WELCOME TO SHADOWS IN FOCUS
Introductory Notes by Chandler Swain
YOU MAY CALL IT ART, BUT IT’S STILL FINGER PAINTINGS TACKED TO YOUR REFRIGERATOR
Welcome indeed. This is a journal about film. Film as considered from the perspective as an art form and therefore worthy of serious study and appreciation. This goes beyond considerations limited to entertainment values or commercial considerations. In the end, it does not matter if a film is a popular success with either the public- with subsequent financial returns- or with the industry, with laudatory trophies cascaded like beads at a Mardi Gras. What matters is quality, worth, a contributing element to a growing artistic concern. All film is contributory to the whole of the form; it is the purpose of the serious critic to extract that significance. Though the bulk of film appears meaningless, crude and empty of both thought and aspirations to art, it still contributes to the study of cinema even if by mere example as to why trends toward banality continues to prosper, what audiences are seeking and what their ultimate culpability in the erosion of film as an art form has become. Being that film is not only an art form, but the most significant cultural form of the past century, it is impossible to seriously examine film without taking these societal interconnections as a commanding influence. Cinema does not and- as much a commercial venture as an artistic entity- cannot exist in a vacuum. Therefore, it is also essential to illuminate the study of film with the socio-political environs in which it has been formulated, produced, distributed and appreciated. The influence of film on society has been enormous, and vice versa. To study one, one must appreciate the delicate synergy which exists between the two. It is not enough to say that a film is entertaining, or disappointing, or a favorite, or the worst. This is the level on which most opinions exist in print and on the internet but it is not criticism in the classical sense. In the end, that someone goes out of their way to express approval or condemnation over their weekend infusion of popcorn and warm pop has little or no meaning without a significant context attached to that experience. Otherwise it’s just empty posturing. An excuse to hear one’s own voice while undermining the value that the effort of experience and years of dedicated exposure have in instilling a more legitimate sense of critical judgment.
YOU CAN LEAD A HORSE TO WATER, BUT IT’LL STILL PAY TO SEE ADAM SANDLER MOVIES
It’s very popular, especially on the Internet, to gather a combustible head of steam and throw derisive brickbats at films which don’t nourish the appetite for immediate gratification. The visceral experience has superseded the enriching of the imagination with the great base of the populist audience, to the point where the unseemly sobriquet “The Great Unwashed” can only be referring to their minds. (Their minds have been washed alright, but the grimy sediment of intellectual complacency ensuring an inevitable cultural illiteracy, only obscures the public’s continued ability to see the light.) There is little doubt that Hollywood has been spoon feeding inert pablum to the general populace for years, and the greater part of the audience has learned to demand little more. If there is great dissatisfaction with the state of the cinema, how to explain the increase in ticket sales? New generations are subsisting on empty spectacle created in computers while more stimulating fare is sitting unrecognized on video shelves everywhere. How foolish does the public have to be to hear Hollywood “cry wolf” for the hundredth time in releasing a dismal multimillion dollar pseudo-blockbuster that will fill the coffers for a few weeks and then die into deeply deserved oblivion, and yet continue to willingly sacrifice their limited money, time and attention? This is intellectual laziness pure and simple, and the trend is running unabated with a newer generation that demands instant information (accuracy be damned) to inconsequential inquiries, (the technology is supposed to be a tool for the individual, not running the show) is satisfied with instant communication that creates intimate connection with no one, and enthusiastically patronizes cultural material that demands nothing of the them except a set of vacant eyes. Why would Hollywood make an effort to do more? Where is the demand? (At least from the “supposed” targeted demographics?)
AND A LITTLE CHILD WILL LEAD THEM OVER THE CLIFF
If there is a target demographic for Hollywood, (and clearly, that is the case, though not the 18 to 24 year old males that had been presumed) it is children. Absent of any sense of practical aesthetic nurturing that would guide a young viewer into a lifelong journey enriched with the seeds of an evolving sense of artistic awareness, studio corporates engineer shiny baubles that dance in the light and delight the undiscerning eyes of the mind that has failed to develop more than a limited response mechanism to anything but the most primal stimulus. This is bizarrely self-defeating, ultimately suicidal behavior for a cultural form that in terms of longevity (and certainly in consideration of it’s range of maturation still untouched) is still in it’s infancy. In reaching out to the immediate lucre involved in pandering to underdeveloped critical faculties, Hollywood is ensuring the growth of entire generations of audiences that will become more and more disaffected by it’s product.
