Les États généraux du film documentaire 2012 The Necessity of Criticism?

The Necessity of Criticism?


What necessity can one claim for film criticism today? What does it mean to write a film review? What heritage, what tools do practising critics have at hand today, whether they comment on film dubbed "documentary" or "fiction"?
We wanted to address these questions starting from the contemporary practice of film critics by bringing together a number of individuals who produce criticism in the press, on the web, or on the radio... We asked them to reflect with us on their methods, their vision of cinema, their outlook on our historical moment, also on their place in the history of criticism, inseparable from the history of cinema.

Emmanuel Burdeau
Literary Director for Capricci publishers, programmer for the International Film Festival of La Roche-sur-Yon, critic for Mediapart and So Film.

1 — How is it going?
Badly, it's obvious. The fact that it's obvious and that critics don't hesitate to say so is part of the problem. It's the proof: that this bad health is nothing new; that an element of self satisfaction has edged its way in, and also a feeling of fatalism; that criticism could easily be in better shape.
Serious criticism is still about rehashing the conquests of the old heroes, dishing them out without understanding them, acting as if nothing had changed in the last fifty years. Criticism is full of inheritors sitting on their inheritance, and that particularly obvious fact – still another – is atrocious.
And yet there have never been as many young people who love film and know how to think about it; never as many strong "writers on cinema" (an embarrassing expression by the way). But they do too little of what is called criticism, today in its great majority an annuity. Managed with a little anxiety – already a consolation – for it takes a large wollop of self-blindness to believe that the new coins of fifty years ago still shine with the same brilliance today.
2 — How does it work?
The critical relationship would appear to be established (conditional tense) on the idea that film is important; because it allows access to something even more important, which is the world. Criticism is derived from that shiver, that leap, that conviction, call it what you will. You write for those who don't; you go to see films with the idea that they are being projected in the world, that they have already taken place, or configure the world; you believe in the importance of film and in the idea that an article can make this importance visible, and relaunch it elsewhere, outside, there where things are happening, in the street and inside heads, in cities and hearts – call it what you will.
You occupy a space that doesn't exist, between two perils. You are above all not living on an annuity. You're a bit of a braggart but being clandestine continues to make you dream. You'd like to disappear between a sentence and an image.
You also write with the idea that if something emerged that was more important or newer than cinema, it would be better not to resist, but to follow the movement – indeed, stop writing.
3 — How is it moving?
"Criticism" is a magnificent word. Big enough to make up a life. "Critic of cinema" is problematic. Because the inheritors, who are also cheaters, have changed the meaning of "of". They've turned it into a sign of property. "Critic of cinema" means more and more: the person who sorts through things and says: that's still cinema, that's already cinema, that no.
A proprietor's discourse, theoretically empty, politically demagogic. A paternalist discourse, the discourse of power.
It would be good for criticism to be mixed with other discourses on the image and on film. It should be mixed with the images themselves, on the web. It should let itself be invaded and reworked.
Then it could start over again and reclaim a space. For the moment it takes itself for a feudal lord even though it lives in twenty square feet without heat under a five foot ceiling.
Another necessity: let it write it's own history, at least since those heroic times. It would emerge more naked and stronger. Less naïve.

Revised version of answers given in 2009 to a questionnaire distributed by the Centre Pompidou and Silo on the occasion of a panel entitled "Whither cinema?".

Jean-Louis Comolli
Filmmaker, critic, former editor in chief of the Cahiers du Cinéma, contributes to Trafic, Images documentaires and the blog “cesfilmsàpart”.

Criticism: my fine preoccupation. I began to see films at the ciné-club of my native town, then at the ciné-club of Alger whose president was Barthélémy Amengual, film historian and passionate partisan of Eisenstein, and again at the "Henri Langlois Cinémathèque" in Paris, first located rue d'Ulm then at Chaillot. One day I started to write on the films I saw. Since then and to a greater or lesser degree, I have never ceased. The reason is simple: before being works of art and in order to become them, films are social operators, analysers of social situations, sites of experimentation on the modes of representation holding sway, both because this is the stuff of their fictional material and because, in order to be made then shown, each film works in a society and time that is its own. This double definition: a film situated in the history of its time, a film situated in the history of cinema, calls for a passage via words, description, analysis and commentary. There is a game of hide-and-seek between images and words. (And that goes far back). Film today conjugates these two registers, works on their distance or their proximity. When they are filmed, words become images but the words themselves, in film, begin to mutate. In cinema, words change tribe and the images change window.
I add that, in my imagination, I always hear in what I write an active listening to those who created the film. In truth my critical work addresses the authors, producers, filmmakers as much as the spectators. I even think that spectators need criticism less than those who make films. To do something is to be blind to the limits of what one is doing. The spectator has the power to see what is, what has been conceived, wanted, organised and what is not in the conscience of the authors but which unfurls nonetheless on the screen. Criticism is there to tie what is certain to what is still hypothetical. It speaks, in other words, in a hesitant and weak voice to those who make films and who are not only spectators. In other words again, criticism proposes an aesthetic programme.
The aim is to grant certain films the privilege of leading a double life: in the cinemas, on computer screens etc., and in the texts which grapple with them. For films are ephemeral and slippery. The mesh of words only entraps a small part of the whole. Willingly or not, writing freezes the world, holds it in place, takes aim at it, places it. None of these gestures seems to be effective concerning a film. A film is a process in constant movement, a loop where each second is erased by the following, where reigns the forgetfulness of forms perceived by the very spectator. Writing about a film is like grasping a fistful of water. The exercise is difficult. But perhaps it is also profitable.

