Sunday, December 03, 2006

On Criticism - What and Who are Near and Dear

I have to get this posted - this is a blogathon near and dear to my inner graduate student's heart - it would kill me not to say anything. It's not easy though - I didn't pay attention tot he dates - and look what's happened. When Andy announced it I thought, hey! I can work something up about Paul Schrader and the Canon! or the essay on Heretical Empiricism I've wanted to write since 1999! but then I forgot about it until last week, in the throes of turkey overdose, and then procrastinated all this week, foolishly thinking I could find halfway presetable versions of one or another of those essays - I find (rather seriously) that I have never taken good notes on the film books I've read. I didn't take notes while reading the books - and most of the comments after the fact were either applied to films (so touching obliquely at best on the critics) or were in the form of a kind of argument with the critic.... it's frustrating, because some of them - Pasolini, Stanley Cavell, Ray Carney, David Bordwell and Noel Burch - have had a profound effect on me.... But in terms of what I have put to paper (let alone to silicon, which is where it really needs to be if I'm ever to see it again), almost the only references I have to them are when I've used one of them to write about a film.

Which leaves me, at this late hour, without much but a kind of sketch of the critical issues that interest me. These interests crop up in the things I write - you'll find comments on genre, film poetics, history and literature (not as much as I would expect) in my reviews and essays - most of them have fairly clear sources. I will take this opportunity, I guess, to name some of the critics I admire and keep returning to, arranged around the elements of film I find most fascinating.

1) The poetics of film - by which I mean, the devices available to films, the formal elements of films. Shots - space - the things that are photographed - photography itself - light - time - the syntax of film, the sequence of shots - or just of things shown on the screen. Duration. The position of the camera, all the formal stuff. I love this. I want to read books that talk about this, in just about any way - and those that do tend to be my favorites. Bordwell, Burch, early Christian Metz. There are filmmakers who get into this a lot - Eisenstein of course (probably the first film theorist/critic I read a lot of), Godard, and Pasolini (a particular favorite, especially as an essayist - as a filmmaker he can be a bit trying [though he certainly made a few masterpieces] - as an essayist about films, he is very inspiring. I really do want to work up a longer piece about his film writing - I've written about his films, for classes and on the net, but I'd like to write something about his essays.) I am also happy when writers who might be more thematically oriented are willing to get down to cases - it's one of Ray Carney's strong suits - he gives you concrete details from the films, bases his comments in what gets on the screen.

And here I have to add, Scott McCloud - he writes about comics the way I wish more people would write about films. Burch and Metz have done some of this - creating anatomies of film devices: types of cuts; types of offscreen space. McCloud is superb at that - and at analyzing the ways comics (in his case) create their effects through those devices. He’s so good at it he offers a model for writing about films.

2) Genre - probably more as a concept, the processes by which we create or define genres, more than actual genres, but all of it interests me. This comes from outside film criticism - Northrup Frye and Tzetvan Todorov mainly (Frye for the archtypes - Todorov more for the ways genres work in an art form). Among film critics, I am particularly impressed by Rick Altman's work.

3) I read litcrit before I read film crit, and I am still interested in the broader issues of literature - of fiction, in any form. Plot, character, theme - narrative, ways of telling stories, ways of relating stories to other things, to philosophy, politics, psychology, etc. Here I fall back on Bakhtin more or less constantly - he is probably the single most important critic there is, when it comes to analyzing fiction, in whatever medium it appears. Todorov figures heavily here, especially in terms of the poetics of narrative. There are certain film critics (or critics writing about film) that seem to use film as a specific instance of a more general concern - Stanley Cavell comes to mind, as well as Ray Carney. They were certainly instrumental in bridging my interests in literary criticism and films, and are both exemplary in ways of integrating an interest in film with interests in broader issues of philosophy and art.

4) That leads to another thing that fascinates me - the ways media relate to one another. I have always been interested in the idea of fiction, as something that can be done in different media. Took a class to the effect once, a nice enough class, though not formalist enough for me, in the long run.... It's fascinating to look for the common threads of fiction or narrative in film and novels, in art, in comics, TV, music... I think looking at what is common to narrative across media helps illuminate the specific devices of each medium. I am intrigued by the problems of adaptations of novels to films - or the relationships between history, novels, films. One of the most interesting papers I ever wrote in a class was about The Good Earth - the film, the novel, and the actual, historical conditions of China ca. 1900-1920 - the way those things interacted, and interacted with other forces, from the politics of the 30s to Hollywood’s orientalism, etc. I was a historian before I was anything else - and this stuff gets me.

The best book I can name that gets at something like this is Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s book on Kurosawa: he moves back and forth among a multiplicity of approaches - history, intellectual history, formal analysis, genre analysis, auteurist analysis, thematic analysis. That is a great book - one of the most satisfying and comprehensive books of its sort I know of.

So there it is. I suppose all that's left is to make a list - my 5 favorite books of film criticism.

1. David Borwell's Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema - available as a PDF from a link on that page... the most comprehensive, detailed book about a filmmaker....
2. Yoshimoto's Kurosawa book. The second most comprehensive...? In fact, it's quite a bit different from Bordwell - a broader range of concerns, as suggested in 4, above...
3. Stanley Cavell - Pursuits of Happiness - the hollywood comedy of remarriage, examined.
4. Ray Carney - American Visions - his Frank Capra book. He does a good job in all his books of integrating his broad interests (philosophical, artistic) with the formal properties of the films themselves - he is interested in the themes, but he is attentive to the poetics.
5. Pier Paolo Pasolini - Heretical Empiricism. Yes, it seems to be back in print! I spent years looking for the thing... it's a very interesting book - he brings all his many talents - a poet, a novelist, a critic, a theorist, a filmmaker, a political radical - to bear on his subjects: so when he writes about films, he is comfortable talking about types of shots, lenses, theories of montage, as well as free indirect discourse, linguistic theory, the metalanguage of the script, and so on. And from the perspective of one who has used these ideas in actual works of art - it's a unique and extremely valuable perspective, and this is a first rate book.

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