YOU GET THE SEATS, I’LL TAKE OUT A BANK LOAN FOR THE POPCORN
If film seems a more inconsequential cultural form than in eras past, it has nothing to do with the nature of the artistic form, and everything to do with it’s commercial nature. The crass marketing, the multiplicity of meaningless viewing versions- both theatrically and in the increasingly dismal home video pool, the insertion of contemporary “celebrity” in the stead of actors or at least stars, the reclaiming of tired materials, especially those vehicles considered “classics” by the obsessive populist fan base mentality, but whose only merit may have been the luster of a few featured Golden Age stars and studio high gloss. All of these factors erode the interest in film as a serious concern. And let’s not forget the appalling condition of theatrical venues. Now, great empty boxes filled with crashing THX sound from nine multiplex screens away, movie theaters are no longer intended as the showplaces of yesteryear, but a convenient and economical cattle pen in which to be herded until sufficient exposure to slideshows advertising realtor agents, financial institutions, car dealerships, television ads, the incurable charitable disease research center du jour and lame attempts at film trivia beat your resistance down so you won’t be conscious enough to realize how this investment of $80 for an afternoon matinee yielded the same entertainment value comparable to having your skull crack open like a walnut in a leaking cryogenic tube. The contemporary theatrical exhibition culture yields little to no interest in the legacy of film, with cinema as a cumulative experience, instead focusing on the immediate financial rewards of the industry with no consideration for the “entertainment” factor of it’s patrons. In other words, in the eyes of the theatrical distributor, cinema has been relegated to, not an artistic form, but an industry merely existing as an entertainment form, but without the trappings of entertainment.
IN THE KINGDOM OF THE BLIND, THE ONE-EYED MAN IS STILL MYOPIC
Popular culture has become so disposable to modern audiences, it has generally ceased to be perceived as having it’s foundations in artistic forms but instead treated as if it were merely convenient doses of intellectual marcotics. With the Cinema, this fractious division between the Populist audience- which majorically sees film primarily as a vehicle of mass entertainment- and the Critical Establishment- whose primary viewpoint is concerned with the form’s artistic evolution- has further divided into a strange form of Cultism, which imports a more narrowly defined Populist tradition with misappropriated canonical applications of the Critical Establishment. Under the guise of the expression of a cultural standard, Cultism dismisses the collective roots of Populism and the independent analytic voice serving the evolution of the aesthetic form [the basis of the Critical Establishment] in order to act as an personal expression in the service of celebrating the taste of an individual rather than considering wider popular appeal or legitimate criteria of aesthetic determinations. Cultism becomes a celebration of the idiosyncratic rather than of an art form. This surrender to the celebration of the individually subjective is one of the questionable manifestations of the Internet which has both fractured then abandoned traditional critical hierarchy in favor of the elevation of the instantaneous impulse as an equal to coherent, educated discourse. Fandom under the guise of critical legitimacy has polluted the public perception of the Critical Establishment to the point where much of the critical mechanism in this country has been subject to dismantling. Instead of finding the Critical Establishment a source of an informed perspective on a cultural form, it’s every utterance is an anathema to both Cultists and Populists alike. Internet bloggers as well as mass media reviewers have stepped into the vacant spaces to replace the consistent critical voice with trend-fueled hysteria and market induced slavish devotions to meaningless “events” (i.e. opening weekend grosses, award shows, film lists) while substituting reasoned analysis with possessively enthusiastic effusions that neither illuminate nor stand the test of time. Cultists are especially susceptible to the attractive notion that their opinion is definitive whereas the true critic in service to the art form is more concerned with the state of that form rather than the status of their own egoism; being conscious that public eyes scrutinize their every utterance is a motivation for the critic to provide as much introspective consideration of the work- thus resulting in a presumably cogent critical evaluation- as possible. In other words, one may disagree with a true critic (this is to be encouraged, as the stimulation of thought on the featured subject is precisely the function of a critic) but it doesn’t devolve into a situation where the critic falls into emotional disarray over antithetical viewpoints, however, for the Cultist, the suggestion of disagreement often leads to situations often best left to bickering six year old children in a playground. A “critical” view primarily fueled by emotion rather than reason is simply not a view that will surmount the process of close inspection. The resulting critical implosion serves neither the public nor, more importantly, the cultural form.
