On Catabloguing / On Adrian Martin on Manny Farber

22May09

I’ve been thinking for a while of writing something to be offered as a kind of statement of intent for this blog, a pronouncement of and reflection upon what I guess my aims are for it. To some extent, this is kind of redundant – it’s a film blog, where I write about films I’ve watched recently. Pretty self-evident, and rather like a lot of other websites. But then what are ‘film blogs’ or ‘film review websites,’ particularly personal ones, written by one individual, nonprofessional writer, typically ‘like’? How might my own be like or unlike them in their generality?

In my experience, they can by and large be placed in one of two general categories: first, there are those that review new releases, films that are currently playing at cinemas. These sites tend to imitate the style of professional, journalistic film criticism (which isn’t to say that some aren’t better than the writings of many a professional film critic), perhaps with the occasional diversion into personal anecdote or subjective emotional response that the freedom of this nonprofessional medium allows. Then there are those that discuss old films, and it is to this group that Catabloguing evidently belongs. There are a few different variations within this group: some, like the ‘new film’ blogs, consciously attempt to replicate journalistic film writing, only here their models are more likely to be the kinds of capsule reviews found in Leonard Maltin or David Thompson than the longer, more opinionated style of the weekly film reviewer; they strive for an air of authority through brevity and quick, evaluative judgements that tend to try to avoid personal reflection. Then there are those web-based writings on old movies that are explicitly theorized in terms of the writer’s personal concerns, or some kind of personal filmic journey – for instance, someone starts a blog wherein they attempt to watch and write something about every film released by the Criterion Collection, or every film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list or another similar canon. Others might have more subjective or whimsical reasons for choosing to write about what they write about – a particular intellectual concern, a preference for a particular genre, or whatever, and as a result they will likely be written in a more personal vein, valourizing the subjective experience of viewing, emphasizing marginality, the small thing, the aspect of a film or of a film experience that matters to this individual writer, that particularly touches this person as they view it.

This blog is an example of the last of these types. I’ve chosen to write mostly about films I’ve taped off television and films I’ve happened to pick up on DVD or borrow from the library, so as to limit the range of things I can write about, mainly because I want to avoid the trappings of ‘relevance’ (writing about new releases in an instructive manner – ‘you should/shouldn’t see this movie’) and of ‘authority’ (writing about films that can be understood as part of either a personal or institutional canon, and hence making an argument about the worthiness of the films in question). Neither of these approaches really interests me, and so I’ve chosen this quite personal, idiosyncratic manner of selecting films to write about, because I want the idiosyncrasies of the personal viewing experience to be central to these writings.

But I’ve always felt that there are both good and bad ways to do this, to perform an analysis of an art object in terms of one’s own experience, emphasizing the individual’s own prejudices and pet concerns, over any attempt at objectivity or generalized reflections on the object’s canonical value. I’ve long wanted to try and theorize this problem, to talk about why so much discourse in this vein, whether it be in the press or in the way people tend to talk when they come out of a movie, a gallery, or a lecture, seems to me a profound misapplication of the lessons of people like Barthes and Sontag, who so brilliantly and importantly rallied against false notions of critical objectivity and the fetishistic, untheorized concept of ‘aesthetic value.’ I’d never really known where to start articulating my thoughts on this topic, even to myself, until, a short while ago, I came upon an essay Adrian Martin wrote in the wake of the 2008 death of film critic Manny Farber. The final section of this essay, concerning what Martin sees as Farber’s legacy in contemporary film discourse, immediately struck a cord with me:

Isn’t there a degraded form of the Farberian legacy all around us in the media and film culture these days? I would like to believe that Farber is inimitable for so many reasons intrinsic to his work – chiefly, as Raymond Bellour said in a beautiful homage to Gilles Deleuze, because ‘one is attracted and held, even on the conceptual plane, by the demanding complicity of a singularity much more than by the distant truth of an affirmation’ – but I fear that the opposite may be the case.

In magazines devoted to an amalgam of movies, pop culture and lifestyle, a kind of pugilistic, hip fluency prevails among several generations of hard-nosed film fans. Their capsule reviews – or sound bytes if they’re working for the audio-visual media – have become the norm of cinema comment that pretends to be all at once contemporary, populist and knowing. Suddenly, those special, idiosyncratic things that Manny Farber liked are being recycled as sure-fire, razor-sharp, quick-as-a-wink evaluative tools. The tendency of reviewers to assume they can instantly separate what ‘works’ in a movie from what doesn’t – explicitly opposed by Farber – now comes supplemented by a value system that sounds suspiciously like [Farber’s] termite-elephant distinction.

We see evidence everywhere today of cinephiles attempting to propagate Farber’s taste for incidental moments, highly local and specific true-to-life bits of the real at the termite heart of hopelessly junky, pulpy plots. Logically, it is elephantine, ‘upper-case vision’ that must be abhorred or at least approached with dire suspicion by these acolytes: all the strained, preachy, pompous elements in a movie, the overarching themes, vaulting artistic ambitions and mythologising social posturings. But the rigid application of this distinction usually ends up exposing the utterly arbitrary nature of the judgements offered. In such a quagmire, film criticism has come to resemble, more than anything, rock journalism in its NME or Rolling Stone idioms, with its wildly fickle but assertively pronounced discoveries of pure magic and savage dross in every second CD track.

