It has been a long held suspicion of mine that bad film criticism is a product of filmgoers who are themselves habitually poor listeners. I do not mean to cast aspersions upon those who for whatever reason neglect to recognize subtext in the films they watch, rather it is upon those who fanatically pursue the subtext as a pre-established end that I direct my observation. I would much prefer the inarticulate ‘it sucks’ analysis to the sort of posturing of value that is made when, for example, the significance of a film is reduced to how it fits into the director’s oeuvre, presupposing the merit of auteur theory. This preoccupation with context beyond the limits of the frame to the detriment of perceiving the film’s intrinsic quality is a rampant and dismaying epidemic of lazy criticism.
Still, some concession is owed the variety of activities that fall under the umbrella term ‘film criticism’, as a professional film review for mass consumption should not be considered ‘lazy’ if it has nothing lofty to aspire to; there is an inherent mercantile logic to reigning in the analysis (i.e. prevent plot spoilers) and emphasizing the commodity aspects of the work like a consumer report on a blender. My concern lies squarely on the emulation of this mercantile approach by amateur cinephiles and academicians.
Chronic poor listening is only a part of the problem befalling film criticism; there is, in addition, the lack of an adequate vocabulary and conceptual framework to express the experiential component of film-going. As if to overcompensate for this lack, I tend to form my reviews around how the films directly affects me but it is immensely problematic to balance the needs of self-illumination with those of the reader; added to this challenge, is the saturation of the shorthand, convenient approaches of the glossy reviews which fetishize the technical and/or cognitive achievements of the film with a parlance that has become adopted through exposure. This reactionary approach of mine, while an earnest attempt to remove unnecessary prejudices in my analysis by privileging the personal experience, has inadvertently created a new prejudice which remains similarly fixed: I have made a schemata of my ego that is at times too standoffish with the films it engages, leaving me in need of a better approach.
Post-film writing is all about compromise, yet there is the aspiration to capture in words that which transcends language in the experience, the ‘life force’ of the work beyond the anatomy from which it derives. As Daniel Frampton endorses, what needs to be captured in post-film writing is the shared experience of the film-event by both the film itself and the filmgoer, what he refers to as ‘the mix of thinkings’.
Frampton’s ‘radical manifesto’ entitled alluringly enough, Filmosophy, provides the framework and vocabulary I have been longing for, and puts to rest the tired anachronisms of conventional approaches to film criticism with their focus on how and in it what context a film was made (i.e., the film as a historical document approach) and conceptualizes the film as actualized thought which he calls ‘film-thinking’. Hesitant to fully anthropomorphize the film, Frampton employs the notion purely as a conceptual tool whereby the film possesses something he calls ‘film-being’, a mode of being which exists as the film is being experienced and which unlike the human mode, is devoid of phenomenological nuance. It is a being that exists in unsolicited thought, simultaneously creating and thinking through the scenario of the filmic story, presenting an audio visual experience of a thought which often bears resemblances to but does not directly simulate human consciousness. A passage from Filmosophy may clarify this point:
The concept of the filmind becomes simply ‘the film’ – the film is the utterable itself (though it does not represent a language, or a language system). This means that, for the filmgoer, it is simply the film that is creating itself and intending towards the characters and objects. This also means that… all narratorial agents are grounded in the film itself, in viewpoints and character experience. Filmosophy aims to bring creative invention back into the film, not take the filmgoer out of the film to some external invisible puppeteer. (p.99)
Frampton introduces his approach by showing the shortcomings of those which preceded his. The common tropes in film theory such as ‘cinema as human consciousness’, and ‘camera as surveyor of objective reality’, are examined and rejected in Frampton’s central thesis as outmoded frames of reference that do not account for the new technological developments in film creation which wholly transform the medium. In what way, for example, does Andre Bazin’s ‘ontology of cinema’ bear any meaning in the visual distortion of Mickey’s face in Natural Born Killers, or in the minute manipulations of facial expressions in Requiem for a Dream? Similarly, the antiquated view of a film mirroring human cognitive patterns, while intriguing, is grossly oversimplified as its capacities exceed the boundaries of human phenomenology, and even as a conceptual tool it limits the potentiality of cinematic expression to an anthropomorphized narrator, and overlooks what Frampton considers to be the transsubjective narrator ever present in the film. The formal properties of the film, even when there is no explicit narrator perspective evoked in the film (either by a particular character or an omniscient presence evoked through voice-over), should also be considered as manifestations of ‘film-being’ realizing itself. Frampton states:
By seeing film as thinking the filmgoer understands every element of style as an intended effect, and so every moment as the film thinking through its image-content. The concept of narration tells us a certain moment of style is assisting the plot, the concept of filmind tells us that this moment of style is a dramatic imaging of the story (p. 113).