MONKEY SEE, MONKEY PLEASE DON’T
The emergence of La Nouvelle Vague in the late Fifties, championed by the authors of Cahiers du Cinema, brought with it the profusion of thought about Auteurism and the rise of director as cinema superstar. Armed with this (then) new canonical stratagem , critics were now able to approach the emerging World Cinema market with a rather lax approach to the evolution of fresh news film and instead concentrated on isolated cinema voices; the chosen few who were hand selected to represent en masse the entirety of that particular region’s output. Italian cinema, or Italian cinema that was to be taken “seriously” was represented by the few critical darlings able to become preeminent in this atmosphere of critical exclusion, and thus the “artists” (Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti) were elevated above those who were inexplicably determined to be mere “craftsmen” (Monicelli, Zurlini, Lattuada). This reductive, shortsighted reasoning would eventually lead to the retardation of the form, especially in America and bring with it a widening schism denying the importance of the writer as a key contributor to a cinematic vision. Under the banner of Auteurism, repetition is celebrated while excoriating the traditional studio form which encouraged…you guessed it, repetition. In a nonsensical example that is touted without a sense of irony, Howard Hawks is catapulted to the pantheon of giants in his influence on the American Western, as the equal of John Ford, as if a mere handful of western films might legitimately support such a staggering burden. Fords films, whatever their artistic value, by their sheer commercial acceptance and blatant repetition of substance would influence the popular vision of the American West for decades, while the few Hawks films of note could be regarded as laconic offshoots of Ford’s oeuvre. “Red River” has merit in that it gives star John Wayne a somewhat meatier role to play with, but the central conflict of the film is not particularly convincing and Montgomery Clift, his later slavish cult devotion to the contrary, is simply miscast. The celebrated “Rio Bravo” is an even larger thorn to approach; a film worshiped as the height of commercial artistry in some circles, it is a lazy, unstructured, rambling film that seems to have no purpose except “to be”. (Thus playing into the hands of the fervent Auteurist who find every visual utterance of their chosen directors inevitably predestined with untold layers of hysterically unearthed patterns of “signature” characteristics masquerading as profundity.)
THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY?
Were anyone to take heed of the more fervent Populist notions of value by way of trendiness or popular acceptance by generational association alone, one would concede that genius must be a cyclical beast; impressing itself upon the present day half-sleepy orbs of the watchers of popular culture, but failing to transgress upon the newly discarded concepts of legacy, history and artistic evolution. The once vitally discussed works of Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, Satyajit Ray, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa- giants of the Cinema- have now increasingly become dusty museum pieces instead of the living, breathing testaments to man’s continuous fumbling toward an ethereal cultural voice; presently granted the national ignominy of being preserved under glass for the curious academic to gawk at and perhaps write a lengthy consideration that finds publication in a university press, while hundreds of variations of 100 Great Gross Out Splatter Flicks adorn the shortened film book shelves of bookstores across the nation. Having even less of a chance for attention are the works of more independent and experimental filmmakers, Frederick Wiseman, Chris Marker, Stan Brackage and countless others whose works might illuminate the farthest corners of the film envelope, where it might go and how it might be possible.
Shadows in Focus is intended as a serious film journal. A place where serious critical voices might collectively gather and find expression clear of the Populist fodder which is presently filling so much of the Internet, thus creating the current perceptual crisis we now find ourselves in as to the solidity of the status of The Critical Establishment in the continuing evolution of the Cinema art form. Let us make no mistake about it: Cinema continues to evolve despite the flanking assault to the artistic sensibilities by the Populist hordes in both their continuing contempt of the pursuit of cinematic artistic merit by their freely open support of that which neither pleases the educated nor the primeval palate, and their contemptuous disclaiming as to the worth of the ‘true’ Critical Establishment with the Internet feeding millions of substandard taste buds with the arrogant assertion that their valueless, subliterate effusions are as valuable in assessing a complex art form simply by virtue of purchasing a theater ticket.
Interested, enlightened, experienced, original critical voices are welcome.