For a fictional critique

Elyeser Szturm (Journal of Reviews)


Commentary on the tasks of film criticism

What do I do? Film review. I hate that word because people link the work of commenting on films to journalistic production that is guided by superficiality (and there are reasons for this to be the case, but it is another problem), and because the idea of ​​criticism is associated with that of reservation, of judgment. Preferred: film analyst. But it gets ugly. Or else: criticism, even if this word is associated with the idea of ​​crisis, of a critical moment. Criticism puts works in crisis.

Really, what do I do? Distanced from the everyday press, at the university or in sporadic rehearsals, I try to produce film analyzes and I will try to explain how I currently orientate myself.

The breakdown of the break

Define the work of criticism by vehicle – film criticism, theater criticism, etc. – is catastrophic. Evidently, sensitivity and training (training prior to the exercise of criticism and through the exercise of criticism) lead to greater competence for analyzing works that appear in a given vehicle: it is a specialization that corresponds to a form of social organization of culture (department theater, cinema, universities; cinema commission, theater, professional association of filmmakers, theater people, etc.). Society reinforces this specialization in the critic: we are invited to speak, write, teach, depending on the specialization. Which is arguably a straitjacket. Cultural and aesthetic processes do not occur vertically, in a vehicle or in a form of expression, they occur horizontally, sweeping across several vehicles, each of which works the process with a certain specificity depending on its type of language, the moment of production it passes through. , its relationship with society, etc. Specialization prevents learning the process because you don't know what happens next door, whereas if you did, you might even better understand what's going on in the vehicle in which you specialize. There needs to be an effort on the part of critics to become less critical of this or that, and more critical of culture. Which, obviously, does not depend only on them, but on a profound transformation of this corporatist sectorization that orders artistic production. Not all films interest me, not everything that is cinema interests me, nor do I feel empowered to comment on any film because it is a film. And many works that are not cinema interest me a lot. This is because I try to attach myself less to the vehicle, and more and more to aesthetic processes.

I work at a kind of confluence, a crossroads. I'll try to explain:

On the one hand, the critic finds himself confronted with the works that have been made. He will not have the same sensitivity, interest and competence for any work. A selection is made. In my case, I focus on works that, in the area of ​​Brazilian production, I feel are breaking with the dominant information, which happens especially in short films. I am motivated by Cabaret Mineiro ou hysterias ou The best man's friend, that by Janet. Faced with these instigating works, the critical task is difficult, that is, it is difficult to produce a verbal discourse (since I practice criticism with words) that gives the feeling of learning them. Because they are works of rupture or that point to renewal, the critical discourse is rarely able to talk about them, there is a gap between them and the critic's methodology. One option: to reduce them to the methods of analysis available to the critic, in which case what interests them most will escape: their rupture and their step outside the dominant information. The history of Brazilian cinema has known a case that today we can see as scandalous: the so-called Underground. When they appear at the end of the 60s, The Red Light Bandit and even more the angel was born e …went to the movies, the critics were not able to face these films. Formed to speak both about narrative cinema and cinema with sociological content and messages (to which the interpretations in force at the time tended to reduce Cinema Novo), the critics had no words to apply to the angel was born and other movies. Hence a series of drastic reductions, the most glorious of which consisted of purely and simply branding this cinema irrational. The alleged irrationality stemmed largely from the inadequacy of the critical discourse on these films. Another option in the face of the lack of words: silence, and that's more or less where I headed.

The lack of words can only lead the critic to recognize himself as disarmed in the face of the work, if he allows himself to be guided by emotion and intuition (which are not born unpolluted from the bottom of the blue sky). From this contact, rehearse a speech, which initially can only be hesitant and disjointed, about the work, about himself, about the relationship between the critic and the work. This attitude leads to a double movement. On the one hand, the work or set of works form the critic. The work he experiences disarticulates the critic, who may feel stimulated or paralyzed in the face of this disarticulation; if he lets himself be stimulated, he will be renewed by the work that will allow him not to add another item to the list of works analyzed by an already established methodology, but to renew his own methodology. The work suggests to the disjointed critic (and there is no stimulating critic who is not in some way disjointed) how it wants to be approached, which circuits can be traversed to understand it, or which impasses and resistances it offers to understanding. . In the Brazilian case, it can be said that Cinema Novo films formed several critics, at a time almost contemporary with their production; later, the Underground transformed several critics and formed others, at a time well after its production; as in the 70s-80s; sad tropic, Cabaret Mineiro, sea ​​of ​​roses ou hysterias can form critics.

