“What an awful bad acting piece of french crap”.

–peepi69 on Mouchette


When Walter Benjamin wrote his multi-drafted Work of Art essay it was clear that the simple pedagogical transmission of certain key concepts was not at the forefront of his undertaking. Anyone who has set out to teach this essay to a group of undergraduate students knows the frustration of looking out over a sea of confused post-teens wanting to understand, for instance, whether the withering of the aura is something we should champion or lament. Other essays by Benjamin used the concept in more definitive ways, but in the Work of Art essay the aura is not the only vagary. Benjamin writes:


 

With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers – at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship.


 

The peculiarity here is the question as to what we are to make of this new historical figure, the author-reader, in Benjamin's text. There is a blurred populist tone that lurks beneath this erasure of distinctions, a tone which is clearly shared the by the often inconsistent definition of populism tout court.

If we think of Benjamin's "letter to the editor" as an early example of the flattening of the expert class, it is clear that the massive mobilization of the author-reader in the Internet age has only broken down that same distinction exponentially. For the most part responses to this withering laud the gains for cinephilia that have come about as a result of the digital environment, particularly its democratic access and popular expansion. Serge Daney wanted, precisely, to make a case for cinephilia as a popular elitism:

 


To 'speak for others' always comes down to claiming droit de seigneur over their ignorance. Cinema's greatness lay in the fact that an individual (a director, a writer, an actor) could in some way touch another individual in the collective anonymity of the auditorium. Which is elitist, to be sure, but it's a popular elitism.

 


Film criticism in the age of digital reproduction has to some degree supported Daney's argument. However, there is the other side to the wildcat expansion of access: not always is there popular elitism, but sometimes and perhaps increasingly so, a critical approach that mirrors the political tenor of the contemporary period, elite populism.

In his writing Daney often referred to the figure of the passeur, that conduit of arcane but necessary knowledge in a kind of modified filiation (modified given that Daney often calls on his status a fatherless child seeking out adoptive parents and siblings in the cinema). In a letter to the editors of Trafic Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing about Daney, brought up the issue of scarcity in the history of cinephilia. Rosenbaum called on a discussion with Edgardo Cozarinsky, who described the way in which even the early post-modern cinephilia of home viewing saw the passing of videotapes from (corporeal) peer-to-peer as if sacred manuscripts. It was this Daneyan concept of the passeur that Rosenbaum was calling on, to remind us, contrary to Susan Sontag, that cinephilia can be adaptive, and is not reliant on one particular historical form of cinema-going. But in the contemporary landscape, in an era of easy access, an era of saturation, there is a sense that the place of the passeur may have been usurped by something more anonymous. Even once perniciously difficult film titles to track down are now the low hanging fruit of the digital era.

Daney offers a critique of the problem of saturation without entertaining entirely moralistic or didactic pedagogical trappings. In an essay on the first Gulf War entitled Editing Obligatory: The War, the Gulf, and the Small Screen Daney articulated the difference between the visual and the image. For Daney the visual is «the optical confirmation of a purely technical operation. The visual has no reverse shot, it has no missing part, it is enclosed, sealed, rather like the image of a pornographic scene…» The visual is for Daney mind-numbingly conclusive evidence. The image on the other hand«always occurs on the border of two fields of force, its role is to bear witness to an otherness, and although it always has a hard kernel, there is always something missing from it. The image is always both more and less than itself.» In this way the image is not totalizing, it comes into being by means of its own limits as well as the limits of the spectators.

While we are largely familiar with the way this has come to pass in the age of total visual saturation (when Daney describes the visual [which might be translated as the era of peak image] he seems to be calling on the experience of the unknown narrator in Borges' El Aleph, who «saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet…» This description (a pre-miniscence?) is further a fitting description of our contemporary selfie-surveillance environment: an environment in which nearly every spot on the planet can be seen), his distinction between the image and the visual may well find it's concomitant textual instantiation in a distinction between criticism and comment, that is, there is a textual corollary to this peak image environment, and that is the 24-hour nonstop tweeting, bulletin boards, blogs, discussion groups and ultimately the dark side of the internet: comments.

Again, positive outcomes for criticism of this hyper-visual and text environment have been well-praised, often pointing to the easy access to films and literature for those otherwise unable to access such materials, along with the development of new critical forms such as video criticism and online publication. There is an excitement in the cinephile communities about the opportunities that are now afforded the contemporary cinema-goer/stayer. However the confrontation with many opinions of the world is also a kind of renewed Benjaminian shock. We can think about the way Benedict Anderson described the evolution of nationalism especially with the development of print capitalism. His imagined community transmogrifies into an imagined globe, as we are confronted with the opinions that abound in the various and variegated cultures of this world. Sometimes the imagined is productive and of course sometimes it is a nightmare.

