Towards A New Film Criticism
What is Hollywood? Hollywood is a pool of money, power, and people. Hollywood is a monomaniacal schizophrenic, making films at the voices’ instruction. Each film represents a different voice in its head; some are violent, some frightening, some romantic, some beautiful. But all of them praise the perfect beauty of the commodified image.
It’s news to no one that film production has changed radically since 1954, when François Truffaut and the writers at Cahiers du Cinéma created auteur theory. Yet film criticism, both academic and popular, usually maintains that the director is the paramount force behind the production of cinematic meaning. Though auteurs exist (e.g. Werner Herzog, Catherine Breillat, Wong Kar-Wai), for the vast majority of entertainment cinema, meaning is determined by a different force: a manufactured zeitgeist, a false urgency sustained by the barrage of advertisement, conversation, and criticism about a movie that creates a sense that films reflect their cultural moment. I call this the “film current.”
What makes so many mediocre, repressive, boring, or stupid films seem worth discussing? Why are movies like Crash, Juno, or Slumdog Millionaire treated as relevant, new, even subversive? The film current. For most major film releases, marketing costs a quarter to a third of the production budget; this money goes to establishing a film’s ubiquity and “cultural relevance” while masking its inadequacies, inviting critics to regard it as a window to the psychological state of the American people, and regard themselves as insightful for doing so.
At once a time and a milieu, the film current situates current and upcoming releases (including those on DVD) in an experiential context—an emotional, intellectual, and ultimately ideological environment maintained through hyperactive cultural noise. The film current is a state of excitement whose predominant emotions are anticipation and disappointment—anticipation of films to come, to be seen, and to be discussed, disappointment in the inadequacy of movies seen, discussed, or unseen.
Our reactions to any individual film are bound by this cycle of anticipation and disappointment. Assailing individual films, no matter how perceptive the critique, does nothing to break it. This is why dissecting Hollywood’s aesthetic mediocrity or ideologically repressive tendencies through the lens of individual films is futile. This amounts to participating directly in the film current, no matter how anti-hegemonic the perspective. Pointing out, say, the colonialist cultural revisionism of Slumdog or the misogyny hidden by hipsterism in Juno is a wasted exercise: People can always chalk any serious critique up to differences in taste. Meanwhile, the film current has moved on.
Similarly, the ideological function of Avatar was not in its neo-nativist Last of the Mohicans fantasy, but rather in convincing everyone it was a groundbreaking act of cinematic innovation, despite the fact that the current 3-D trend is a revival of 1950s cinema technology. The film current was such that even a levelheaded (if mediocre) critic like New York magazine’s David Edelstein claimed director James Cameron “has an old-fashioned command of composition: strong foregrounds and layers of texture and movement reaching back into the frame and down to the teeniest pixel.” What? That more or less describes any shot taken by a motion-picture camera with a wide depth of field. While critics debated whether the 3-D in Avatar was good or bad, and whether Cameron is a liberal neo-colonialist or a liberal eco-pacifist, the movie earned $2.8 billion at the box office. If Avatar was a country, it would have a higher GDP than the 30 poorest ones. Before DVD sales. This is the film current at work.
The same can be said about the reliance on the director’s vision as explanatory crutch, which has blinded most criticism to the film current and has produced a dysfunctional critical discourse, most of which acts as either Consumer Reports-style advertising or self-congratulatory deconstruction. When Cahiers du Cinéma developed auteur theory, it focused on directors like Hawks, Hitchcock, and Renoir, who worked with crews of about 15 people. But when 1,000 workers spend three years producing a single film, the director becomes a much more suspect character. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 362,000 waged and salaried jobs in the American film industry, and likely another 100,000 in freelancers, contractors, and small company employees. Yet critics regularly discuss perhaps 200 of these people.
For mainstream entertainment films, the director must be considered little more than a manager. “But, but, but,” one might protest. “There’s internal consistency to the films of some of the biggest-budget directors—Paul Greengrass, Zach Snyder, Christopher Nolan —these guys have a definable style!” They certainly do, because cinema has been structured around maintaining and capitalizing on the myth of the artist-director. Think of M. Night Shyamalan: His name on the marquee meant “spooky” cold-fish acting, washed-out cinematography, and a twist ending—of course, when you buy a ticket expecting to get a good surprise ending, how can you possibly be surprised? The director is little more than a brand, and his name guarantees a particular image-management style.
