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Oppositional Film Criticism: Social Realism and the Radical Critic of the
Postwar Era

- Introduction
o Re-phrasing Leblanc: [w]hat kind of cinema can, in the society where we
are writing and filming, best serve the interests of the Revolution? (Ellis)
o Film must be supplemented by the written word (see LeBlanc; Godard)
- What is oppositional film criticism?
o Criticism as a form of political intervention
o For oppositional critics film criticism is instrumental in constructing an
alternative politique to conventional practices of the cinema being
produced at a particular historical moment.
o What form does capitalist exploitation take in the cinema?
o The construction of (a political) art-world (Godard, France; Mekas, New-
York Avant-Garde) and the practices such a world would entail (or be
obligated to)
o Theorist vs. critic
- Social Realism (Ferguson)
o Criticism that speaks to the realities of everyday life, the workers
historical and material conditions
o The formalist argument that the most essential and authentic literary
works of the American transcendentalists were their journalsan
argument that has been made not only for Thoreau and Emerson, but
also for Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Charles King New combined
also has a social dimension. The deliberately unsystematic, irregular,
almost dilatory relation to calendrical time of the Concord cottage
industry of journal keeping has been understood as both a partial
rejection of American tempo and a partial rejection of American
mechanical and mercantile capitalism (Rosenwald 1985, 89 in James
1992: 162);
- Ideological Criticism: Analyzing Form
o The social and political component of aesthetics
o Vertovs commitment to film journaling
o Not reviewing in the conventional sense
o See Bordwell
o Providing new methodologies for interpretation
- Criticism as material praxis (Marxism)
o Criticism turns its back on social realism?
o If criticism was to speak to the realities of everyday life, the workers
historical and material conditions, it had to resist being couched in
theoretical jargon.
o To Leblanc, criticism that best serves the intentions of the revolution
analyzes the form capitalist exploitation takes in the cinema. For
Leblanc, this is a question bourgeois criticism leans over backwards to
ignore. For Leblanc, a criticism that analyzes the form of bourgeoisie
cinema addresses criticisms oppositional aims. That contextualizes its
industrial and historical properties as a form of material historicism.
Putting the question that way obliges one to recognize that a film is a
product of work. Criticism turned its back on social realism.
o But did this new form of oppositional criticism speak to the reality of
everyday life? A reader response suggests, no. The reader puts forward
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the following question to Cinethiques editorial staff (Leblancs emphasis):
Ask yourself whether a WORKING MAN or a PEASANT with a serious
interest in the cinema could understand everything you write (Cinthique
No 5., Sept.-Oct. 1969). In response, Leblanc proposes a new direction
for the agenda of Cinethique, proposing that the aim of the magazines
enterprise should be to combat the obscurantism and dogmatism rife in
contemporary cinema criticism, we have to nip a reputation for being
esoteric in the bud.
o Leblanc: one must recognize cinema is a product of WORK
- Criticism as social intervention: Mekas
o According to David James, along with his diary films, film criticism was
Mekass most visible intervention in cinema (1992: 152).
o Mekas recognizes that an art world of film, in addition to avenues of
production, distribution and exhibition, needs a critical discourse to
validated these works, to cultivate a more sophisticated audience, and to
provide methodologies of interpretation (Ruoff 1992: 307)
o Movie Journal was not reviewing in the conventional sense (which he
always bitterly disparaged) but a polemical and impassioned record of his
personal musings and activities around the independent cinema,
including accounts of his own filmmaking and promotional work for the
avant-garde (James 1992: 152)
o Mekass opening editorial in Film Culture would outline his personal
agenda for the avant-garde.
o Mekas in particular believed that, Like all art, cinema must strive
towards the development of a culture of its own that will heighten not only
the creative refinement of the artist but alsoand pre-eminentlythe
receptive faculty of the public (Mekas 1955: 1).
o He systematically criticized the resistance of the established newspaper
and magazine critics to avant-garde film, writing in the 9 December 1965
column: These smart and literary critics are ignorant of the fact that
cinema, during the last five years (and through a series of earlier avant-
gardes), has matured to the level of the other arts (Mekas 1972, 218).
- Film Criticism as Film Education
o Film criticism = the cultivation of an audience
o Undoubtedly, one of the most important factors contributing to this
change [in the growth of the American experimental film] is the increase
in film education
- Criticism as Ideological Intervention: Godard
o With the events of May 1968, and the general political climate at that time,
came decisive changes to the nature of oppositional criticism. As a result,
there was a movement from away from practical criticism toward a
science of criticism.









