Saturday, October 30, 2021

A Critical Time for Criticism

One of the few remaining texts from the Cinema in Transit translation project. With minor tweaks and addition of the missing paragraph and footnotes. 

A Critical Time for Criticism

Some years ago, in Gabès, a film club organiser for southern Tunisia told me what he had to contend with. After a screening it was no longer out of the ordinary for a bearded student to get up and explain in all seriousness that the heroine’s death at the end of the film was not the work of the screenwriters but of God, who had punished her for her sins. How was he to get a film club debate going in these conditions, when there was no longer any debate? 

At the same time, down amongst the Christians, a convulsive upsurge of bigotry was creating quite a stir. The judgement of those who had seen Hail Mary suddenly counted for less than that of those who condemned it “blindly”, without having seen it. With a typical sense of comedy, the film’s director, Jean-Luc Godard, made a show of respecting the judgement of the Pope, less as the head of the Church than as an individual who had a personal ‘thing’ about Mary. Godard did not make any claims for the sacred rights of the individual in regards to the creation, but asked the impossible, namely the rights of the individual Jean-Paul to enter into debate with the individual Jean-Luc about what their respective work share in common. 

This is not the same Godard who had written a fine letter breaking with Malraux in defence of Rivette’s The Nun. In fact, things had changed. Criticism had already thrown in the towel and the “right to creativity” had become a trade union refrain all the noisier that for the “profession’s professionals” there had long since ceased to be anything to debate. A few years later, on the climate of weak-kneed embarrassment that accompanied the release of The Last Temptation of Christ (rapidly dubbed “the Scorsese affair”), film criticism played no part*. 

What is this critical bloodlessness about? That we no longer fight for “freedom of expression **” and that we still don’t know how to fight for “freedom of consumption”. Question: does the consumer of films have an inalienable right to consume the film that he wants? Answer: this isn’t certain. It isn’t certain because it isn’t just objects which are consumed. More and more it is the “social” that is consumed by supposedly free individuals. Free in their choices and excused from having to defend them, thus from having to enter into any kind of debate. For if the consumption of the social still needs pretext-objects, it has greater need of the pretext than of the object. 

The work was the concern of criticism and criticism derived from what was the concern of a piece of work (or, at least, a project). Strictly speaking, a product is concerned only with what it in turn produces. A good product is one that enables us to see how society works. That’s what people want to see, the product of the product and so on to infinity. Society’s auto-consumption via its “phenomena” on the parasitical stage of the media. 

We can see from this how movie-theatres and a critical sense are both being vacated simultaneously. The recent bearification of all social spaces in France has allowed each and every one as they please to graft themselves onto the numerous chain links in the Bear-“model”, the chain link film having no other privilege than that of the shop window. And so it was that a few days after the release of The Bear, I met two women friends. One is complaining because she’s overworked and keeps on missing the film, and the other one asks me to what I attribute its huge success. Curiosity about the consequences now precedes any free consideration of the cause. 

These things are well known and have been described many times. Their paradoxes no longer entertain. When the pretext has overtaken the object, criticism starts to wither, then disappears. Television for example, doesn’t need critics since instead of offering objects to the judgement of the audience, it sells captive audiences to its advertising bosses, audiences that it keeps still through offering “cinema films” in the hope that they don’t change TV channels. The base unit of television is not the chain link but the channel, not the target but the hostage. We know about these things better every day.

Yet it would be naive to imagine that criticism (as a function) or a critical sense (as a value) can “disappear” overnight. The problem lies more in their being recycled. For if the media is the place where modern societies operate a mass dilution of the function formerly handed on only to professional mediators, this operation is not without its mourning, its disenchantment and above all its return of the repressed. And these things, latterly, are not absent. 

In reality every mediator assumes a certain degree of abjection: taking things as they come, studying them and reaching a conclusion, sometimes a verdict. That’s what one ought to learn how to share, perhaps thanks to the simulations television offers us. Television is less and less that machine supposed to “offer things to see”. Conversely, it tends more and more to offer judgements. It shows how to set up a debate, how to exhort truths, confuse the substance of opinion surveys with reality, conduct a trial (mock though it be) or how to give the green light to life or death, amnesty or vae victus, via the Minitel screen. It accustoms us to only retain the final stage of any critical activity: the verdict (or that portmanteau verdict made up of a sum of opinions). The world of media communication has two faces. We willingly believe those blithe utopians who have promised us a world where, overall, more people would have more access more often to more information. But by doing this we’ve rather hastily confused communication with “transmission”. We know by now that this world also has a worrying face. This time it only takes a confusion between communication and “contamination” for the worst to edge back into view. Let’s return to our humble starting point. Criticism ought in effect to be the art of describing singular objects by means of good metaphors (what Godard stubbornly calls montage). But when the possibility for metaphor is lacking, when it is metonymy that has prevailed, things are spoiled. There then returns (this is fundamentalism) a nostalgia for the hard kernel, for a real object, a truth incarnate, a catastrophic exit from the consumption of the societal towards the consuming of the social. There then returns the bigotry of terror.  

Of course we’ve reached it, now that Khomeini has self-interestedly brought in to play a generalised metonymy (a part taken as the whole, gradual contagion, terrorism in other words). We’ve got there, now that every parish priest in the world – from O’Connor to Decourtray – is making the most of the green light given by the old stuff of Teheran to win back his flock. It’s not just about cinema now, nor even, bring Salman Rushdie into it, about literary criticism***. It’s not even about theological debate, of the kind there was – and it was serious – in the golden age of Islam. It’s about making the most of the crazy circus of pretext-objects to move on to the terrorism of the pure-object. 

Since criticism of the circular phenomenon that is TV is as yet beyond us, it would be frivolous to abandon its exercise in regards to the links in the chain. One by one if necessary. And not just the films.

* The official swansong of film criticism has a date: in 1982, when it thought clever to oppose a successful movie (Ace of Aces, with Belmondo) to an unbalanced and little-loved film (Une chamber en ville, by Demy). A clumsy petition was circulated. It would be the last one. 

** The author couldn’t have been more right. Two years later, as a reply to his criticism of Uranus, Claude Berri, accountable for the thing that was criticised, found nothing more dignified than to obtain via the courts that a rather appalling right of reply be published in Libération on 28 February 1991. Although minor, this event is an indicator of the constraints restricting the exercise of film criticism (or what’s left of it). In any case, the event wasn’t widely talked about at all, and everybody kept a very low profile. [Translator's note: to understand the "Berri affair", see these posts: 1, 2 and 3.]

*** The most surprising was the quasi-disappearance of old (noble) debates on the essence of Literature. Not more surprising than the “what can Literature do?” or “Literature and the right to die”.

Published in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas editions, 1991, from an article written in Libération on 24 February 1989.