Friday, 4 May 2018

Current cinema culture

Earlier this year, after reading a column in one of our leading global newspapers, I felt compelled to write on Facebook about contemporary film criticism (if that is what it is). Some month later, after watching Wichita (Jacques Tourneur 1955), I again felt compelled to comment on Facebook about larger issues about current cinema. It occurred to me that these two Facebook posts are connected so I decided to add them together and post them here, with a few necessary edits, as one piece:

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Watched Wichita (Jacques Tourneur 1955), with Joel McCrea as Wyatt Earp. It is not a particularly noteworthy film, one among many of its kind, a short, unpretentious, focused, straightforward Western in colour and CinemaScope, although with the aesthetic feel of a TV-movie. (The style of the film, every aspect of it, makes it feel like it was directed by its main character, Earp, rather than Tourneur.) However, during its 80 minutes it intelligently tackles almost every political issue (except race and gender) that is still today engulfing the US. Democracy, ethics, courage, corruption, gun rights (Earp's first action after becoming marshal is to ban handguns in Wichita), pride, professionalism, freedom of the press, crime and punishment.

A film with these kinds of themes today would be rare, be at least 150 minutes long, and probably highlight its own importance and marvel at its own cleverness and boldness. It would be considered an art film, or Oscar-bait if American, and it would be the focus of hundreds of columns and hot takes and takedowns and whatnots. There would be debates about alleged backlashes, and discussions as to whether it critiqued or celebrated toxic masculinity. More people would read about it, and be outraged by it, than watch it.

The point here is not that Wichita is some forgotten masterpiece or even a great film. The point is its very unremarkableness. In the 1950s many films like it were made every year, and nobody at the time would take much notice of them. But seen from the perspective of contemporary cinema, it is just so obvious what the art form has lost. The kind of film Wichita is, short and unpretentious yet with a dedicated political and philosophical agenda, has become completely extinct. And there is nothing that has replaced it.


The reception I imagined a film like Wichita would get today stems from my experience of the kind of reception new films actually do get. As an example, consider this article I read about a new film, published in a major publication. [It is not important which publication, film or writer since this is not about them but about current larger trends.] It was not the publication's review of this film but an additional piece. The article contained not a single original thought. It is questionable as to whether it contained any kind of thought. It was written in the style that the majority of articles about popular culture use as default, from sentence structure to choice of words. The article criticised the film but not after having actually engaged with it; instead what was said might have been said by anyone who had read the film's Wikipedia entry and seen the trailer perhaps. Much were generalisations that could be used for any new film and its director, as if the writer used a pre-set form with just a few empty boxes which he had to fill in with the names of this particular film and these particular actors.

That article, which is completely unnecessary and without any merit, will generate some comments. It will be linked, tweeted and liked. But nobody will care much for it, not even those who enthusiastically tweet "This is so great! You must read this piece!" They and everyone else will have forgotten it a few hours later.

Every day hundreds of articles just like it, many of them probably about the same film, are published. But to what end? What purpose do they serve? Whom do they please? Do those who write them take any pride in them? They will get paid I assume, and maybe being a writer is all they ever wanted to be, and the only thing they can do. But they cannot get much money? And how does it profit the publications to have generic space-fillers of no value? I suppose it must be the case that whatever ad revenues they take in on that article are greater than whatever they paid the writer, but only if he was paid very little, and then the question returns to what was in it for him.

An article with no meaning written by someone who does not care what he writes, written for people who do not care what they read. This is what contemporary cultural criticism consists of.

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If you want to watch a film by Tourneur and with Joel McCrea that does also discuss racial issues I recommend Stars in my Crown (1950). That really is a great film, one of Tourneur's best. Juano Hernandez also stars in it, and it has that supernatural aspect which is so often found in Tourneur's films, although not in Wichita.


4 comments:

  1. For a long time leftists demanded a more politically engaged film criticism. We're getting it now, but in a form that's totally shallow and geared only to the topics of the moment. Once Woody Allen is dead, will anyone ever want to read the "WONDER WHEEL reviews" that spend 80% of their length saying that he's a pedophile who shouldn't be allowed to make films instead of saying anything about the film's form and content - or even suggesting how the actual filmmaking might show the abusive attitude towards youth and women they think he's guilty of in real life? Robin Wood would be turning in his grave.

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  2. Politically engaged film criticism has been around for decades, but what I'm talking about is not necessarily politically engaged but vacuous.

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  3. What I'm talking about is a kind of writing that's politically engaged in a particularly trendy, shallow and vacuous way. It's all over American film criticism and social media discourse ("Film Twitter") right now. Maybe things are bad but in a different way in Swedish film culture?

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  4. We've got lot less film writing in general, and I follow few Swedish film writers on Twitter, but every now and then there will be the kind of article you're talking about.

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