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Does criticism help one make films?
It’s funny because I’m currently witnessing a “quarrel” on Facebook about this very question. Louis Skorecki has just written on his page, as a tribute to Jean-Pierre Oudart: “Sometimes writing about cinema is more important than cinema itself. Sometimes a text can sanctify a film, make it exist to the world. It would, for example, be wrong to think that The Shining hadn’t needed Jean-Pierre Oudart in order to exist. Without Oudart’s words, The Shining would just be a particularly well-made pre-Scary Movie, just another death ritual.” An angry reader replied: “I’ve never read something so stupid.” I love this quarrel. One could take this sentence by Skorecki as pure provocation but actually I think he’s perfectly right.
I’ll say it and say it proudly: I owe an enormous debt to film criticism. To answer that question albeit in a fairly incomplete and vaguely reasoned manner (I hope I don’t bore anyone), I think we can distinguish three scenarios: 1. Film criticism that one reads as a simple reader. 2. Film criticism that one practices themselves. 3. Film criticism that one “receives” as a filmmaker.
I’ll talk about all three as they represent my own personal journey - from film critic to filmmaker.
Love of cinema and film criticism are inseparable to me. I think I really touched the heart of cinema when I started to think of “mise en scene” and that without film criticism I would’ve never understood what this intimidating and mysterious thing actually meant. I had my first choc as a reader when I read the texts of Rivette in Cahiers du cinéma (“yellow period”) when the Cahiers had reappeared in facsimile in the early 90s.
From this emerged a real passion for the genre. I’ll only mention a few names: articles from the Nouvelle Vague then Daney / Biette / Skorecki / Narboni / Moullet in the next generation with a few extra mavericks in France (Guiguet / Delahaye / Manchette) and in the US (Manny Farber). And two film dictionaries that don’t leave my side: those of Lourcelles and Tavernier / Coursodon. I think film criticism provokes a feeling or rather a very particular mental energy in the reader: excitement.
This is a “mental energy” that’s quite unique in the history of art criticism in general (I also love literary criticism and rock criticism) mainly because of what distinguishes cinema from other forms of art: in direct contact with the present, an art that’s at the same time massive, popular, immediate and perishable. A book, a disk, a painting, they stay, but a film can disappear. It’s both the form of art that’s the most intensely present and the most perishable, it’s the one that needs supporters the most.
It’s thanks to film criticism that I understood what “mise en scene” was. (I remember in particular a text by Rivette about Ophüls and a sentence by Truffaut about Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn that acted as a detonator.) I feel that having read many critics, other than the mental excitement it brings, really helps draw a sort of internal map, like a compass. So for example, when I made my first film, I wasn’t terrified by the idea of “mise en scene'' as if it was something that was already familiar to me. Personally, I found it liberating (when in fact many people think watching too many films or reading too many reviews can inhibit.)
I then became a practicing film critic - as a deliberate amateur, I should say. I remember the advice of Jean-Claude Guiguet: one must systematically write one’s thoughts about a film, otherwise it’s just “hot air.”
I remember being a difficult exercise (I rarely tore my hair out over a script, but I certainly did so over a review). I remember Lourcelles’ provocation when he said “Rivette should have remained a simple critic because good critics are much more rare than good filmmakers.” And I agree. I would say that writing reviews doesn’t necessarily make one make good films but it does help one avoid making really terrible films. When I started out as a director, I had a rough idea of what I didn’t like (for example, I hate bull’s eye or wide angle effects) and what I should avoid.
We often think that filmmakers that started out as critics will make theoretical films when it’s actually often the opposite. They have a head start on “digesting” theory over the others which allows them to “go at it harder and faster”. For example, when I think of the first films of Tarantino, a good example of a filmmaker/critic (sure, just a “spoken” one but a critic nonetheless), it’s obvious how from the start he had clearly “digested” his cinephilia where others would have made more academic films, I’m sure.
When it comes to the third scenario, that of the filmmaker-reader of critics, it’s a whole other scenario. It’s more complicated. I’m convinced that a film is only really finished when it is watched and watched twice: by the audience and by critics. A film that isn’t watched simply doesn’t exist. Cinema is probably the form of art that above all others needs a respondent, it needs to be “finished” by the gaze we set upon it. To be a bit simplistic, one could say that the relationship between the filmmaker and the critic oscillates between two poles: a speech falling on deaf ears and a session with a psychoanalyst.
A speech that falls on deaf ears: those that make the films and those that analyse the films can speak entirely different languages. It’s a situation where we often think “we just don’t do the same job” (even though we’ve got the same object: the film). We don’t do the same job, but although this discussion can seem impossible, it is this confrontation that makes the film exist.
A session with a psychoanalyst: reading a review of one’s own films can sometimes let us see a truth that's so deep, so pertinent and so naked, even trivial, that it makes us feel very uneasy. I think we should glimpse this truth before we close the book and forget everything. We can only practice our art with a certain level of unconsciousness and too much knowledge of oneself destroys art. That’s perhaps one of the reasons classical American filmmakers were so reluctant to confide in journalists. They had understood that they had to keep this “dark” side to themselves.)
Anyway, between the deaf and the analyst, the best of film criticism is perhaps this: a shortly glimpsed truth that we must carefully forget - but that we won’t totally forget, obviously.
Anyway, there’s one thing I remain convinced of: reading film reviews even after having made a number of films is still an exhilarating thing to do and it does “help make films”. I would say that at times when a specific turn of phrase or an idea catches our eye by its brilliance or its profundity, one can say “this is why I make films”. I have just been reading articles by Manny Farber and in Critical Precepts, he writes that the reader should come out wiser. Do wiser readers lead to wiser films? I think so.