The reverse of this movement is the possibility for the critic to form the work, one might say for the pleasure of using a set of mirrors. Coming after her, the critic tries to unravel her. But it's not really a revelation. Unraveling suggests that the work offers difficulties to reach its meaning, and, once overcome, the meaning would finally be reached. That end does not exist. Taking the work as an exploration of the real, its language or its materials, exploration of its relationships with the artist, the spectator, the social, exploration whatever, taking the work as an exploration and not as the fulfillment of a program that whether prior (which is valid even for conceptual works, “structural cinema” etc.), or, better said, taking the work as a prospective metaphor, the critic tries to associate himself with this exploration. The idea of ​​a prospective metaphor implies that a work, which partially (and never totally) goes along paths never walked before, is working spaces, times, concepts, relationships, etc. still not made aware, felt or rationalized by the producer himself and by the public. She invents, and it is not known for sure what. The critic then tries to associate with her, not to know what she invents, but to invent with her, to walk with her in the insecure space she opens up. Maintain an experimental relationship with the work, experiment with its potential. Taking it from different angles, stretching it, kneading it, pulling it, pushing it, in a lucid (no less anguished) and sensitive relationship that is being rationalized or that resists rationalization. Establish hypothetical relationships, meaning possibilities inside and outside it. Take over together with the metaphor artist. Which also means taking the risk of going nowhere.

This work is virtually endless, although the critic's relationship with the work may dry up. The work will cease to be prospective to become, for this critic, a work of confirmation; that is, once this list of hypothetical discoveries is exhausted, the critic can only reaffirm his knowledge and his emotion in relation to it. It is a pleasurable and distressing danger: pleasurable because the relationship of invention that existed is reaffirmed, distressing because one has the impression of having reached a wall that one cannot overcome, unable to deepen the potentiality of its meaning any further. That a critic's relationship with a work is stagnant does not imply that it has been exhausted. Others will be able to take it up again and establish other relationships that will continue and renew this work. It is desirable that this work of experimentation with the work begins at the same time as its production, which does not mean that it will immediately produce results. It will sometimes be necessary to spend a long time with the work for the relationship to become fruitful.

The aesthetics of emptiness

Among us, Glauber's work was and continues to be the object of a work of this nature, collectively carried out by several critics who work in isolation (and on part of the social body). Explorations of different types are undertaken that open up his films and generate new relationships between them and the outside world, new circuits within them, that try to stretch the work to the (momentary) limit of its possibilities, making them say what they almost say or say. they almost dare to say or almost cannot say, and a little further still, in an insecure, hesitant effort that can only lead to uncertainties. To arrive at certainties is to kill the work. Among other elements from Glauber's films, Antônio das Mortes (the first, by God and the Devil, who was a prospective character; not the second evil dragon, who was a programmatic character) was and I believe continues to be stretched to the limits of its meaningful possibilities in our time.

He said that my work took place at a crossroads. The other force that guides him are my concerns, personal pursuits. For example, one of the constant lines, it seems to me, of my critical work is the concern with the position of the intellectual and the artist in society, how this position is expressed and conditions their language, their themes. Then, I am the one who goes to the work and asks specific questions based on this line of questioning itself, which the work may or may not answer. Probably characteristic of this attitude are texts I wrote around love lesson e The Man Who Turned Juice. In the case of this specific question, I think that every work, tacitly, has something to say about its method of production, in particular of aesthetic and ideological production. The work can refuse to respond, so my tendency is to force it into a sometimes harsh dialogue in which it and I can lose our breath. A large part of the methodology of the study that I am preparing on Brazilian documentary film is based on this attitude.

