Monday, February 11, 2008

How Far We Haven't Come: The Film as Novel or The Film as Film

In a recent piece at The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz notes how the introduction of sound in the movies in the late 1920s burdened the cinematic enterprise with unfair literary expectations, a burden as evident today as it was 80 years ago, especially if we consider its prominence within the dominant critical approach. "Critics' predisposition to talk about virtually all narrative films as if they were plays or novels," writes Seitz, "is an indicator of how far we haven't come." Excepting works so self-consciously aestheticized that their visual qualities can't be ignored, the majority of films are viewed primarily in terms of narrative deployment and that murky quality known as "character development," critical criteria that owe more to the world of literary analysis than to the practice of film criticism, properly conceived.

So what's wrong exactly with this dominant critical approach? Aren't some of the great pleasures of the medium derived from just these orthodox criteria? To be sure, the appeal of a masterfully unfolding narrative is not to be downplayed, as even a cursory look at the best films of Hitchcock makes clear. The question of characterization is rather a more difficult issue (and one I've touched on at more length in an earlier article). The primary objection to a too insistent focus on characterization is that the film medium, unlike the novel and (to a lesser degree) the play, is incapable of achieving any deep complexity of human creation, and that, viewed in this light, any attempt on the filmmaker's part to devote his primary attentions to endowing his characters with an intricately constructed psychology has to be seen as a fundamental misuse of the medium.

What then must a critic look for when evaluating a film? He must, for one thing, have an understanding of the ways in which the director manipulates his materials. Pauline Kael may object that the role of the critic should be confined to evaluating the final film product and not worrying about how it was achieved, an area of inquiry which she dismissively consigns to the category of "technique". What she ignores is that if the critic has no understanding of what it is the director is doing technically, then he's not in a proper position to evaluate the success of what he actually achieves. If we fail to consider how the filmmakers deploy their cinematic resources, then we really haven't gotten much beyond the "liked it"/"didn't like it" judgments of the casual filmgoer.

How, then, are we to evaluate the relative success of a given work? What sort of cinematic achievements are to be prized by the critic? Obviously, the sheer variety of great - or at least interesting - works of film art make it difficult to narrow down our criteria to a sole model of evaluation. But, I think we can say that the success of a given film must start with its aesthetic approach. Building a visual and aural program that is both aesthetically satisfying and appropriate to the film's material - a good film should not recognize a disjunct between form and content - must be the first step of the working filmmaker. From there, we must look in turn at all the other factors that constitute the total work of the film and consider how their application helps define the film's achievement. If we start with questions of aesthetics and then work our way through the rest of the film's components, we give ourselves a clearer picture of the ways in which the film actually functions and we learn to look on the work in the terms that it demands. To be sure, film shares many qualities with the literary forms, but it is in the differences that we must look for our fundamental definition of the cinematic medium and begin the proper evaluation of a given work of screen art.

Unfortunately, too many films today demand to be looked at in strictly literary terms, so that it's not simply the critic who must accept the blame for an excessively uncinematic orientation. Dwight MacDonald may have compared L'Avventura to a novel and Godard may have defined Hiroshima, Mon Amour as literature, but whatever points the two critics were driving at, it's clear that these two films are conceived in uniquely cinematic terms. But setting aside such self-conscious "art" films, we can see a vast difference even between the celebrated studio pictures of the 1930s and 1940s and their contemporary counterparts. Unlike the contract directors of the studio system, the best of whom were redeemed from their anonymity by the auterists, most of today's studio filmmakers settle for a bland, generic aesthetic that demands that the film's interest reside entirely in fast-paced narrative exposition and psychologically coherent, but ultimately superficial characterization. To be sure, a film like The Big Sleep essentially subsumes style to narrative, but Howard Hawk's direction is inherently aware of the visual demands that his material creates and he skillfully maintains the menacing aura that the film's noir orientation calls for, even while operating within the aesthetic conventions of the Hollywood system.

In contrast, an acclaimed contemporary picture, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead by celebrated studio director Sidney Lumet, betrays very little aesthetic awareness, the director's camera placements seemingly determined by a roll of the dice. We are forced to confine our interest to the unravellings of the plot (which seem to get away from the director as the film wears on), the performances of the leads and the general nihilism with which Lumet seeks to endow the picture. That many critics were quick to heap praise on the film, completely overlooking the work's immense aesthetic shortcomings, just serves as one more reminder of, as Seitz puts it, "how far we haven't come."

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