On Film Criticism #6: Best Wishes

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A still from To The Moon (2021)

I may be writing this essay at the tail end of 2021, but it already feels wrong to voluntarily think back on the year that has just passed. As Michael Sicinski puts it in his essay for Mubi Notebook, there do not seem to be any lessons to take from this year, and the troubles that characterised it won’t end with the artificial bookend of the new year. But while it may sometimes feel like we only trudged along the best we could, simply trying to survive from one day to the next, the fact that we did make it suggests that although it may not feel like it, we did in fact make decisions. Like Alice on her way to happiness in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which Claire Davidson unpacks beautifully in her essay, we chose some things and discarded others in order to find our way through the mess. The new year is the perfect opportunity to set those decisions in stone, or at least to make a proper record of them and clarify what from 2021 is worth keeping, and what isn’t.

One of the recurring topics in film discussion this year was the idea that films must be not just moral objects, but moral objects “for dummies” that unambiguously state at all times what is good and what is bad, leaving the viewer in no doubt. This panic seems to be born out of an anxious need to work out for certain the value of a film as though it were a totally objective quality, by measuring it against agreed-upon moral norms. It is just another development in the commodification of cinema, as already encouraged by unqualified discussions around box office performance, Rotten Tomatoes scores, but also about a film’s tear-making potential, whether it makes one feel “seen,” etc. Anyone with half a brain should by now be bored to tears by this “discourse;” in any case I am, and I have no interest in adding to the content mill on that subject — whether it is about age gaps, what films Barack Obama puts on his end-of-year list, or the value of bad films about that little known disaster in the making called climate change. 

This past year however did provide some hope for a more open cinephilia, with the renewed popularity of Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981) notably in New York City, but also with a 4K blu-ray release in France in late 2020. Daniel Bird returns to the magazine with another characteristically detailed and entertaining essay on the film’s rocky road to recognition and its peculiar place in the ‘canon.’ 

Possession is indeed a prime example of what cinema can do, and which has almost nothing to do with ourselves as social individuals, each with our own set of characteristics and backstory. In her essay on the 2021 edition of London documentary film festival Frames of Representation, Manuela Lazic expands on the way some of the films featured present a move beyond the tiresome trend for self-reflexivity in documentary cinema, which merely stops at pointing out the way a film is always a subjective construct and, therefore, to some extent made up. The documentaries she discusses ask the viewer to “relate” to a fiction, and to identify the fiction in themselves as well as the truth in the fiction. It is a cinema of the dream, but not one of escape — rather it offers a path towards what truly connects and defines us, and what cinema can reveal. 

This return has to do not with having more “stories,” but more images. In my essay on Dalibor Baric’s Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus, I write about the exhilarating and inspiring power of mere shapes, colours, lines, movements across a screen, triggering whole new ways of seeing, breaking me out of my usual and inherently narrow, self-centred, limited way of seeing and perceiving — the way so many directors in cinema’s golden past used to do, and so few do now. I made it through this year in film largely thanks to these “old” films, not because they offered an escape from the horrors outside, but because they repeatedly widened my vision and kept me alive to the possibilities of every instant, both on screen and off. The hope for 2022 is that we may finally free ourselves from the trap of watching films through a very blurry and dirty sociological lens, reductive, didactic and moralising in a way that does neither sociology nor ourselves any service. Cinema and art more generally hold the key to true relating and to the way out of our own anxious, violent, reductive and self-hating ways. 

Elena Lazic

Elena is the founder and editor of Animus.