J. Hoberman’s Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?
In Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, critic and essayist Phillip Lopate says, “it isn’t that I’m opposed to film theory; actually I’ve read lots of it, and even been quite stimulated by it (when I wasn’t bored silly), but I can’t seem to make it a permanent part of my brain”. (1) By contrast, the more academically inclined and theoretically broad-ranging Nicole Brenez says, “I feel no animosity in regard to the theories of the 70s. On the contrary, the more time passes, the more I see them as protections. Foucault and Adorno remain absolute benchmarks and it seems to me that reading them has kept me from subscribing to bourgeois reflexes (for good, I hope).” (2) Hoberman seems closer to Lapote than Brenez: he is a fine writer who can turn a phrase, but often doesn’t quite turn an opinion into a concept, doesn’t quite take a thought for a walk as he instead leaves it tied to the lamppost. It is a thought, but it remains sedentary and perhaps this is partly because he seems generally unable or unwilling to conceptualize a problem even if he’s smart enough to see it as a problem, as something that needs to be addressed. But just when a thought could benefit from a bit of theoretical bolstering, Hoberman backs away and settles for a muted point. A good example comes in his piece on Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven (2005). As Hoberman intriguingly says “going beyond Warhol is never easy but ambitious directors have intermittently experimented with this form of situational performance”, name-checking von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) and Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), so he goes on to mention similarities between Reygadas’s leading actress (the daughter of a media mogul), and Warhol’s trust fund muse Edie Sedgwick. But the references to The Idiots and Ten disappear in the rear view mirror as we’re left wondering what similarities there are between these three films, before realizing how arbitrary happens to be their use as examples. Where The Idiots uses professional actors and plays as a film within a film, Ten is a formal experiment with a fixed camera on a dashboard, Battle in Heaven a film that seems to want to extract the spiritual out of the corporeal. None of the films play on Warhol’s experiment less with time than with patience. When Dai Vaughan astutely noted that Empire (1964) needed to be made but not seen, it is a remark consistent with a feeling one might have watching many of Warhol’s films: sitting through the work is an act of apathy as much as curiosity, and this isn’t to dismiss Warhol’s work, more to ask whether there is a dimension of apathy in watching cinema that Warhol wanted to expose. Cinema is, after all, as a character in Clockers (Lee, 1995) says, just sitting around. Few filmmakers more than Warhol have exposed this truth. But Battle in Heaven demands not apathy but perhaps antipathy as its loose connections from one scene to the next make us wonder what Reygadas is trying to tie together. It is here where theoretical language can help locate the problem and where one can see that Battle in Heaven works with what Deleuze would call false continuity and “irrational cuts”. Here the continuity is maintained it seems as one scene follows the other, but the linkages between the passages remain weak: why do we see a scene of the Mexican flag unfolding after a scene of a woman giving fellatio? This is not apathetic image construction as we might believe is evident in Warhol’s concentrated gaze on the Empire State Building, but antipathetic image construction that asks one to make linkages between apparently loosely connected material. Warhol pushes Bazinian notions of the real into the absurd; but Reygadas asks us to think the real: to wonder what connections can be made between often disjunctive elements. The theoretically elaborated idea of irrational cuts can lead to more specific analysis. References to films like The Idiots and Ten are maybe less useful than to other young irrational montage masters like Bruno Dumont. By utilising a little theoretical underpinning, the thought can be both bolstered and mobile. Hoberman isn’t, of course, doing no more than name-dropping, but moving deeper into his point, aided and abetted by a drop of theory, would have usefully allowed not only for similarities between the directors, but, more importantly, differentiation.
