I never asked you for a rose garden | The State of Cinema
It took me a long time to describe myself as a film critic. And I still sometimes say it rather half-heartedly – although, curiously enough, it was much easier for me to adopt the title of programmer/curator in regards to the other side of my practice in this business.
For me, “film critic” was, first and foremost, a label. One that stuck to me not that long after I graduated with a BA (one that is not film-related, as I’ve always been ready to “admit”) and to which I had to adjust, despite the fact that I felt that it didn’t quite reflect my reality at the time, my capacities, my knowledge of cinema. I aspired to it, of course – but I was well aware of the fact that I still had a lot of things to take in: a lot of texts, a lot of festivals, a lot of meetings, and, most importantly, a huge number of films, before I could truly feel comfortable with this designation, comfortable enough to find a piece of myself in it. And to be able to say it about myself. Like any period of growing up intellectually and within one’s work field, it was not without its painful moments – after all, that’s available for any process of growing up in a more or less public environment -, not without its smoke mirrors and let-downs, not without its uncomfortable revelations, re-evaluations, repositionings, ambiguities, some harder to solve than others. And all these particular emotions arose in relation to institutions – people who are institutions in and of themselves, actual institutions, symbolical institutions –, to currents, to phenomena, to relations, to circumstances, to so many other things. And if some of these might be processes that I feel are behind me, others are pretty much still ongoing. But this is not some sort of autobiography.
The acts of growing up and developing are equally processes that imply conflict, as well as defining (oneself) in opposition to something (else). And if a few years ago I could truly feel a rustle in criticism at large, conflicts that were more or less intergenerational, they have now been replaced by an unstable lull, which is sometimes pierced by scandals and takes that seem increasingly vitriolic. They increasingly make use of ad hominem attacks, oftentimes of the most basal kind, which just seem to get worse and worse as time goes on. Not that these kinds of attitudes were non-existent in the past (or that private gossips and discussions were in any sense politer), but it seems to me that this small universe of para-social relationships that we have constructed on Facebook and other social media, operating with mere approximations of the other, snapshots which can prove to be deceitful (in both ways), and which deviate more and more from the object that we pretend to defend in these disputes: cinema. “I wish there was a more nuanced way to discuss criticism, who writes it, what films are covered, and what the limitations of each individual critic are, without making blanket declarations about criticism and the identities of those critics,” writes Juan Barquin. “But, unfortunately, this is Twitter.” I’d only add that, unfortunately, this is the Internet of the year of our Lord 2022, where, to top things off, safe, moderated and peaceful spaces like La Loupe are excised off the face of the web at the behest of French distributors.
The bare truth is that, sometimes, I get the feeling that I see people who love themselves more than they love cinema. Or, at the very least, that they love the things that they can obtain through the means of cinema – which is distinct from what cinema can give – than cinema, itself. While I was toying around with this thought, not knowing whether or not it’s a fair thing to say, or if it must be spoken aloud, critic Jourdain Searles voiced the same feeling over on Twitter: “some of y’all are convinced being a film critic is a popularity contest and your work reflects that—you’re uninterested in being a better at writing or pitching, but you love getting better at picking fights and fostering useless vendettas.” It really does seem that, for the most part, these endless fights really have nothing to do with the practice of criticism, no relation whatsoever to self-reflection and self-criticism. They do, however, have everything to do with power plays, with the ways in which we want to situate (ourselves) within the hierarchies of cultural and symbolic capital, and automatically implies the fact that you have to push someone else beneath yourself to achieve it. And it obviously has to do with the various material privileges that we can get out of this – from invitations, tickets, paid trips abroad and in the country, accreditations and Vimeo links to the act of modeling how we are perceived in the para-social circles that fortify our friend and follower lists. As if the thousands of hours of cinema that we have been exposed to taught us nothing about all of this. And – to get it out of the way: I also do not believe in loving cinema with a total sense of abandonment. Or, at the very least, I do not believe that this should be imposed from the top down, and I don’t believe that anyone should force themselves to feel it (like this).
