California Trilogy (2011) – Being Forever on Alert

I like to think of criticism as the art of reaction. The most common form of criticism is the review, a format that limits the critic’s powers to remaining in synch with their audience and explaining whether or not a film or book is likely to prove pleasing to said audience. Another common format is the academic article in which the critic’s powers are limited to discussing a particular work of art in terms of a finite body of theoretical literature.

While these may be the most recognised forms of criticism, critics can articulate their reactions in terms broader than either audience expectation or academic dialogue. At the root, criticism is all about voicing one’s reaction to a particular work of art and explaining the connections that were forged between the work you saw and the memories you have. Little wonder that popular criticism is starting to feature more autobiographical elements: What connection could possibly be more primal than the moment in which a work of art tells you something about yourself?

As someone who has produced a lot of criticism over the years, I find myself drawn to works of art that give me more room to elaborate my own reactions. Some works are well-curated and well-structured articulations of particular ideas that will speak directly to my favoured concerns but others are more elusive and so demand considerably more of me as a critic: The less obvious the connection, the more satisfying its articulation.

James Benning is a filmmaker I had not been aware of until Ian Sales recommended him to me. Born in 1942 and originally trained as a mathematician, Benning returned to university in his 30s before landing a job teaching film. While Benning’s work has been turning heads since at least the 1970s, he appears to have supported himself primarily through teaching and so has been quite adamant in his refusal to chase funding by doing what the film industry expects of its professional filmmakers. Until recently, Benning’s refusal to compromise even extended as far as a flat refusal to allow his films to be seen outside of proper cinemas. In fact, the only reason he stopped working with 16mm film is that the film stock was no longer being manufactured. In a 2012 essay explaining the decision to allow his films to appear on DVD, Benning said:

I’m getting older. It’s easier to give in.

In other words, Benning is a director who is extremely (some might say excessively) reluctant to accommodate his audience. This much was evident from the formal characteristics of the films themselves.

California Trilogy comprises three films about the state of California. The films are all just under ninety minutes long and are all made up of thirty five shots that are all two and a half minutes long. The camera never moves and – according to Benning – none of the shots were staged… Benning simply set up his camera, recorded chunks of Californian space-time, and stitched them together to produce three beautiful and enigmatic works of cinematic art.

 

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Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour (1963) – Where Art Fits and Why

Historical narratives can sometimes be extraordinarily cruel. Consider, for example, the narrative that is frequently attached to the life of Jean-Luc Godard: An ambitious young film critic stepped behind the camera and began producing works of cinematic art that changed the way that people thought about film. Then, after several years of sustained brilliance, he delved too deeply and all of that brilliant extroversion changed into painfully self-absorbed introversion. Having recently watched and written about a number of Godard’s early films, I have some sympathy with this narrative and would certainly flag him as an artist who became so aware of the tools of artistic expression that he seemed to start finding it increasingly difficult to express himself with both honesty and spontaneity. Pretence, pretence… all is pretence.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Quentin Tarantino and buy into the idea that Godard had disappeared up himself by the end of the 1960s, that narrative has followed the director for most of his career. Godard is not the only artist to become stuck in a particular historical moment but he has been more unlucky than most in that every film he produces winds up being seen as a painfully introspective work of cinematic deconstruction while every Woody Allen film is inevitably viewed as a heroic return to form.

Godard’s contemporary Alain Renais suffers from a different but not unrelated problem in that people tend to approach his work in terms of a narrative linking his first two features back to his early documentaries via the theme of memory. In fact, those are exactly the terms in which I wrote about both Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. The weird thing about Resnais’ narrative is that it simply peters out after Marienbad. Godard is said to have disappeared up himself around the time of Pierrot le Fou but Resnais simply stopped being relevant.

One explanation for these narratives assuming the shape they did is that the New Wave ran its course and the critical consensus moved on. By the late 1960s, the collapse of the American studio system had allowed a generation of young filmmakers to seize the means of production and begin expressing themselves artistically and so people started writing about the American New Wave while the authors of the French New Wave were allowed to dip into semi-obscurity. While this back-of-a-fag-packet theory may or may not stand up to close scrutiny, it does raise an interesting question about why people lost interest in Godard when they did and why they seemed to lose interest in Resnais even sooner.