Another example: I'm currently fascinated by what I've been calling the "aesthetics of emptiness."

Works that evade its core, making it denser, more thought-provoking. This concern of mine does not arise – at least not exclusively – from my interaction with works, but is reinforced by current works and suggests a re-reading of past works. I don't know why this aesthetic of emptiness, an aspect of decentring aesthetics, worries me so much. But the only thing I can do is trust myself and take a chance. Suddenly, I realize that certain works are coming towards me. Not only already classic works, even if unfinished, that revolve around their hollow center.

But even works that do not flaunt their link with this aesthetic, but whose approach can be extraordinarily enriched if a dialogue of this type is maintained with them. It's enriching to spin The best man's friend (Tânia Savietto) around the theme of racism, or hawks (André Klotzel) around the theme of mythical failure, and neither of these films make these themes explicit, and it is precisely this non-explicitness that makes them socially and aesthetically so dynamic. Other works will not respond so positively to this question. For example, Saint and Jesus, Metallurgists, by Claudio Kahns, whose structure is in no way related to this concern. Even so, questioned from this angle, the film has a surprising answer, as a rather superfluous shot is detected in the general economy of the film: a bathroom, in the background a window, above the box a red shower, the sound of falling water; interruption of the water, a hand comes out of the box, takes a towel, goes in, goes out again, takes slippers from the windowsill. Cut. In the next shot, a young man dries himself in the guesthouse room: we will deduce that he was the hidden agent of the action in the bathroom shot. Why have a shot introduced into the film that adds nothing to the film's information, not even in terms of setting? But starting from this shot, which the public tends to eliminate precisely because it does not contribute to the immediate and dominant meanings of the film, we can suspect the existence underneath the exposed text, of a second text (or its possibility) that then becomes necessary to inquire. I probably would not have valued this plan, had I not previously been concerned with the so-called aesthetics of emptiness. Possibly I will still study Saint and Jesus from this plan. Which, methodologically, means the possibility of working from the details of a work, or even just on details, on parts of the work: tension between work on the overall structure of the work and work on its parts. This work proposal has a series of implications: in addition to taking the liberty of dedicating myself to parts of the work that I choose based on my concerns, on an aesthetic project that I may have as a critic, it implies that one does not necessarily and exclusively have to work with the overall structure, which parts do not necessarily reflect or do not occur to the overall structure, which parts may have autonomy and dissent from the overall structure. And that, in these parts and in these dissensions, the “new” can be found. There, one can detect a moment of rupture within a structure obedient to current aesthetic canons. I do not foresee what might be the result of this proposed inquiry concerning Saint and Jesus. Perhaps it will be necessary to force the film's bar, pushing it beyond limits that it did not intend to cross. Maybe a daydream of mine. It doesn't matter. Forcing the film's bar from a tenuous element can amount to nothing, I break my face and it's part of the risks that a critic can't help but take. But it can clarify and contribute to the evolution of a trend that is emerging but that is still barely visible, even if the critical discourse resulting from this operation is or seems to be excessive in relation to the work in question. At this moment, the only concern is not the work, but the aesthetic process with which it can be related, through even a detail. Then the critic gets involved in the latent aesthetic project of one or a group of filmmakers, takes risks together with the filmmaker, participates in the elaboration of the project by trying to go one step beyond what the work explicitly offers.

The critic speaks, then, at the same time from inside and outside the project. The texts produced by this attitude can give the impression of – or may – pass by the work, taking it on a tangent without realizing its essential part, and even saying something completely different. The text will then function not as the criticism we are used to, but as a critical laboratory, and I return, from another path, to the issue of experimental criticism. At the limit, I would speak of a fictional critique, fiction functioning there as a kind of seismograph that makes possible the hypothetical discovery of probable, or even improbable, elements, a discovery made possible by the work or by the way in which the work is approached, elements that the critic runs the risk of radicalizing, with the expectation that some filmmaker(s) may find themselves in their text, even partially, and advance their own search.

*Jean-Claude Bernardet is a retired cinema professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Brazilian Cinema: proposals for a story (Companhia das Letras).

Originally published in the magazine Film Culture no. 45

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