There is a sort of sadistic pleasure in taking part in online fights and scandals, no matter the topic, whose existence we should no longer ignore or deny. This pleasure manifests itself both actively and passively – public participation versus private discussion, engagement versus lurking, implication versus voyeurism. The active one is the most toxic overall, of course, but I wouldn’t be so quick to minimize the effect of ingesting a completely unhinged quantity of vitriol on a daily basis. An action that is borne out of pleasure can also be a political one. After all, such manifestations are perfectly characteristic of periods and social/historical contexts in which an individual feels disenfranchised and powerless. The lack of political power, or of the (self-)perception of one’s capacity to influence various political phenomena leads one to “take things into their own hands”. Which for the most part translates precisely to these kinds of attacks – and we already know too well that Facebook pushes exactly this kind of content through its algorithms, thus encouraging this style of engagement. Of course, blowing debates about cinema into smithereens is the least of this company’s sins – the weakening of democracies across the globe, wrecked lives, the proliferation of conspiracy theories. (And by pointing this out, I want to make clear that I am not giving even a single inch to the crowd that’s decrying “cancel culture”, that is, the new derogatory term for “political correctness”. If this phenomenon does, indeed, exist, it only affects a small micro-stratum of society, which is usually composed of people that don’t even have all that much overall power to begin with, and not the cultural monoliths – just take a look at the recent Joe Rogan debacle, who now seems to be more defended than ever. It’s not about this.)
The debates between “Parnassians” and “Activists” of yesteryear – that went on over dozens of comments, to which I responded at the time in an article for GAP (the Political Art Gazette – in Romanian) – are almost a pleasant memory, by now. Truth be told, I do think that the playing field has leveled a bit. Part of those who rejected political interpretations of cinema have started to incorporate some of their elements into their own work; a part of us, the “others”, have not as much toned it down, as we have also extended our own spectrums and realms of possibility. And, without any undue praise, something that I’ve said repeatedly is that this magazine has the great merit of having brought together some of the Romanian critics that used to engage in verbal fistfights on Facebook, thus coagulating us, helping us become more solidary with one other, and not just a handful of profiles engaging in an endless rumble surrounding the scandal du jour while eyeing the dissipate resources that the others held, but rather, I believe, true colleagues – at last.
But it’s precisely a scandal du jour that made me want to write this all up. Hold your breath: yes, it has to do with Adam McKay’s latest film, Don’t Look Up (2021), co-written by David Sirota and released on Netflix during the Christmas window – which is traditionally the one time-frame that Hollywood counts on to cash in a lot of money at the box office. Like the proud, immature and rebellious kid that I am, I stomped my feet and refused to see the film while it was being turned on all sides on social media. But I did watch it, in the end. I don’t have a good opinion about it. (McKay’s 2015 feature, The Big Short, is vastly superior to it, if you ask me.) And I think it’s alright if, for once, that’s all that I have to say about a film. I don’t think that I always owe the universe eight hundred words across four paragraphs to be able to assert this.
As we all may recall, a healthy part of the Don’t Look Up debacle that dominated social media in the time frame between Xmas and New Years’ related to the fact that the film was received much more coldly by the critics than by a (seemingly very vocal) part of the audience. It’s not that we, Romanians, were in any way special in this case, as tensions flared across the ocean as well. And what is alarming here is that the film’s authors, (who directly engaged critics on Twitter) along with actor Ron Perlman, were also part of the mobs: McKay implied that you have to not care about the climate crisis in order to miss the film’s point (a statement which he later back-tracked and expanded), while the latter wished a hearty “fuck you” to critics, accompanying it with the timeless argument that people who haven’t worked on a product and are simply criticizing it are nothing more than attention seekers. (Gee, thanks Ron Perlman. From now on, I’ll be going out of my way to anticipate the movies that I won’t like and try to land a job as a clapper girl or something on their sets, so that I may write about them sometime.) Not that creators’ reactions to critics’ negative appraisals would be in any way uncommon, it’s something as old as cinema itself. But an open conflict in which names are given on Twitter is a wholly different affair, especially considering that this is an age in which journalists and people engaging in various forms of publishing are being harassed at alarming levels nowadays. And if this message snowballs down from the very creators of a seemingly beloved cultural product, in effect, this sort of attitude is tantamount to an encouragement.