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The formalist argument that the most essential and authentic literary works of the
American transcendentalists were their journalsan argument that has been made not
only for Thoreau and Emerson, but also for Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Charles
King New combined also has a social dimension. The deliberately unsystematic,
irregular, almost dilatory relation to calendrical time of the Concord cottage industry of
journal keeping has been understood as both a partial rejection of American tempo and
a partial rejection of American mechanical and mercantile capitalism (Rosenwald 1985,
89 in James 1992: 162); In this respect and in the refusal of conventionally validated
literary genres, transcendentalist journal writing refused the prevailing mode of literary
production and consumption. Cutting across the distinction between private and public
discourses, the habit of sharing and circulating journals actually resisted the growing
commodification of writing, as well as implying amore general resistance to the
commodity-based social relations of bourgeois society at large. It sustained a semipublic
literary sphere, outside art and commerce alike, existing between the private realm of
the individual conscience and the public realm of commercially published books. The
sign of transcendentalisms utopian social project, the interdependence of the personal
the public in this literary sphere, was also the means of its implementation. The same
issues are at stake in Mekass work, modernized and translated from the journal and
literary sphere to diary film and cinema (James 1992: 162)
The desire behind film criticism is to express the life of the self as subject in response
to film; and extension (and reaction to/reflection of) the limits of cinema as an apparatus
of representation; how a spectator marks their presence in a world that demands their
absence (an act of authorship)
**Godard: Filming is also different from writing in the first persons singular, expect
insofar as one has recourse to spoken and written language. To posit the I of first-
person verbal narration other than through language, one is largely dependent on an
equation of the I first-person pronoun with the eyes, with visual perception (Turim
1992: 195)
Brakhage, perception, metaphors on vision; the immediacy of recording and seeing;
the collapse of the camera I and subject I: belies the gap between what the subject
sees and who the subject is, or even who the subject construes himself to be (Turim
1992: 195) [INTERPRETATION]; Brakhage knows he is using metaphors, but he also
sincerely believes in the equivalences they establish (Turim 1992: 195)
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The essay form notable for its tendanecy toward complicatin (digression, gragmentation,
repetition, and dispersion) rather than composition, has, in its four-hundred-year history,
continued to resist the efforts of literary taxonomists, confounding the laws of genre and
classification, challenging the very notion of text and of textual economy. In its
heterogeneity and inexhaustibility.the essayistic worlk bears with it a logic that denies
the verities of rhetorical composition oand of system, indeed of mastery itself (Renov
1992: 215)
The Barthes Effect: The essay as Reflective Text (Reda Bensmaia)
In my writing on the essayistic in film and video, I have chosen to resist the lure of
genre, preferring instead to consider the essayistic as modality of filmic inscription. The
invocation of mode rather than genre sidesteps the difficulties raised by the latters far
greater historical stake in taxonomic certainty, as well as the presumption of thematic
consistency attached to it. Conversely, the determining principle of resemblance for the
mode is a formal or functional one. As Jacques Derrida notes, quoting a distinction
framed by Gerard Genette: Genres are, properly speaking, literary/or
aesthetic/categories; modes are categories that pertain to linguistics or, more precisely,
to an anthropology of verbal expression (Derrida 1980, 210). IN the instance of the
essayistic for film and video, formal, functional, and ideological commonalties converge
as defining characteristics (Renov 1992: 21)
Knowledge produced through the essay is provisional rather than systematic;
self and object organize each other, but only in a temporary wayNothing can be
built on this configuration, no rules or methods deduced from it (Good 1988, 4); its
concern for the self and other; Descriptive and reflexive modalities are coupled; the
representation of the historical real is consciously filtered through the flux of subjectivity.
Neither the outward gaze nor the counter-reflex of self-interrogation alone can account
for the essay. Attention is drawn to the level of the signifier (let attention be paid not to
the matter, but to the shape I give it [Montaigne 1948, 296]); a self is produced through
a plurality of voices, mediated through writing, forever inscribed in the very tissue of the
text (Renov 1992: 216)
Epistemological uncertainty: This plurality of voices provides a clue to a
fundamental if implicit presumption of the essayistic mode, namely that of
indeterminacy. Neither locus of meaningneither subject nor historical object
anchors discourse so much as it problematizes or interrogates it (Renov 1992: 216)
Whats the difference between epistemological (the essay form) versus ontological
uncertainty (the cinematic text)? Can we define what we gain from the text of cinema
versus the knowledge we gain from criticism as two different types???)
Montaigne: On Repentance: The world is but a perennial movement. All things in it are
in constant motionI cannot keep my subject stillI do not portray being, I portray
passingIf my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make
decisions, but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial (Montaigne 1948)
Barthes, Montaignea refusal of being-as-essence; being as final determination
(Renov 1992: 217)
I am elsewhere than where I am when I write (Barthes 1977, 169)
**MONTAIGNES BOOK OF THE SELF THE ESSAY AS AUTOBIOGRAPHY**
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Aesthetic criticism (focus on form and truth/history/event); the essayistic tradition (resist
form; genre and focuses on the subjectactive, fragmentary, and self-absorbing)
Lukas: The essay, declared Luckas, is a judgment, but the essential, the value-
determining thing about it is not the verdictbut the process of judging (Lukas
1974, 18) (Renov 1992: 217)
In Reda Bensamias phrase, the essay is an open-ended, interminable writing
machine, for just as the real resists the strictures of representation (how to fram or
carve out a historical personage or event without the loss of authenticity), so too are the
fixity of the source and the subject of enunciation called into question. The interminablity
of the essay follows form the process-orientation of its ctivity, the mediation of the real
through a cascade of language, memory, and imagination
Oppositional Cinema/Oppositional Criticism
Diary film as oppositional cinema: The resistance to public consumption that keeps it
essentially within the community of friends who are represented in itacross both the
aestheticist avant-garde and the commercial industry, and counter to the different kinds
of reification they entailreflects the terms of Mekass engagement with the medium
itself; A desire to render the filmmakers life in the world and not in the studio
Documentary poetics; It is worth noting, for example, that the traditional documentary
approach to which Mekas unfavorable refers, discernible in the fervent recording of
expatriate activities in Losts early reels, is circumscribed and absorbed by the complex
weave of the films sound/image orchestration (Renov 1992: 221)
The reference to Grierson and Rotha in the interview quoted above is significant
inasmuch as they were the chief polemicists for a vision of documentary film as a tool for
propaganda and social education during the embattled decades of depression and war
(Renov 1992: 221)
The avant-gardes engagement with formal questions
Mekass attachment to social realism, to the Lithuanian exile community gave way to
broader as well as more personal concerns and the engagement with formal questions
The tendencies or aesthetic functions of the documentary film (in relationship to
Mekas) (Renov 221)
When I am filming, I am also reflecting (Mekas in Renov 1992: 234)
Alexandre Astrucs camera stylo; auteurism; and the essay film
Cavell on Writing
Writing as edifying as living (providing moral or intellectual instruction)???




