Accidentally admitting you’re dubious about video-essay film criticism is a quick route into an argument, but let’s at least agree that the field is still waiting for its Mozart—someone able to use it more for free expression than just dry description. Or at least find some way to stop the dry description being a transplant of the same analysis flowcharts that film criticism took from English Literature departments in the first place. New disciplines are always spurred into life by the creation of new tools, but at some point they have to develop new methods as well rather than wing it with what they’ve got.
You would go straight from argument to punch-up by suggesting that the academic approach is thriving because many practitioners are traditional conservative humanities thinkers using platforms supported by public money—and that TikTok might like a word about relying on a media studies outlook at a time when the best place to study media is outdoors. TikTok is designed to terrify any passing conformists and rightly so, but a full-throttle remix criticism may well steamroller straight over scholars’ attempts to put limits on what counts as good art in the first place too, so the sooner the better.
Also buried in all of this is some kind of retreat from film criticism being a written thing at all, as if the tired old cliché that film critics just wanted to make films all along might actually be true. Something has to account for the lack of a meaningful print-based fanzine culture bubbling up within film criticism from writers prepared to have their unstoppable free expression flyposted onto the walls of cinemas if need be, since that culture hasn’t died off yet elsewhere.
Comics criticism is every bit as beleaguered as the film version, but there the UK profit-what-profit sector has lately produced two issues of progressive comics criticism in Critical Chips, while US output includes an ongoing authentic fanzine in Bubbles Zine and another that’s very close called Comic Aht, plus a self-published selection of Matt Seneca’s comics essays, which was at least as significant an intervention in his chosen field as any individual film critic has carried out lately, an item made more vital rather than less by arriving as a printed pamphlet.
The same sector also produced LAAB, an art newspaper backed to the tune of $30,000 on Kickstarter combining criticism, comics and cultural commentary in a full-size broadsheet item which contains an invitation from the creators to paste pages of it around your neighbourhood like guerrilla graffiti if you fancy. (LAAB #4 also contains a piece of solid film criticism about the Alien franchise, and an article on meme culture that would be directly relevant to creators of video essays.)
We’ve chosen to focus on print rather than digital for a variety of reasons. Physical objects have a life of their own, independent from any proprietary platform or device. Once you lose them into the world, anything can happen. They can be passed from hand to hand, disassembled, stolen, pasted up, reconfigured. A newspaper can blow into your face as you walk down a windy street; this is in fact our ideal delivery mechanism for LAAB.
Which is another way of saying that video-essays are as yet pretty bad at audience participation and hardly ever feel like anything being passed from hand to hand, both of which are part of arts criticism’s purpose. Some kind of rift has opened up if the natural energies that could spark a work like LAAB in film journalism are instead being diverted into clip-shows complaining about the editing of Bohemian Rhapsody, clips apparently happy to think that criticism’s destiny lies in a lecture theatre rather than somewhere as far from one of those as possible.
For the Solrad site, an article about The Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, or at least those first four of Jacques Tardi’s stories that Fantagraphics republished in English before the series went on hiatus. I have a soft spot for Luc Besson’s Adèle film, but he didn’t make her the complicated bundle of exasperated irritation that her creator did. The throwaway visual of her sucking her thumb while asleep after she’s spent fifty pages bulldozing through the officious oafs who run French society is the mark of a cartoonist who knows that his character is an innocent heading for a disaster, and it isn’t even her fault.
Tardi’s appalled fascination with World War I as the pit that Europe still hasn’t climbed out of a century later looms over everything he creates, and if Adèle takes a more metaphorical route to the topic than something like It Was the War of the Trenches — which truly has something of Goya about it — then maybe that just makes Adèle’s poignancy sharper. The poilu in the trenches are in hell, but Adèle Blanc-Sec and everyone she encounters while getting caught up in plague cults and mad science and spiritualist ectoplasm in 1912 Paris still has hell to look forward to. The Solrad piece is here.
