On Film Criticism #3: Cinema, Interrupted

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The place of life in cinema and of cinema in life is a matter of “relating

This issue of Animus almost didn’t happen, due to “life” getting in the way — and as it turns out, how cinema can fit with or be excluded from other life matters is, perhaps not so incidentally, the very topic running through the essays this month. 

The pandemic of course brought home the fact that many consider the arts a mere bonus, to be enjoyed only when the lower levels of an archaic pyramid of needs are satisfied. The fire at the Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paulo last month, directly caused by the negligence of the government, was a tragic reminder of this mindset and of the material basis of cinema. But it was also a salient example of how treating cinema as something that is separate and detached from “real life” endangers it, and creates gaps in the history and overall project of cinema that it can then be too late to close again. 

In his essay, Daniel Bird paints a vivid picture of the way changing borders and nations play into the very shape of national cinemas from the former Soviet Union — their existence, definition, survival and perception. Looking at The Colour of Pomegranates in particular, he highlights the way even a film that is now considered cult and influential was, many times throughout its lifetime, at risk of disappearing whenever leaders and borders changed. This tumultuous story is one of relative success, however, when compared to the fate currently facing hundreds upon hundreds of films lying in neglected national film centres across the continent. 

Bird’s essay hints at a cinema culture that lives in stops and starts, where the abandoned ideas and propositions of filmmakers are later picked up again by younger generations only with great effort, once cinema is deemed valuable again, or simply not at all. But one does not need to live in Brazil or Armenia to witness firsthand the kind of attitude at the root of these disasters. 

Cinema everywhere is permeated by a general misunderstanding of how films “relate” to us. Even the most soul-crushing content is legitimised, in the eyes of some, by its biographical connection to its director, no matter how tenuous. Subjectivity is used as a shield against criticism — who are we, after all, to undermine and invalidate somebody’s experience? In my essay “Making a movie is life,” I look at the counterexample of director Jorge Thielen Armand, whose film La Fortaleza is about and stars his own father in a dramatised re-enactment of his own life — though you wouldn’t know that while watching the film. La Fortaleza is an example of a genuine, extreme way in which filmmakers may make cinema an integral part of their lives. But through the documentary El Father Plays Himself which reveals its making, Armand’s film also raises questions about the value in disclosing one’s personal connection with a film to the audience, and how that revelation can be a barrier to other cinematic possibilities. 

Kier-La Janisse’s documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, the subject of my essay “A man who would come here of his own free will” – The Pleasures of Talking Heads Documentaries,” likewise offers an escape from the simplistic conception of how films connect to their makers and viewers. In never manipulating her audience or asking them to do anything more than watch and listen, Janisse returns them to a deeper connection with both her film and the many that are discussed across her epic history of this most fascinating filmmaking “mode.” 

She presents a kind of engagement with cinema that centres films, not audiences, and therefore (somewhat counterintuitively) enriches the lives of anyone watching with incredibly fulfilling knowledge. More than that, her documentary re-awakens a hungry curiosity that may well have been dormant, in a global cultural landscape where film viewers are turned into needy customers to whom algorithms are careful to sell only “more of the same.” 

From the barren cinephilic landscapes of Melbourne, Australia, Digby Houghton reports on similar efforts in the world of publishing to encourage a more curious engagement with cinema — efforts which, both out of necessity and in line with the cinephile’s customary rejection of their national cinema, lie in part in a vision of global cinephilia. As so much commercial cinema insists on basic ideas about how art and cinema relate to us, there is hope to be found in the idea of the cinephile as someone fundamentally interested in the cinema of people with different backgrounds and different lives. 

Fittingly enough, this issue concludes with an essay from Matthew Eng about the pitfalls of using skin-deep markers as the basis of acceptance and relatability. In “Somewhere on the Outside,” he looks at the trope of the “tragic mulatta” in films including Devil in a Blue Dress, highlighting the way Hollywood cinema has shut out the experience of those whose identity does not fall along clearly delineated colour lines, and how Mariah Carey has sought to correct that through her art. 

The question of cinema’s status among other life matters boils down to the question of how we connect to art, what we get from it and what we give to it. It seems every attempt to answer that question too directly or too neatly only ends up impoverishing both ourselves and the art we make. But perhaps there lies the answer: to underestimate its power is to underestimate ourselves. 

Elena Lazic

Elena is the founder and editor of Animus.