 

Resnais

 

One explanation is that Resnais delved too far and too fast: Whereas most works of classical cinema contrive to offer their audiences a curated cultural experience in which the filmmakers introduce audiences to worlds and characters before telling them how to think and what to feel, art house directors like Resnais abandoned their curatorial role and encouraged audiences to articulate their own responses to the ideas and images placed on screen. Resnais took this deconstructive process a step further than most by stressing not only the artificiality of his characters and the pretence of plot but also the psychologically mediated nature of his settings. In effect, Resnais pushed the deconstructive process so far that he wound up offering his audiences a work of art that was just as unfathomable and unforgiving as the world itself, which can be viewed as a failure of the social contract linking audience to author.

This is an essay about Alain Resnais’ Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour but it is also an essay about the relationship between artist and consumer.

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REVIEW — The Angry Silence (1960)

I often wonder how much attention I should play to politics in the evaluative elements of my reviewing. As someone who is normally quite cynically detached from the culture that surrounds me, I am –to borrow a turn of phrase from Peter Mandelson and thereby prove a point — intensely relaxed about the consumption of right-wing culture.

I can watch Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation just as easily as I watch Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I can watch and appreciate these films because I take them all  to be well-realised expressions of particular world-views. The fact that I have more personal sympathy for the politics of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning might encourage me to return to that film slightly more often and hold it in slightly higher regard but ugly politics are no impediment to the creation of beautiful films. At least in principle…

There are times when right-wing culture annoys me and those times are usually when the film is quite obviously tapping into existing trends in right-wing propaganda in order to connect with an audience. My go-to example for this type of thing is Ciaran Foy’s The Citadel, a low-budget horror film that draws on a variety of racist and classist stereotypes in its efforts to depict modern-day council estates as madness-flecked sink holes filled with feral dog-children who would just as soon rape you as smear faeces on your front door. This type of shit bothers me because these are notions that are still ‘live’ and still doing damage to the people who live and work on those council estates. Fascism and racism are still very real social problems but I feel that cultural politics have shifted far enough that it is easy to gain some distance from films about Nazis and Klansmen. This may be a reflection of my white privilege, but it is also how culture works… time and distance make it a lot easier to be objective.

An excellent example of this process at work is my review of Guy Green’s workplace drama The Angry Silence, which has now gone live on FilmJuice.

The film is set in a period of British history where capitalism had not yet been completely unbound. The story revolves around a factory-worker who is forced to choose between financial security and group loyalty when a communist agitator manipulates his local union into a series of wildcat strikes:

It is at this point that the film’s right-wing politics begin to manifest themselves as Curtis is positioned as a righteous individual standing up to both the inhuman collectivism of the working class and the selfishness of ruling elites who inexplicably single him out as a ‘lone wolf’ and general trouble maker. What makes the film right-wing is the way that it paints the working class as a collection of cowards, sheep and thugs. Easily manipulated by what would appear to be Soviet spies, they strike out of vanity and blind conformity rather than as a means of securing fairer wages or safer working conditions. The Angry Silence is not set in our world but in a parallel universe where capitalists increase wages, workers remove their own safety rails and still people turn out on strike. The situation explored in The Angry Silence is as much of a paranoid right-wing fantasy as the ticking terrorist time bomb that invariably serves to justify the use of torture… no wonder this film was universally praised by the right-wing press.

The Angry Silence is a piece of right-wing propaganda that aped the kitchen sink realism and working-class focus of the British New Wave at a time when those themes, methods and politics still had an audience. It’s not just that the film’s politics are wrong and harmful, it’s that the producers Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, and Jack Rix took a set of tools devised to help set people free and used them to construct an argument in favour of the blasted neoliberal hellscape in which we are now collectively entombed. The Angry Silence is a well-made film in the same way as Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation are well-made films in that it articulates its right-wing worldview with real panache in a film that is well-constructed, well-written and very well-performed.

The Angry Silence is a well-made piece of right-wing propaganda and the only reason I am able to enjoy it is because the argument the film participates in about the merits of collective action and group solidarity have now been lost. I can understand why the right-wing press praised this film and I can understand why the (then) predominantly left-wing film culture absolutely hated it. I hate what this film represents and yet I have enough distance from the argument that I am able to appreciate the skill with which its clauses and conclusions are laid out. Yet another good film in service of an ugly argument.

