Thursday, December 31, 2009

Film criticism

There was at some point I was giving a presentation of the major surrealist interest in film in the 50s:

"In this decade, not so much film was produced by surrealism. Far more was being done with developing the surrealist interest in cinema-going, with many surrealists specialising in film criticism, applying more or less surrealist principles. In fact, film criticism based on the bretonian formula that "criticism must be a form of love" is a very distinct genre. To begin with, it brings the viewers subjectivity into the stew by way of desire, through emphasising the romantic, fetishistic and atmospheric. Through this it also sheds light on cinema-going as a poetic ritual and as an analogue to dreaming. It assumes a certain love of lowbrow popular genres, especially horror but also all kinds of boyish adventure and including science fiction, eroticism and sometimes pornography, absurd slapstick comedy, etc. It keeps looking out for the, in fact rather common, elements of mad love and everyday revolt. Then in the process, it also assumes a sharply polemical edge against its contemporary pretentious auteur cinema and formal avantgardism (and the criticism hailing such cinema and technical mastery of the craft) - while also in advance disarming the future tendencies of preferring high-budget hollywood commercial cinema for the sake of its technical skilfullness, as well as the "turkey" nerdism favoring obscure lowbrow genres for being obscure and technically poor rather than for their actual content."

This made me eager to state my own thoughts about a surrealist attitude in the area in a letter to a friend:

Film has to show something interesting. It simply has to have a counterpart in, intervene with, act reciprocally with, a visual-imaginative desire. Film is there for visualising fantasies. From a certain viewpoint, a lot of Hollywood film thereby is founded on conditions which can be fully shared from a surrealist viewpoint. In order to be worth showing on film it has to be somehow "unheard of". It has to show something unusual, preferrably even never seen before, it has to be attractive, terrifying, beautiful in an unusual way.

Therefore there is nothing to object against the overflow in cinema of grand effects, strange landscapes and constructions, odd monsters, wish fulfillments, ingenious mutilations, attractive women and men. I cannot understand how some people can deny that horror film (at least from german expressionism to contemporary ghost drama and uppdated monsters) and super hero film (at least from Fantômas and Douglas Fairbanks to contemporary Marvel heroes etc) would be surrealist genres due their own internal dynamics, since they are there for showing unseen fantasies. (One argument against myself there is using fantasy and science fiction as counter-examples – they are exactly as promising from a theoretical viewpoint, but in practice more often than not just bore me...) The problem is of course that these elements are often used in a purely conventional way, as signs for a conventional content, rather than for something unusual that they could become left to their own power.

This is particularly acute regarding the attractive women and men, the stars, which from a surrealist viewpoint do have a strong fetishist interest, and in certain films are allowed to live out the concrete ambiances that their looks may give rise to, but in a larger number of films are mere clichés, either as naive sandwich signs or as smart self-referring signs. Surrealist interest in film has traditionally not had reason to avoid wallowing in the fetishisation of actors with different types of interesting emanation, stars that really have been able to become mythological creatures, but whether this is a still useful route today is certainly worth a critical discussion (we've had some inconclusive rounds of discussion about this in the Stockholm group).

Another aspect where reserves are necessary is action. Yes, strange courses of events and exaggerations are interesting, but usually speed is used merely as a tool to catch attention, and in that function usually does not therewith correlate with a corresponding dynamism (in the sense of importunate richness in possibilities). And dynamism are often entirely lacking also in the musical meaning, as meaning-generating variations in tempo and volume.

On the other hand there is no need for us to dwell too much on the issue of ideology. Everybody knows that the film industry is a immense industry and a key aspect of american ideology export, this is self-evident but also so general that it can be disregarded. It is simply rather uninteresting that it is possible to decode a reactionary message from more or less every single movie on the repertoire. Messages on that particular level are everywhere around us, and have no immediate importance for that which is the main points of the appropriation of such products. For what is interesting is whether it realises and challenges real desire constellations, or if you will "popular needs", in a dynamic way, whether it generates unusual ambiances and emancipatory fantasies, in the process. (Possibly with an exception for the most idiotic genres of all, like military- , college- and family movies that very eagerly serve to concretely legitimise, sentimentalise and humanise unbearable human conditions, and could be dismissed in their entirety. Or else there might actually be concretely dynamic moments even in them to find for those who were able to withstand it.)

I also don't believe in fantastic realism. Or, hell, why not, just pour it on. Whatever is it anyway? Is it simply Kusturica? Fellini? Hasse & Tage? Anything with colorful characters and much noise? Isn't this just to pick up Buñuel at his most predictable and remove any conventional or unconventional controversial ingredients? Isn't this the particular moment when the desire for the unusual is tamed, is hitched to the cart of reconciliation, when it all becomes "goodtime"? (This is another part where I disagree with myself; in most cases nothing makes me so furious as "goodtime" does, but sometimes I'm enthusiastically pulled along too.)

But the everyday fantastic, or perhaps situational poetic, that is much of the point with film on the whole. Finding visual expressions of the unusual moments in life. The abysses. The fields of possibilities. The trembling atmospheres. Quite a lot of this is found in romantic films and conventional "drama", but just as much or more in east european film and in many famous west european directors works from the 60s and 70s, displacing genuine old romanticism in modern and at first sight trivial environments, with a wide awake eye, the compulsory creativity of errant desire always hinting at the immanence of the marvellous. (One of the points here is to get to my fascination with early Wenders, which I was surprised to find controversial in my circles.)

Unusual characters, unusual environments, unusual courses of events, unusual atmospheres. Strange constellations of objects. Suspension, emphasising the formlessness and tangiability of desire.

I would also like to emphasise that the surrealist perspective does not have any preferences regarding such genre designations as documentary, feature film and art film; is obviously interested in them all and often finds it very difficult to distinguish between them at all. If from a schematic representation of the general consensus view documentaries are supposed to aim at being pedagogical, feature film to be entertaining and art film to be aesthetical; surrealism entirely lacks respect for these ambitions and will expect from all of them to be just as much poetical rather than aesthetical, wondrous rather than entertaining, and investigative rather than pedagogical.

The surrealist film critic perhaps simply acts as a hedonist; is bored by brilliance, is impressed by unusual atmospheres and unusual fantasies, is unhamperedly fetishist in the appropriation of the situations, objects and human beings that are exposed, as if they were mere elements in one's one dream. Which they, methodologically speaking, in fact are.


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