Antoine Guillot
Journalist and critic of film and comic books, delegate producer of La Dispute and producer of the cultural press review on France Culture.

A film buff since childhood, an unbridled love for American cinema of any period, for crime and fantasy film, a practitioner of various trades behind the camera (among others: producer, actor, screenwriter, press officer, distributor, etc.), all that to end up one day, by chance, not to say over my own dead body, in film criticism. The usual course is to start out in film criticism to end up a director, I followed the reverse route, from filmmaking to film comment. A funny business...
Without belonging to any particular chapel or school, Télérama made me understand that film critics were often wrong, Mad Movies made me adore then unmentionable artists, and Starfix helped me assume my tastes, even if they were often not shared. Funny influences...
Funny practice also, that of radio criticism: in a necessarily limited time, we try to orally express a taste, a feeling, transcribe an emotion, a sensual and intellectual experience lived inside a cinema. We try to think a film but above all discover what we think by formulating it. The closest approximation to my practice of radio criticism seems to me jazz improvisation: based on a more or less defined harmonic progression, a theme (the film), forget writing to take full advantage of the potentialities of live speech, elaborate a verbal melody that invents itself during its enunciation. The regular practice of the critics' panel for me is close to a jam session: the better are the partners, the better you know them, the better you are in counterpoint or in unison.
As Truffaut said, everybody has two jobs: their own and film critic. It's a funny thing to have only one. Without taking into account that criticism is undoubtedly the most tortuous form of autobiography...

Christophe Kantcheff
Editor in chief of the weekly Politis, film and literary critic. Since 2005 he moderates, with the writer Bertrand Leclair, a seminar on the criticism of artistic activity in the media “La Critique impossible ?” at the French Press Institute in Paris.

“La Critique impossible ?” is the name of a seminar on criticism and the media that I have co-directed with the writer Bertrand Leclair since 2005. The important thing is the question mark of course. We did not want to limit our horizon, even if criticism is in bad shape because of, above all, the major trends of journalism, technical and economic evolution and consequently ideologies current in the profession (limited time, publicising the already known, control of the rhythm of news, the obligation to evaluate...). If I speak more willingly about this criticism, that distributed in the media, it is because I am an active participant, working in a weekly, Politis, which has of course its particularities but which is not exempt from the constraints weighing on the entire profession.
Nevertheless the question mark opens up a perspective, indicates that there is a battle to be fought as much within myself as against the dominant mindset, against the “obviousness” of its victory, in order not to lose that first spark, decisive in my desire to engage in criticism. The important thing is to preserve the necessity not to leave the film within me mute, to maintain a capacity to welcome what my eyes risk no longer being able to see through convenience or fatigue, and to maintain the meaning of this fragile and complex exercise (no, criticising is not easy, even if the doing of art is effectively difficult).
What does this exercise consist of? To relate the experience undergone while seeing a film, by giving an account of it with the greatest honesty possible, being never a dupe to one's own inclinations or “idiosyncrasy”, by transforming what has been felt into rational language, capable of being shared, by arguing on coherence and meanings, on the relation between idea and form, by tracing links with other films, other works, and not losing sight of the fact that cinema is a means to access knowledge of the world... I will never cease saying what the gesture of criticism consists of, and never cease while doing it being imprecise and insufficient.
Which leaves just this conviction: criticism is not a guide to cultural consumption. It is a proposed interpretation addressed to the spectator, the reader, the listener. Each one is free to recognise or to appropriate what is said so as not to remain alone against the arguments of authority of whatever nature they may be. Criticism is an invitation to an exchange, a debate, to the construction of an agora or a public space, that emancipates artistic works, their authors, the spectators. Criticism is an act of politics. “Impossible criticism?”. No, a utopia.

Cédric Mal
Director of the publication Blog Documentaire, member of the editorial committee of the review Images Documentaires.

