Sunday, June 24, 2007

On Connoisseurship (& the Achievement of Valeska Grisebach's Longing)

In a recent exchange in the comments section of the excellent group blog Termite Art, my good friend and site co-founder Matthew Singer and I had an extended exchange on the relative merits of reviewing films like The Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). At the time neither of us had seen the film, though at least in my view it nonetheless could serve as emblematic of all supposedly "critic-proof" films whose audience is assured more by the popularity of its comic source, the film franchise to which it belongs and most importantly the advertising dollars spent to generate interest than to the response of the critics. Admittedly, my commentary suffered from a naivete that Mr. Singer rightly pointed out. In my advocacy of ignoring films like The Rise of the Silver Surfer - assuming that it is indeed not of interest - I suggested another film that I had yet to see, Valeska Grisebach's Longing (Sehnsucht, 2006), as more deserving of print publications' attention. For this, Matt again called me out, asking who was to be the "arbiter" of what is "interesting." In my opinion, both Matt (host of IFC News and Internet film critic - and for those who have not read him, Matt is a very talented critic in the Roger Ebert mold, in my opinion at least) and myself (film studies PhD and Internet film critic - though less talented I'm afraid) qualify, inasmuch as we share a formal training in the discipline, and possess a discernment that follows from it and also (and perhaps more importantly) from instinct.

In retrospect, I should have expected the reaction I received on Termite Art: what I was advocating - and indeed I have come to realize that this is the driving force for all my work in the field of cinema studies - was connoisseurship, which is as uncommon in the field of cinema studies today as it is in the discipline of art history, where the term has been used pejoratively since the 1970s. Connoisseurship is viewed with skepticism by both the defenders of popular and "low" culture on the one hand - primarily for its elitism - and ideologically-minded critics and scholars on the other (for whom the determination of a work's value based on aesthetic critique is itself ideologically loaded). When one does see advocacy in film criticism currently, it is for political engagement, not for the determining of the status of the work of art over and against those of other works. Either art is fundamentally about pleasure, and therefore quality is subjective, as is I believe true for the modern-day defenders of popular culture, or culture is principally a tool for both political progress and regimes of suppression, shifting a work's value from criterion of aesthetic quality to those of political expediency.

As a connoisseur I deny both. For me, art enriches, it can instruct and it can improve. It helps us to see, and even more, to think. This is not to say that any work needs to say something novel or complex. In fact, I tend to subscribe to the theory that many of the best works are themselves mirrors, that they show us ourselves and that we are not alone in what we think or what we feel. In other words, they show us the truth - which as we all know continues to be under assault from those who would deny that such thing exists.

Moreover, works that do this are rare indeed. While, the Internet, an all-region DVD player and a small amount of disposable income has basically put the corpus of an entire art within reach of the spectator, the ever-expanding number of choices that one faces militates against seeing something worth the viewer's time. This again is where I believe the connoisseur comes in: namely in directing the interested spectator to works that will have an effect of enrichment. Above I mentioned that I had yet to see Longing when I used it as a counter-example; I based its utility on the high regard it found last year among British critics (and the certainty that few readers would have heard of the film). Having since viewed Grisebach's work let me redouble my advocacy: Longing is exactly the sort of film that critics have the responsibility to lead their spectators to, so long as they believe film is an art and that art can elevate.

What is it one might ask that separates Longing from other works currently in the marketplace? (Usually Tativille commits itself to this precise task without the meta-commentary; in future I will continue to do exactly that.) To begin with, Longing secures an emotional complexity in its female performances that is rare indeed - in one particularly remarkable moment, upon discovering that her new lover does not remember that they slept together, we see one of Grisebach's heroines masking her fleeting joy behind an expression of jubilation. She has to show her new lover her satisfaction while hiding the sadness that his question has wrought. We see in this instance the intimations of what her life may have been, that perhaps such opportunities are not so common with her and when they do seem to occur, that they evaporate just as quickly. In other words, Grisebach gives us a mirror.

Then again, in her male lead, we have a cipher. We understand what he is thinking as much as his wife (the film's third principle) does, which is to say that his psychology is a source of mystery. As such Grisebach reverses the logic of most films that employ this epistemological pattern - wherein the woman is the greater source for mystery. Further it is truly his body, his face that is the more acutely fetishized: in another of the great moments in the cinema of the past year, Grisebach frames her male lead dancing to a Robbie Williams song in tight medium close-up, from his shoulders up. He closes his eyes and sways to the music, reminding us how young he is. Truly, he has become the object of the spectator's - and shortly as we see the waitress/his future lover's as well. In short, Longing, helps to see both the complexity of its very real characters and also the narrative systems it is responding to and revising.