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James Ageedocumentary filmmaker?
Brechtian line of thinking = cinema should be highly socially responsible
Jonas Mekass advocacy of a radical American cinema existing outside the methods
and concerns of commerce; Sarriss writing on the auteur theory and the unexpected
power of the American commercial cinema; Gunning: I have never been able to forget
that these nearly opposite forces were articulated in the same seminal journals, film
Culture and the Village Voice, and that Sarris and Mekas began their careers in criticism
closely intertwinedin fact, if not in theory. As a film historian I have learned to vale
the contingency of space and tem as much as intellectual differentiations
(Gunning 62)
For Mekas, criticism was a way of transforming independent cinema (part of a larger
projectthe Cinematheque; screenings; new distribution networks; Anthology Film
Archives)
On one side there is Hollywood; on the other side, are the experimental film-makers.
The middle, the largest area, the whole of human reality, sung by the poets and painted
on canvas from time immemorialas the source of all artis lying fallow (Jonas Mekas
in Experimental Film in American)
?? For while all notions of a utopian cinema must begin from the possibility of
production outside and against commodity relations, any real counter bourgeois
practice must oppose bourgeois societys most fundamental distinction, that
between industrial and amateur, between labor and the leisure that renews it. The
lifework of Jonas Mekas, who was displaced from rural Lithuania by World War II and
who since then has been an immigrant in New York, has proposed such a utopian
cinema. His negotiations with film were determined by several overlapping and mutually
inflecting schema: the way he lived modernisms master narrative, the history of the
displacement of the organic and rural by the industrial and the urban; his attempt to
salvage an identity from within the confrontation of United States and Soviet imperialism;
the continual passage back and forth in his work between writing and film, by which the
resources of one have regularly been drawn into the other; and his commitment to a truly
populist cinema (James 1992: 146)
Capitalist cinema as structurally incapable of responding to the realities of American life
that a generation of cinephiles would be obliged to reinvent the medium in a way that
had not previously been imagined; There is not other way to break the frozen cinematic
conventions than through a complete derangement of the official cinematic senses
(Mekas Village Voice February 1959); These cineastes, self-styled The Group,
issues a First Statement (Film Culture 22-23 [1961]), which asserted that the
official cinema all over the world is running out of breath. It is morally corrupt,
aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring. Even seemingly
worthwhile films, those that lay claim to high moral and aesthetic standards and have
been accepted as such by critics and the public alike, reveal the decay of the Product
Film; a cinema as personal expression; new forms of distribution and financing (The
Film-Makers Cooperative (1962)
--CRITICISM AS PRAXIS--
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Both critics saw criticism as a type of praxis, as a way to insight revolutionary
change in the cinema. These critics envisioned for film the aesthetic, social, or cognitive
functions claimed for painting or poetry. Both led lives that were consumed by all
branches of the cinema (screenwriting, screenings, etc.); both filmmakers and
cineastes; Mekass ongoing journalistic enterprises
(The critic as artists): Both began as critics, and then became artists; By the early
60s, Mekas attitudes were also informed by his own experience in production;
documentary films on the immigration of Lithuanian communities; first sent scripts with
his brother to Hollywood; Guns of the Trees (1960); For so long the servant of other
filmmakers and other cinemas, he appeared to set the pattern for such disregard, and it
has never been easy to hold his films in common focus with his other activities (James)
Postwar New York and the organization of the film community; criticism and praxis
extends to the formation of a community; an initiative that began with Maya Deren;
an extensive artist support system; the cinematheque

Criticism as cultural revolt against the conventional, dead, official cinema (Mekas); the
presence of Marxist materialism or ideological criticism in such discussions must be
acknowledged. Left wing aesthetics

**On one hand we talk about our involvement in society, revolution, etc., we march and
we protest and we go to Washington D.C., on the other hand we have this fantastic,
miracle too which we could use to criticize, to record, to celebrate, or reveal society
around us, to expose it to ourselves and others; instead we prefer to play abstract
artists. I think its pretentious (Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal, Village Voice, 20 May
1971, 72)

In 1959 Mekas wrote a long report to Europe on the sate of new filmmaking in the
United States for Sight and Sound, with much attention devoted to recent documentary
and socialy orientated films

Mekas as a displaced European heavily involved nthe American film-making scene
(Pruitt 1992: 57)

Criticism as a process, a dialogue

There was an atmosphere that was common to both things [The American Cinema and
the rise of New American Cinema]the underground aspect, the covert aspect , the
revolutionary aspect. In the one case you have people who are genuinely underground.
Very many of them subversive ideas of one type or another, either political, or social, or
sexual, or behavioral, or formal, or artistic, ideas. Then there was the second
underground thing. It was the perception that a great man ythings that were considered
disreputable, grubby, cheap, vulgar ,were really muc more interesting than that. And that
there was something underneath al of this. The process of getting underneath is
basically an intellectual process. Its a high-art process. Its not fandom, its not just
undisciplined enthusiasm. Its ovetruning something. And I think my generaltion, the
jpeople with whom I identify critically, people at Cahiers, people at Movie, were in their
different ways overthrowing a very pious, proper socially conscious, socially responsible-
--but really socially sonseratvie-establshiment, mostly a critical establishment. Its like
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when rock music came in, people said, Well, whats new aobut that? Well, whats new
about it is that it just completely overturned everything else. It ended jpop music in the
way it had been; it desetroyed it. The nourvelle vague did a lot of damage, the Cahiers
peole did a lot of damage, I did a lot of damage. You cant make an omelette withoutld
breakig a lot of eggs, and a lot of eggs were broken, a lot of eggs that didnt desrve to
be broken, not that completely. Now I feel I want to return to film hstiory everhting that
we dislodgedSo I think there is a relationship. And the fact that these two things
happen to coexist, which at first seemed so strange, is not so strang; they were both
revolutions of sorts. They had different goals, different objectives, but they had basically
the same impetus: to change something, alter something, shake things up (Sarris in
interview with Gunning 1992: 74)


