Opsis Spring 1984

Five Definitions Around the Practice of Film Criticism


(1) CINEMA: A definition; an infinite realm of sensuous, representational, social, political, economic, audiovisual possibilities.

(2) CINEMA: A definition; a highly structured industry producing a commodity.

(3) CINEMA: A definition; an institution against which all possibilities are measured and censored, whether in video format, super-8mm or 16mm, whether made by women, men, gays, trade unions or auteurs.

Godard told us in 1967 at the conclusion of Weekend that cinemas 2 and 3 were dead. Does that make us necrophiiacs 17 years later? And what does it make Godard - whore or unemployed soothsayer? Godard could parody the codes of dominant cinema, as could Warhol, the Kuchar brothers or Landow, but paradoxically none could escape them, and in a while these filmmakers deteriorated into incompetence or simply refetishized a fetish. Not that such a situation is unique or new. To quote Antonin Artaud: "...it's not a cunt trick that he plays on him in this way; it's the trick of the whole earth against who ever has the balls in his cunt." The trick being that there is no easy road to filmmaking.

So is there any hope of returning to those infinite possibilities of 1895 or must we forever remain on the production lines of the 1930s? Would the early cinematographers have grasped the significance or need of a dichotomy like narrative/non-narrative cinemas? Was Dziga Ver toy correct when he asserted that cinema's basic flaw was that as a new medium it grew up wholly wihin the grasp of the bourgeoisie as a tool of its hegemonic ideology? Why could cinema not remain open-ended? Why does it always suffer foreclosure, an action which any banker will tell us is to stifle activity and to channel reception to a single common denominator. Yet foreclosure rules the day and filmmakers are emotionally and intellectually exhausted just to create one frame.

How many films in which the artist has devoted two or three years of his/her life get shown at three festivals, two cinematheques and one film class? Submerged by the great plethora of "vizak" how much of cinema's complete history survives only as a ghost-like existence in an attic, on a grant application, or in memory? Despite the rigid conformity of dominant cinema, the premature announcement of its demise in 1967, and its many faddish transformations since to catch any audience, there still exists an incredibly heterogeneous cinema of makers, producers, distributors, exhibitors, commentators (of very uneven weight, power and influence). But the emphasis is on heterogeneity and unevenness - and here we come to both the strength and weakness. Whereas dominant cinema's films have a use value which exactly equates exchange value - namely the highest box office return in the shortest time period to maximize profits and capital accumulation - films per se (definition 1) have variable, uneven, heterogeneous, and perhaps even unquantifiable exchanges.

In a world dominated by an exact scientificity that supports - ideologically, politically and eco nomically - only the measurable, cinema is in deep trouble. How do you circulate films that cry out to be seen through all the parts of the media systems/body politic that are controlled else where? It is the purpose of journals like this one, of critics, of film courses and so on, to recognize the particular metabolic qualities of cinema and to help in the circuit of transmission.

Unfortunately, all too often short-circuiting occurs (as in the recent conference on new narrative cinema reported on elsewhere in this journal) and false dichotomies are produced and distributed: political vs. personal films; commercial vs. independent; mass audience vs. art film; classic narrative text vs. avant-garde. Filmmakers also find themselves caught in the same ideological trap: If you do not get a film to a big distributor and large audiences then the film is dismissed as merely self-expression or caught in the Gertrude Stein nexus, the film-is-a-film-is-a-film.

Yet films have many different socio-economic and aesthetic uses, not the least of which is the filmmaker's own survival. And films are consumed not only in so far as they are talked and written about. In that very process of viewing and reviewing, film also becomes part of the historic discourse on whose very existence the audiovisual representations/possibilities feed and sustain themselves.

One of the modes of existence of cinema is paradoxically on the pages of a journal like this. It cannot of course be a replacement for viewing films, since one of cinema's continued great potentialities is the degree to which every specta tor, though historically contained, can still idio syncratically see a different film. There is enormous strength in this heterogeneity and the creative energy it releases, although obviously it is downgraded by dominant cinema. Let's have more guerilla criticism in Capitalist 6 and less terrorist semiotics in the Ivory Towers.

In a world where without radio and video nothing happens anymore - how many times does a news broadcast begin, "there was no news today, good night"? - filmmakers have taken on the role of historians, chroniclers, narrators, expositors, poets, visual artists and composers. Whether they like it or not, the moment they open the shutter or start the tape they become the REpresenters of each social formation's collective experience, memory and imagination. It is these possibilities that cinema moulds, shapes, records, puts in circulation, re-views and opens up for discussion and critique.

(4) EDITORIAL: A definition; an expression of opinion.

(5) RHETORIC: A definition; a persuasive use of any language.

not McCarthyites!

Opsis Spring 1984

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