Critic, I do not like your name.
I do not like your name when you are caught up in the hurried urgency of news, when you associate yourself with the (commodity) rating of cultural objects, or when you do not give yourself time to think – that very time which necessarily governs the composition of any documentary film you confront. I do not like your name and I prefer another term, more serious, more austere perhaps, but above all more committing: analyst.
I examine, but neither judge nor comment. I dialogue with the film, its author and its public. I navigate through the interlacing of forms, note signs, patterns, similarities. I examine images and sounds almost scientifically. I tear apart their articulations and try to account for them as precisely as possible. This is my approach, my practice, my position.
There is of course a basic stimulating pinprick: the one the film deposited within me during its projection. Something remains, resists and sediments. It is afterwards, in the confrontation between this first memory and the "revision" of the film that my work takes place.
Often my task seems to be to announce what the film does not express explicitly but which is nonetheless present. Disclose what the documentary perhaps does not recognise within itself. Reformulate its formula while observing the elementary particles that reveal its alchemy.
From my point of view, analysis is a political act. It remarks, marks and demarcates. It makes a choice, lays a stone. Never "a stone thrown in the pond". The film exists by and for itself; only its analysis reinforces it, distinguishes it and gives it its necessary timelessness. Analysis is an act of creation.
Dialogue with a film, conversation with its author, my practice is a search and a meeting – a search for the meeting no doubt. It is a quest for meaning of course, but generally motivated by the desire to discover a little more who the woman or man behind the camera is; there is also what the films tell us about their authors.
From Agnès Varda to Alain Cavalier via Claire Denis, my work is on the interactions between somebody filming and the Real – and within the Real, there is first of all the spectator – who stimulates my desire for analysis. All films are not born equal before this desire, but I dispose of a formidable freedom; I have no duty to produce discourse on any particular documentary.
At stake is the form and site of analysis. Most often, text on paper. It was notably to break out of this constraint that I created Le Blog documentaire. Internet presents wonderful potential and first of all this: the web paradoxically allows us to break the flow and to stop on images. Even more, the web allows us to associate image, sound, text and video without limit. From this confrontation among media, another discourse is born. What more subtle analysis than the image of a web page in relation to those of documentary filmmakers?

Sylvie Pierre
Founder with Serge Daney of the review Trafic published by P.O.L., and co-directing it today with Raymond Bellour and Patrice Rollet.

For a new criticism
Yes, there is a necessity today, and perhaps more than ever, to engage in film criticism in all possible media of transmission, written, spoken, televised, existing or to be invented, all spheres of the web included. I hope that our certainty on this subject will be reinforced at Lussas. We need the discourse of discernment and enlightenment concerning works made of sound and image. The discourse of sharing above all: my tastes and yours, my values and yours, this kind of set, in the mathematical sense of the word, that is to say as fields of problems.
And I add: I do not believe much in negative criticism, that which says “that's not good”, “it's not well made”, or “this is badly done”, or “I don't like it”, or “you mustn't do that”, etc. Of course in the work of film, there are machines and systems which intervene: technical, aesthetic, financial, ideological, the media and so on. To such an extent that all tracking shots can become ideologically suspect, all special effects banalities, all productions craven acts of cowardice or sly ruses, all directions old superfluous futilities. And criticism has a duty to remain awake to all these bad actions within cinema, if it feels the necessity, if it has the sharpness and power to bite, if its own discourse of refusal does not run the risk of drowning in the general noise, the harassing flow of binaries, so hastily shifting opinion for or against.
To tell the truth, and to quote a French chocolate paste ad to kids: “you do need energy”... to be a critic. You must keep your strength of indignation fully intact and pure for they wear down on mediocrity and always, on recurring abjection. You have to be endowed with a certain grace, an enormous strength to carry around the duty to refuse to eat at any audiovisual trough, especially given that, I won't say that slop is served everywhere, but it's dished up much too often.
Even though a former contributor to the Cahiers du Cinéma, I prefer positive film criticism. I only want to “criticise” the films, cinemas and cineasts I like. Those for whom I know I can pass on my love. And I could say even more: I practically no longer go to see any films except those that I like already. I glean information first. I sniff about. Being a critic also means having that kind of nose, won by the passion for cinema, in the discipline of exercising finesse. Film has its reasons, and being a critic means being able to recognise them, sort them out, and define their interplay. That cinema in particular, why, how, for whom? With what forms, registering in what history and to what useful present or future ends?
These critical foundations admitted, each of us can allow ourselves to build up her or his system of values according to our own extremely personal criteria.

Each of the participants will invite us to share their experience and practices of criticism based on excerpts from various films. A dialogue between the invited critics and the public will be organised after each presentation. The debates will be moderated by Gérald Collas.

Guests : Emmanuel Burdeau, Jean-Louis Comolli, Antoine Guillot, Christophe Kantcheff, Cédric Mal, Sylvie Pierre.