In This World, Not Above It
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Film criticism would appear to have three possible futures: one in which the democratizing potential of the internet reduces all criticism to mere opinion, that is, an equality of opinions that effectively brings to an end the effectiveness of criticism per se; a second in which all criticism becomes a function of promotion, so that trailers, billboards, advertorials and promotional scribblings come to override and displace any possible critical function; and a third alternative—quite possibly the worst—in which elite master critics hoard knowledge over supposedly great, obscure, hard-to-find, films which are lorded as majestic achievements precisely on the basis they do not pander to mainstream audiences or the lure of the box office.
Of course, today we already live with these alternatives, and audiences know the relative values of these approaches, and they also know which critical approaches will best answer their own cinematic desires. However, what each of these approaches misses—and to me this is the key tenet of criticism; without it a sense of critique is absent—is the fact that criticism must be embedded in an understanding of social and political culture. And this might be what is most crucially absent from the best film critics today: a sense of the world. Rather, what seems at stake for so many contemporary film critics is that any film only ever speaks to and about the cinema, that Godard is best conceived in terms of a conversation between his films and those of Hitchcock or Dreyer; that Tony Scott’s output is best understood in terms of his bending and stretching the limitations of Hollywood form, that a contemporary romcom or horror flick is best served by an ironic wink at the conventions of its genre, or that Hollywood’s turn to comic book superheroes is simply not cinematically worthy of discussion (or, conversely, if it is worth discussion, then that discussion becomes one only of marketing and receipts). These critical approaches place aesthetic judgment (or economic value) over and above any concern for social and political issues.
While some critics of recent times have managed to concentrate on the intersection between films and socio-political issues (Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman remain standout cases), Siegfried Kracauer still provides the great model. It is one of the truisms of his early film criticism that, typically, the more sensational a film is, the more it can tell us about socio-political truths, that “Stupid and unreal film fantasies are the daydreams of society, in which its actual reality comes to the fore and its otherwise repressed wishes take on form.” I would contend that many critics of today have forgotten this magical possibility that films have, especially popular and Hollywood films, of presenting something of an inverted world. Such inverted worlds can, by virtue of their very inversion, show us the world as it really is. Such an approach to contemporary Hollywood could prove to be very illuminating, but I’ve yet to see any critic attempt it. For Kracauer, films provide extraordinary surface details that can provide insights into the socio-political realm, and it seemed natural to him that film criticism would exist side-by-side with a more general political critique of culture.
Kracauer could at times place himself above the crowd; indeed, the kind of contempt he displays for popular cinema in his essay on “Little Shopgirls” (the quotation above is from that essay) seems somewhat at odds with his overall valorization of popular culture and surface details. By way of contrast, Stanley Cavell, a distinguished scholar whose work has often tackled the intersection between cinema and philosophy, has always insisted on the humility of the critic. “The problem of the critic,” he stated, “is not to discount his [sic] subjectivity but to include it.” What critics must therefore always critique is their own subjectivity, their own attraction to or repulsion from a film. To do as much is, at one and the same time, to critique one’s place in the world, and to question one’s place in a world that is inhabited by others. In the world and not above it: this remains the place for film critics in the 21st century.
Richard Rushton is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Lancaster University, UK. He is the author of The Reality of Film, Cinema After Deleuze, and The Politics of Hollywood Cinema.