If you’re like me, and I know I am, one of your great pleasures is visiting Observations on film art, the blog maintained by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-authors of standard textbooks Film Art and Film History. Bordwell, who introduces the entries that he’s written with the jaunty salutation “DB here,” recently stirred up a bit of controversy with a piece called “Zip, zero, Zeitgeist.”
The jumping off point of the piece, as with quite a few of the Observations on film art posts, is a lump of entertainment journalism which cavalierly tosses out a broad assertion without any detectable undergirding of research or fact. As Bordwell and Thompson put it in the Preface to their Minding Movies, a collection of essays which originated on the blog, “One of our strategies is debunking, zeroing in on conventional wisdom that journalists, facing blank pages and looming deadlines, persistently fall back on.”
In this case, the offending item is the inaugural edition of a New York Times Opinion Pages column in which Frank Bruni and Ross Douthat, going back and forth on “movies, pop culture, television, and other real-world distractions,” co-star as “The Moviegoers.” I would say the worthlessness of such an enterprise is evident outright, not least because it uses the suddenly-eerily-ubiquitous conversation format, beloved of drips who don’t have force of personality enough to occupy the “stage” of the essay format by themselves, and so turn instead to an approximation of pithy banter. Bordwell, who has more patience than I, seems to have actually finished the thing. A nonpareil close-reader, his standard siege tactic is to detect the slightest infelicity of language, use it as an entry point to dig into the offending piece like a sapper, compromise the structural integrity of the entire edifice, and bring it crashing down. In this particular case, he makes hay with the word “distractions” before proceeding to his main point. Beginning from Douthat’s statement that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes provides “allegory” and “metaphor” for current headlines, Bordwell opens up a full-scale offensive against “the suggestion that movies can bear traces of the national psyche, or reflect national debates we’re having right now, or provide inadvertent ‘allegories’ of contemporary history.”
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
This suggestion Bordwell dubs “reflectionism,” which he deems “the last refuge of journalists writing to deadline.” His voiced opposition to reflectionism is hardly new, if it has never been expatiated quite so. It appears in a 2008 blog posting called “Superheroes for sale,” for example, which I happened to cite in a footnote to my column of 8/15. In a 2011 article for Film Comment called “Academics vs. Critics,” Bordwell describes the “cool, even adversarial” relationship between journalistic criticism and academic study—in his view, unusual to the film world—while conceding that “both traditions often assume that a film can reflect the moods or anxieties of the society it comes from,” an idea that “usually leads to rather vague and vacuous explanations.” Against this recourse to vaporous theory, Bordwell advocates the hard facts of “middle-level research.” He is less tough on the critical profession as a whole in this piece than in “Zip, zero, Zeitgeist,” even providing a positive example of “cinephile criticism in rhapsodic mode”—here, Kent Jones on Hou Hsiao-Hsien. This is a flattering representative of the trade, to be sure, though it smacks of “some of my best friends are film critics,” and I don’t think Jones, though he certainly has his deadlines to contend with, would count himself among the ranks of workaday journalistic toilers. In a 2003 interview with Senses of Cinema, asked if he could envision “writing for a weekly or daily,” Jones responds thusly:
“I wouldn’t even begin to know how to do what Manohla [Dargis] does. It’s a grind, but she’s excellent at it. Vincent Canby was excellent at it. Jim [Hoberman] is a great critic on a weekly basis. If you’re doing what Canby did, you can make an ongoing history out of it. Jim does that in a different way. Armond [White], in his own odd way, does it. It’s true that being editor at large and writing about what I feel like, rather than having to see movies like Swimfan (John Polson, 2002), can become a danger.”
Like Bordwell and Thompson, Jones’ position—hard-won and well-deserved, to be sure—allows him to practice a “criticism of enthusiasm,” to use a phrase that Bordwell borrows from “the Cahiers crew.” The “danger” that Jones refers to is that of being out of touch with “what people are reacting to and where their opinions are coming from.” In the Preface of Minding Movies, Bordwell and Thompson emphasize quite another vocational hazard: “Reviewers must say something about many current releases, and this dull compulsion can be a death march of the intellect.”