The popular rhetoric in Cinema Studies centers upon the cognitive experiences of films, the film as a product of form and content to be dismantled and understood. These ostensive descriptions of the film do not, as Frampton observes, give a ‘way in’ to the drama. They tell what but not why, and perceive ‘style’ as normative deviations which need only be classified rather than felt for their own particular film-world potency. For enthusiasts of cognizant theorizing, form and content are treated as separate entities, not only in the post-film writing, but one suspects during the film-going, ever calculating the manner in which an effect is rendered. To this, Frampton places much of the fault upon the conventions established by David Bordwell, a theorist I am particularly conscious of from my own academic pursuits in Cinema Studies. Even if an experience of the film is felt by the cognizant filmgoer, the decision to then piece together the technical components of the work can never qualify the experience…. there remains a significant gap between the two vocabularies. As Frampton rightfully acknowledges: one does not feel form and content separately, but as a functioning whole which when whole ceases to be the sum of its parts. Cinema is not merely problem-solving, nor is it merely an archival task. Films which limit their scope to fulfill these modest ends interest me the least, and it is due in part to this that I echo Matt Zoller Seitz’s problem with the films of Tarantino, the inherent coldness of them, which I equate with their imposed preoccupation with being clever rather then earnest.
In contrast to these, Frampton calls upon the movement towards fluid film-thinking in cinema, the uninhibited direct evocation of the filmic story through the manipulation of formal properties resigned chiefly to the task of creating clear images of purposeful thought. An example of this fluid film-thinking is provided in the unhinged movements of David Fincher’s films (think of the panning out from the trash can in Fight Club, or more recently, the taxi ride in Zodiac). Not limited to camera movements, fluid film-thinking is an aspiration for the filmic qualities, formal, narrative, etc, to resist tropes of understanding and provide an arena of experience that overwhelms the analytical and challenges one to encounter film as an entity unto itself. As Frampton observes, ‘each film engenders its own type of responses’, and need to be understood in this way.
Which brings me to the matter of writing about film. Frampton calls for a poeticizing to post-film writing which is apt considering that cinema is not literature and cannot be adequately encapsulated by conventional expository analysis (as quoted in the book, Eisenstein muses, ‘The shot never becomes a letter but always remains an ambiguous hieroglyph”). The film-thinking transcends language and to bridge the gap we require a will to step outside the conventional and feel through words. I have a fondness for a conversational approach to analysis where the writing is the product of two or more people comparing and contrasting their experiences (Matt Zoller Seitz’s post is an exemplar of what I am thinking of). At the forefront of the filmosophical review should be the questions: what does the film feel about its subject? What do I feel about the subject? Where do they intersect (what Frampton calls the ‘third thought’)?
Emphasis on the third thought may provide a buffer zone from the ‘hypothetical value’ of theory-laden frames of reference and unrestrained ego-centered analysis. The meaning becomes an emerging character of the mix of thinkings, which if then integrated further via a dialectic with another film-going perspective (i.e. an Ebert and Roeper formula) makes yet another level to the emerging character which may provide for the reader a finer source of meaning then any single emphasis could provide. We cannot explain a film, but we can indirectly suggest its multi-faceted significance through the emerging character of our analysis. Extraneous hyperbole should be replaced by a focused pursuit of the third thought. Frampton writes:
The concept of film-thinking, and the humanistic rhetoric that accompanies it, makes it easier to reveal and write about the initial encounter with film (our immediate response). Perhaps filmosophy can help reassess those ‘difficult great films’ that film critics applaud but do not seem to like or enjoy – did you feel its greatness or work it out afterwards? (p. 178)
Frampton, David. Filmosophy. New York: Wallflower Press, 2006.