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On Criticism

Refusing the Flat Pack

What type of spectator do we wish to be – a freeform viewer who picks up on the moments that interest us the most without completely ignoring the formal strategies designed to keep us in our seats, or a viewer where the formal strategies become the be all and end all of the viewing experience? Eric Rohmer in a review published in Cahiers du Cinema: The Fifties more or less proposes the former type when he says of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, “I confess that as I watched the film my thoughts went off in directions far from those of the plot itself…I admit that I was plunged into all kinds of absurd trains of thought by things like the pattern of George Sanders’s tweed jacket, how old he must be, how much he’s aged since Rebecca or All About Eve, Ingrid Bergman’s hairstyle, not to speak of the shape of the skulls in the catacombs or new archaeological methods.” For Rohmer this is partly due to the nature of the film’s deliberate pace: “a more sustained tempo in the plot wouldn’t have allowed time” for such musings. It echoes the great Cahiers critic André Bazin’s comments in What is Cinema? Vol. II on a Charlie Chaplin film. “I have seen Limelight three times and I admit I was bored three times, not always in the same places. Also, I never wished for any shortening of this period of boredom. It was rather a relaxing of attention that left my mind free to wander….” Thus this approach is also about the nature of a viewer’s mind, and whether they are willing to go with the many apparently incidental details of a film, or whether they are concerned almost exclusively with the formal completeness of the picture, and believe what they observe ought to go into that formal pattern.

A critic and theorist very much given to this latter approach would of course be David Bordwell, who looks in films not for the specific feeling, but the general impression, as we find in an analysis of North by Northwest in Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art. “A great many motifs are repeated and help make the film cohere. Roger [Cary Grant] is constantly in danger from heights; his car hangs over a cliff, he must sneak out on the ledge of a hospital, he has to clamber up Van Damm’s modernistic cliff-top house, and he and Eve wind up dangling from the faces of Mt Rushmore.” This is pretty much inarguable observation, and central to the thrust of Bordwell’s approach to film analysis is both the ideal viewer and the Pavlovian respondee, the viewer who reacts in a behaviourist rather than an ontological way to the film-going experience. For the behavioural response is essentially external and universal, so that when Bordwell later explores the specifics of point of view in the film he wants again to offer an unambiguous set of statements to which we can all agree. He is not offering so much a perspective, involving introspection and personal observation, where one’s specific being, one’s ontology, is set to work, but a series of categoricals. “The most straightforward way in which the film’s narration controls our knowledge is through the numerous optical point-of-view (POV) shots Hitchcock employs. This device yields a degree of subjective depth: We see what a character sees more or less as she or he sees it. More importantly here, the optical POV shot restricts us only to what the character learns at that moment.” Thus, “the plane attack at Prairie Stop, for example, is confined wholly to Roger’s range of knowledge. Hitchcock could have cut away from Roger waiting by the road in order to show us the villain plotting their plan, but he does not.” Again the information is generally true but, specifically, astonishingly unrevealing. It lacks an ontological dimension, a dimension that would suggest not the ideal though strangely unemotive viewer Daniel Frampton proposes in his recent book Filmosophy, when saying “Bordwell’s analysis of film style is, much like his hypothetical filmgoer, somewhat cold and calculating,” but one that is warm and suggestive.

Imagine if Bordwell addressed the issue of heights in North by Northwest from the angle of Hitchcock’s previous film, Vertigo, and proposed that Vertigo was first and foremost a psychological examination of the issue of heights and one’s fear concerning them, and North by Northwest a film of heights much more as an immediately problematic issue. In Vertigo height is, even in the precarious prologue, really significant only from the perspective of Scottie; in the latter film it is a problem for Roger not because he’s neurotic, but because he is simply caught in a series of difficult situations from which he must escape. In North by Northwest, Hitchcock seems to reverse the ‘depth’ structure of Vertigo, and turns Roger Thornhill into a cipher for the film’s tension. Certainly in both films the characters are being manipulated by others, but in Vertigo Scottie’s very subjectivity is central to the crisis; in North by Northwest Roger’s subjectivity is generally beside the point. Thus though both films are very interested in point of view – as Bordwell states “by far the greatest number of POV shots are attached to Thornhill” – nevertheless the point of view in each film is very different. So when Bordwell mentions that Roger is constantly in danger from heights, we can say that in Vertigo Scottie is less in danger from heights, than scared of heights. What our approach can do is open up a speculative field about internal and external dangers, and then Bordwell’s undeniable observations – the number of times Roger is in danger from heights – becomes a perspective on Hitchcock’s use of acrophobia in the former film, and height as a general fear in the latter.