If this had been one of the main observations regarding this situation in Alexandra Olivotto’s thinkpiece, an ex-critic (of her own admission, as I am not the one who should decide upon such things), things might have been better – and she does indeed quite correctly point out the irony of a film bemoaning the marginalization of specialists unleashed a wave of hate at a particular category of them: film specialists. All the rest – starting from its highly vindictive title, “In the defense of <<those stupid film critics>> who didn’t like Don’t Look Up>>” – the entire piece is a spectacular demonstration of producing a document which justifies the suspicions if those who are distrustful of film critics, in general, as they practically confirm any accusations of snobbery and elitism, despite Olivotto’s attempts to clarify such terms in the text. Why so? Because she begins by literally excoriating the public at large, calling out its supposed “lack of culture” and taunting them that the industry “wants them to stay stupid”. From here onwards, her pertinent, yet brief analysis of the field of criticism (where she makes particularly strong points regarding payment) is just drowned out by the weight of these insults. I’m not going to comment whether or not such affirmations are true – although I will say that I count myself amongst those who prefer to almost blindly trust in the large audience’s capacities -, but rather, I want to note its highly aggressive and pumped-up tone. (What is also very ironic is that Olivotto herself is not the one to be affected by the fall-out of such articles as she has quit the business, but rather, the ones in whose names she is deciding to speak will be the ones to bear the brunt.)
I posted a reaction to Facebook when the piece came out, wondering if I am “the only one to practice this <<artform on the brink of extinction>>, as it goes, that really feels that she doesn’t need being defended in a text such as this?”, Indicating that “what interests me is the inherent arrogance [of this assertion], which does little more than to further alienate said audience from the work of critics that are still struggling to write about films that lie beyond the mainstream, the ones that challenge the great hegemonies and monopolies that dominate the industry. These sorts of takes have always hurt out work and have validated precisely those voices that have accused us of alienation and snobbery, sprinkling complacency, self-pity and self-sufficiency over it, and this is visible on the other side, as well – and alienates further, as such. (…) This type of discourse is already overwhelmingly boring and keeps us stuck in a vicious cycle, one that has been thoroughly exhausted, obsessively centering American cinema (as always) without having the capacity of producing any original or valuable thoughts about the contemporary state of cinema.” And, guess what – despite Olivotto herself decrying the label of elitism in her piece, the accusation quickly came in, from someone who you wouldn’t precisely expect to use it: critic Andrei Gorzo, considered to be Romania’s foremost, in a piece published on his blog.
“The nuance that I would like to add is that (…) criticism isn’t dead, but rather, it has become esoteric – it has reoriented itself towards increasingly rare objects, towards increasingly exclusivist connoisseur-isms, towards coded languages. Today’s young critics are much more sophisticated and erudite than the critics were twenty years ago, but criticism has turned into a sect that hardly ever bothers itself to communicate with the other movie-goers around it, and to contribute to the discussions regarding the rare films – such as Don’t Look Up – which catch the attention of <<everyone>> in order to propose distinctions that can be intelligible at a larger level within popular cinema”, writes Gorzo. Of course, his stance (and that of willingly-anonymous local blogger Cinesseur) doesn’t count on Victor Morozov’s review of the film for Scena9, the countless other critical pieces on mainstream cinema hits on other outlets by other critics, nor the fact that it was literally Christmas, but that’s another topic. The shocking value of this assertion lies not as much in the fact that Gorzo fails to point out the inherent classism of Alexandra Olivotto’s outburst towards the audience, but in the ease with which he finds a scapegoat in the young critics after paying it false compliments, especially – and considering that it comes from someone that has otherwise defended arthouse cinema countless times – given that it also throws in the elitist label into play, precisely despite of Olivotto’s plea, in the same sort of coded language which seems to be alright when he’s the one using it.