Seems fair to call Greta Gerwig’s Little Women exactly that, since Gerwig’s own tart self-sufficiency from Frances Ha and its Mistress America flip side aren’t hard to spot in there, not to mention the deadpan delivery she used in Damsels in Distress while claiming that the twist was popularised by someone named Chubbard Checker. The film is going for modernisation and American authenticity at the same time—and doing it with hard calculation rather than impetuous exuberance, the inevitable bargain if mass-culture is society’s cart rather than its horse. But Gerwig is trying for tenderness too, something hardly any films know what to do with in this, our age of irony.
It also has Florence Pugh, owner of enough exuberance for any three films. Every now and again someone British rocks up who splices the domestic acting tradition with American mechanisms and makes it look like the two schools are cosily compatible, rather than from parallel dimensions. Pugh is today’s designated alchemist and has been ever since she frugs along to that car radio in The Little Drummer Girl, beaming with the joy of just doing the job in the first place—the rarest Anglo Saxon knack of all. She bosses Little Women from the front in her own scenes before doing it again from the background during other people’s. Next May she goes twelve rounds with Scarlett Johansson while wielding a Russian accent that sounds like it could squash a pebble, which might be something between a title bout and a bacchanal.
A serious bunch, apart from Anna which like most Luc Besson films is stoked with the joys of just being a film in the first place, like a happy puppy. Peter Strickland’s In Fabric was a hoot too, but took Britain and its endless neuroses and service industries to the proverbial cleaners, Are You Being Served as body horror, a pretty venomous jab at the old country; the newborn baby girl immediately giving her own father the finger caught the mood of the national moment. Isabella Eklöf came to the Encounters Short Film Festival in 2012 with Notes From Underground, and the course from there to Holiday was in sight even then.
Pointless to question (again) whether a Best Films of 2019 list where the films are not available to the magazine’s readership until later in 2020 serves any purpose beyond flattering the egos of those asked to vote, and personally I would rather have mine flattered by higher rates of pay instead. Whomever your magazine is aimed at the other eleven-and-a-half-months of the year, Best Of Year lists are supposed to be for general arts consumers who dip in and out, not for repeating the same praise for the same festival hits you’ve already praised once before, or finding a hypothetical audience who plan their arts consumption months in advance like Operation Overlord.
For Sight & Sound another of my occasional attempts to get Danny DeVito’s film Hoffa wedged into the conversation for being a vital spark of 1990s American culture, as well as an authentic leftist film. The first of those was the most important to me for a long while; but then mainstream US films became fixated on Chosen Ones and the whole machine changed into a straight neo-liberal broadcasting service and film criticism gave up trying to read the signs, so it might be time to preach the second one for a bit.
The hook for all this was due to be The Irishman, which in the end doesn’t concern Jimmy Hoffa’s labour roots at all and isn’t particularly left of centre. Mid-range Martin Scorsese might still be above the current median mark, but the hosannahs being rained upon The Irishman are a stretch. The film leads up to a final hour of solid inertia and regret, but you need to buy that the expressions on Robert De Niro’s face are bottomless pools of inner life turning foul and fetid. If you don’t, and if the CGI rejuvenations strike you as throttling human faces to a standstill rather than unleashing their inner power, then the film might be a weirdly grey restatement of things said elsewhere, sometimes by this director. Then there’s the theory that The Irishman is a Culmination Of All Scorsese Pain, a bold claim considering his last film was Silence which really was a summary of the entire faith-based department of his output and was utterly agonising, deploying exactly the romanticism and poetics I was talking about with Hoffa.
Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci may win Best awards—not Al Pacino I would think—but while I was still pondering whether they should I happened to see Tracy Letts in Le Mans ’66. Letts being obnoxious and ruining the dreams of young people is one of the few things that still gets me out to a film’s opening weekend. But even I rocked back in my chair a bit at the scene in the middle where Henry Ford II has an emotional meltdown that starts off in Humiliated Troll territory before turning into something closer to debilitating euphoria mixed with some of that middle-aged regret, if not actual envy of the young, all emerging from a face at the very opposite of a standstill. Letts spends two minutes doing what the combined resources of The Irishman have decided to eliminate for three hours, but it’s debatable which one comes out ahead in the long run.