Last Night by James Salter: “Last Night”

While I have tried my best to stay out of the way of any essays or reviews that might have distorted my take on this collection, I had heard that the final eponymous story was something special. I imagine there’s an art to the ordering of short story collections, maybe you start strong in order to grab the attention, hide the weaker stories in the middle, and end with fireworks in an effort to ensure that readers walk away from the book with a good impression of the author. Art as cognitive psychology… you always remember the first things and the final things but the stuff in the middle fades quite quickly. Last Night certainly started strongly only to become stuck in a rut of photocopied themes and stock characters, did Salter have it in him to go out with a bang? Well… yes.

I can certainly see why “Last Night” would stick in some reviewers’ memories; it seems considerably more accessible than a lot of the stories in the collection and while it too revisits those themes of middle-aged regret and sexual yearning, it does so in a style more reminiscent of O. Henry or Roald Dahl than James Salter. Much like “Give”, “Last Night” is ostensibly all about the twist in the tale while the really interesting stuff lies buried in sub-text and the details of character psychology. Like many of the best stories in this collection “Last Night” appears to be about one thing but is actually about another.

 

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BG47 – Hang All The Critics

Futurismic have just published my forty-seventh Blasphemous Geometries column entitled ‘Hang all the Critics: Towards Useful Video Game Writing’.

I originally wrote the column about ten days ago but last weekend I became aware of two significant blogospheric shit-storms that seem to provide an interesting context for the column.  The first shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by an article about yoga and the second shit-storm involves a bunch of people being upset by a review of an epic fantasy novel. Though ostensibly very different in their origins and subject matters, both shit-storms involve a community reacting very angrily to negative coverage from a perceived outsider. In the case of the ‘yoga community’, the outsider is the New York Times senior science writer William Broad and, in the case of the ‘epic fantasy community’, the outsider is the Strange Horizons reviewer and post-graduate student Liz Bourke.

The link between these blogstorms and my most recent video games column is that ‘Hang All the Critics’ is an attempt to confront the fact that the age of the critic has now passed. Criticism and its less well-heeled cousin reviewing rely upon the assumption that a person of reasonable insight and creative flair can consume a cultural product and issue an opinion or reaction to that will be of use to other people despite the fact that these other people might have very different tastes and interests.

It is no accident that the role of the critic has its roots in the cafe culture of the 17th Century as the coffee shops frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson tended to be cramped places where all kinds of bourgeois intellectuals were forced to rub shoulders. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the Internet’s infinite potential for space is that people from a particular class and with a particular set of interests are no longer forced to rub shoulders with people with ever-so-slightly different sets of tastes. These days, if you are interested in steam locomotives but not other forms of train then you are in no way obliged to encounter the opinions of people who consider steam trains to be a quaint but outmoded form of technology. The more the Internet matures, the more interest groups fragment and the more interest groups fragment, the more isolated and tribal these communities become. There is no place for criticism in a world dominated by tribal conflicts and persecution complexes, this is why Liz Bourke and William Broad got it in the neck and this is why Rotten Tomatoes is filled with people reacting angrily to the idea that a film they haven’t seen might not be as good as they expect. The age of the critic is at an end and it is time to change the way we do business.

Needless to say, I am not the first person to notice the collapse of our culture’s public spaces. Indeed, many reviewers and critics have attempted to respond to the increasingly commercial and tribal nature of the public sphere either by retreating into the walled-garden of academia or by creating a tribal space of their own. While I can entirely understand this desire for retrenchment, I think that it is ultimately an act of cowardice:

As someone who has never once tried to review a game for a major site, I am not in the least bit opposed to the fracturing of public space in order to create environments in which inaccessible forms of writing are protected from the vagaries of commerce and popular tastes. A recent comment on one of my pieces described my style as “masturbatory” and I find myself absolutely powerless to disagree. There is something decidedly self-indulgent about sharing one’s opinions online — particularly when one makes little or no effort to reach out to the majority of people interested in a particular topic — and this kind of self-indulgence is not about subjecting games to serious intellectual scrutiny or ‘consolidating a continuous counterbalance’; is a cowardly retreat from the public sphere, driven by the recognition that my opinions are of use to nobody but myself. There is absolutely nothing brave or revolutionary about taking your ball and going home.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad is not that they are wrong to feel the way they feel. Life in the 21st Century is frequently lonely and it is easy to begin thinking of one’s sub-culture as a kind of family that provides us with both an identity and a set of values. When you invest yourself that heavily in a particular sub-culture then it makes perfect sense that you should bristle when that elements of that sub-culture come under fire from outsiders. Even if you don’t like a particular novel or have your own concerns about the way that yoga is taught, it is one thing to hear those feelings from someone you trust and quite another to hear them from someone you don’t know. Ever bitched about a sibling to a member of your family? ever defended that same sibling when they came under fire from someone else? Some truths can only be spoken inside the family.