Canonization, Criticism and the Art Film: Mekas saw the need for apermanent home
where classic works of film could be shown on a regular basis. Jerome Hill, P. Adams
Sitney, Peter Kubelka, Stan Brakhage, and Mekas himself drew up plans for such a
museum , to be called Anthology Film Archives. A selection committee made up of
James Broughton, Ken Kelman, Peter Kubelka, Jonas Mekas, and P. Adams Sitney
were to establish The Essential Cinema, a permanent collection of the monuments of
cinematic art. Unlike Mekass previous screenings, the Anthology was from the
beginning critical and discriminatory (James 12); showcasing film as an art (Mekas); a
commitment to canonization (see James 12-14)

The purpose of David E. James anthology is to survey and lay claim to the impact
Mekas has had and continues to have on the history of (artisan) filmmaking in New
York.

The journalism of Mekas youth in Lithuania and DP camps

Mekas and the advancement of the AG; Mekas notorious attack The Experimental
Film in American; Mekas himself later termed tis a Saint Augustine-before-the
conversion piece, and the religious metaphor is entirely appropriate, for within a few
years he was the fiercest advocate of what he had come to see as a new and distinctly
American film culture, and an entirely new sense of its political significance (James
1992: 8)

All Mekass early film projects were undertaken with a view to reforming the
mass-market, studio-produced film. Not only was a mass audience essential to his
political objects of enlisting film in the fight against war, but industrial production was
intrinsic to any cinema of which he could conceive. Consequently, his ideal through the
late fifties was reformed industrial cinema modeled on a proto-auteurist reading of
prewar European film and the postwar European art film. The turning point in his life in
cinema---and it is a crisis enacted in all different field of cinema in which he was
involvedwas his realization that he Americanization of these traditions faced
distinctively American differences in the production systems and the relation of those
production systems to American life; capitalist cinema was so structurally incapable of
responding to the realities of American life that a generation of cinephiles would be
obliged to reinvent the medium in a way that had not previously been imagined. As the
possibility and indeed the progress of these transformations became clear to him, Mekas
abandoned the idea of reforming commercial practice, and instead espoused the radical
decentralization of production, the reclamation of the apparatus by previously
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dispossessed social groups, and a whole register of formal vocabularies that facilitated
unprecedented expressive functions. These new independent cinemas sould take their
terms of reference form the metaphor of poetry, the exemplary and summary form of
disafflilated cultural practice (James 1992: 8)

--FILM CULTURE--

The establishment of Film Culture (Americas Independent Motion Picture Magazine)
in 1955; editorial board: Mekas, his brother George Fenin, Louis Brigante, and Edouard
de Laurot; In his first editorial Mekas proclaimed the need for a searching revaluation of
the aesthetic standards obtaining both among film-makers and audiences and for a
thorough revision of the prevalent attitude to the function of cinema that function, he
asserted, was neither entertainment nor the production of commodities, both of which
had combined to blunt public recognition of the full significance of filmic art. (James
1992:7); magazine as oriented toward Europe; from the beginning Film Culture gave
sympathetic critical attention to American film, and eventually seminal work on
Hollywood appeared there most notably Andrew Sarriss notes on the Auteur Theory in
1962 and The American Cinema (appearing n 1963 in nos. 27 and 28 respectively)
(James 1992: 7); Film Culture as the voice of the avant-garde (James) in the 1960s; In
1955, Mekas and his associates founded Film Culture magazine, a review that contained
substantial studies of past cinematic achievements, but whose main thrust was to
support worthy contemporary filmmaking, to help found a New American Cinema in
which the filmmakers would control their own work, free from the Hollywood industry
(Pruitt 1992: 52); looked to Europe for inspiration; Gunning: what was the particular
aesthetic attitude that Sarris was told the magazine was to have (64); Sarris: that we
were serious; But there wasnt much serioes consideration fo film, pretentious or
otherwise, at that time. I mean there were good people scattered around. But there was
no institutional focus for it. And thats what Jonas represented. A lot of the people he
represented were people from the New York community (Sarris 1992: 64); Jonas
was not articulating a magazine aesthetic. From the beginning he was articulating a film
aesthetic (Sarris); Sarris: We had complete freedom; we could write anything we
wanted; * There really was very little linking the different segments at the magazine.
There were political people, the antiquarian people, the experimental people, there was
the gay subculture, much less political than it is now

Film Culture as an institution of alternative cinema

Sixties culture and the collapse of work and life (the collapse of the aesthetic autonomy
of abstract expressionism)

In very interested in the muddle youre describing, how much the various element
which were in Film Culture were not necessarily meant to cohere in any sense But there
is another common denominator that always struck me, even though I know the
differences outweighed the common, shared elements. In the early sixties, when you
began writing The American Cinema, to praise directors like Sam Fuller or Edgar g.
Ulmer was a kind of provocation, event though Im not saying that was your purpose.
And thats something that was shared in a much more polemical and intentional
way by the evolving New American Cinema: a sense of underground movies as
provocation. Im curious whether you see that as another kind of accidental overlapping
or whether that was some shared area, or where you draw the boundaries? (Gunning
interviewing Sarris 1992: 74)
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Early issues of Film Culture and Mekass first films testify to a different cinematic
allegiance than the vocation annonanced during Mekass later years as a film critic for
the Village Voice

