On Film Criticism #7: Bad words

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Artwork by Neven Udovičić

When writing criticism, finding the right words is part of the fun: investigating one’s feelings about a film to try and figure out what is really happening, what it is really doing, is incredibly satisfying, for both writers and then, hopefully, for the readers too. It is fun but it is also important, since the wrong words can flatten out a subject, making a complex experience seem more simple and trivial than it really was. It follows that words can also go the other way, and make doors and connections appear where we previously could see none.  

All work of criticism is to its core concerned with this process of drawing borders or links, justifying them, undermining them, making a point. But all the essays in this issue are also overtly about this process, and how it affects the way films are made and watched. The majority of films shown at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival embraced a proudly utilitarian and straightforward vision of what cinema is for and can do; in my report, I write about the exceptions, those films which did not appear to have been engineered in a lab to touch on the topics du jour or score easy representation points. 

In his essay on three documentaries from last year, Robert Stinner points out the importance of cautiously choosing how to tell the stories of people who worked and lived outside the mainstream. Wojnarowciz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker, The Velvet Underground, and No Ordinary Man all rise up to the task differently, careful not to reduce their subjects to anecdotes or to assimilate their very oppositional work and lives into a mainstream world that initially rejected them. 

By contrast, Nina Menkes’ Sundance-premiering documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power refuses to see the nuance and infinite possibilities of film language. In my essay, I explain how the filmmaker repeatedly and unconvincingly delivers reductive interpretations of moments from famous movies, better to argue for a simplistic (and very thin) film dictionary where shot compositions, camera movements and other formal aspects of cinema always have the same sexist meaning, and hypnotise helpless viewers into hating women. It is a profoundly ridiculous way to understand cinema, but one that disturbingly appears to be gaining traction in some corners.

Digby Houghton’s comparative essay on French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville and British-born Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith, meanwhile, demonstrates in more ways than one how two strikingly alike upbringings, sets of interests (and shot compositions) produced superficially similar yet wildly different filmographies. Like Robert Stinner’s essay, it also shows the way words can establish enlightening parallels between different works, expand our minds and our experiences rather than shrink them down. 

Finally, Manuela Lazic writes about how, in Chloé Mazlo’s masterpiece Skies of Lebanon — a Cannes-labelled victim of the pandemic — the pragmatic choice to leave one’s home when it is under attack feels anything but rational.

Elena Lazic

Elena is the founder and editor of Animus.