01 December 2006

Your own worst critic

For the past couple of days, in the process of writing a screenplay, I've been researching the French auteur Jacques Rivette[1], specifically his debut feature Paris nous appartient (1960). The film is virtually impossible to find on this side of the Atlantic, which is making my research more difficult, but, more to the point, it has me thinking about the French New Wave and that group of critics that changed the cinema forever.

Rivette, along with Truffaut, Godard, and the rest of the New Wave filmmakers, cut his teeth as a film critic, writing for Cahiers du cinéma under the supervision of legendary theorist André Bazin. It was here that François Truffaut came up with the Auteur theory.

Of course, if you're the type of person who reads entries in a Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon, you probably knew that already.

What we sometimes forget, though, is that the New Wave did a lot to further blur the line between the critic and the filmmaker. Many of them stayed with the Cahiers du cinéma for a time, even as their films were taking the world by storm. This had been done to some extent by the late James Agee, a multi-talented writer who just happened to be a film critic, and later perhaps played a small part in Roger Ebert's forays into screenwriting in his earlier days. But few, if any, did both to the extent of the French New Wave.

Until now.

The last couple of years have seen the internet reach a point where it's much more amenable to the "filmie" mindset. Before, there were sites dedicated to film, sure, but they were rather hit or miss and run by a few people with a love for programming code. But, with the creation of the blog universe, where anyone with even the smallest amount of computer savy can weigh in on pretty much whatever they please, film criticism or, rather, the minor leagues of film criticism has exploded. There are hundreds of highly intelligent people writing thoughtfully on pretty much any film you could ever hope to read about, even uber-obscure films like Paris nous appartient. This, in and of itself, is fantastic for a number of reasons, the chief being that it gets people thinking critically about film who might never have done so.

Over on one of the other internets, we have YouTube, fueled by the suddenly affordable cost of cameras and editing equipment. There's a ton of videos on there, and most of them are terrible, but if you dig around, you can find some really interesting stuff. The major media outlets are paying attention and snatching up what they can, finding talent in places they might never have looked.

So how are they related? Well, combine all these qualities and you've got the potential for a second coming of the French New Wave. People who spend half their time writing film criticism (in whatever form) on their blogs and the other half running around and making short films. The two feed off each other. When you have to explain in detail why a film does or does not work, it makes it somewhat easier to recognize those same qualities in something you've created. You can look at your short and imagine what you might say if you were panning it, something that might be nigh unto impossible without the experience of doing it to others. It makes for better filmmaking, and it makes for better film criticism, as it tends to add a degree of compassion toward the filmmaker where previously there might be none.

But, more importantly, it's a fertile training ground that may just give us the next Truffaut or Godard, something we'd all love to see.

[1] In case you didn't know, Rivette is best known for the films Va Savoir (2001), La Belle Noiseuse (1991), and La Bande des Quatre (1998), among others.

** Don't forget the Lovesick Blog-a-Thon right here on 14 February 2007. **


Anonymous said...

Ahoy, Lucas! I'll be back later with more substantive comments, but in the meantime be sure to check out Annie Frisbie's post at Zoom In Online. It's not actually about the connection between the French New Wave and our current historical moment, but after re-reading the Godfrey Cheshire article she's discussing in the context of this blog-a-thon I couldn't help but make that connection...

Thanks for contributing!

lucas said...

cool. thanks for the link.

johanna said...

this is so right-on, and it'll be neat to see what happens, what direction film crit and making goes in no matter what, but especially as soon as people get out of the mindset that "set" semiotic coding rules the lens

some would disagree with me, certainly

nicely done, btw.

johanna said...

i also have a couple of major concerns with the blogosphere such as it is, but i'll save those for a more propitious time and venue.

Anonymous said...

I think that you're essentially right: it's now as easy for creative people to make their own films as it is for them to write about them. And because the internet offers the chance that their work might find an audience, they're doing both. This should result in generally more astute media and media commentary.

But I do have one concern about this phenomenon as it relates to film criticism: making your own films, presumably by yourself or with your friends, does help you to understand basic processes like cinematography and editing (specifically how difficult they are) better. But it doesn't help you understand what a large-scale film production entails: who's responsible for what aspects of the film, how financing works, what the exact role of the director (for instance) is on productions of various sizes.

I suspect that while it will lead to more expertise, it will also lead to more false feelings of expertise. And I worry that this might result in a less open-minded form of film writing...

Tim Lucas' post for the 'thon touches on some of these ideas...

Thanks again for participating, Lucas!

lucas said...

you're right about the feelings of expertise, but I tend to see that as a point along the road. People who start out even semi-seriously in either vein will always tend to think they know a great deal, yet in the process of exploring, they inevitably find out just how little they do know.

sure, some will never grow to that point, but those are the types you can easily spot. I know filmmakers in the city like this, and they make awful films. I've read "critics" like this, and it usually only takes a paragraph or so to discover they haven't a clue.

the problem I find is that while I'd estimate I know more than 98% of the public, there's still that 2% that knows more than me. And there's a lot to know in that 2%. it's easy to fluctuate between feeling like an expert and a complete novice in the course of a day. What i try to do is openly admit what I don't know and then, in the course of the critical analysis, attempt to figure out what I can. (that whole paragraph sounded better in my head)

it's part of an openness we all need to have, both with our audience, and with each other. kind of like what you talked about in your post. quite often what we write qualifies in many ways as a work-in-progress, or a process by which we're trying to get a grasp on our subject. if we can admit, or even embrace that when needed, we might all be better off for it.

johanna said...

i agree with your last paragraph wholeheartedly. i think a lot of discussion on this here internet is stunted by a refusal to acknowledge or identify that sort of openness.

i innately know, for example, that not everything i write about a film is going to strike the reader as a "spot-on" assessment of the film (that's how the boys put it these days, right?) but i put it out there anyway in the hopes that someone else will say, "Wait, that's the way you see this? Really, I never that of it that way, and here's why, etc." in the hopes of meeting that person somewhere in the middle on an idea.

Over a year now of film criticism and i haven't had one conversation like that, even though i've made plenty of stumbles and plenty of other good and original points. i even tried using a pseudonym for a while that would mask my gender, but so far my readers have remained ubiquitous and for the most part shy away from any real discussion -- argumentative or otherwise.

i don't understand the avoidance of engagement and have far from figured out what i'm going to try and do about if anything; but, i do see that sort of openness as being essential to the kind of engagement necessary to the sort of atmosphere a post like this one seems to hope for

mickrect said...

Lucas - I laud your efforts to be both a critic and creator. I've been of the school that good art is most likely created by good intellect. There are exceptions--genius. But of course, we are none.

For some time I have attempted to turn artists into critics and vice versa - having had moderate success with both. I have friends who right books - long, somewhat interesting, and very ambitious books. However, they usually lack any sense of literary history, etc. which makes their work quite unoriginal. Similarly, I have friends who are indeed "scholars" who could not write a line of decent poetry to save their lives.

The two are indispensible in my mind. TS Eliot is a good example of a critic who is perhaps too much in the critic camp and not enough in the creative camp. However, few people know that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein were scholars of medieval literature and hence, decent "poets."

This is to say there is a happy medium. What probably occurs is that while doing "scholarly" work like criticism - the artist inside writes a few notes for a poem, film, etc. And the artist, while creating, gains perspective while creating.