It’s ridiculously disproportionate to blame a handful of twenty-somethings struggling to pay their rent and to stay in school, all the while trying to shine a light on films that are lesser known to the local audience and to discuss them (thus fulfilling one of the elementary functions of criticism), for the malaise of the contemporary Romanian media landscape. To be fair, Gorzo did note, in his landmark study on the New Romanian Cinema, Things That Cannot Be Said Otherwise, that it’s quite paradoxical for a cinema that has all the parameters of a niche cinema has turned into the “mainstream” movement of a national cinematic space – and here I’d almost be inclined to ask “so why wouldn’t criticism do the same?”, but let us not get drunk on words – we are not as powerful in the grand scheme of things. Still, I would say that, on the contrary, we are indeed communicating with other moviegoers. And we are communicating in a fashion in which we’re not keeping these “connoisseur-isms” under lock and key, to enjoy them in a manner that is precisely elitist, only amongst each other, while throwing the larger audience whatever leftovers we might believe that they’re capable of chewing on, if we subscribe to this false idea of an imbecile general public. Of course, we are all perfectly aware that we won’t attract huge masses of readers to watch a film by, say, Farocki, for example. But we know that we are opening up an alternative path for them, a small footpath towards a different cinema, one that anyone is free to take, even if most will decline to do so. We are not taking the hyper-presumptuous power of “educating the masses” onto ourselves. We wouldn’t be able to do it under the current climate, anyways, and we’re more than aware of this. And so, wouldn’t it be better for our generational project to be a feasible one – that of recovering the hidden masterpieces of the past, and of illuminating the contemporary films that are embattled by the current system of distribution and of festival ghettoization, especially in light of the pandemic’s effects on independent cinema?
I often try to figure out where the false equivalence – which amounts to an automatism/reflex – between elitism/snobbery in regards to cinephilia and the adhesion to a cosmopolitan view of cinema arises, one which pits mainstream cinema and arthouse cinema against each-other, older films and newer ones. It’s a debate as old as the medium itself, I know. But, even more so, maybe another thing that’s worth pointing out (despite its being rather obvious) is that, in time, cinema becomes “dated” also due to popularity and circulation – today’s mainstream cinema will become tomorrow’s niche cinema, be it in the box labeled “great classics”, or in “cult movies”, and so on. Just to give another example, on the other side of the Atlantic, there was a scandal regarding the fact that the New York times dared to publish an alternative list of Oscar nominations, penned by critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, which included titles such as Memoria, Annette or Bad Luck Banging.
I think one of the main reasons that lie at the core of this assumption has to do with how we mostly get to encounter non-American cinema, in the first place. If Netflix does indeed sometimes manage to have “foreign-language” hits – most famously, La Casa de Papel and Squid Game, but both of them do belong to cultural/geographic spaces that are extremely popular: there are hundreds of millions of native Spanish speakers out there, and South Korean culture has a gigantic global fandom -, the lion’s share of “large-audience” cinema that hits cinemas at a global level is more often than not a product of Hollywood. (And I’m saying all of this while being well-aware that these are self-evident truths, but I think we need to cover the bases again in this case, even for a bit.) If you look at the cinematic output of other countries that strives to be “mainstream”, especially in the case of peripheral countries, the vast majority are box office hits only in their countries of origin, and most don’t even go on a festival run before hitting cinemas – for example, it’s hardly imaginable that a Romanian film such as Miami Bici (dir. Jesus del Cerro, 2020), featuring local celebrities and heavy (misogynistic) in-jokes, would become a hit in any other country.
Last, but not least, why shy away from saying things out loud – these presumptions are also oftentimes affected by what I think is a (smaller or bigger) seed of latent racism and xenophobia, which people might very well not even be aware of, and come up even with people who are otherwise well-intentioned and well-mannered. After all, aren’t we living in a post-colonial, Anglocentric era, which worked hundreds of years at profiling The Other as a creature that is difficult to understand, coming in with its own distinct set of rules, whose perception, affinities, priorities and habits are unintelligible? One in which what is defined as “popular” and “respectable” is generally the product of white demographics and cultures? Haven’t we been confronting this very same problem – in cinema and culture, in general – for decades, already? Martin Scorsese said it better than I ever could, in an open letter that was published just two months after I was born, in the New York Times: “It reminds me of a beer commercial that ran a while back. The commercial opened with a black and white parody of a foreign film—obviously a combination of Fellini and Bergman. Two young men are watching it, puzzled, in a video store, while a female companion seems more interested. A title comes up: <<Why do foreign films have to be so foreign?>> The solution is to ignore the foreign film and rent an action-adventure tape, filled with explosions, much to the chagrin of the woman. It seems the commercial equates “negative” associations between women and foreign films: weakness, complexity, tedium. (…) The attitude that I’ve been describing celebrates ignorance.”
