Critics are the vanguard of spectators, writes Adrian Martin in an exploration of the question Whose Cinema from the spectator’s perspective. They take the film and they make it, remake it – and make it known to others.
Many artists, in all media, say it, and some even mean it: once the work is finished, once it’s out in the world, it is no longer attached, proprietorially, to its creator. Its meanings, its uses, cannot be fixed or legislated or ranked in any hierarchy. David Bowie said that of his music, and Abbas Kiarostami says it of his films.
The two great, conflicting tendencies in cinema are control (mastery) and loss of control (randomness, chance, letting the cards fall where they may). Some filmmakers are too anxious about maintaining mastery; while some critics are not anxious enough about it – they can’t see things from the filmmaker’s side, only from a spectator’s position. But it is the spectator’s side that we will take here.
When in doubt, consult the Surrealists. Or rather, when in certainty, consult the Surrealists. Because film culture has for too long been too certain that films belong solely to their directors. Or even to a more collective, collaborative ‘author’. Both amount to the same thing.
In 1949, Jacques Brunius scoffed at the very notion. “It is precisely owing to its richness and versatility that the cinema makes it difficult for one man to keep entire control of the images, words and gestures. Often enough a film leaves the head of its creator and the hands of its colleagues like a ship after a storm, as best it may, loaded not only with what they meant to say, but also with other things that no one wished to imply. But how fascinating is the part played by chance in this clash of wills!”
In the 1950s and ‘60s, in his masterpiece Le surréalisme au cinéma, Ado Kyrou went further, much further, into the eye of this storm. “The artwork lives independently of the artist”, he declared, following Picasso’s assertion: “A painting lives only because of the person viewing it.” Filmmaking, indeed, is far less controllable than painting: “The slightest movement, the smallest tilt, an unpredictable burst of light are enough for an image to take on an unexpected or ridiculous meaning, in any case quite contrary to the original intention.” Ultimately, for Kyrou, any film was akin to a Surrealist exquisite corpse game involving “director, writer, producer, dialogue provider, sound technician, light, time, the camera, accidents of projection, actors, the producer, censorship, publicity, and even the public.”
Kyrou believed in the power of what Marcel Proust described and Walter Benjamin theorised: involuntary memory. Something happens in the present which brings back something from the past, but that past is only now understood in light of the present… He offered his own example: watching some banal, “absolutely ridiculous, completely insignificant” movie about “lost girls and nice boys in a café, with sentimental songs”, suddenly “a tram crossed the screen, and suddenly I was transported in time and space inside another tram, rather similar to the one on screen, in which I had lived certain moments whose meaning had escaped me until this very projection.” It was wild: “Things revealed themselves, people explained themselves, I grasped essential emotions – and the film continued rolling along for me alone, in an especially strange atmosphere. I saw an absolutely different film from everyone else in the theatre; I witnessed a film that, by chance, had been made for me and only me.”
Kyrou realised that, in order for such adventures to unfold, spectators needed to be encouraged, even trained to fantasise, dream, project before a film … techniques trained, preferably, in a School of Surrealism! (And certainly not according to the laws of Hollywood, or the capitalist marketplace.) And so, Surrealist or not, we need to attend to this culture of technical training – which is the place where the special sensibilities of spectators are today moulded, shaped and formed.
Watching Kent Jones’ documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut last year – a film that aims, consciously and explicitly, to put filmmakers in direct contact and dialogue with their peers and their idols, i.e., their equals, thus cutting out all ‘middle wo/men’ such as curators, programmers, historians, and the like – a certain refrain kept hitting my ear. It was “transference of guilt” as a plot and theme mechanism – doubtless a deeply Hitchcockian business. But Sir Alfred himself never expressed his interests in this precise way. Transference of guilt is an invention of critics! – notably of Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol in 1957, before they became filmmakers.
Critics, in this sense, are the vanguard of spectators. They take the film and they make it, remake it – and make it known to others. They create a culture in which receptive spectators are primed before viewing a movie – and are filled with a certain spirit and sensibility when they re-watch, program, write or teach about that movie themselves. Some of these spectators, naturally, will become filmmakers too. Last year in Rotterdam I saw a beautiful film about the Portuguese critic-programmer João Bénard da Costa: Manuel Mozos’ Others Will Love the Things I Loved. Is there any finer formula for the process of transmission – of sweet education – that cinephilia, at its best, promises? There is a superb webpage devoted to many different language translations of a single, short text on Johnny Guitar.
Luís Mendonça introduces it like this: “I will start by stating a disagreement of mine. Bénard da Costa says the movie was directed by Nicholas Ray, when he was 42. I disagree: even in the distant year of 1954, Johnny Guitar belonged to Bénard, when he was 19. For all those who witnessed, whether directly or indirectly, his love for each image, each setting, each corner, each line of dialogue, each look, each pistol, each explosion of colour and emotion, each chord of Johnny Guitar, there can be no doubt – even if we risk contradicting the father of our cinephilia – that Nicholas Ray directed the film but João Bénard da Costa directed it in our memory and in our hearts.”
Adrian Martin is a film critic and audiovisual essayist based in Vilassar de Mar (Spain), and co-editor of LOLA magazine.