My problem with the critics of Bourke and Broad (or the people who complained about Uncharted 3 only getting 8 out of 10) is not that they are wrong, it is that they are being insular. As I said elsewhere, the most wonderful thing in the world is to have someone care enough to listen to you and tell you that you are completely full of shit. By wanting to protect epic fantasy from outsiders like Bourke, the defenders of epic fantasy (and those of yoga) are closing themselves off to a potential source of cultural renewal.

I would like to believe that there is a place for people like Bourke and Broad because I would like to believe that there is a place for cultural generalists and for people who take the ideas and values of one culture and carry them into those of another.  This blog is very much devoted to the idea that a single person can look at radically different forms and subject matters and say something of value about them. Unfortunately, while I would like to believe that there is a place for that form of cultural generalism, I think that the Internet is growing increasingly hostile to it. After all, why listen to random strangers when you can only listen to fellow academics, fantasy fans, yoga enthusiasts, republicans or furries? Why listen to anyone other than yourself?

Game On (1995) – Comedy, Madness and the Irony of Postmodern Prejudice

There is something wonderfully sad and ephemeral about comedy. Consider, for example, the situation comedy and film franchise Sex and the City (1998). When Sex and the City arrived on TV screens, it reached out to a wide audience by challenging established attitudes towards sex and gender. Indeed, when Sex and the City first started, women (though sexually liberated) were expected to be less interested in sex than men. However, by the time Sex and the City graduated to cinema screens, cultural attitudes had moved on and it was now accepted that women could be just as crass and emotionally stunted as men. Thus, what began life as a critique of traditional values ended its life as a chest-thumping celebration of the status quo. The history of comedy is littered with examples of films and series that simply ran out of cultural currency as the attitudes they critiqued or embodied came to seem either more or less oppressive.

An excellent example of a series left culturally isolated by changing social attitudes is Andrew Davies and Bernadette Davis’s Game On.

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You and Your Entire Family Are Full of Shit. You’re Welcome.

Things are a little slow at the moment.  One reason for this is that I’ve decided to work on a slightly longer project that really can’t be placed online until it’s properly finished.  Another reason is that my last review to be published is currently sitting on a hacked website, so I won’t link to it until the thing gets fixed.

In the mean time, I thought I would share a moment of insight that occurred to me courtesy of my daily blog shower.  I use an RSS reader to follow quite a large number of blogs. In fact, up until recently, the number of blogs I followed was downright alarming as I was trying to keep an eye on the ruins of what was once the culturally vibrant literary SF blogosphere. Since giving up on doing the links roundup for Strange Horizons (long story but camels and backs may have been involved) I have replaced my SF feeds with feeds devoted to politics, games, comics and film. A rush of enthusiasm brings RSS subscriptions, the chilly comedown of boredom and practicality brings purges that are positively Stalinist in their brutal efficiency. Anyway, shaped by recurrent waves of expansion and contraction, my collection of RSS feeds is now something of a motley array of disconnected minds. A lot of the blogs I follow are followed for reasons that are no longer quite clear to me. In fact, my RSS feed aggregator tends to blur one RSS feed into another meaning that I simply do not have a handle on many of the individual blogs that I do follow.  One instance of this process of informational alienation is my following of the BBlog.

I suspect that I first started following the BBlog because it contained thoughtful pieces about video games. X months down the line and the site has morphed away from games and towards a form of techy intellectualism that I find particularly compelling. In fact, I currently provide cheap accommodation to a purveyor of precisely that style of writing. Anyway, the reason why I decided to bring up the BBlog is because a recent post genuinely caused me to stop and think about how I relate to the internet.

 

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