Of course with many film critics the very superficiality of the writing makes a theoretical aside look like a foreign body in the system. Hoberman is a serious critic, however, someone who clearly frets over the problems of film, and does occasionally invoke the theoretical, with the book at its best drawing upon a theorist Hoberman has read closely: D. N. Rodowick, and especially The Virtual Life of Film. As Rodowick’s book explores the problem of digital versus celluloid images, Hoberman quotes the theorist saying, “digitally acquired information has no ontological distinctiveness from digitally synthesized outputs that construct virtual worlds”. (p. 21) The single take Russian Ark (Sokurov, 2002) requires various digital alterations in post-production and consequently becomes, in Hoberman’s words, “no less than The Matrix…an animated movie created from photographic material”. (p. 21) Where with celluloid the image was chemical and an imprint of the real; now with digital the image is mathematical and cannot be trusted to reflect an image of the world. With the aid of Rodowick (and by extension the philosopher Rodowick draws upon, C. S. Peirce), Hoberman’s reflections become more rigorous. In one passage he says, “and yet, Russian Ark’s single take is what Tarkovsky would have called the “impression of time” and the movie is essentially Bazinian, most radically in its performative aspect – that is, in the orchestration of the camera and profilmic event”. (p. 22) Here Hoberman nags away at the problem, as if aware that it will simultaneously and inevitably elude his grasp and also that to do it justice more and more material will be needed to push the argument forward. In that one sentence he is invoking Metz (the profilmic event), the theoretical side of Tarkovsky (the notion of the rhythm of the shot), and Bazin’s ontology of the photographic image. In many of the other essays, this grappling is kept to a minimum, but the enquiry subsequently forestalled.
Is this to say that good film criticism cannot function without reference to theoretical practice? This would surely be going too far, and though many might disagree over whom they feel writes well outside of any theoretical framework (Kael, Thomson, Farber), usually an example will be available. The question isn’t so much the necessity of theory, but the feeling one can use it whenever a problem arises, a problem that can’t be readily resolved without its application. Where this theoretical work comes from (Bazin, Deleuze, Cavell, Rancière, Bordwell, Perez, Badiou, Metz, Mulvey, Sobchack and so on) is less important than what it is being applied to. Sometimes one wonders whether the problem doesn’t reside in the lack of good theory out there but the limitations of its application because of two things: in the Academic world due to partisanship: is one a Deleuzian or a Bordwellian, a Cavellian or phenomenologically inclined? There is no point in caricaturing this stance (many academics of course are happy to bring together different positions, and someone like Rodowick for one seems interested recently in yoking Deleuze to Cavell), but few would deny that many academics see their work as taking place within the confines of a specific discipline, and read accordingly. At the other extreme there is the journalistic refusal to utilise theory at all, even if occasionally magazines like Film Comment and Sight and Sound have published work by writers who are seen as closer to theorists than critics. In the last few years Sight and Sound has published work by Slavoj Zizek and Laura Mulvey; Film Comment essays by Vivian Sobchack and Stanley Cavell.
Yet how often has one seen films reviewed intelligently, and yet wished the writer had offered just a couple of lines by a thinker of complexity to lay out an idea? One might think of Deleuze, say, to frame the problem of time in Eloge de L’amour (Godard, 2001), of indiscernibility in Inland Empire (Lynch, 2006); Badiou to help make sense of the extractive aesthetics in Dogville (von Trier, 2003), Cavell for working with the silence utilised in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Ming-Liang, 2003). Of course this needn’t at all be prescriptive; others would give a completely different range of thinkers and problems in relation to the films just mentioned. But the films haven’t been offered arbitrarily – they are all reviewed here by Hoberman, and could benefit from a broader theoretical context than they receive. When Hoberman says “I can’t recall another flashback in a Godard feature – his movies have all been resolutely present-tense, and with good reason”, (p. 195) we might wonder not only whether this is true, but whether notions of present tense and flashback are useful in comprehending Godard’s work. The director is so interested in the disjunctive relationship possible in film time and space that we are sometimes wondering how shots connect to each other. In Weekend (Godard, 1967), where exactly are the characters apparently looking on to during a dispute in a farmyard – are they in the scene at all, or non-diegetically inserted in the sequence? In Helas pour moi (Godard, 1993), in which tense are we supposed to take certain moments – is it a non-sequitur or a flashback?
In the Dogville review Hoberman says the film “is less a narrative movie than the blueprint for a movie given form by the mind’s eye – it is entirely filmed, verite style, on an obvious schematic and highly minimalist set and although described as filmed theatre, feels more like filmed radio”. (p. 219) It is a nice throwaway, but is it a useful angle into the film? Would Badiou’s ideas on a cinema that denies the full range of its possibilities take us further, since central to the felt strangeness in the work is not the use of voice-over, but the presence of mise-en-scene as skeletal frame. If Dogme insisted that only props available on the location could be used; Dogville wonders what happens when you extend this to a studio setting: what is then allowed onto the set? Much of von Trier’s oeuvre plays on ideas of extravagance and minimalism, of overt mise-en-scene (The Element of Crime (1984), Europa (1991)) and its contraction, into ‘realism’ (The Idiots) and ‘artifice’, Dogville and Manderlay (2005).