No one in early Film Culture took one pure aesthetic stance (Pruitt 52)


Mekass column for the Village Voice (1960s-1970s); the twenty or so years of
Meakss regular public writing; a brief-stint with the Soho Weekly News








--CRITIC AS ARTIST--

Mekass humanism; Jerry Tallmer had written a column some mothns before I came on
telling how a lot of people that they were disgusted with Jonasthat he wasnt a real
reviewrin, he was so personal, you know the usual (Sarris); The whole think with
Jonas was that he wasnt a critical journalist. He was an evangelist. There is something
in Jonas that is consistent, this marvelous consistency, the personality, the life, the
career. And I think that Jonass great virture, or great achievement, is in demonstrating
through himself that anything is possible. Jonas goes out and does things that no one
had any reason to believe can exist. There is no demonstrabale need for them. Btu he
says, We have to do this, and something happens. Im the antithtsis of that (Sarris
1992: 69) There wasnt enough rigor in his aestheticbut there never is in anybodys
(70); Jonas has never questioned any aspect of my aesthetic. Jonas operates by the
individual, by the human being, not by what the human being professes (we are all
doing something) (Sarris 1992: 71);

And I think one of the things to say about Jonas in this context is that he wasnt
overthrowing anything. He was less that kind. But I think some other people took up the
cudgels. I was polemical. Im much more of a dialectician than Jomans. I think everthing
that goes up, something else has to come down, thats natural. I have a very political
instinct, much more so in a way than Jonas does. Jonas is a religious figure. Im more
political. I think thats the difference (Sarris on Jonas 1992: 75)

Its always struck me (Mekas, in fact, kind of refers to it once in a column in the sixties
when hes jabbing you a little bit) thats there a rough similarity between the principles of
the auteur theory as you particularly outline them, the idea of the personal filmmaker,
and the ideals of Jonass New American cinema---and also an obvious contrast
(Gunning interviewing Sarris 1992: 71)

Id say that the big cleavage between us is that Jonas puts a higher value on
expression than on communication. I put a very high value on communication. I think
you have to reach someone, that there has to ben an audience there. My rejection of
most of the film avant-garde has to do with a fundamental rejection of the idea that
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movie have the same options that the fine artspainting and sculpturedo. They dont.
Painting and sculpture essentially are spatial and non-temporal. Temporal forms
music, drama, narrative, fiction, literature, cinemathese are time things. And to take
time form people, you have to enrich them. You cant just repulse them. Now this is a
very complicated argument. And the argument has taken different shapes, different
forms, over the years (Sarris 1992: 71)

** [SARRIS ON NARRATIVE + FORM] Later the argument was refined. From de Laurot
you went to the new theoreticians, the people concerned with film structure, like P.
Adams Sitney. I had many arguments with Jonas about that. In the sense that theres a
fallacy involved. The whole implication of the Bazinian thing is that cinema renews
itself over time. It doesnt need formal renewal. Its self-renewing, because life
changes, time changes. People talk about new forms, but its new forms of relation to the
content, the visual world which constantly changes, its evanescent, its impermanent, its
vanishing. I thought that the American avant-garde became frozen in the sense of the
purely visual. I think its future would have been much more interesting if it had
concentrated on the documentary aspect, finding new forms for documentary. I dont thin
it ever could ceompete with narrativeThe avant-garde has to understand that there
were new mythologies created in narrative cinema

I think that pretentious gloss Jonas put on the wholse tnertprise at Film Culture ina
strange way legitimized my writing in a way that a less pretentious format wouldnt have.
Because there was so much pretentious writing, forentsic writing, so much bullshit:
academic and revolutionary, avant-garde crap, that all these poisonous academic people
were expose to the writing of mind whoe wouldnt have been otherwise. And that was
the big think, that Pauline really won in terms of the mainstream. Her argument was
embraced by so many people, she became so famous, so popular and everthing . It was
something that everybody sensed: Youre taking the fun out of the movies. Youre
taking them too seriously. I mean w like them, but we dont want to think aobu them
(Sarris in Gunning interview 1992: 78-79)

I wasnt typically New York. I was sort of reacting against it. And I got a lot of mileage at
the Voice by puncturing humanistic critics, humanistic platitutdes. People were
outragedBut I didnt set out to be provactative. Its just that I am genuinely centrist,
genuinely provical, sentimental, romantic. Im nto abrasive; I dont want to blow everthing
up. I just want to get into all these nice places (Sarris to Gunning 1992: 80)




--FILM DIARIES--

The film diary as praxis
Womens diary literature and autobiography, recently unearths and reevaluated as
literature, finds an uncanny likeness in Jonas Mekass collected film diariesThe rise of
the American avant-garde diary film coincided with this reevaluation, and it is possible to
place the discoveries of one next to the achievement of the other to some avail (Keller
1992: 83); Dairies are a retrospective compilation of accumulated footage, linked by
commentary, narration, or intertitle

12
**But that the modern diary is not inevitably so solipsistic is proven by the womens
diary writing in the seventies, where introspection and self-awareness were
understood as individual participation in a collective historical recovery. The
politics of the diary were consequently heavily invested by women, eventually to the
point where its open-ended, nonhierarchical, impermanent form could be proposed
as intrinsically feminist, defense against its completed, teleological ordered,
permanent and hence masculinist sibling, the autobiography proper (James 1992:
150)

The diary film was a means of mobilizing a subjectivity, otherwise stranded between the
impersonal rationality of structural film, on the one hand, and on the other, the
preoccupation of the field of subjectivity by people of color, women, and gays (James
1992: 151)