I’ll leave readers who wish to better understand what Martin is specifically saying about Farber to read the full article here, but suffice it to say that Farber is a critic known for privileging the small, the marginal, the fragmentary, those aspects or qualities of a film text that speak to and disturb the complacency of a viewer, and that tend to be left out of grand discourses concerning the greatness and canonical value of a work. This approach is worthwhile, is necessary, because it assaults the idea that aesthetic value has any kind of necessary ontology, any existence prior to or outside of what culture, for its own ideological purposes, claims it to be. In this sense, this is a criticism that is Marxist at its roots.

But this kind of criticism (and at this point I am diverging from a particular focus on Farber’s work, which to be honest I don’t know that well, towards a more general theorization of a style of criticism, I guess implicitly using Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag as my exemplary figures, with Jacques Derrida and the school of deconstruction lurking somewhere in the background) is not only Marxist: it is also, equally importantly, informed by psychoanalytic theory, I guess particularly by Jacques Lacan. That is, it depends upon the idea of the human subject as decentred, sees ‘personality’ and identity not as simply given but as the necessary fictions of the human individual’s development into the space of culture and language. By talking about the particular, individual experience of seeing a movie or viewing an art object, and talking about those characteristics of the object which, for inexplicable reasons, hold this individual critic’s attention and trouble his or her sense of their own authority, their own ability to comprehend and fully know this object, these critics emphasized those things that disturb the subject’s conception of its own centredness, of its assured place in the world and its assured knowledge of itself. The minor, the marginal, the fragmentary, the inassimilable – these things are interesting because they disturb the critic’s own sense of mastery, because they address her as an unstable, decentred subject who can make neither herself nor the text under analysis into a totality, into a fully knowable object with a designated value.

What I see in many contemporary inheritors of this mode of critical inquiry, and what I think Martin is identifying in what he calls the “degraded form of the Farberian legacy,” is criticism that makes free use of this ‘personal’ approach, emphasizing the subjectivity of the individual’s experience and placing value in ‘the things I like’ about a text, and attacking perceived notions of objective greatness and canonical importance; such criticism does all this, and it often will either implicitly or explicitly call upon figures like Barthes or Sontag or Farber in its own defence, but is ultimately a betrayal of what was radical and important about the intervention of those earlier critics. For what this kind of popular celebration of the ‘personal experience’ above the objectivity of the text constitutes is really the valourization, even the reification, of the human ego, a positing of what I understand to be my subjectivity, my being, as innately valuable and hence as total, true and self-comprehending. The text, on the other hand, is not given the same treatment: indeed the idea that a text has any kind of existence prior to my engagement with it, my arbitrary, utterly self-assured decision as to what is and is not worthwhile about, what matters and what doesn’t matter about it, is treated with profound suspicion.

“The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author,” wrote Barthes, but this newborn reader was to be a deeply self-critical one, who would see in the fragmented, self-contradicting, impossible, unstable text a reflection of his own decentred subjectivity, and would be thrilled by those elements of a text that disturb his self-knowledge and his impression that he is master of all he surveys, including himself. The contemporary, popular descendants of Barthes’ imagined reader have come to place greater value in the subjective experience of reception (reading, hearing or viewing a text) than in any idea of the text’s inherent value, but they do this for the purpose of reclaiming the superiority of the ego – over its unconscious, over the world, over the text – so that the emphasis on the personal, the marginal, the fragmentary, becomes not a disturbance of the centred self but a proud affirmation of it.

This, finally, is where we return to the question of what I am hoping to achieve with this blog: to talk about films in a manner that emphasizes my subjective experience, not just of initial reception but also of the more drawn-out process of remembering and interpreting what my senses have received. The dramatic freedom of the web allows for the opportunity to follow small points of interest and extrapolate upon them as much as one wants, and in posts like my reflections on a brief moment of a couple of seconds in The Terminator, or upon a few short scenes from Ride Lonesome, I have taken advantage of this freedom. I’ve also tried, most notably in the Abel Ferrara post, to narrate the development of a certain awareness on my part during the course of a couple of weeks when I watched these two films.

In all this, I guess basically I’m hoping to find a way of adopting the lessons of critics like those I’ve discussed above for the context of the blogosphere, a radically open medium that provides more opportunity than ever for the publication of personal reflection, for (film) canons and (film) histories and (film) theories that are particular to an individual viewer rather than broad and objective and absolute. But in this I want to follow the important lesson of these earlier critics seriously, and to focus on my own personal experiences with and memories of films not for the purpose of claiming any kind of victory, announcing my experience as more valuable than the film texts themselves, but to pay attention to the ways in which films, whether in their grand, explicit thematic content or in their most marginal, ‘termite’ details, disturb me as a viewer and as a subject, and disturb their own totality, their own meaning, forcing me to re-evaluate how both the text and my own critical gaze are functioning. So let’s see how that goes.

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2 Responses to “On Catabloguing / On Adrian Martin on Manny Farber”

  1. 1 Brad

    This is much better than my manifesto.

  2. 2 catabloguing

    Oh, that’s funny we both wrote manifestoes of sorts this week. I think yours is good.


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