Theory is dead. Well, so I am told. Since the 1990s critics, authors and writers such as David Bordwell, Murray Pomerance and many others have stressed the need to steer film theory in a new direction, whether it be film-philosophy, neo-formalism or another approach (if not theory altogether). Thankfully, if theory is not completely dead (which I hope that it is not) the often obfuscatory, impenetrable style that characterized the worst aspects of it may be. Implicit in the ongoing debate about the death of theory, is a question of cinephilia and its relationship to film criticism. The resurgence of cinephilia in film studies, while giving birth to an already bloated field of study, has also reminded scholars of the importance of style in the development of film criticism. While prone to excessive use of superlatives, what were the cahiers critics if not great stylists? Finding an adequate way of communicating both one’s emotional and intellectual thoughts on film are one of the many threads in a great new collection, The Language and Style of Film Criticism edited by Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan. Concerned with the form of criticism, each essay elegantly dances with unique style: fragmentary thoughts are cloaked as sentences while fiction and description melt into each other and overlap with analysis. There is such variation and passion in these essays, that while not all are transportive the collection feels alive.
Often introductions emerge as overly long explanations that merely preface the coming essays. In recapitulating essays they become a sort of Cliffs Notes for the collection. Pulling in a range of critics, from Camille Paglia and Raymond Bellour to Stanley Cavell and Andrew Britton among others, Klevan and Clayton’s introduction, rather than summarizing the collection, lays out a series of questions, concerns and hopes about the form of film criticism, all the while pulling out and analyzing the way different authors construct arguments. Of course the important, simple truths are often those that are forgotten. Klevan and Clayton mine some of those truths and bring them out in the introduction reminding readers that “evaluation is not simply something one might do, something optional; it is intrinsic to the viewing experience” (5). What establishes this introduction and thus the entire collection as both enlightening and uplifting is the sense of levity in the writing; this is an introduction that seems to take Cavell’s notion of perfectionism and reproduce it in its very form. Without question, the hope and belief in criticism-as-art permeates each essay in this collection.
Rarely does a sentence sputter out, rarely does a thought fade into the ether, rarely is an insight not gleamed from this poetic prose. Perhaps all the more impressive is that the authors do not attack any of the easy targets often raised as the enemy of less academic critics (post-structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, cultural studies). This introduction instead opts to investigate, citing V.F. Perkins the “important problem with oneself of finding the words that fit ones sense of the moment or the movie” (19). In many ways it is a replay of Emerson’s seemingly doomed quest of communicating experience. As Clayton and Klevan elaborate: “The challenge for the critic is not simply to surrender to platitudes about the undecided, but to attempt to specify the particularity of the indefinite” (21). The introduction promises an investigation of language and style with such clarity and perception one wonders why there has not been more literature on this material already.
We have been introduced, now: how to begin? Alex Clayton’s first essay begins on unstable grounds attempting to highlight and dismantle the criticism provided by Bordwell and Thompson in Film Art. Clayton’s claims are pointed and often funny; of Film Art’s style Clayton writes, “it is as if the film has been sedated, or solved” (29). While certainly not untrue, Bordwell’s status as punching bag for critics makes this seem at first needless, even mean-spirited. As D.N. Rodowick highlighted in his 2007 essay “An Elegy for Theory” “no one’s commitment to good theory building is greater or more admirable” than Bordwell’s.1Thankfully Clayton’s essay evolves instead into a poignant uncovering of the critic as an individual pulled by the poles of time. Clayton suggests that “perhaps criticism can then be considered a communion between the critic’s present and past selves, as well as between the critic and the work” (36). It is a provocative suggestion that establishes the tone for the rest of collection.
The essays that follow create their own communion, one that reveals the experiential qualities and philosophic intricacies to film criticism. Robert Sinnerbrink’s essay “Questioning Style” rejects the false-objective style that dominates film criticism. It is an important addition to the burgeoning literature on film-philosophy. Sinnerbrink’s vision is not only of film-philosophy but of “romantic film-philosophy” (53). Sinnerbrink argues that just as there are grand implications and possibilities for film, film criticism can reveal and uncover truths of the everyday—it can come to elaborate on the question of what film calls thinking. With criticism, Sinnerbrink claims we must “think with, rather than [think] on film” (52).