** Since leaving Lithuania he had kept a written journal; much of his poetry is in a
diaristic, documentary mode; and he had already appropriated the genre as a metaphor
for what was for many years his most visible intervention in cinema, the weekly Village
Voice column movie Journalwhich had been proceeded for a short time in 1955 by
his film Diary in the Intro Bulletin. Move Journal was not reviewing in the
conventional sense (which he always bitterly disparaged) but a polemical and
impassioned record of his personal musings and activities around the
independent cinema, including accounts of his own filmmaking and promotional
work for the avant-garde. For almost twenty years (1958-1976), the movie journal
about film and the one in film were pursued side by side, and if the values expressed in
the former are more completely manifest in the latter than in any other films, the
discoveries he made in his own filming informed the criteria expressed in the writing
[Footnote: Mekas has claimed that his written and his film diaries are almost identical;
I only changed my tools (MacDonald 1984) (James 1992: 152)

While specific sub- or parageneric groupings allow for taxonomy and genealogy, each
persons diary is virtually sui generis; we will agree that a diary is what a person
writes when he says, I am writing my diary (Fothergill 1974, 3). Writing my diary is,
however, more specific as a mode of literary production, implying---though not
requiring--single authorship; serial, spontaneous composition of some regularity; an
identity, not only of author, narrator and protagonist, but also of reader, that at least
makes possible a privileged veridicality in the relationship between text and history; and
at least an initial existence outside the commodity relations of most other forms of
writing. The respective material properties of writing and film differently inflect the scene
and possibilities of composition in the two mediums, allowing the film diary new
functions, a different relation to time, and different relation to subjectivity (James
1992: 152-153) [Film criticisms specific function, its different relation to time, and to
subjectivity]

For the written diary, events and their recording are typically separate, but in film they
coincide; In the traditional diary, (t)he only present it can record is that of the omment of
composition and reflexive commentary on writingImage and audio recording, by
contrast, only capture evetns as they happen




13






Mekas maintained that there were certain film he did not cover, not because he did not
like them, but because others like Sarris gave them suffiecent attention


(T)he complex, ambivalent nature of [Mekass] critical stance and the continuity
between his criticism and his filmmaking endeavors (Pruitt 53)

According to Pruitt, realism was leading criterion for the criticism of Mekas in the
late 1950s and early 1960s; Move away from Realism: Film Cultures first lead article
Towards a Theory of Dynamic Realism (Edouard de Laurot); His guiding assumption
was that dynamic realism was not a mere slave to actuality, but rather actively
engaged social causes (Pruitt 1992: 52); The operative word in virtually all Mekass
editorials and critical surveys of the late fifties is that slippery one: realism; to a certain
extent recapitulated the point of view of Bazin; his linking of Rosselini, Renoir,
Hitchcock, and Hawks into one grand tradition from which he watned new filmmakers to
take their cues; Mekas 1950s criticism was a critical appraisal of realism; As Pruitt
points out, Mekass critical appraisal of American experimental film did not begina later
in his critical career; Pruitt charts the story of Mekass conversion in order to reveal
the complex, ambivalent nature of his critical stance and the continuity between his
criticism and his filmmaking endeavors (Pruitt 52); his essay as a Saint-Augustine-
before-the-conversion piece; his loyalty to the realist tradition would filter though in his
column for the village voice, says Pruitt; Mekas would come to be almost entirely
identified with the avant-garde (Pruitt 60); Film Culture would transition from being a
magazine to being more print-oriented
















Left wing aesthetics; How did theoretical background of a Marxist quality matter or
even enter into such discussions? (Buhle 272); Marxism as giving us insight into the
complexity of social relations; Marx and Engels guidelines for aesthetic
considerations; Communist efforts to judge artists of any kind along political lines;
14
Practical criticism; praxis, as tending toward revolutionary change
Politics is a practice which transforms its raw material (given social relations) into a
given product (new social relations) by the systematic use of the given means of
production (the class struggle). In the case of a Marxist party, this practice is based on a
theory: it is not the spontaneous but organized on the basis of the scientific theory of
historical materialism (Althusser from On Dialectical Materialism in Fargier 1977: 26)

The cinemas role in class struggle
Criticism as an action of the proletariat on the political scene (but also an action of the
bourgeoisie---see Barthes)

What is left-wing or oppositional criticism? Does it depend on the specificity of the film
being analyzed? (A reading of a left-wing film; a radical reading of a commercial film,
and so on)
Criticism as product and work It is in the interests of the bourgeoisie to conceal
the work involved in producing anything, including cinematic products; they like to keep
the origin of surplus value a secret. The situation with the cinema is just the same as any
other product: the bourgeoisie attempt to cover the races of exploitation of labour by
positing an abstract equality between consumers (exploited and exploiters) in consuming
the product, and between different members of the audience (exploiters and exploited) in
the consuming the work of art (Leblanc 1977: 16-17)
Is there a way to find common ground with working class and its allies: the intellectuals
Leftist humanists, social realism
The radical praxis-oriented position of the post-1968 critics
The alternative reading
The oppositional film critic; what is practical criticism? OR criticism in practice

The working critics: the serious film magazine versus journalistic practices
Otis Ferguson?
Said's definition incorporates the activist, praxis-oriented stance of post-1968 critics
with the self-reflexivity of more contemporary schools: Were I to use one word
consistently along with criticism (not as a modification but as an emphatic) it would be
oppositional. If criticism is reducible neither to a doctrine nor to a political position on a
particular question, and if it is to be in the world and self-aware simultaneously, then its
identity is its difference from other cultural activities and from systems of thought or of
method. In its suspicion of totalizing concepts, in its discontent with reified objects, in its
impatience with guilds, special interests, imperialized freedoms, and orthodox habits of
mind, criticism is most itself and, if the paradox can be tolerated, most unlike itself at the
moment it starts turning into organized dogma. "Ironic is not a bad word to use along
with "oppositional." Edward W. Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic'

