from our October 2012 issue
Credit: Andy Watt
It will hardly be news to anyone that the way in which cinema-related discussions are conducted has been changed beyond all recognition by the internet. Email, message boards, Facebook etc have created new opportunities for critical debate while erasing the line between verbal and written discourses: an observation made to a friend following a screening, a comment responding to a blog entry and an article intended for publication in a magazine are not neatly separable, but rather different stages in the development of a single impulse.
In years to come, I doubt we will be seeing the equivalents of Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton or James Agee: Film Writings and Selected Journalism – books that claim, whether accurately or not, to collect a critic’s entire body of work. Film writing is now so widely dispersed that much of it makes sense only in the context of larger discussions that are, by their nature, ephemeral. This is not to say that such discussions are necessarily superficial or dilettantish – Dave Kehr’s blog, for example, provides a forum for well-informed disputation, much of it conducted by professional critics and theorists – but rather that there’s now little practical difference between an impulsive reaction and a text created for posterity.
At one extreme this has resulted in newspapers replacing seasoned film critics with celebrity reviewers who are thought to have more in common with the average viewer. But if the concept of expertise has been devalued, it has also been democratised. The kind of knowledge that was once the preserve of a privileged few is now potentially available to anyone interested in acquiring it – as Adrian Martin pointed out in his contribution to Movie Mutations (a collection investigating the changing face of cinephilia): “Suddenly, there were self-cultivated specialists everywhere in previously elite areas like B cinema, exploitation cinema and so-called cult cinema.”
In a review of my book Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision, Jonathan Rosenbaum (originator of the Movie Mutations project) identified me as “a pioneer in a new and rigorous if relatively unambulatory kind of film research ruled by the internet and tracking down various videos and DVDs from around the world – a kind of scholarship motored by email, blogs, and chatgroups”.
Some papers have replaced critics with celebrity reviewers thought to have more in common with the average viewer.
I must admit that at the time (2004) I didn’t even know what a blog was, and tended to see myself as part of an older tradition, my inspirations being the work of Robin Wood and other auteurists. I recall reading the round-table discussions that appeared in Cahiers du cinéma and Movie, and thinking how wonderful it would be to participate in them.
I have now taken part in two such round-tables: the first appeared in a booklet accompanying Masters of Cinema’s Buster Keaton: The Complete Short Films DVD in 2006; the second, a debate about Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears, can be found in issue 147 of Video Watchdog. Both of those were conducted by email – so the ‘new’ internet technologies may be new only in the sense that, by obscuring the distinction between conversation and writing, they are facilitating forms of communication that are actually long-established.
But the internet has also influenced ‘real world’ interactions. Whereas we once tended to socialise with people to whom we had a geographic proximity, we are now more likely to seek out individuals who share our cultural interests, something encouraged by websites enabling users to create online groups for the purpose of scheduling social events. One such group is London’s The Art House Cinema Meetup, founded by Aiman Baharna in 2008, whose eclectic selection of regulars includes Alex Barrett (writer/director of Life Just Is) and Sarah Bakewell (author of the Costa-nominated How to Live: A Life of Montaigne).
An especially memorable event scheduled by this group involved a rare screening of Michael Powell’s The Queen’s Guards (1961) at BFI Southbank earlier this year. Although the film’s reputation could hardly have been worse – Ian Christie, who introduced the screening, virtually apologised for it – everyone I spoke to afterwards seemed pleasantly surprised. Several members of the group who attended our post-screening discussion were familiar with Peeping Tom, and noted how the protagonists of both films were attempting to simultaneously imitate and rebel against their obsessively traditional fathers, the central character of The Queen’s Guards being depicted as a helpless puppet (via the toy soldier possessed by his girlfriend) and a fly caught in a spider’s web (his crippled father moves around the family home by swinging from steel bars attached to the ceiling).
One of our members, Yusef Sayed, continued this discussion in an email he sent me, observing that “the emphasis on the Captain’s trolley rail system cast an eerie comment on a person’s actions being determined by external barriers and guidelines. As you said, the ascent of the stairs was striking and almost spider-like. The central character, too, was obviously troubled by the feeling that he needed to fulfil a role and stick to a tradition, stay within set codes of conduct – leading to the uncertain feelings about following in his brother’s footsteps… This, of course, leads to the idea of being governed by tradition, expectations, identified only by your role in society, whether a soldier or a gentleman…”
I had noticed Kim Newman heading into the screening, and subsequently posted a message on his Facebook wall, noting that The Queen’s Guards had “reminded me of John Ford’s The Long Gray Line (1954), another CinemaScope film in which the director’s admiration for military institutions struggles with an awareness of the neuroticism of those institutions”; to which Kim responded, “I thought of the same Ford film, but also saw odd connections with that 80s cycle about being in not-really-needed services (Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman, Heartbreak Ridge)… The nicest touch was the hero not taking his girlfriend’s job as a fashion model seriously since all she does is dress up in silly clothes and pose, when it turns out that the highlight of his military career is exactly like that.”
These discussions were clearly far more carefully considered than the ‘official’ discourses on Powell’s film, demonstrating how cinephilia has been enriched by technologies all too frequently imbricated with superficiality.