In a recent post to a Facebook group for cinephiles, a discussion about Woody Allen and the controversy surrounding his life eventually concluded with one "cinephile" suggesting that the reason for all of Allen's ails was that he was a Jew. This comment emerged in a forum that announces itself as a place of discussion about the love of cinema, and which generally finds reasonable discussion taking place. But this particular comment, which went largely unnoticed, points to that grim side of film writing in the age of digital reproduction. If one looks to the rise of populism, and all it's ambiguity (although it is hard not to side with Jameson's suggestion that the we have been so successful in destroying radical political movements that all that is left is the sterile passions of nationalism and religious fundamentalism) as expressed in the comments section of our daily news, we also find its corollary in film criticism, or to call on a well-known and respected journal, film comment.

It is in film comment that we find the elitist populism that looks to barrel through the subtleties and nuance of film criticism. It is in film comment that often-marginal canons are dismissed in favor of Spielberg (at best). Below are presented some of the reviews in this alternate Film Comment culled from popular sites. It is writing that purports to come from cinephiles, movie buffs and that Benjaminian figure of the author-(non)expert-reader.

 

*****

 

On L'Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1936): You may enjoy this if you are recovering from a lobotomy by Seragovitz:

 

This is the story of an insipid riverboat honeymoon romance between two moronic paper thin protagonists. The film floats along smoothly just bobbing above tedium. The female lead gets seduced by the bright lights of Paris; goes shopping, has a few mishaps and eventually the two dopey dewy eyed cretins are reunited. A caricatured swarthy sea dog provides some passable light entertainment. This is not the stuff of which masterpieces are made. The themes, characters and direction are all witheringly mundane. Luckily it is short on ineffective plodding Gallicisms. This is not a film that should be rated highly. You may enjoy this if you are recovering from a lobotomy».

 

On Straub-Huillet's Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach by melinda2001


I'm sure the director would have preferred to have used footage of some really big crashing waves but the best he could find were a few inches high at some nearby take, and again using a stationary camera. Truly pathetic. I can't imagine how anyone could justify rating this movie higher than a five. When we walked out, my father and I were completely mystified as to how it was possible to make such a bad movie. I don't know of of any good movies about Bach. The world really does need one, but just because it doesn't exist is not a reason to see this one. Someone will make one someday Until then just keep rewatching _Amadeus_.


On Les quatre cent coups : Dull and pointless by Steven Allen:


This film was simply terrible. The protagonist fails to develop or evolve in any way. So many people have described the boy as being "misunderstood", and authority is considered the villain...but this is NOT a film about a misunderstood child being victimised for no reason. He is given plenty of fair opportunities to improve and redeem himself from his selfish, reckless actions, but he shoots them all down and continues to do wrong until his parents are forced to go to extreme measures to control him...and even then, he does not change. There is absolutely no character journey. We are also shown a great amount of long, pointless shots that do nothing to advance the plot, nor carry any discernible symbolism. The whole experience is a slow, dull observation of a dislikable boy reaping what he has sewn time and time again, without learning from his mistakes. Painfully pointless, and unrecommended if you value good characters and plot.


On Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma: The joke is on... you! by liehtzu:


A work of breathtaking vapidity and exemplary foolishness, this is the PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE of the "Art Cinema," sans the unintentional humor But HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA is terribly silly and,like all the directors' films not nearly as intelligent as it assumes itself to be (remember that we're speaking of a man who once took Maoism seriously - for years!). So, let's see... a series of random images - old still photos, grainy video of classic films - coupled with mumbled voice-over, grating sound effects, and so many flashing title cards that prove that Godard can spell. Those who would seek the meaning and profundity here are on a fool's errand. Anyone who hopes to learn a single thing about the history of cinema will find no hope in this four and a half hours of remorseless buffoonery. Tragically, in this life people very often simply refuse to see what's in front of them. Anyone with any common sense and a genuine love for the medium can see that this series is shoddy, narcissistic, incoherent, and more than a little insane, within the first ten minutes of the first episode. In the span of HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA one may find: images of Nazi death camps edited together with photographs of Charlie Chaplin and Hitler cut with not a little bit of hardcore pornography cut with (but of course!) some stray references to the war in Vietnam, Francis Bacon and Arthur Rimbaud. One must "read meaning" into this. Take your pick. The series shines from the get-go; in Episode One we find video of a seemingly senile Godard rooting through his library, mumbling to himself ("Le cinema" mumble mumble, "Irving Thalberg" mumble mumble), along with grimy VHS footage of a few classic movies, and the amplified noise of his ancient word processor clicking, clicking, clicking for the better part of the first half hour. That's right, an annoying clicking sound and a mumbling balding old guy for a long, long time. All this is of course "genius," which is above coherence. Godard has for decades made movies that shine with his contempt for his audience as well as his magnificent opinion of himself. I admit that I do not hold the "New Wave" in very high esteem, and find most of Godard's films, even the early ones, pompous, intellectually shallow, and dull. I think a genuine history of cinema would reduce JLG to little more than a footnote. Yet he really has reached a stage where he can do whatever he wants and hear the cries of bravo oh great one! in the background. I suspect his fans prevented him from ever becoming a great filmmaker. Certainly there are flashes of talent in many of his early works, and CONTEMPT - the only one of his films where a producer reined him in - is a great picture. At this stage in his life he just comes off as bitter and weird. Better off skipping this set and watching one of the numerous truly fine movies that have the misfortune of being included in Jean-Luc Godard's pornographic Hitlerian navel-gazing extravaganza HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA.