But Bordwell doesn’t like to open up these speculative spaces; he doesn’t want to see criticism and spectatorship as a speculative mode of feeling, but as a series of general but assured statements about the nature of film. When James S. Hurley says, in an essay called David Bordwell’s ‘Iron Cage of Style’, Bordwell “repeatedly halts his line of inquiry just at the point where large and interesting questions are arising”, it is because Bordwell would assume such large and interesting questions take us beyond the remit of the generally verifiable. He wants to turn film analysis into something close to the scientifically rigorous, but at what cost, and with how much success? He says, for example, of Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, “in one scene a group of conversing knights is centered and balanced in the foreground planes. Yet a pale purple saddle blanket on a passing horse momentarily draws our eyes away from this action. Such a “distracting” use of color becomes a stylistic motif in the film”. Here, though, we don’t so much beg to differ; we’re simply likely to disagree. Watching the film we notice that the purple saddlebag is hardly that conspicuous, and throughout the film there are dashes of bright colours that don’t especially serve any purpose in drawing our eye away from the main action. Bordwell offers what seems like an objective statement, but it is actually erroneous rather than contentiously speculative.

To propose that Vertigo is a film about Hitchcock’s fascination with interior fear and North by Northwest about exterior fear is contentiously speculative rather than wrong, because we are offering it up as a perspective. Bordwell’s insistence that our eye is drawn away from the foregrounded action to the background purple image could probably be quite easily proved incorrect. It might be generally fair to say that some colours draw our attention more than others, but that doesn’t mean it is true in relation to Bresson’s film, and we could even do a head count in a class and see how many students thought the saddle blanket was of significance. Even if several people said it seemed central, anything less than full agreement would undermine Bordwell’s observation, for he offers it as a cognitive truism rather than a perspective. The erroneousness lies, if you like, in the statement’s ambitious attempt at the categorically assertive.

But then when we use truisms versus perspectives are we saying something similar to Roland Barthes when he points up in Camera Lucida the difference between the studium and the punctum in photography? Perhaps, up a point. The studium is after all the average effect of the photograph, “the studium is the order of liking, not of loving; it mobilizes a half desire, a demi-volition; it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the book, the clothes one finds “all right””. “To recognize the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intention, to enter into harmony with them, to approve or disapprove of them, but always to understand them…” It “is a contract arrived at between creators and consumers”. But what transcends the contract, and is it not this ‘transcendence’ Rossellini allows much room for, and that Rohmer seizes upon?

In Bordwellian style criticism, or for that matter storytelling structuring manuals, it is as though the theorists are talking about an element of the world as if it is the whole. What Barthes proposes through the punctum is an element that is merely part of the whole, but that one happens to apply subjectivity to the element and then expands it outwards into a meaningful reading. Bordwell seems to be looking for an applied objectivity, but as Pierre Bourdieu and Loic D. Wacquant would say, those “whose profession it is to objectivize the social world prove rarely able to objectivize themselves…” It is a point Hurley makes in the aforementioned article where he opens his essay with the above quote, and where he goes on to say “Bordwell is assuming that all viewers will respond to specific visual strategies in more or less the same way”.