We also see a world that is at once quite foreign - small-town, rural Germany - and still quite familiar to this viewer at least. Grisebach shows us a place/a community that most viewers of her film will never see in person. This I would submit is its own justification. At the same, and thus expanding the work's value further, her rendering of the landscape and particular the sensitivity she shows for light - particularly that light just after sunset - shows a nature that may be very familiar to viewers, even if it is rarely detailed on screen. Longing indeed evokes a feeling of place that is dependent on the spectator's awareness of this time of day at a particular time of year. The tactile feeling of place that accompanies this knowledge therefore becomes an end of Grisebach's work, open to those with a familiarity for such places, just as her characters introduce us to real, albeit complex emotions. To see ourselves and the world we live in we as spectators do need a certain degree of sensitivity.

In sum, Longing proposes to show us truths, emotional and natural, that it relies upon us to confirm through our experience. Then again, its situation - an instance of adultery and its consequences for a marriage - are unfamiliar to many a spectator. In this regard, Grisebach allows for the possibility of a moral truth, though suffice it to say that she ultimately leaves it open to the spectator to determine the film's conclusion. In the film's closing, semi-diegetic (as my viewing companion Lisa Broad so eloquently put it) scene, Grisebach makes us aware of her own agency - thus highlighting the film's construction - in the person of a tween, even as she establishes the film's open ending. As such, Longing asks us to decide for ourselves; it raises a scenario and invites its spectators to find a solution. It asks us to engage with the work of art, while delineating the roles of filmmaker and spectator. She makes it abundantly clear how her film is constructed, while preserving her narrative world.

This active role for the spectator is essential to the connoisseurship I have above highlighted as my methodology. When viewed as a source of pleasure foremost, passivity is the rule. When viewed through an ideological lens, the artist's manipulation, for better or for worse, becomes key. However, when art is considered for what it shows us, the spectator becomes cardinal. This I believe is a verification of the above system's merit: that compels its viewer to think, to remember and even to judge.


Anonymous said...

I can’t speak to Longing given that I haven’t seen it (though your praise certainly recommends it), but I’ll venture into the larger discussion of connoisseurship and criticism. Entreaties like yours—calls for critics as advocates –are too rarely made and far too readily dismissed. As you’ve suggested, said dismissal is often accompanied by accusations of “elitism” or other synonymous sins, usually delivered by liberal critics guided by a kind of Marxist martyrdom (cultural arbitration as necessarily hegemonic) or rampant identity politics (universal expression in art as irrelevant or impossible, at least in principle). What’s so troubling about these so-called liberal positions is that they denigrate the populace they purport to represent. Why not say “Most people are idiots. Why bother trying to have a substantial conversation?” Public discourse based on connoisseurship implies that such discussion is possible and desirable—in short, that people are capable of discussion. The argument that we should give people “what they want,” however, veers dangerously close to suggesting the general public merely comprises-and is only capable of comprising—the lowest common denominator.

Editors and writers making decisions about what to cover, how big to cover it, etc., explain (i.e. rationalize) that they cover Fantastic Four or Spiderman 3 or whatever movie happens to be the week’s big releases because it’s “news.” But to assert a big release as inherently newsworthy is to propagate the disquieting principle that relevance, if not merit, is determined by dollars and cents. This concept is far more terrifying than aesthetic elitism.

This is not to suggest that commercial product is intrinsically unworthy. Instead, it’s a plea to critics to consider, engage with, and cover thoughtful films in a thoughtful way. If this can be done with Fantastic Four, by all means, write away. The more that rote reviews of studio dreck fill up column inches, however, the more the audience (and, even more importantly, filmmakers) lose the language of the medium and its capacity to embody—and convey—beauty and truth.

P.L. Kerpius said...

Hats off to both of you for some wise insights.

Though, there is one issue that remains unresolved, a simple logistical one: most critics have no choice in what is to be reviewed, rather it's assigned. You've spoken at length as to how, perhaps, an editor can intervene and decide what's to be published, but a writer (especially a lowly one starting out) has no choice in the matter.

Your thoughts on connoisseurship are lovely, and I very much fall in line with you there; but they do ring a bit academic, and are probably difficult to employ at a major mag or paper.

Personally, I try to review films giving the reader the essential nugget of "what it is about." I'm not talking plot, like plenty of bad commercial criticism that serves more as a PR campaign. I do try to leave a reader with a fundamental thought or feeling of what the movie "is," which can surely be done with "bad" film too.

The production and criticism industries are works in progress, as I see it. You are right, people will make a choice given options of only bad films. Pick your poison. I think the best way for a critic to remedy a bad movie is not to condescend to it, but engage it (at least to a short degree) so that audiences will slowly see that there is something better, and demand it.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I saw Fantastic Four, because it's what happened to be playing at the drive-in. I can't even imagine having a substantial conversation about it, much less writing a thoughtful review.