To come back to the observations that I made two years ago for GAP, some of them I still find valid – while relating them to different objects; but the base defects are still there. One of them related to what I called a perception of film criticism as being at its „purest” when its as far removed as possible from the conditions of tangible reality, which I saw applied onto the way in which historiography is understood in this key: „that particular subset of historiography that, naturally, prioritizes the memorization of years and cast lists, behind the scenes fun facts, of the precise number of awards and festivals that a given film has gone through, and so on”. Meaning, a very distant, cold way of relating to cinema, which puts the onus on what rather than how, on facts rather than their experience or consequence. And what I’ve come to believe is that, unfortunately, this is the way that we have predominantly related to the ongoing pandemic – and we did not know how else to relate to the history in writing of these highly traumatizing years other than by taking shy notes that didn’t address (or confront) anything but the most obvious of realities: masks, measures, deaths. And one of these lesser obvious realities – and quite probably the most important of them all – was the increasing violence and delirium of the online sphere and of public discourse.
That we have all discussed about the pandemic’s effect on cinema, and how it was reflected in our objects of analysis, is true to a certain extent – but I can’t shake the feeling that many of us used this as a sort of Ersatz, a way of externalizing our emotions and of generating second-hand discourse about the pandemic, rather than bringing up our subjective experience.
And this was a great mistake, if you ask me. It was not enough for us to obsessively chart the close and re-opening of cinemas, on the dichotomy of online/offline viewing, on the arthouse vs. Marvel discourse for the umpteenth time. We obstinately ignored everything else that happened to us, excepting the moments in which they happened to be reflected in the few works of the past two years, and, as such, we felt compelled to mention them. But just that – to simply mention them, to correctly identify them, to cross an item off of our list of interpretation, but without commenting on them, without filtering them through our subjectivities, thus socially distancing ourselves even in our own work. And so I increasingly feel the need to retreat from the elusory and fragmented discourse of social media and to focus on other ways to explore these problems. First of all, by spending time with myself. Second of all, really trying to listen to what others are saying – not just what, but also how, their style, their preoccupations, their anxieties. (Romanian culture is not a particularly confessional one, to be fair, and even when it is, it tends to go overboard.)
As a final thought – I don’t think streaming will be the one to kill off cinema as we know it. It’s easy to single out a certain enemy at a discursive level, it makes the field seem more leveled for the other camp, it makes the might seem less abstract. But that doesn’t really take systemic issues into account. No, what I think will kill cinema (and other traditional art forms) is internet culture and the attention economy, in an excruciatingly slow death, one fallen piracy website at a time, one banned cinephile group at a time, one disappearing archive and cinema at a time, and, especially, one new distraction thrown into our feeds that short-circuits are endorphin-hungry minds, holding us hostage in front of the screen within the wonderful free market of tech monopolies at a time. Will cinema survive the next West Elm Caleb? The next scandal to prompt rivers of likes and answers and statements and requests for apologies and accusations? Twitch streams? Political video-essays on Youtube? The Metaverse, should it ever be a thing? Minecraft? Stan culture? The next edition of some controversial book awards? The next cycle of posting and meme-ing about the next, inevitable, future dumb thing that comes out of some politician’s mouth? And so on, and so forth.
To end this – if we’d like to create at least an illusion of the fact that we might survive in the long term, we need solidarity. Not a blind one, in which we set every single one of our differences aside, in which we stop pointing out what’s going wrong – let’s not get it wrong. But if we really hope for our last bastions to stand, if we’re interested in anything else but our own survival (which does ultimately depend on the survival of others – people and structures – too), we have to set our egos aside, question our appetite for bashing others – who are oft just as powerless as we are – and work together. And here, I leave you in the presence of the beautiful manifesto published last year by German critic Georg Seeßlen, which I hope to translate one day: For a Cinema after Corona.
Featured image: Don’t Look Up (2021), by Adam McKay.