On the Couch
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There is an idea (Thomas Elsaesser uses it often) that we begin to feverishly speculate about the “essence” of things cultural precisely at the moment in which they are passing away. It is as if, having invested so much (intellectually, emotionally, psychically, materially, institutionally) into a beloved object, we scramble to preserve it in all its phantom integrity—while denying that it is either radically changing in its nature or disappearing altogether, right before our eyes.
Is this what’s happening to film criticism right now? No one even remotely connected to the field will have missed the massive surge of interest in speculating on it; I am asked to speak more often today on “The Craft of Film Criticism” than at any time during the past three decades. This craft (or art) is besieged on all sides, it seems—by job layoffs in newspapers, by the collapse of the market for specialised print magazines, by the proliferation of amateur sites online.
In counterpoint, there has been a rising wave of scholarly literature—the 2011 book The Language and Style of Film Criticism is symptomatic, and there is surely much more to come—looking at the present, but mainly the past, of this field: its heroes (and fewer heroines), its modes, its biographical and institutional histories. And there is the growing litany of a canon, the incantation of names that solidify this practice in history: Bazin, Daney, Kael, Farber, Sarris, Durgnat, Wood, Hoberman, Cavell, Rosenbaum.
But let’s try to look at this trend dispassionately, and from a wider distance. What is at stake here, what is really being celebrated? It is precisely film criticism as writing, and more particularly as a form of literature—essayistic literature. So many contemporary laments over the current state of film criticism are, basically, calls for more (and better) literature—in the sense of authors who posses a distinctive voice and a personal style; who tell the story of their encounter with films (or with cinema as a medium); who communicate an individual sensibility against which we can measure (and perhaps adjust) our own: writing as authority, in the (sometimes) benign sense of that term.
I feel, more with each passing year, that those of us involved with analyzing film have never truly faced the primal paradox that is at the heart of what we do: the way in which a single-channel medium (written language) is pitted against an almost embarrassingly rich and profuse multi-modal form (audiovisuality, whether cinema, TV, or digital media). Despite the occasional recognition of the “unattainable text” of film, the impossibility of complete description of even the smallest screen moment, and so on, the dream of criticism as literature has, in fact, exponentially intensified—at the very moment when so many digital practices, amateur and sophisticated, are blasting open new paths and forms, from the humble, jokey, YouTube mashup to the most elaborate audiovisual essay. Is there a lingering, cultural snobbishness in this attachment to literature, above every other actual or possible form of critical expression? You bet there is.
But let’s take this from another angle. Criticism as writing is, in fact, a lot like a session of psychoanalysis in the classical Freudian or Lacanian “on the couch” mode: the totality of sensations of life, feeling, and memory, are forcibly channelled into one stream—the patient’s speaking voice—which is occasionally cut into by the analyst’s pointed or musing interjection. Such psychoanalysis does not call upon your body, your movements, your intimate secretions, or even your gaze (you are turned away from Sigmund or Jacques, looking at nothing in particular); the process works as a distillation, a filtration of the fully human, multifaceted you—and it is from that wilful constraining of your everyday senses and capacities that, hopefully, some insight, some small revelation of self-knowledge, will be pushed into being. Criticism follows the same logic: rather than seeking to capture cinema, it recreates the experience of it in a radically other, far less impure form. It is a kind of taming of film, or at least a workable management of it within the restricted medium of writing. Yet is that enough, anymore?
In a passage of The Devil’s Cinema (1947) that is startling to read today, Jean Epstein argued that our collective mind is being coerced into
valuing only that part of itself formulated according to the classical rules of spoken and written expression...it is enough to name a thing to bring it into being. The first concrete reality is nothing more than the memory of a distant starting point for so many systems that reason derives from itself, and, never having met its own image, it takes this reflection as if it were a certified copy.
But: “In frequenting the cinemas, the public have unlearned to read and think as they read or write.”
Almost seventy years later, film criticism is imprisoned in words, and in literature, even worse than Epstein feared was the case. Written language is the coin of our realm: after all, editors and publishers want to pay us (that is, when they do pay us) per word, not per screenshot or pencil sketch or pictorial collage or digital remix; academic journals, as a general rule, want as little as possible to do with any kind of visual illustration (all those pesky rights and permissions legalities); and we will be promoted in our university jobs on the basis of the (hopefully) hefty books we have written, even if we already happen to be practicing artists of high standing in our particular community. Even the present-day scholarly experiments in the field of the audiovisual essay, or research-based art, are rarely considered legitimate unless accompanied – i.e., justified – by a lengthy, written exegesis. Creative works of criticism cannot yet explain themselves (the way narrative films can), it seems: they are still considered too compressed, too cryptic. They need to be expanded, decompressed, patiently talked through with words—trapped on the couch, yet again.
When will we film critics ever “unlearn to read and think as we read or write”? That is the question.
Adrian Martin is a film critic and audiovisual essayist who lives in Vilassar de Mar, Spain. His most recent book is Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (Palgrave), and he is co-editor of LOLA magazine (www.lolajournal.com).