Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Critical (re-)evaluation

I started The Cinematic Art with a desire to explore the interconnections of film, criticism, and cinephilia in an open forum. Among my predominant concerns was and still is the question of blogging as a relevant practice in cinephilia and a vehicle for film criticism, but a criticism of a different making. I wanted this site to be an experiment in criticism; a rumination on cinema, grounded in theory, vested cinephilia and personal narrativizing. Its style and content emerged from academic and journalistic tropes of film criticism, but I also sought to subvert and confound them, fold them in to each other, and explore new capabilities for engaging images.

Alas, I was weighed down by the scale of my ambitions.

This post brings an end to my longest drought since I started The Cinematic Art and caps off a disappointing year in the site's development. In my brief sabbatical, I had plenty of time to think about this blog and blogging as a practice. I've come to accept that this site will probably never operate in the capacity that I would like. The offerings here mostly consist of half-formed thoughts, occasional sloppy writing, and a startling lack of focus — all things that don't help to legitimize my cause of giving blogging a good name. My prolonged absence from updating the site with new content does not help my argument either.

Having said all that, I remain stubbornly convinced that there are new paths to forge and that this writing form grants me and so many others the possibility to discover them. The bigger question is if this gradual realization resonates beyond the constraining dialogue about digital technologies and comprehension of their properties.

Sobered with the reality that I cannot realize the ambitious vision I once held for the site, I now recognize the need to re-frame my expectations and goals, and I need to reposition my approach toward understanding what I and so many others are doing here in digital space.

The film blogging circuit is a community of voices from all across the spectrum of cinephilia and criticism. This isn't news to most writers and readers familiar with blogging, but this simple fact is the nonetheless the base of a more complex inquiry into and about critical modalities of film criticism. Digital media seem to allow us an understanding of the process of making and seeing film, but they also allow us to harness critical tools and engage criticism at a different level. The difficulty will be in using and comprehending these media as we gradually learn the tools they provide us to do just that. This form cannot simply assimilate the properties of other media and culminate in a Grand Form of writing or criticism. Many questions remain regarding how these media are used and the implications for their use, among other things.

Some more sophisticated members of the film community would scoff at the notion of blog authors as critics. In public and critical discourse, blogging still largely connotes blind opining and empty commentating. Some have argued that it is relevant only to those who perform it. But how can we dispute who is or is not a critic when we are at a moment in which film criticism has been problematized in so many ways? That criticism lacks a well-defined identity is largely due to a growing digital mediascape wherein the meanings of journalism and filmmaking are constantly in flux. Still more, it's not necessarily a negative thing. Both filmmaking and criticism are at an uneasy place. Their respective practitioners are adjusting to new conditions in which the professional seems to be quickly meeting the non-professional.

For those of the mindset that there is an very specific framework for practicing of criticism, the idea of non-professional individuals practicing the "craft" of something built on expertise and experience is central to the collapse of that very craft. But is it not possible to gain expertise and knowledge outside the annals of professional film criticism? If films (and art in general) are supposed to celebrate the diversity of peoples and cultures through images and narrative, why must film criticism remain such a stagnant practice where homogeneous frameworks empower a particular narrative about what films are, how they function, and which are deemed worthy to be recognized in the canon of film history?

I am not asking these questions to tear down professional film criticism, but to propose a new approach to its position and practice. For years, we've heard some critics sensationally talk about the death of movies or the death of criticism; not a majority, mind you, but a vocal minority. What they were really saying is that their limited idea of what film or criticism should be was diminishing. And when you look around at faltering arts and entertainment sections, it's obvious that professional avenues of film criticism are suffering. To suggest that digital media (e.g., blogging) are to blame for film criticism and print journalism faltering simplifies the issue to pinning blame for an event that is without blame. Digital media are prominent and relevant; this much we know. But we do not quite know how to situate them in commercial terms.

Here on this blog, I come to you unfiltered by the institutional limitations that structure professional criticism. This is an advantage and a disadvantage. All writers bring a part of themselves to their writing, but those of us who do this unprofessionally are on naked display. In other words, we're writing about what we feel is worth writing about. It can be more personal, more probing. The problem for those who do it is often an overall lack the skills, resources, and/or time to launch the kind of inquiry that those in the paid ranks are granted. And yet, in the commercial world, writers are often constrained to such a large extent, so as to remain commercially viable. This is where bloggers come in. The best bloggers are good writers and are informed on their subject matters, but they also have a talent to key into a dialogue, and they do it in a variety of fashions. There is no formula for this. It's almost an intuitive sense that some writers possess for just the right level of articulation (or lack there of) to expand on an existing dialogue or kickstart another. We can do more than just fill the space between, but can create that space — a function that is essentially inherent in the form.

