In Part 1, I described this blog’s intended place in the greater world of film criticism, and also outlined the conception of “art” and its utility that underlies my writing here
Cinema as Art Form
Composer Richard Wagner formulated a theory for the ideal kind of art, which he referred to by the name Gesamtkunstwerk. I’ve heard of a few different translations for that word, but they all come down to roughly, “A work of art that combines all possible artistic forms”. For Wagner, this meant the musical dramas he spent so many long hours creating, a synthesis of music, acting, theater, and design. A quarter of a century after Wagner’s death, Sergei Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes, a ballet company that subscribed to much the same philosophy as Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk: design,music, theater, dance, all of them given equal importance in the creation of wildly ambitious modernist performance pieces.
For the first couple of decades of its existence, cinema was disregarded as a fancy lightshow, empty of any real meaning. It was only in the teens, shortly after the creation of the feature-length motion picture, and slightly before D.W. Griffith (primarily) invented a sophisticated new model of continuity editing with The Birth of a Nation, that Italian scholar Ricciotto Canudo declared cinema to be the “seventh art”. This was a reference to the customary description, following Hegel, of six fine arts:
It was also Canudo who first observed that cinema is not merely the newest of the fine arts, it is the only fine art to unite the others into one body – a Gesamtkunstwerk that would have driven Wagner or Diaghilev into a jealous frenzy.
There are two senses in which we can think of cinema as the ultimate “unifying” art form: the one that leaps to mind, especially in the sound era, is that cinema combines specific elements of the other forms. From architecture and sculpture comes the production design; from painting, the manipulation of light and the strategic position of objects in the frame; from music, the score and arguably the entire soundscape, built up according to principles of harmony or disharmony; poetry uses structure in a similar way, uses metaphor and symbolism in a similar manner, and different forms of editing can be thought of, not unreasonably, as equivalents to the poetic tools ellipses and enjambments; dance, of course, is the art of positioning the human body, and what is a film without carefully-choreographed human movement? This line of reasoning holds even truer if we consider the two most obvious fine arts that were ignored by Hegel, then Canudo: narrative prose and drama – conventionally, cinema is often held to be little more than a type of drama, although the most interesting filmmakers throughout history have always managed to transcend that idea.
In the early 1910s, however, this (illuminating and accurate) comparison of cinema to the other fine art forms would not have been first on anyone’s mind; what Canudo meant is almost certainly that film, uniquely among all artistic disciplines, combines the methods and effects of the visual arts (architecture, sculpture, painting) with rhythm and duration (characteristic of music, poetry, and dance). In the 1920s, French critics argued that of all the other arts, cinema was the closest to music, for this reason – this was, remember, before the dedicated soundtrack.
At its essential core, cinema combines two things: specific imagery and duration. It is, in fact, the only durational visual art that exists, probably the only one that can. We are directed to look at one particular image, for an exact period of time, and we look at images in a certain order. This can of course be mucked around with by a home viewer with a remote control, and certain trailblazing artists have worked that interactivity into their work – to a certain degree, this is what video games are. But, without disputing the idea that giving the viewer greater control over the duration and order of imagery can be a stroke of aesthetic genius, I find that I can’t rightly credit such a work of art as “cinema” – it’s no accident that the same word describes both the art form and the physical location in which that art form is ideally meant to be viewed. One can closely replicate the experience of seeing any given motion picture on a television or computer screen, but it’s disingenuous to claim that it’s the same experience, ignoring the question of whether one experience is more desirable than the other.
There are two elements which are specifically cinematic; they cannot be replicated in any other medium. One of these is the edit; it is the tool by which cinema primarily attains its rhythm and durational specificity. In no other art form can the artist declare that the audience must first see this image, and after exactly a given number of 24ths of a second, must then see this image. Lev Kuleshov, one of the earliest of all film theorists, argued that the essence of cinema was the transition from one image to the next, and the meaning that creates in the mind of the viewer. He demonstrated this in a famous experiment whose details I will not go into, but it is indispensable knowledge for anyone even vaguely interested in studying the ways that cinema produces meaning.
The second specifically cinematic element is camera movement, which first consisted of only pans and tilts, until Cabiria in 1914 introduced the dolly shot, which finally enabled the camera to movie “into” the mise en scène. Camera movement, more than movement within the frame, is the primary difference between cinema and the other pictorial arts: painting and photography. For camera movement changes our perspective to the content of the image in a special way, emphasising the three-dimensional space in which the content exists (in this it is altogether different from editing, which changes our perspective while emphasising the graphic quality of the content). If there is a true analogue to camera movement, it is not to be found in any other “fine art”: it is to be found only in the video game, a form whose visual vocabulary is in so many ways derived from cinema, and even more still in a narrative medium that is typically not conceived to be narrative at all, the theme park ride.
The Analysis of Cinema
Because cinema is the intersection of many other art forms, it holds that it can be studied according to the rules of any one of those forms, or the combination of more than one of them. In practical terms, this never happens. Thanks largely to the dominance of Hollywood-style narrative continuity filmmaking, generations of filmgoers since the 1920s at least have been acclimated to think of film as a narrative medium with some fancy visual bits going on here and there, and virtually all film criticism since that time has been at least partially narrative criticism, concerning the characterisations, themes, and plot elegance of the film. Indeed, most schools of film theory map precisely onto schools of literary theory; though by far the most common film theory is too general even to be given an “-ism”, being more akin to the method of close reading taught to students in high school literature courses.
