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All That Heaven Allows: What is, or was, cinephilia? (Part Two)

By Nico Baumbach on March 14, 2012

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You can read the first part of Nico Baumbach's article on cinephilia here. The third and final part will appear this Friday. Comments, as always, are welcome.

But what is criticism? Bordwell suggests that criticism is primarily concerned with evaluation and appreciation. In his reading, if academics tend to withhold evaluation, critics withhold causal arguments and focus on the particular effects that give a particular film its qualities.

Making reference to Manny Farber, both Kent Jones and Chris Fujiwara in their contributions to PNC contest Bordwell’s claim that criticism is necessarily concerned with evaluation. They claim that the function of criticism is not primarily about checking off likes or dislikes or creating a hierarchy of tastes but, as Fujiwara puts it, “to respond to what is open, troubling, or self-contradictory in a film, to show why things in it that may not even be immediately noticeable are deeply interesting, to reinvent it.” Here Fujiwara touches on a point emphasized by another contributor, Adrian Martin, that criticism is (or can be or should be) a creative act.

Criticism must always involve more than description, more than merely deferring all authority to the work itself—a position that if taken to its logical limit cancels out the need for criticism in the first place. Whether or not rating films—quantifying their quality—is central to criticism, I take it that criticism always has something to do with position-taking, with asserting implicitly if not explicitly that whatever one is talking about is more important than what one is not. Farber was not shy about the fact that what motivated his criticism was not just the works themselves as autonomous entities but the ways they get talked and written about. As he put it: “I’m a reactive critic: I like to listen to someone else and then cut in.” Film criticism is a polemical intervention into a larger social field.

Yue points to two essays in the PNC “Resources” that are explicitly about the function of criticism and that tell a different story than Bordwell—one by Rudolph Arnheim and another by J. Hoberman. In 1995, Hoberman takes up Arnheim’s 1935 claim that “aesthetic criticism” should be accompanied by “consideration of film as an economic product, and as an expression of moral and political viewpoints.” According to Hoberman, “How can we do anything else? As Arnheim’s colleague and contemporary Siegfried Kracauer put it, ‘the good film critic is only conceivable as a critic of society.’ (Now of course the reverse is also true.)” Or as Adorno claimed: “The aesthetics of film is . . . inherently concerned with society. There can be no aesthetics of the cinema, not even a purely technological one, which would not include the sociology of the cinema.” None of these positions advocates for heavy-handed projections of political concerns at the expense of aesthetic ones, but rather proceed, as Seventies film theory and Eighties cultural studies did, from the assumption that aesthetics and politics are never fully separable and that a mass art like cinema makes thinking about the relation between the two all the more necessary. As Jones puts it in PNC, film criticism at its best is not only about film but about “the whole wide world around it.”

But for this reason, Jones has some words of caution about the ethos that was transferred from auteurist cinephilia to theory in which the championing of certain filmmakers and rejection of others was bound up with moral worth and later radical politics. For Jones this “extremely curious mixture of romanticism, essentialism, and a dogmatism so harsh and punitive as to make Jonathan Edwards shudder” has understandably long exhausted its charm. Jones’s anti-polemical polemic is an eloquent plea for an adult or laicized film culture more attuned to the realities of filmmaking. Jones is clear that he is not trying to restrict the domain of criticism. On the contrary, it is the insularity of cinephile culture that encourages unearned provocations that often take the form of the strained mimicry of polemicists past. The problem is not only the morally suspect presumption of moral superiority, but that posturing forsakes criticism; the result more often than not is to deflect attention away from whatever is being argued about in the first place. Jones raises the question of whether the banner of “cinephilia” truly serves the interests of a healthy film culture today.

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