15
The late 1960s early 1970s as a serious time for film criticism; a time of serious
political and aesthetic debate concerning film culture; a revolution in thinking about
film criticism as practice: The question of cinematic culture was being reevaluated
(Ellis) This included the attempt within the British Film Institute Education Department
(of which the Society of Education in Film and Television was then an autonomous part)
to launch a serious debate about film culture. This led to a direct confrontation with
the BFI Governors, who saw the departments role as one of the servicing the existing
needs of teachers rather than trying to develop film theory as the basis for furthering film
education (Ellis); (to see more on this see Screen vol. 12 no 3)

All of this was a result of a number of events taking place during this time:
1. The influence of Structural-Semiotics on British intellectual thinking (Barthes
S/Z, Levi-Strauss, Althusser--For Marx and Reading Capital); a rethinking of
Marxist ideology; Wollens Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (a rethinking of
auteurism in light of structuralist and semiological theories of the production of
meaning); This project was also occuring in France at the same time
2. Movie (championed auteur theory) ceased production; Cinema and
Afterimage were introduced
3. A critique of established critical approaches was taking place (criticism,
contenents analysis) and concepts (realism, auteurism) [Realism as the
dominant aesthetic practice of the bourgeois cinema]
4. The nature or specificity of cinema was also under evaluation (technological
determinations)
5. The development of a theory and articulation of cinema/ideology/politics
6. A reexamination of 1920s Russian cinema as example of revolutionary cinema
7. An examination of cinematic practices (France, Britain, American)---
canonization

One may well ask whether oppositional criticism is at all possible in a society that
generally ignores intellectual impulses from its academic institutions, that appears to
have an endless tolerance for cultural critique and a predilection for government by
consensus. How then can a critical practice be "something more than liking or disliking
some intellectual orthodoxy now holding sway over a department of literature"?5 Ideally,
it should project a consciousness of the issues that currently divide the human race and
threaten its survival; that is, criticism that claims to be anti-establishment cannot afford to
ignore the sociopolitical foundations of the arms race, racial injustice, poverty, or the
destruction of the environment. It should demonstrate that discourse based on the
vocabulary of "timeless values" is in fact provincial rather than universal and-intentionally
or not-ultimately imperialistic.5' The foundation of such a methodology cannot be simply
political opinion but sound historical analysis, which can indeed be effective against
entrenched misinformation and biasMoreover, we should continue to study how our
discipline has reacted and continues to react to social and political change. Such an
analysis would, under the best of circumstances, bring us face to face with ourselves-for
to be true to its premises, oppositional criticism ought to be more than an intellectual
pursuit; it should determine one's stance toward professionalism. The most compelling
definition of it that I have heard consists of two words spoken by Hortense Spillers at a
Society for Critical Exchange panel at Indiana University in 1983. In response to the
somewhat embarrassed question of what sort of oppositional stance against the
academic establishment a white, male, tenured professor,I nfected with privilege, might
adopt, she said: "Marginalize yourself!" What this signifies in a particular context is a
matter of individual interpretationand a lesson from the Nazi period-individual
16
responsibility (Schmidt 1987: 304-305)

Oppositional Criticism as a term coined by Edward Said? (The World, the Text, and
the Critic)

What is? Left-ist, anti-fascist criticism?


Criticism's oppositional ' can stance' can make the film take on a different meaning and
function


Question: Was criticism being screened during the red scare in order to affirm national
policy and ideology?


Criticism as a form of dissent (hold or express opinions that are at variance with those
previously, commonly, or officially expressed )


The act of oppositional reading allowed for a certain 'freedom' of 'thought beyond state
control'

'Politicizing a literary text'

Subtext of the films as political, in need of exegesis---when was it done? (ideological
criticism???)

The journalistic traditions recourse to a sort of 'humanistic idealism' as a way of skirting
claims of its political intentions; "pure" "non-ideological research"

"Scholars could thereby justify their continuing productivity by claiming to occupy an
ideology-free, morally neutral position, which allowed them to uphold the values of the
"other German' by shielding the unspoiled, eternal German Geist of the classics from
Hilter's Staat" (Schmidt 295)

'The threat or retribution for outspokenness'

'The impact of McCarthyism on academic life' (or criticism)

The role of Brecht in all of this, and his affinity with communism?