It can be, certainly. But as someone who spent five years writing about film for a weekly, and who is never entirely free of the specter of looming deadline—even this little corner of the Internet, in which I hope that I can usually be found practicing a criticism of enthusiasms, must be filled once a week, or my editors will look at me askance—I feel a word should be said for compulsory opinion, and the spur of the due date. Firstly, I know of no available data which compares instances of intellectual death among, say, daily or weekly film reviewers to individuals working in the serene/somnolescent atmosphere of the university or the nonprofit arts sector over a comparable period. (If I could find an appropriate pie chart to counter Bordwell’s with, I surely would.) Moreover, I have my own quibbles with Bordwell’s language. We always hear the same words applied to the reviewer beat—a “grind” that “dulls”—though I’m not sure why the grind should necessarily be imagined as a mortar and pestle that reduces gray matter to paste rather than, say, a whetstone that keeps one sharp. If anything, the demands of a beat can keep the critic from becoming complacent in the knowledge of their own taste—to make a living at the movie chat game, a kind of mandatory curiosity is required. I find the critics that I enjoy are those who forestall ever-threatening complacency through continually challenging their idea of what the medium should be against the always-in-flux reality of what it actually is.
But let us return to this dulling grind. What causes it? It can’t just be the result of watching so very many movies, for anyone in the film culture business, from the programmer to the researching academic, must put in this toil as well. In his “Academics vs. Critics,” Bordwell offers some suggestion of where the crucial difference must lie: “good historical research often involves postponing aesthetic judgment. You may not find films from before 1920 admirable (though you should!), but in any event this body of work and its contexts cry out for intensive study.” So, even if the existing product of, say, 1914 that an academic might be compelled to dig through for purposes of research is not of greater aesthetic interest on the whole than that of 2014, which a critic is compelled to turn out for in the course of going about their beat, the academic is spared the wear-and-tear of forming all of those judgments.
The Name of the Game is Kill!
This is the position stated by Renata Adler, who replaced the outgoing Bosley Crowther as the head film critic of the New York Times for a stint in 1968-69. “Who wants to hear somebody’s opinion every other day?” Adler is quoted as saying with regards to this position in a 2013 profile in The Guardian. “Everybody has opinions about films anyway, so who wants to hear the shrew that is oneself? To do this for years and years?” The boredom, I am sorry to say, is very evident in many of the pieces filed by Adler, in every respect a greater prose stylist than her replacement, Canby. It’s hard to imagine responding to a film like Carlo Lizzani’s Bandits in Milan, teeming with action and ideas, with something as lackluster as this. An Internet acquaintance recently apprised me of an Adler piece filed June 6, 1968 in which the future Speedboat author was presumably assigned to cover a double-feature of “gory, Italian-made Western” Shatterhand and horror film The Name of the Game is Kill! She concludes her first paragraph: “Both films are designed for exactly the audiences their titles would attract. There is nothing good in them.” (Unclear as to if this “them” describes the films, audiences, or both.) The second paragraph is devoted to describing the décor of the Loew’s Delancey, where the movies are playing.
Given that opinion-mongering is such a joyless gig, it’s hard to see why the poor souls strapped to its Wheel of Pain are subject to such resentment—see, for example, Adler’s 1980 essay “The Perils of Pauline,” a sentence-by-sentence dismantling of La Kael in The New York Review of Books—rather than pity. Chris Fujiwara, a former beat critic who, as of the 2010 publication of a piece in n + 1 called “To Have Done with Contemporary Cinema,” had withdrawn to an ivory tower position, gives a clue to where this resentment may originate. “Journalists have lots of advantages,” Fujiwara writes. “They get free stuff and invitations. Many people respect them even though they despise them. But the most important perk of all is that the journalist is free from a worry that haunts the rest of us: whether or not we are contemporary.”
