Monday, December 17, 2007

Five Essential Pieces of Criticism from 2007

1. "Marie Antoinette and the Ghosts of the French Revolution" by Alexander Zevin Cineaste Volume XXXII, No. 2 (Spring 2007)

Not so much film criticism as a work of cultural/historical analysis, Zevin positions recent attempts at rehabilitating the French Queen's image (Sofia Coppola's film, yes, but also Antonia Fraser's biography and Sena Jeter Naslund's historical novel) as dangerous historical mis-readings (especially dangerous because their revisionist goals necessitate the de-contextualization of their subject) which result in the promotion of a conservative, anti-revolutionary agenda. Zevin's sophisticated readings of the revisionist texts as well as extra-textual responses (the booing of Coppola's film at Cannes, for example) and his keen historical understanding support his intricate and fully-articulated thesis, offering an important demonstration of the way art transforms history for its own purposes. Zevin shows how the new vogue for presenting Marie Antoinette "as young and misunderstood, a prisoner of protocol, her royal relations and of France," whatever the authors' ostensible goals in offering such an interpretation, results in a negation of the positive significance of the Revolution and furthers a reactionary mindset which precludes any effort at altering the current status quo. The best (or at least most exuberantly) written piece on this list, Zevin's article mixes nuanced academic prose with wittily sarcastic asides that reduce his opponents to misguided simpletons in a matter of a few words. The result is one of the smartest and most satisfyingly nasty pieces written on film/history/culture this year.

2. "Scenes from an Overrated Career" by Jonathan Rosenbaum New York Times August 4, 2007

"Bergman Vs. Bergman" by Kent Jones Film Comment Volume 43, Number 6 (November/December 2007)

What impresses is the sheer boldness of Rosenbaum's conceit: no sooner has the universally acknowledged "great filmmaker" been lowered into his grave, then the critic dissents from the legion of fawning and unreflective eulogies by calling for a negative re-assessment of his career. Although Rosenbaum insists that his piece is by no means the complete dismissal of Ingmar Bergman that many read it to be, the article nonetheless calls for a complete re-consideration of his status as Major Director. The charges against Bergman are striking: a "reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits," a refusal to engage with the modern world, the essential theatricality of his cinematic methods. If these charges seem a little unfair, and particularly harsh given the man's recent decease, they cannot, however, be so easily dismissed. While Bergman has made many undeniably great films, much of his work simply doesn't feel as fresh today as the films of Antonioni or Resnais, among numerous other contemporaries.

Still Rosenbaum's piece, perhaps because it appeared in the Times, a publication not given to challenging the wisdom of accepted viewpoints, received an unprecedented number of outraged responses, from Roger Ebert and Owen Gleiberman to a host of lesser-known writers and film bloggers. One of the more measured and intelligent responses came from Rosenbaum associate Kent Jones in the most recent issue of Film Comment. Jones gets at the reasons for the Bergman backlash by tracing the historical trajectory of the director's public image, from the moment Bergman became a brand name, through the late-sixties reaction when the director started to seem "out-of-touch," to the triumph of the auterist model which finally had no room for the commercially successfully and artistically independent director. If the image of Bergman that exists apart from his films is cause for backlash even today, then only by looking closely at his work and seeing what he actually accomplishes (according to Jones, a unflinching engagement with his doubt-tormented characters and "explorations, in the very best sense of the word" of what it means to be human) can we come to a true understanding of his lasting importance. Ultimately, Jones' counter-argument may be no more "provable" then Rosenbaum's argument (they rely on diametrically-opposed interpretations of essential aspects of the filmmaker's methods), but he brings a nuanced understanding of the reasons for such anti-Bergman sentiment as well as a clear sense of how such arguments can be effectively refuted.

3. "The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino" by Kenji Fujishima A Band(e) Apart (blog) October 13, 2007

Those two legendary reflexive filmmakers Godard and Tarantino may make use of many of the same inter-textual strategies, but they use them to achieve wildly different ends. In this online only piece, Fujishima explores the differences between the two filmmakers' cinematic orientations through a close comparison of Bande à Part and Pulp Fiction and offers informed speculation on the ways in which the differences between the two directors (particularly the political engagement of the older director and the apolitical stance of the younger) can be accounted for by differences in personal background and the historical contexts of their films. Although this last part of Fujishima's argument may be his least convincing, he offers enough evidence to demand a serious consideration of his speculations. The author's most interesting move may be bringing in Frederic Jameson's discussion of the difference between parody and pastiche (the former a critique by imitation, the latter a judgement-free approximation) and using these definitions to outline the differences between the two directors. Fujishima's conclusion that the ultimate "difference between Godard's art and Tarantino's is the difference between a philosopher of the movie image and an obsessive movie fan" gets to the essential dissimilarity between the two filmmakers, a difference that (notwithstanding the author's arguments to the contrary) can't be wholly explained by historical context. This one inconsistency aside, Fujishima's piece is closely argued throughout and offers a balanced and mostly convincing look at exactly what the two directors are up to when they make one of their frequent allusions to another work of cinema.

4. "Like a Complete Unknown: I'm Not There and the Changing Face of Bob Dylan" by J. Hoberman Village Voice November 20, 2007

Like Jonathan Rosenbaum, J. Hoberman is at his best when he has the chance to stretch out a little, an opportunity he rarely gets anymore within the increasingly straitening confines of the Voice's film page. For the release of Todd Haynes' free-form meditation on Bob Dylan (or "Bob Dylan"), a work Hoberman calls "the movie of the year," the critic takes the extra space to offer his own reflections on Dylan's relation with the cinema - examining the singer's various efforts at filmmaking, his appearances in both concert films and fictional features and his insistence on viewing his public image in terms of the cinema ("he imagined his own life as a movie," Hoberman writes) - as well as offering a review of Haynes' latest effort. Hoberman's analysis of the current film represents an honest and impassioned attempt to come to terms with a work that remains (like its subject) difficult to pin down to a single interpretation and his continual questioning offers a refreshing alternative to the frequently-assumed stance of the critic who has all the answers. "Is I'm Not There intelligible to anyone beyond the cognoscenti?" he wonders, speaking to the difficult question of the director's presumptive audience and the varying reactions likely to arise among viewers with different levels of familiarity with Dylan's life and work. Hoberman's shrewd understanding of the subject's shifting identities and the difficulty of carving out an authentic self get to the heart of his reading of the film. The article represents a remarkable synthesis of various texts - not least the singer himself - and does a fine job of providing a larger context for Haynes' film. Given the chance to "write long," Hoberman shows he's still one of the most perceptive (and challenging) critics in the business.

5. Slant Magazine: 2007 Year in Film by Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager

The year-end best list may represent a rather dubious contribution to film criticism, but Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager of the film/music website Slant offer a welcome exception through their annual refusal to regurgitate the same tired choices that clog up the majority of these rankings. Slightly less adventurous than in years past, their 2007 offering nonetheless does a valuable service in highlighting such forgotten (or undiscovered) films as Apichatpong Weerasethakul's terrific Syndromes and a Century and Philip Gröning's hypnotic non-fiction film Into Great Silence. Accompanied by a pithy capsule review, each entry tersely articulates its film's particular merits and often, through the writers' tightly packed prose, ends up being far more illustrative of the work's singular achievements than any number of full-length reviews. We can argue all we want with the choices (both critics picking Rescue Dawn?!!), but Slant's list provides the only justification for such a frequently mis-handled project - offering a diverse and provocative selection of films that forces the reader to go back and make a new set of discoveries.

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