Bordwell certainly isn’t allowing space for Rohmeresque digressions or Barthes’ puncta. He is instead, if you want, telling us why we should all like films; but not why we might love them. Technically he might go some way to explaining why they work on us, and that is no bad thing – many critics would agree with Bordwell that form is an under-explored element in film studies, and in fact Hurley makes this very point. But then that is all we get as Bordwell remains on the outside of the film viewing experience. For example in The Way Hollywood Tells It, he posits that ‘the deft economy of Jerry Maguire is wholly grounded in the precepts of orthodox filmmaking. The movie reminds us that the conventions of the classical tradition, from the goal-oriented protagonist and summary montages to dialogue hooks, appointments and evocative motifs, are inexhaustible resources in the hands of gifted filmmakers.” We still don’t really know what Bordwell feels about the film, we just know how it worked on him. One might claim to dislike Jerry Maguire for the very reasons Bordwell defends it, finding its summary montages lazy and predictable short-hand, its appointments cumbersomely anticipatory, and its goal-oriented protagonist just Tom Cruise in yet another film about personal drive. Bordwell never seems to find an angle upon which he can offer his perspective on the film, and so finally ends up proposing no more than why he likes it. A critic who comes at the film from an angle whereby he hates it might use the same general criteria for demolishing the movie. One could look at the way it fits into the general arc of Cruise characters that make a series of mistakes based on egoistic naivety and eventually learn the error of their ways; at the way that Cruise films are littered with appointments, which Cruise often has to reach at break neck speed; and the way that the sort of summary montages Bordwell praises are crass attempts to cram in semi-relevant information. The critic who hates it may even manage to convince, paradoxically, a viewer why they loved it, because enough passion has been worked up in the attack, that the defence must meet it with equal weight.

One’s reminded of Pauline Kael, and Serge Daney – both critics who insisted on taking films personally. They wouldn’t allow the viewer to graze passively; a strong response was required. To disagree with Bordwell is a little like beating up a cash machine because it’s swallowed your card. This of course doesn’t mean we can’t be against ‘cash machines’ in principle, and it is really on the issue of general principles that our argument with Bordwell resides, and which returns us to our initial point. There is something in Bordwell’s work that feels eerily reminiscent of the growth of multi-nationals, out of town shopping complexes and the whole Ikea and Tesco culture. This isn’t at all to propose Bordwell is narrow in his referencing. In Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art the references range from The Wizard of Oz to Tokyo Story, from Yol to Vertigo; while in Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film he covers the full range of cinema, including Soviet Montage, Alain Resnais, Miklos Jancso, Godard and Bertolucci as well as classic Hollywood. In Figures Traced in Light his essays are on Feuillade, Mizoguchi, Angelopoulos and Hou Hsiao-hsien. The problem resides much more in the flat-packing of the many art works under discussion and the manner in which as general principles are extracted, specifics are often lost. “…We should strive to make our interpretations precise,” Bordwell and Thompson insist, by seeing how each film’s thematic meanings are suggested by the film’s total system”. (Film Art) But what do they have to say about Yol, a great and important film about prisoners’ lives in Turkey? Nothing more than to comment on an aspect of colour, a point as debatable as the observation made about Lancelot du Lac. “In Yilmas Guney’s Yol, for example, the setting and the characters’ outfits are already quite warm in hue, but the hot pink vest of the man in the central middle ground helps make it the primary object of our attention.” This is their only observation on the film, and hardly brings to bear the film’s “total system”, especially when the ‘man’ in a pink jumper is a boy, and it is far more significant that he’s a boy than that he is wearing a pink jumper. This isn’t to attack Bordwell for making mistakes (who doesn’t?), but if he’s going to lecture us elsewhere about looking at the unity of the work, then people in glass (art) houses shouldn’t be throwing their weight around.