Ask yourself whether a WORKING MAN or a PEASANT with a serious interest in the
cinema could understand everything you write (extract from a readers letter). As it is the
aim of our enterprise [Cinthique No 5, Sept-Oct 1969] to combat the obscurantism
and dogmatism rife in contemporary cinema criticism, we have to nip a reputation for
being esoteric in the bud. It is easy to see where the accusation that we are writing for
an elite comes from: our critics have refused to confront the question inherent in the
readers letter: what kind of cinema [or criticism, for that matter] can, in the society
where we are writing and filming, best serve the interests of the Revolution, and, in the
first instance, those of the working class? And inherent in this question is another (which
17
bourgeois criticism leans over backwards to ignore): what form does capitalist
exploitation take in the cinema? (Leblanc 1977: 12) [trans.]; Putting the question that
way obliges one to recognize that a film is a product of work; This perception is met with
resistance: In the first place people say, a film isnt a product; it is the creation of an
author who expresses his world-view in a work of art. (a quasi-mystical (IDEALIST)
relationship between, author film and spectator (Auteur Criticism); aesthetics are
linked to talent or genius; Like any other cultural product, film is a driven by profit-
seeking motives (this cannot be forgotten); the auteur is a part of this; Leblanc reminds
us, that even in social realist cinema, which might seem revolutionary to tackle a
subject at all, using the same form used to express the dissent view is just the same as
the bourgeois cinema used to present its own view: the same linear presentation of plot,
the same dramaturgy; the same use of actors; the same realism; film itself is a
consumer product; film is illusory; realism in cinema does not come easily into
existence and that existence cannot be realized (by exhibition on the screen) except
under certain conditions. If we define these conditions we shall discover what the
bourgeoisie does not allow in the cinema, and then we have a blueprint for a
revolutionary cinema, for once we know what we are not allowed to do, we can start
doing it. (Leblanc 1977: 14); And yet the bourgeois method of filming looks so innocent
and natural. All you need to produce an impression of reality is allow the camera to
follow the ideological bias built into its mechanism. But this very impression of reality
enables the audience (and of course the creators of the film before them) to project
their fantasies and desires (sexual, emotional, political, metaphysical, etc.) into the realm
of imagination (15); revolutionary cinema (and revolutionary criticism) breaks down this
idealist cinema; this naturally determined cinema is ideologically biased; a
revolutionary cinema is no longer about content (showing what has never been
shown)---it must consider form---this is thus what radical criticism must consider as
well; Narrative; illusion: the true interest of the bourgeoisie is that he cinema should
make up for what people do not have in life. The pseudo-satisfaction they find there may
be sexual, political, emotional or metaphysical, there is something for all the different
kids of alienation engendered by capitalism (15); what are the formal procedures that
encourage this natural aesthetic? (depth of focus, says Leblanc, for one); there is no
division between realism and the expressionistic in terms of aesthetic categorization
they of the same vein (third dimension); cinma direct is not revolutionary, says
Leblanc, as The very dimensions of the traditional screen are designed to fit the
audiences field of vision, so that they cannot perceive the work that has gone into
framing the picture, and have the impression that the world is appearing before their
eyes in its natural statecinema direct augments the impression of reality (15-16);
cinma direct reinforces the cinemas constitutional idealism. It brings up to date the
metaphysical lucubrations of the Andre Bazin school. (The critical edifice of Cahiers du
Cinema still rests on his shoulders): the idea that the cinema is a means of discovering
the truth about man, of revealing the secrets of his being and the world. It brings back
the theology of the third dimension (Leblanc 1977: 16); There needs to be a new critical
understanding of idealist films; a transcendental reality: By effacing all trace of the
work tha tproudced the images and sounds of a film, its makers are able to reproduce a
reality extrinsic to (transcending) those images and sounds.
REVOLUTIONARY CINEMA: These films do not offer the audience any pseudo-
satisfactions; instead they take the entirely new step of inviting them to stand on the
same footing as the makers of the film and take a conscious part in the work that
produced (and through them, continues to produce) the images and sounds. In these
films, images and sounds at last no longer deny the process by which they came to be
18
imprinted on the film stock. The work embodied in the film becomes scientific in the
measure to e which it puts on the view the ideologies struggling to penetrate the signs
(bodies, faces) and abstract them from the economy of the film. This break is
materialism. ON of its effects is to permit anew critical understanding of idealist films (Le
Blanc 1977: 16)
In capitalist society, a film is first and foremost a commodity (either popular
normal cinema-chains, or selectart houses), a commodity manufactured in a form and
according to an ideology dictated by the ruling class. When the ruling class attempts to
sell such a product to the people they exploit, the latter can and ought to refuse to buy it.
The first step is understanding how the bourgeoisie abstracts the film/commodity from its
conditions of production: they promote it as entertainment (low-brow films) or culture
(high-brow films). Their purpose in making a film, they would like us to believe, is not to
realize profits (by the exploitation of technicians) form a capital investment, and later re-
invest part of them in more films; its humanitarian: making people laugh, thrilling them,
promoting culture, etc. (Leblanc 1977: 17)
Our work takes the form of a magazine. We should now examine its conditions of
production; (see page 19-20 for elaboration); The text of the magazine often needs to
be supplemented by the spoken word---explained. Direct contact with the interested
public at the place where a film is shown (in film clubs, outside cinemas, demonstrations
of other kinds) is irreplaceable. That is why we sell in the street: we reach the readers in
person (Leblanc 1977: 20); The people we want to reach should be able to see the
films which we think effect the break and contain the potential for bringing about a total
reassessment of the cinema. They are not distributed by the traditional commercial
circuits. We distribute them, and will do so everywhere we can; a revolutionary
magazine; We can see the limitations of these films, and consequently want to make
more. How we manage to finance them, the films themselves will reveal, among other
facets about their existence. We are trying, and will keep on trying, to get the money
from the inside the system by exploiting its contradictions






BIBLIOGRAPHY:

1. SCREEN READER 1 (1977): CINEMA/IDEOLOGY/POLITICS. ED. J. ELLIS
Collection of texts from Screen vol. 12-13 (1971-1972); a decisive point in the history of
the journal; a changing of the guard (inaugurated under the editorship of Sam Rohdie);
Before the Spring of 1971, Screens approach to the problems of screen education had
been pragmatic, undertaking the practical criticism of films and of British cinema (Ellis);
A rejection of practical criticism for the development and criticism of theoretical
ideas; Screens new aim was to establish a theoretical foundation for the
development of film study (Rohdie in Ellis); a science of criticism was developed;

2. WHAT IS OPPOSITIONAL CRITICISM? (1987) H. SCHMIDT: need to do a footnote
referencing inspiration

19
3. Edward Said: The World, the Text, and the Critic

Is Red Letters a journal?????

4. Leblanc Direction [Cinthique No 5, Sept-Oct 1969] in SCREEN READER