Film Criticism: the Challenge of the Specific
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I believe it was the late Miriam Hansen who some years ago pointed out to me the odd position criticism has had within film studies. If the inaugural period of our discipline was marked by an almost giddy embrace of film theory, followed by a “historical turn” to the methods of film history in the late 1980’s, was, she wondered, the next era going to be an era of film criticism? Certainly the methods of theory and history still dominate the field of film (and media) study, and one would be hard pressed to declare that we now dwell in an era dominated by film criticism. Indeed, what is the role of criticism in our present realignment of media study, with its proliferation of platforms and modes and promiscuity of methods? Is criticism simply a tool to explicate (or perhaps test) film theories? Is analysis of individual film in the hope of establishing patterns of narration or cinematography during different historical periods the major role criticism can play? In someway Film Criticism remains an unexplored territory, taken for granted.
Part of the ambiguity comes from the fact that film reviewers are often referred to as “film critics,” and therefore some people expect the main role of film criticism to be evaluative, whether answering the question of “what should I watch tonight?” or “what are the major films of Akira Kurosawa?” If many academics distain this process of evaluation (and certainly the immediate “thumbs up or down” attitude is one of the habits we hope to break students of), nonetheless, it seems to me that something lurks behind the association of film criticism and evaluation that should not be reduced to advice to consumers. As academic critics we know that evaluative categories exist and shape what we write about, whether one is upholding or subverting them; but where they come from seems to be avoided as if we were prudish parents invoking the stork rather than answering tricky questions. Is there a way to tackle evaluation that goes beyond generating “Ten Best” lists? I think evaluation is something that film criticism could probe even if the answer might destroy, rather than uphold, conventional canons.
The other obvious technical question that now confronts film criticism might help us approach the first. What, we might ask, in an age of media explosion, are the proper tools for film and media criticism, both analysis and commentary? Raymond Bellour’s essential essay “The Unattainable Text,” written even before VCRs and in an era where film graduate students were just beginning to master analysis via Steenbeck, discussed the difficulty of quoting a film, an essential task for any criticism. Now that problem has been technologically solved, and the use of clips, frame grabs and embedded sequences has become nearly second nature. But does this availability of moving and still images simply supply an already articulated need or does it transform the act of criticism? The video essay seems to me an extremely exciting pathway for film criticism, once it overcomes the apparent need to be snappy and clever.
But, of course, even the ability to quote the moving image (if that is what we are doing) does not overcome the fact that film criticism, like art criticism, involves the encounter of alien forms—words grappling with images (and, even more specifically, moving images in the case of film and video). Rather than the bane of our existence as critics, this alien encounter constitutes the condition of our process and the source of our discoveries. How to make images speak, (or better, perhaps, how to speak to images) remains a risky business, and it always involves not a simple translation but rather an encounter of the differences that lie at the heart of expressivity. And this means a focus precisely on what seems, in a non-verbal medium, to elude speech (and even perhaps escapes other media—what in cinema is different from photography? What in film is different from electronic imagery?)
This does not mean we must only articulate the specifics of different media or even the uniqueness of different moving image texts. But it does, I think, point out how film criticism at its strongest remains focused on the specific instance, the individual feature. Criticism may include relating these individual elements and their assembly to broader patterns of ontology or historical period. But fundamentally criticism remains rooted in the specific instance. In this it does something that theory and history tend to avoid. Clearly theory, history and criticism can work together in a variety of ways, but an awareness of uniqueness (even if against a background of recurrent practices), for me, lies at the heart of any aesthetic investigation. Thinking through this individuality of works may open an approach to evaluation that goes beyond “thumbs up or down.” Film Criticism tries to account for the individual feature of the unique film, the specific video installation. Herein lies its challenge and its power.
Tom Gunning is Distinguished Service Professor in the Department on Cinema and Media at the University of Chicago, and author of D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film (University of Illinois Press), The Films of Fritz Lang; Allegories of Vision and Modernity (British Film Institute), and over a hundred and fifty articles.