Or rather if we must have critics and theorists bullying us at all, then better the belligerent subjectivity of a Kael or a Daney, who in their partisanship demand the same from the viewer. What cinema needs isn’t passive observers who recognize cinema’s devices, but much more active observers who can look at the specifics rather than the general elements. As Serge Daney proposed in a robust article on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover, republished in Sight and Sound: Annaud “doesn’t know, for example, that there are things which you see without really seeing them, and others which stare you in the face but don’t reflect any real experiences…in short, that there are things which cinema sometimes finds it hard to approach (yet its dignity lies in the attempt).” If Bordwell always wants us to see what is in front of our eyes; Daney wonders what might be at the back of our minds. And so if Bordwell blankly invokes the jumper in Yol; what about the way Daney mentions the shoes in The Lover? Here Daney takes a trope and asks us to question its laziness. “The shoe, extremely fashionable and expensive, is pointed towards the viewer rather like a face, in a long, vacant close up. A close up which lasts long enough for the viewer to reach the following conclusion: these shoes don’t come from Dolcis and the feet which are wearing them aren’t just any old feet.” What Daney does here is create for himself an aesthetic and ethical space, as he refuses to take the image at shoe value, and wants to propose what’s missing in this obvious trope. It is as if each image – whether fascinating or offensive – gives the viewer room for potential meditation and reflection. This isn’t cognitive instantaneousness but reflective possibility, the sort of observational space clearly absent from Bordwell’s take on North by Northwest, and wholly present in Rohmer’s meditation on Rossellini’s film.

Now someone like Stephen Prince, in an article on ‘Psychoanalytic Film Theory’, in a book called PostTheory, co-edited by Bordwell, would claim that Rohmer and Bordwell are working in separate fields within film; that Bordwell is a theorist and Rohmer a critic. As the often excellent Prince insists, “film criticism has continued as it always has, and probably always will, to furnish the reader with interesting accounts of the meeting between critical minds and artists and their creation.” But here we are inclined to disagree with him, and as Gilbert Adair once noted, criticism as criticism rarely survives, and what keeps it going is less the insight on a single work, than the capacity to contain the work, and often other works, within the context of an idea. Adair points up the limitations of the impressionist critic using Kenneth Tynan as an example. Here, in a short article published in The Independent on Sunday some years back, Adair proposes what was more or less Tynan’s take: ““Here is a play and this is what I, Kenneth Tynan, think of it.” By contrast, the motto of a true critic, one whose concern is to oblige us to rethink the medium as a whole might be “Here is an idea about the theatre and this is a play which illuminates it.”” Many of the best critics are by virtue of their need to get at the first principle of the work also theorists; and we might argue that Bordwell fails either to be a critic or really much of a theorist because that underlying search is usually missing. If Bordwell so often takes the work at face value because of his reluctance to speculate, then Daney, merely a critic presumably in Prince’s eyes, is much more theoretically rigorous because he is willing to work from an idea. This is evidenced both in The Lover article where he wonders how some films create such clichéd images that the films fall from our eyes, and completely fail to stay in our minds, or in an article called ‘The Tracking Shot in Kapo’, published in Postcards from the Cinema, where he interrogates the notion of a tracking shot being a moral question: how the tired filmmaker creates sentimentality over morality, over-emphasis over understatement.

The question here though is not so much what happens to be the difference between the critic and the theorist, but much more between viewing approaches, whether one wants to be almost unthinkingly responding to the film as a whole, and see how it manipulates us en masse, or whether we demand a decidedly thought based and individualistic approach that brings out one’s specific, intense response to cinema, a response that makes the film not general but singular. As voices as disparate as James Stewart and Atom Egoyan have proposed, this is really what cinema is all about. Speaking to the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich in Who the Hell’s In It, Stewart mentions that once he was sitting on the set of the film The Far Country up in Canada when an old man came up to him and said that he did something in a picture once. “Can’t remember the name of it”, the man says “but you were in a room – and you said a poem or something ‘bout fireflies…That was good.” Stewart reckons it is a great example of what cinema gives to people “…little tiny pieces of time…that they never forget.” It is perhaps the critic’s job to help us continuously remember these moments, and what they can mean to us, but, as Egoyan proposes, echoing Rohmer in many ways, we need time itself to realize how important these little pieces of time happen to be. “You have to be able to understand that very often a reviewer, or even a jury – having been on a jury myself – what they extend to is the result of an immediate impression and what endures is something that you won’t even know until weeks, months or maybe even years later.” What we need are spectators who are interested less in the cognitive immediacy of a Bordwell, or for that matter a cinematic jury, than viewers willing to let time work its way into a perspective on the viewing experience. The Bordwellian has its place, but let’s not elevate it above its station and put it at the heart of film studies; especially when it often possesses the hollow echo of a tin man without a heart of his own.

 

©Tony McKibbin