Film Criticism above the Flow

Chris Fujiwara

Cinema is an art of absence. The rejection of films that make a claim of presence, or that seek to exploit the viewer’s susceptibility to the impression of reality created by cinema, is the basic gesture of an ethical film criticism.

One of the absences the modern cinema must deal with is the absence of a place for the viewer. With new economies and technologies of viewing that offer consumers more and more extensive control over the images and sounds that come into their possession in digital form, the viewer’s place has apparently become primary, but this primacy only masks the non-existence of that place.

Contemporary ideology tells us loudly that we are all actors and advises us to exercise to the fullest, at all times and under all conditions, our ability to act in the world. Film criticism should speak more in favor of passivity, of letting films happen to us. Passivity, after all, underlies all our interactions with a world that certainly pre-exists us, even though it seems to be constructed for us.

As passive film viewers, we go to encounter the film in a place, and at a time, that have been established without our consent by those who are showing the film. We are not allowed to manipulate the experience. At most we can make some manifestation during the screening (and risk the disapproval of the other members of the audience), or walk out before the film ends.

This state of passivity is the condition for a mode of spectatorship, these days endangered, that ensures the basic dialectic of the cinema experience and makes possible the tension in which criticism is born and sustained.

This dialectic was described with stunning richness and clarity in a 1948 essay by Emmanuel Levinas, “Reality and Its Shadow.” Though Levinas was writing about all art in general, his remarkable and troubling essay has a particularly appropriate application to cinema. The power of art, according to Levinas, is such that it carries the viewing subject out of the real world and into a state of “anonymity.” In this state, we let ourselves be entranced and carried away by the artwork. The trance effect of art can be seen most clearly in music. All art functions like music, in that its elements, which “call for one another like the syllables of a verse,… impose themselves on us without our assuming them,” so that “our consenting to them is inverted to a participation.” As a result, the viewer becomes “part of the spectacle.”

Levinas writes that art offers the lure of an exotic world, with which all our relationships are magical relationships. In perceiving art, we become seduced into escaping our responsibility as subjects within the real world, we forget about otherness, and we prefer the false world to the true one.

A new documentary by Gabe Klinger, Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater, summarizes this problem neatly with respect to film. Linklater says (in a clip Klinger borrows from Michael Almereyda and Amy Hobby’s 1995 At Sundance) that cinema “attracts a certain kind of personality that doesn’t want a life in the real world. And the movies become your life, your history, your thoughts, and the way you see the world.” Benning adds that the freeing of his artistic practice by digital technology has come at the cost of an ever-increasing separation from the world: “In one sense the technology has made me completely autonomous, and in another sense I think it’s completely suffocating and keeps you from more important things in life.”

Levinas’s argument takes a perhaps surprising turn. If art separates us from the world, criticism, for Levinas, restores the world to us and us to the world. If the artwork is mute, standing before us in an unalterable and annihilating form, criticism enables it to speak “in the language which makes us leave our dreams” (to quote another essay by Levinas, “The Transcendence of Words”). If the artwork is complete, criticism reverses that completion and exposes the fragmentary and self-contradictory condition of every work, a condition that seems to belong to cinema in an even more essential way than to other art forms (as Jean Renoir says, there are great novels, but no great films).

Criticism moves viewers out of their illusory place at the center of the universe and discharges them from their imaginary function as machines for receiving and manipulating information and sensations. Criticism undermines the jubilatory irresponsibility of viewing and attacks the untenable position, on the part of the filmmaker no less than on that of the film viewer, of being outside what is happening. In doing so, criticism recalls cinema to the role Jacques Rivette proclaimed for it: “to take people out of their cocoons and plunge them into horror.”

In other words, cinema, sharpened and strengthened by criticism, becomes able to dwell more within the absence which is its true home and no longer pretends to satisfy the viewer’s demand to be informed, stimulated, entertained, enriched, or propped up — demands that arise from a bad passivity that must be removed if the cinema is to exist.

But the critic must write not just against the demands of the viewer, but also against the critic him or herself, because the critic too is a viewer who makes demands that are conservative and unadventurous.

Brecht writes in his “Notes to The Threepenny Opera”: “It is a sort of summary of what the spectator wishes to see of life. Since, however, he sees, at the same time, certain things that he does not wish to see, and thus sees his wishes not only fulfilled but also criticized…, he is, in theory, able to give the theatre a new function… Complex seeing must be practiced… Thinking above the flow of the play is more important than thinking from within the flow of the play.”

What do we want when we go to the cinema?

First, we want to see people and objects rendered as visual patterns, which can be charted and known to a degree unattainable with the people and objects of real life. These patterns belong to a domain that Levinas calls the “shadow” of reality: the doubling of being into the thing itself and its own caricature. In this shadow zone, “the original gives itself as though it were at a distance from itself, as though it were withdrawing itself, as though something in a being delayed behind being.”

Let’s admit further that there is a certain cruelty involved in our relationship with these patterns, which serve as an intermediate zone of projection for the images of human life, because what is seen in the history of beings is, inevitably, their decay and death. Then in cinema we want also to live through this cruelty (“anonymously,” as Levinas says), perhaps to be punished for it and freed from its burden.

Cinema, by its structure, can’t help but reveal a strange aspect of existence: the internal rupture of reality, which is repeated and made manifest in different ways in all films. The role of the critic is to find within each film the site of this internal rupture, the moment of the internal self-undoing of the work. In fulfilling this role, criticism brings cinema to its ideal state of crisis.

Second, we want beauty. Simone Weil, in “Beauty,” writes: “The beautiful is a carnal attraction which keeps us at a distance and implies a renunciation… We want to eat all the other objects of desire. The beautiful is that which we desire without wishing to eat it. We desire that it should be. We have to remain quite still and unite ourselves with that which we desire yet do not approach… Distance is the soul of the beautiful.” So described, this beauty is what Levinas, in much less positive terms, calls the exoticism of art. Criticism has much to say about the working of our desire for the exotic, but this would be less a criticism of the work than a criticism of the structure that regulates all encounters with artworks — a criticism of the conditions that make escape through art necessary.

Third, we want to return to the world. Here criticism unfolds its full importance. Every film stands before us as an abstraction, which may perhaps be beautiful or edifying, or may be debasing, but in any case begins with a fundamental withdrawal, from which we need to be recalled. Criticism conquers bad abstraction by means of good abstraction and renews our connection to reality.

* The Korean translation of this essay is included in Magazine F (No.11) published on October 31 in 2013.