A plurality of voices can and should open new avenues of engaging images and perspectives, and shed light on old ones. Criticism therefore should not be limited to a particular inquiry or based on presupposed means and conditions. Both academic and journalistic criticism explore films in different ways, but they are not opposite ends of a film criticism line. We don't necessarily need to search in between to locate new molds of criticism. Possibilities exist in a number of manifestations, not the least of which is the crucial relationship between criticism and cinephilia.

I would contend that we will never truly have the ability to describe or consciously project the purpose or relevance of moving images, or narrative, for that matter. The anomaly of film criticism is that while it should focus very much on the films themselves — images, sounds, perspectives — it is not about those things at all. A film is made up of cuts, colors, figures, lights, sounds, etc. It is a machine with so many moving parts; parts that function together to form an aesthetic unity beyond the function of these individual elements. While close analysis is required for film criticism to exist at all, the critic ultimately is examining a phenomenon that is not on "film." The film is merely the line through which many other threads pass. The critic should penetrate those depths and swim in them, not unlock meaning or extract value. Criticism helps viewers, filmmakers, and critics to understand the process of seeing images, making sense of them, and grasping their significance.

If I may offer a more positive approach to the issue of "the death of film criticism", I would argue that film criticism is always happening, much in the same vein that film or cinema is happening. It may just a matter of how much we open our eyes to it. Cinema will continue to grow and thrive as an industrial art. Images exist and are produced and reproduced ubiquitously. The same is true of film criticism. It's not only happening in recognized forums, such as newspapers, magazines, and publicized websites. It's in conversations, on personal blogs, comment sections, and elsewhere. In this respect, criticism mirrors the cinema in that it cannot be quantified or set to a definition, as much as we may try. It will always have a professional face, but if that is the only view we allow ourselves to have then it wouldn't be able to grow. More important is to examine how it is harnessed and expressed, and under what conditions.


Ryan Kelly said...

You're much too hard on yourself, Ted. Your blog can be and should be a vehicle for all those things you mention, but as they come up. In other words, you just have to do as the muse commands. Giving up on writing all together, for fear of imperfection, is pretty much the worst thing one could do. It has held me back for far too long.

That said, I'm glad you intend to return to blogging. Just be yourself, and you will continue the standards for excellence you have set for yourself with your writing.

P.S., thanks for putting me under your "Daily Visits" section, I am touched.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

Hey man, interesting post. I kind of agree with Ryan. Don't over-think it --- get back to posting, write a bit more from feeling, and less from this big wall of self-expectation; and you may come across a lot more truth and insight than you realize!!

Dan North said...

So, let me get this straight. You're bemoaning the inadequacy of your blog by posting a long, thoughtful and elegant article about the nature of the form?

This is great stuff, Ted. You don't have to post often. You don't even have to wait until you have something profound to say. But there are always readers, especially when you're prepared to reflect upon the process of writing in such an interesting, progressive way. Many of us got into blogging as a way of rethinking our writing practice, and it requires us to consider what we're doing, but if others see no value in the immediacy of the kinds of collective criticism that goes on in the blog community, then they're missing out. It's a critic's carnival around here, with such an eclectic, challenging and diverse range of views. Don't give up on it.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the words, guys! I'm late to the game here and once again find myself wallowing in self-loathing for not finding the time to update this site. The above post was actually contructed over a lengthy period of time, and since I did much of the self-loathing earlier in the process, I was relatively unaware as to the extent of my beating myelf up over the prolonged absences from the blog. I still find myself torn between my instaible desire to write with more frequency and my misery in not finding the time to do just that. That I'm wresting with connecting my own personal encounter and feelings with this form and my academic interest in it seems to sustain this state of paralysis (with regards to writing) and fascination (with regards to wanting to write and read more.

It's all part of the process, I suppose. My obsession with reflexivity will be the end of me, I swear. Nevertheless, as I set out to try to deal with yet another long absence, I am going to try to follow the encouraging words from all of you and simply write.

Building Maintenance said...

very interesting post .