s_a_n_d_w_i_c_h_e_s offered this insightful reflection on Vertigo:


This is the most boring film I have ever seen and you will think the same if you see it. This movie goes on forever and never stops ever until it ends. I wish this film had stayed away from me. It's all about an old guy in a car who is chasing a woman and that's it. There is more car driving in this film than in maybe a hundred other films all put together. He never even catches her! What a waste of time. I'm not allowed to tell you what happens later in the film but trust me you don't want to know. It's rubbish. The film looks so fake like a cartoon and it was about to make me laugh until I remembered how bored I was. I'd rather tidy my bedroom than see another minute of that old guy driving. I don't want to see this film or anything like it ever again.


Finally author keljor-1 from movieland in reflecting on Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar insightfully pointed out that:


Inanity, unforgivable cinematic stasis, and amateurish film-making and acting reach a turgid apotheosis In AU HASARD BALTHAZAR. Bresson knew nothing of pacing, or at least when to tell his editor "Enough with the lingering, already, on this take!", judging from this film and the equally leaden MOUCHETTE which I caught on a double-bill* Neither film elicited any significant emotional catharsis from this viewer except snorts of derision, moans of "Get on with it," and hosannas when the films had finally, mercifully ended. The ludicrousness comes to a head in BALTHAZAR when the boorish Gerard trashes the town bar-smashing mirrors, bottles, glasses, etc.—and not a single patron registers the chaos, but instead keep dancing. And then we see the barkeep sweeping up after him as Gerard and his pal step outside to ceaselessly tight more M-80s. This is but one example. What!?!?! Stop the nonsense! For all you lamebrain Bresson lovers out there—tant pis: I walked out of the equally dull DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, too, years ago. People, the French emperor has no clothes. For all our sakes stop praising Bresson's hopelessly dull, empty headed, overrated oeuvre and let it fade into cinematic history oblivion.


In his/her final critical blow about the jettisoning of Bresson from cinema, keljor-1 from movieland seemed to be dialectically challenging James Quandt's 1998 fear that the world was in fact in the process of throwing out precisely Bresson, this was what the world was getting rid of. These two poles (Quandt and keljor-1 from movieland) express rather succinctly the complications of the simultaneous presence of saturation and elitist populism. In some sense Quandt was wrong. Since the time of his writing the introduction for the Cinematheque Ontario's Bresson retrospective it is quite likely that more people have seen Bresson films than before. Once impossible films to track down for easy viewing, such as Quatre nuits d'un rêveur, are now circulated in various digital formats, easy to screen for students in film schools and easy to disseminate online.

One of the questions that this provokes is how can criticism maintain the pace of technology. In the litany of critical attempts to keep up with the object of critique positive or lukewarm elogies to the new mutations of objectless cinema, the critic is always behind. If the speed with which we felt the backwardness of Chris Marker's CDrom, or Lev Manovich's writing on virtual reality seemed ludicrous, the contemporary situation is itself already that much faster. If DVD technology may finally be acknowledged as a moribund support in favor of digital files or streaming media, then we are only going to take a bronze in the race to maintain contemporaneity (for isn't a divX file already a kind of digital antique? Isn't an .mp4 or .mkv preferable to an .avi container?) What kind of criticism can maintain such a pace? Even orality would appear sluggish against these mutations. It seems though that the comment, the online capsule review, can keep up with such movements, and this, most likely, because they are born of the same speed.

What then of Quandt's response today? We are in an age of seemingly indefinite reproduction, looking towards our students and trying to offer some semblance of an account: is easy access and the withering of rarity something to champion or lament? Of course for the popular elitist the prospects are thrilling; who hadn't searched for La Coupe à dix francs for decades only to be rewarded with a digital file that could be passed on and on to friends and anonymous fellow travelers? But the despair in the face of saturation, in the face of the 4chan film comment, in the face of elitist populism is still the dark underbelly of this contemporary environment, the textual correlative of the mind numbingly conclusive evidence of the visual.

 

 

Paul Douglas Grant