Adrian Martin reveals in his essay “Incursions” not film-philosophy but instead description-as-philosophy. Martin looks at three critics John Flaus, Shigehiko Hasumi and Frieda Grafe (all unknown to this reader) and how they approach the problem of description: how does one write about a scene in a film without being formulaic, boring, or staid? Martin’s essay lyrically and poetically defends description, turning what is often the worst aspect of an essay into an absolutely engrossing exploration of style. Martin’s essay, which is followed by Andrew Klevan’s essay (“Description”) on critics’ visions of The Magnificent Ambersons, challenges the reader to seize the presentness of film in scene descriptions. Forget textual analysis for a moment, what of textual weaving, textual creation—picture painting. These are the issues of Martin and Klevan’s important essays.
Although it may only be lightly touched on, as though a deft hand fingering the keys of a piano, what subtlety links the essays in this collection is the notion of community. Charles Warren writes that the pleasure of reading criticism may in fact rest in “put[ting the reader] in touch with a community of those who confront and think about art. It is the person looking, listening, and thinking and finding words, who matters – more so than the insights and concepts as such” (143). Citing literary critic R.P. Blackmur, Warren ends his essay, urging critics not merely to embrace their intellect but also their imagination. Criticism may be a sort of communicative science, but it is necessarily and thankfully an imperfect one.
If Warren’s essay highlights the existence of such a community between film, those who watch film and those who read criticism, Lesley Stern’s essay “Memories That Don’t Seem Mine” paints a vivid, almost somatic, portrait of such a community. Filled with fictive interludes Stern moves through Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep as light moves into a crystal and is refracted back thousands of different ways. Like the film, Stern’s essay is a series of moments, some elongated, others protracted, all of which seem to carry significance. The essay eschews any straightforward reading, instead unfolding in experimental form. Stern challenges readers and writers to conceive of the essay as a new mode, one which refuses the strict and seemingly false distinctions of fiction and documentary.
Stern seems to stretch the written essay form, but the last essay brings together cinephilic and academic tendencies in highlighting the rise of the video essay. There is something scary about beginning the journey of a video essay. Yet it is perhaps this mysteriousness that makes it so alluring. Christian Keathley’s essay, rather than demystifying, helps organize the “types” of video essays. His essay is an excellent, as he writes, “progress report” on how language and style in film criticism now have new meaning in the video and digital realm. This is a crucial early step in the ever-growing work of video essay-artists such as Keathley and Matt Zoller Seitz.
In their introductory essay Klevan and Clayton claim: “we would like to see film criticism gain a more central place within the academy and develop in more dynamic ways outside it” (24). These essays certainly bridge the split between the academy and the widely-read critic. Rejecting academic jargon and sterile prose, all of the essays strive to open up film studies and urge writers and critics not to become rigid. For every film studies course that requires Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art, The Language and Style of Film Criticism should be required pairing. While apt for undergraduates, graduates and those outside of academia, there is something even more here for academics and those who may be bitter or tired or exhausted with film studies. This is a clarion call. Wonderfully under the surface of all of these essays is the notion that the history of criticism and theory is not one that is necessarily getting closer to any specific truth. In turning to critics such as T.S. Eliot, Raul Ruiz, V.F. Perkins and Roland Barthes there is still more to open up. Just because these thinkers wrote in a different age does not mean that their writings are insignificant to our age. The history of film criticism is not Whig history. Even further Clayton and Klevan remind us that an essay is never just an essay. An essay is not simply even an organized series of thoughts and feelings—it is something more. That something more is as ineffable and impossible to pin down as film itself. But it exists somewhere in the mystery of criticism as an art form. As evidenced by this collection one of the great beauties of film criticism is the pursuit of those mysteries.
Sincere thanks to Routledge for a review copy
1. See D.N. Rodowick “An Elegy for Theory” October No. 122, Fall 2007, pp. 91–109.