) : "Fuck! I’d like to say that Doherty’s sentiments are unique, but articles so similar to his that they could have been written on the same Mad Libs template have been a fixture of the mainstream press for years."
[insert whatever you fancy here] is in danger of becoming mannerist.

Mumblecore is in danger of becoming mannerist too! Neoneorealism is in danger of becoming mannerist too! Superhero sequels are in danger of becoming mannerist too! 3D productions are in danger of becoming mannerist too! And if masterpieces cease to be masterpieces, yes, they too are in danger of becoming mannerist! No-one will contest this truism, because no lesser film from any given style is immune to slipping into mannerism at one point or another; especially not when you point finger at the bottom of the pile, pretending the worst of the bunch spoils even the very best of the whole movement. Let's not forget : S&S editorials are in danger of becoming mannerist!!!

Half-hearted supposition, hypothetical blame on "bad films" and "bad critics" (yes, bad films are bad, and bad critics are bad, you probably needed S&S to understand that), and leaving it open to later revision. It works any which way you put it. And nobody could disagree since it's not controversial. Cheap sophisms help philistine reviewers to write editorials without having nothing meaningful to say... Hurray for the film criticism panacea! What an easy job!
Apparently criticizing the "mannerism" of certain films, while abusing rhetorical mannerism yourself, is no self-contradiction... cause the critic is the judge, not the one being judged. Right?

Last time (Slow films, easy life) I told him "sometimes it's worth it, sometimes not" was a useless truism. But it doesn't stop him to reiterate his exploits... Obviously he believes that to declare that top films are OK, while lesser films are in danger of becoming lesser films, is somewhat an insightful comment that readers needed to read. This is the kind of empty statement that you can publish about any film genre, any auteur, any aesthetic movement, at any point of film history, peak time or down time...
There will always be a couple films fitting for this vague and safe warning. So it doesn't say anything in particular about our epoch or slowish films, until you start to make a specific and detailed analysis! It wasn't the "decade" discovery you guys made it.

You didn't quite get it the first time, so let's break it down :
  1. "in danger" : potential risk. Might be risky, might not be. We never know. One sure thing is that nobody could dispute either way. Pretty safe prediction. Thank you Cassandra!
  2. "of becoming" : fortune teller prediction on the future. Might happen one day, might not. Without deciding who, where and when, chances are that an example will come up at some point in time to prove a posteriori this facile caution. If it never happens, you didn't commit anything in particular for certain, so you can always beat around the bush.
  3. "mannerist" : manner is in the eye of the beholder. A sophisticated, repetitive style might be genius to some (El Greco, Warhol, Mondrian, Staël, Dali, Vasarely, Klee, German Expressionism, Film Noir, Ozu, Minnelli, Western, Aki Kaurismaki, Roy Andersson...) and cliché to others (Caligarism, Réalisme psychologique, Film Noir, Zombie flicks, M. Knight Shyamalan...). Every detractor could call whatever they don't like "mannerist", just to mark distaste, whether they understand the purpose of this "manner" or not. So it's not saying much, you will need to develop a little bit more to make a meaningful statement.
  4. Then he concludes that bad films are celebrated by bad critics. And the good critics (who he represents) don't call "good" these bad films. Wow. You blew my mind! It's like you just reinvented the concept of "film criticism" and peer cross-evaluation all by yourself.
This is a fine piece of a-critical sophism right there!

What does he do? He accuses a group of films he's never heard of before (CCC) of being complacent. What are his evidences? None. We just have to take his word for it. He got bored! What else do we need to know really?
I was already offended to read his presumptuous allegations when he talked about the nebula of "slowish films" (which nobody knows what it corresponds to exactly). But now he revises it by targetting CCC specifically without acknowledging the aesthetical distinction there is between an artfilm that is merely "slower than mainstream" and CCC that defines itself by a contemplative approach to mise en scène (which is less superficial than just a formal slower pace). CCC deserves less recriminations than the non-descript, all-encompassing, mix-bag of "festival films", because it is not a premeditated trend. Big(ger) mistake!

Four months later (while I've been posting here many food for thought to better explain what CCC corresponds to in actuality), he still has no tangible evidence to back up his subjective boredom, to convince us that his argument wasn't just a superficial rejection of "overrated" films.

Adrian Martin : "Confident but somehow never completely satisfying, White Material seems to suffer from a tension between its status as a star vehicule (though Huppert is superb) and Denis' usual ensemble-driven proclivities. [..] Yet these divagations never quite weave the sort of polyphony (in both images and sound) that - at its height (eg in Beau Travail) - brings Denis close in artistry to Terrence Malick; the fuller pattern that might have emerged from a freerer treatment feels shrunken, truncated." (S&S July 2010)
Speaking of "mannerism", how was White Material your film of the month (over Les Herbes Folles???) in July? Let's just say you could use some Rotterdam films to spice up the conformist distribution (mostly Hollywood fare) UK enjoys... Double standards will get you places! (This should be a proof that S&S is above everyone else, every critics and every festival programmers...)
Nick James : "[..] so perhaps my concern about mannerism was a tad alarmist."
At least he admits that his decade-long reflexion on "slowish cinema" might have been a bit hasty. :)

Boredom is not what differentiates bad films from good films, it separates bad viewers from good viewers. Boredom is part of the vocabulary of subjective reception, it is an appreciation on the entertainment scale, not the aesthetic scale. If a film bored you because it failed, I'm pretty sure you could find many flaws pertaining to the vocabulary of film criticism without the need to resort to such a partial and baseless criterion as boredom.

I'll have to come back to Kaplanoglu's Bal, which seems to be your main evidence to prove "slowish cinema" sucks. And I disagree. Wrong exhibit. If you want to be critical of this new film form (in a constructive way), you should direct your critical scrutiny towards Marc Recha, Isild LeBesco, Aoyama Shinji, Dardennes bros, Oliveira, Albert Serra (who is still a great creative, reckless, transgressive filmmaker despite his slight tendency to mannerism). But they don't make "bad films" per say, what we could argue is whether their minimalism is excessive/pertinent, and whether their "slowness" is meant to be the provocative aspect of their style, or if there is something else beneath this apparent "manner". Then, we might have a thoughtful debate going on.

Errata :
When reading a revered film magazine, we kind of expect to get professional journalism : facts checked, reliable information, meaningful thoughts. And we take it all in on faith most of the time, since they talk about exclusive information and advance knowledge... Once that content is something personal to you, you suddenly become aware of the negligent job they do at being "journalist"... which they would have us believe is so much superior to random blogging, precisely because pro journalists do check their facts!
Well get your facts straight :
  • "HarryTuttle" (no space, and yes, a midword capital!) is a nom de plume, thus, like for a brand name, spelling it differently is an error. The "Harry" or "Tuttle" abbreviation is also pure negligence, implying that it is a regular administrative family name.
  • the "website" you mention is not a website, but a blog (Web 2.0). It's name is not "Contemporary Contemplative Cinema", but "Unspoken Cinema" (see URL and banner).
  • he builds himself a strawman, suggesting that CCC is "immune to the usual pressures that success and ubiquity bring to art movements", while I linked to the posts of this blog dealing with gimmicks and mannerism (from long ago), as well as dissenting articles written elsewhere (when they are insightful)!
But who cares? Precision, accuracy and attention to details don't seem to be S&S's primary concern.

see other posts on this debate : 1 (Flanagan) - 2 (James) - 3 (Shaviro 1) - 4 (Shaviro 2) - 5 (Thoret) - 6 (Guardian) - 7 (Boring is not an argument) - 8 (Lavallée) - 9 (Frieze) - 10 (James 2) - 11 (Romney)

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