Analysing film according to its architectural and sculptural elements – its sense of spatial relationships in design, in other words – is effectively dead, although the one potential bright side to the perfection of essentially flawless 3-D effects (a fad that seems to have hit its peak in the first half of 2010) is the re-awakening of the idea that cinema can be about the creation of pure environment – for example, the wildly successful Avatar ultimately defies any other critical frame, though so far, no other film made in that idiom has come remotely close to its achievement, but are content to wallow about in shocking mediocrity, crassly using 3-D as a gaudy way to increase ticket sales while in no way exploiting its architectural possibilities. The study of cinema’s rhythmic elements, and the painterly/photographic elements of light and framing, are customarily tossed into one big pot named “formalism”, which is held out as the “other kind” of analysis. It’s hard for me not to regard it as unfortunate, that when there should be as many kind of “formalisms” as there are narrative theories (and in the ’20s, it was so: France, Germany, and the Soviet Union were each well-known for having their own national, mutually incompatible formalism), all critics who discuss anything about a film other than its narrative elements all fall into that catch-all, even though some of us might rather talk about the way light is used than the language of editing effects; or have a greater interest in the film’s rhythmic structure than the visual relationship between characters and the sets. All of it is just one “formalism”, and even the strictest formalists tend to return that formalism to narrativity – the use of color, the depth of field, the long takes with slow pans all mean X, Y, or Z in relationship to this plot element, that character quirk. This is, of course, a side-effect of the mainstream acceptance that film is of its nature a storytelling medium; there still exist experimental and abstract films, but they are ghettoised to the point of invisibility.
Which is not to say that narrative approaches are inherently valueless; in fact, because of the dominance of narrative in mainstream cinema, they are necessarily valuable. Narrative details can be just as subtle and sophisticated as any formal element, and require the same amount of care to explore and explicate.
The dismaying thing about narrative criticism is how easily it descends into “message-based” discussions of a project – as can formal criticism, for that matter, though much less readily. Analysis that stops at the revelation, “this is what the film is about” is, to my mind, disappointingly shallow; what the film is “about” is where criticism should begin, and the work of the critic should rather be to explain “how” the film is “about” whatever it is telling us. The film ought to express its “about” to anybody who sits down and watches it; critical analysis is teasing out why it does so.
One may well question what value this kind of analysis has; that question comes from a position of ignorance, though that ignorance can doubtlessly be well-intentioned. I have never met a person whose love for any given art form was not increased considerably by their increased awareness of how that form functions; for there is then a double-layer of appreciation, first that of being satisfied with what the art does, second with being impressed by the relative level of skill with which it is done.
The Evaluation of Cinema
The difference between criticism and reviewing, I have stated, is that between saying “here is what this work of art is”, and saying “this work of art is good or bad to the following degree”. Criticism, though ideologically-based, is essentially objective: you may not agree with the validity of a given critical framework, but having accepted that framework as sound, the conclusions the critic reaches should be inescapable and repeatable. Reviewing, also ideologically based, is almost entirely a matter of taste; for who has exactly the same sense of what is “good” art or “bad” art as another person? I have a friend whose taste in cinema mirrors my own to an almost frightening degree, but when we get to talking about a certain American action filmmaker of the last 20 years, or a particular 1960s French miserabilist, things quickly go wrong.
So it is with reviewing: there can be no such thing as an “objective” film review, and there shouldn’t be, because any review of any work of art is going to necessarily describe an emotional state that the reviewer felt in response to the film, that may not remotely match the reader’s emotional state. And as I’ve argued, the purpose of all art (which thus makes it the purpose of film) is to create a response in the individual receiving it – but the nature of that art is and must be subjective.
It should be clear now that pure criticism, under my terms, is not possible; even the strictest criticism will be tinged by the critic’s personal response to a given work of art. Which is as it should be; if art were objective, it would not need to exist.
But back to reviewing and evaluating. Having concluded that “quality” is something that cannot be defined in any real sense, it falls upon the reviewer to express his or her reaction to the film, and to explain why he or she felt these things. The second half is the harder part, but much the more important: the difference between “This sucked” and “Because of these reasons, this sucked” is that only the latter provides an opportunity for the reader to reflect upon his or her own thoughts and reactions to a given film, by contrast and comparison with the reviewer’s. And if the review is meant to be a consumer guide, the latter example is more useful, for it explains whether the reviewer’s tastes in arriving at “This sucked” are applicable to the reader. You can say “this movie sucked”, and it tells me nothing about whether or not I will think it sucks; and if the reason you think it sucked is that it diverged too much from a book you love that I’ve never read, then there is no reason one way or the other for me to assume that I’ll agree with you.
Much as criticism can be too heavily “message-based”, so can evaluation; the conclusion that “this film is good” or “this film is bad” specifically because “I like what this film has to say” or the opposite. Since good vs. bad judgments are so essentially a matter of liking, this is a hard thing to avoid; but the aesthetics of a thing are not contingent upon its ideology. To take a concrete example: I do not like what Meet Me in St. Louis has to say (heterosexual pair-bonding is the most important thing of all; the tighter-knit the community, the more morally pure), and it’s incumbent upon me to say that in the course of a theoretical review of the film – but I like very much how it goes about saying it, and it’s also incumbent upon me to say that.
Deciding that you don’t like a movie and then making excuses for why is intellectually cowardly; better by far to own up to the apparent contradiction of disliking something but finding what it does to be effective. But I am as guilty of this as anyone; I do not claim special privileges or seek to excuse my past or future behavior.
Part 3 will describe in general terms what is considered “good” and “worthwhile” filmmaking by this blogger, with a particular eye towards his formalist bent, as well as explaining the exact way that Antagony & Ecstasy’s rating system functions