Celebration of the auteur has become a method of strengthening an exploitative labor relation; creative expression becomes a reified commodity—a brand rooted in arbitrary aesthetic idiosyncrasies—that producers distribute to directors (by hiring them on to a project), who themselves then appropriate the labor and creativity of their crew to implement the (often impoverished and clichéd) stylistic “vision” producers demand. If the directors’ stylistic idiosyncrasies stay market-viable and replicate the experience of their previous films, the producer allows them “creative freedom”: “Artistic expression” thus becomes an owner-controlled means of production.
As long as Christopher Nolan keeps selling tickets, he’ll be given money to make entertaining but imaginatively-impoverished films like Inception: But it’s important to note that while he wrote and directed Batman Begins, he also acted as producer on The Dark Knightand Inception. None of these movies are very good, but the latter two are more idiosyncratically managed (although about as artistically innovative as a Michael Bay film). As the producer, he actually had the power to make meaningful decisions; as a developed brand, his executive producers and the studio allowed him to flex his legs. Though he wrote and directed both, Inception is treated as an expression of his vision as an “auteur”, while Batman Begins is a historical footnote.
On the flip side there’s Shyamalan: As soon as his brand diminished sufficiently, (Lady in the Water and The Happening lost some angry producers a lot of money) he stopped being an “auteur” and instead worked on the completely-surprise-free based-on-a-cartoon young-adult property Avatar: The Last Airbender.
By considering the product of thousands of film workers’ alienated labor the creative expression of a single director, film criticism champions managers, not the art of cinema. Film criticism must dismiss the concept of auteurs and understand the film as a mass-produced object. Just like a cheap beer on a hot day or a fast food burger on a long road trip, entertainment cinema can be truly satisfying, but do we discuss a Big Mac the same way we talk about a three-star meal? Do we enjoy a Bud by the same criteria of a perfectly crafted Belgian beer? So why do we talk about Thor the same way we talk about Carlos?
Remove “creative vision” from the equation, and a film’s ideological agenda appears more clearly. By considering each film as a potential art object, critics translate what are essentially consumer products into film historical terms, providing an alibi for the ideological work they perform. Entertainment (as opposed to art) placates a pseudo-desire manufactured precisely to be placated; entertainment answers questions, provides catharsis, resolves the absurdity of capitalist experience and affirms the reality of alienated everyday life.
Feel lonely? Don’t worry, someday your eyes will meet those of your perfect mate. Wait for the end of your loneliness, don’t change your behavior or your expectations, but make sure you look good, always, so your love can recognize you in one glance. Feel powerless? You might be a wizard, or a superhero, or friends with a secret agent: At the very least, there’s one coming to rescue you. Don’t worry, individuals will always have the power to overcome and appear when they’re needed, so don’t unite or organize. Think being poor sucks? But even this fat slob succeeded by being in the right place at the right time! Keep working. Opportunity comes for everyone.
Entertainment reinforces the narcissistic myth of the consumer as master of his own experience: In the movies, a protagonist always wins by making the right choices or loses by making the wrong ones. The important thing isn’t success or failure, tragedy or comedy, it’s the protagonist’s individual responsibility: If he’s crushed, it’s because he picked a fight with an enemy too powerful to overcome. If he finds love, success, and happiness, it’s because he did the right things starting from a level playing field where anyone can succeed. But the individual’s actions provide cover for the systematic processes of alienation and exploitation.
By focusing on the film-historical context—the aesthetic idiosyncrasies of an individual film or its connections to other films by genre, crew, or cast—film criticism fails to see the intentions and desires of the film industry, the only active subject in major cinema. In doing so, film criticism colludes with the entertainment industry’s massive project of commodifying experience. By treating entertainment products as a mirror of social experience, film criticism legitimates capitalist alienation while cheapening the possibilities of art. The point is not, however, to become silent. A new film criticism must emerge: By evaluating a film’s methods of production, its place in the film current, and its similarities to concurrently released films on top of its individual contents, film criticism can understand the multiplex’s true ideological effects and reveal new avenues of cinematic pleasure.
The new film criticism I propose is not an end in itself but a step toward what would ideally be the end of film criticism and the advent of a world where no one requires the mediation of an expert between themselves and aesthetic experience, where audience and filmmaker are not semipermanent class positions but rather malleable, shifting roles. This trend has already emerged in an impoverished form on YouTube and other video sharing sites, on which anyone can create and share their own work, including remixes or response videos, distribute the works of other filmmakers, and, of course, comment. We must push it to completion. The new criticism will be completed when film is not an “industry,” and everyone who loves cinema can make films of their own.