Perhaps we are being too idealistic here. Hoberman was for many years a jobbing critic for Village Voice, and the latter part of the book is based on reviews culled from its pages. This perhaps leads inevitably to Hoberman showing he has a good eye for what matters (reviews of Dogville, Eloge de l’amour, The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Puiu, 2005), Inland Empire, Hunger (McQueen, 2008), Russian Ark, Ten, The World (Zhangke, 2004)) but arrives often at anointing rather than analysis, no matter if Hoberman rarely uses superlatives to indicate the film’s importance. He is at his most distinctive when phrase-making. The Passion of the Christ (Gibson, 2004) is a “pain-pageant” (p. 89), Arnold Schwarzenegger, “an equal opportunity killing machine” (p. 111) and Linda Hamilton sets the tone for “muscle feminism” (p. 111). Hoberman’s style is often mildly aloof and frequently amused. When reviewing Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, he says the real-life central character is “a show-business hyphenate, a would-be producer-director, the wannabe star of a self-written scenario”. (p. 272) It is an interesting idea, but one that Hoberman concludes the review on rather than opens it with.
We find this sense of an ending that should be a beginning elsewhere too. Reviewing the Death of Mr Lazarescu and Aurora (2010) by Cristi Puiu, Hoberman concludes by saying, “Aurora embodies the “shame of self” that Sartre described in Being and Nothingness as the disconcerting recognition that one is “the object which the Other is looking at and judging” (p. 234). Writing on Ten, Hoberman says, “Kiarostami’s own absence serves to push his style to its limit. The more minimal the movie, the more it is recognizably his.” (p. 213) In all three instances (in Carlos, The Death of Mr Lazarescu and Ten) these would be useful places to start instead of finish, and one senses Hoberman’s own frustrations with the limits of the reviewing format when the end of his Dogville article for the Village Voice gets opened up in the early section of the book. In the review he talks of the photographs of human misery that conclude the film and their contrast with David Bowie’s pop song. In the opening section of the book, “the town’s hitherto unseen dog turns “real” – that is, photographic – and so does von Trier’s abstract “America”. What we have previously witnessed was simply a play, as well as a representation.” Hoberman adds, “Von Trier’s documentary realness, recording actors on a set in a way that they can never be imagined to be anything else, is ruptured by a greater realness – namely a montage of photographic evidence, wrenching images of human misery in America, set to a disco beat”. (p. 26) Here he grapples with a problem; he doesn’t simply review a film-going experience.
Some might say it is all a question of space, but we might be reminded of Roland Barthes’ essays for a French newspaper collected in Mythologies, even Gilbert Adair’s homage to them in the Sunday Times and gathered together in Surfing the Zeitgeist. It is often not so much about constraints of space as of editorial lines and readership expectations. When Hoberman says, “the 750-word weekly film review is a specific journalistic form” (p. viii), we might find ourselves thinking of others who have used it more fruitfully, and been lucky to have that freedom. Maybe the constraints of that journalistic format Hoberman invokes are less noticeable in a newspaper or magazine, but they’re evident in a book where you read review after review, knowing the thread is too weak to pass for an argument. As E. M. Forster says in Aspects of the Novel “A course of lectures, if it is to be more than a collection of remarks, must have an idea running through it”. (3) Film After Film sort of does, as the title suggests. It concerns what film happens to be at the beginning of the twenty first century, and where digital has taken over. But if the book remains a minor work it rests on journalistic pressures, it seems, and a wariness towards theoretical reference. There are good things, here, but though the third section calls itself ‘Notes Towards a Syllabus’, the book itself passes much more for a work of suggestive impressionism, a sort of confessions of a justified filmgoer.
- Phillip Lopate, Totally , Tenderly, Tragically (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), p xiii.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour, ‘Movie Mutations,’ Film Quarterly, vol. 52 no. 1, pp 39-54.
- E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (London: Penguin, 1990), p 101.
J. Hoberman, Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema? (London : Verso, 2012).