Bordwell would appear to be at least partially immune to the insecurity that Fujiwara describes. As of 2011, he and Thompson’s blog had had “over a million total visitors after three years,” while “each year brings… about 80,000 returning visitors”—numbers only a handful of “name” critics could hope to better. Better still, his income and job security is in no way contingent on the vicissitudes of the cultural journalism game. He is beholden to no editor. He has the freedom to say as he wishes, and a platform from which to say it. In “Zip, zero, Zeitgeist,” what he wants to say has to do with skewering a number of much-circulated pieces of accepted wisdom, including the assertion that the filmgoing audience is a representative sample of the populace as a whole (“one-third of Americans over the age of two never go to the movies, and another ten percent go once a year”), that there is a massive shift in the national psyche every time there is a new tenant in the White House, and that it is within the power of blockbuster movies, often projects that are years or decades in the making, to predict the “current” mood of the country when they finally happen to make it to the screen.
Let’s Be Cops
As it happens, I don’t need to strain myself too much to find a rejoinder to Bordwell, because Grantland’s Wesley Morris has already done the work. Reviewing the purported impersonating-an-officer comedy Let’s Be Cops, which was rather less-than-serendipitously released the week after the shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, Morris begins: “All movies choose their moment. It’s called a release date. Some moments, however, choose their movies. And it looks as if the moment has chosen Let’s Be Cops.” In the piece that follows, very little attention is paid to the aspects of filmmaking which Bordwell suggests are fair game for critics: Plotting, “point-of-view and exposition,” generating “sympathy or antipathy,” “character conflicts both external and internal,” and the burning question, “Does it accord with the sharply contoured plot architecture characteristic of U.S. studio filmmaking?” I would argue that, nevertheless, Mr. Morris is serving us very well indeed as a critic here by dwelling on what Bordwell calls, in passing, the “unintended consequences” of filmmaking.
While I concur with Bordwell’s championing of “active creation” over “passive reflection,” and his assertion that “Movies are worth studying for themselves,” I am not sure that we would be able to come to an agreement on where exactly a movie begins and ends. When writing about Paul Schrader’s The Canyons last year, for example, I argued that the transparency of the film’s production, and the media furor surrounding it, went “beyond merely ‘doing press,’ to the point where The Canyons’ interactivity has become an extension of the text, a conceptualist outgrowth of the movie. To block out the hype and focus solely on the sacred film itself, as critics indignant at all of this ballyhoo would have us do, is to supremely miss the point.” Of course the elements of a film that Bordwell deems permissible as evidence when discussing its qualities are always of paramount importance—I suspect that a disturbing number of working critics don’t even have a functional knowledge of lens lengths—but it cannot be forgotten that a film belongs to its moment, to borrow Mr. Morris’s phrase, as well as to its creators, and if what that means cannot be quantified so definitively as average shot length, it is worth pursuing this question up to but not over the brink of feigned omnipotent visions into the mass-mind of the spectator-polis.
I have met Bordwell only once, when he was in New York to present a lecture on Kenji Mizoguchi at Queens’s Museum of the Moving Image, on the occasion of a complete retrospective of all of the director’s surviving films. (The essentials of this talk may be found in an Observations on Film Art entry called “Mizoguchi: Secrets of the Exquisite Image.”) Recalling his merry demeanor, I for a moment am willing to believe that there is something to all that talk about the journalistic grind, for I have rarely met a movie-lover whose pleasure in the subject of his study seemed so undiminished and altogether nourishing. After the lecture, conversation ran to the curious compulsion to rank the Big Three Japanese directors, which had been begun anew with the retro, the need to say Mizoguchi and Ozu instead of Kurosawa, for example, rather than just Mizoguchi and Ozu and Kurosawa. I remember particularly a moment when Bordwell spoke of Mizoguchi’s late, somewhat uncharacteristic color films Tales of Taira Clan and Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (both 1955). He began to say something to the effect that these were the only two Mizoguchi films that he didn’t like, before correcting himself: “I should say they’re the only two I haven’t learned to appreciate.” This reflects a humble and inquisitive attitude that many of us critics could learn something from. I wish that he would extend a little of the same goodwill to approaches that are not his own, rather than slandering the entire output of the beleaguered critical-grind school.