"Authors' Politics" and "Politics of Writing"

in 42nd Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Dana Linssen

1. The Reflection in a Fiery Pool in the Asphalt

What would a film festival be without at least one opportunity where film critics and other writers on film could meet in public and discuss their game and trade?

At this year’s Viennale the Austrian film magazine “Kolik” hosted such a panel on film mediation and film publishing, called “Über Film schreiben” (Writing on Cinema). Moderator Dominik Madalzadeh noted that the occasion for this conversation was not so much the publication of their second issue, which partly deals with film criticism, but merely a matter of self-reassurance.

The first question to his guests Eduardo Antin (critic from Buenos Aires), Stefan Grisseman (film critic “Profil”, Austria), Pepita Hesselberth (University of Utrecht, the Netherlands), Cristina Nord (film critic “Die Tageszeitung”, Berlin) and Mia Hansen-Løve (film maker and writer for “Cahiers du cinema”) would therefore be: “Why are we doing this and how?”

As simple as the question may sound, even more so was the answer, at least to the first part of the question: “For the love of film”.

That is: to inform, provoke, discuss, enlighten.

The open debate and exchange of thoughts and opinions between free spirits, whether they are film critics, film makers, academics or cherished guru’s of cinephelia, is in the end what defines cinema. For several mysterious ‘intuitive affinities’ the spirit of Walter Benjamin was with us this week, so it seems appropriate to recall his words that critique is immanent to the art itself, and therefore something contingent to the art itself. He stated that there would be no art without critique, since art in itself is unfinished, thus critical from the start, finding it’s fulfilment in the critical perception. And experience, I would like to add. Since modern film criticism pays far too little respect to the fact that criticism also benefits from some sort of intuitive justification in addition to for instance poetical justice. (For some more reflections on this thought visit the archive on the FIPRESCI-website).

So another answer could be: to engage in André Bazin’s both primary and primal discours on “What is Cinema?”

It is the ‘how’ that is a little bit more complicated, since the answers are many and multi-faced.

The ‘how’-part also served as one of the guidelines for the Viennale/FIPRESCI Talent Press-project that took place within the framework of the Vienna International Film Festival for the very first time. Preceded by this year’s Talent Press at the Berlinale Talent Campus and the already existing opportunity for trainees to write for the daily festival paper of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, two aspiring critics, Charles Leary and Andrew Rector from the United States, were invited to partake in the FIPRESCI jury in Vienna and publish articles in a little web magazine that was updated daily on the Viennale and the FIPRESCI-website simultaneously.

‘How’ means: how often, in which newspapers and magazines, how long, how profound, how independent?

‘How’ means: are there any rules for writing a review or critique, other than good writing and good thinking?

‘How’ means: stipulate your own point of view with respect to:

“Only fools lament the decay of criticism. For it’s day is long past. What, in the end, makes advertisements superior to criticism? Not what the moving red neon sign says — but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.” (Walter Benjamin again).

‘How’ means: be that pool.

2. The Light Ashes of Life Gone By

The second part of the panel focused on the question whether a film critic has a certain political agenda. Academic Pepita Hesselberth already mentioned that one of her main goals as a teacher is to provoke people in their thinking about film. “Film mediation is very political”, she concluded.

French writer and film maker Mia Hansen-Løve proposed a different approach to the word ‘political’: “Being really political is inventing new ways of writing about aesthetics.” She opposed to the word ‘political’ being reserved exclusively for political matters, such as the political content of a film.

And there is off course another way of being ‘political’ (correct that is) as Eduardo Antin added polemically: “You don’t have to defend world cinema because we have to team up with third world countries. That is a bad strategy, that comes out of a lack of political honesty and tends towards a modern way of colonialism. In the end you end up defending bad films.”

3. The Enigma of the Flame

Is film indeed a democratic medium and therefore film criticism just one of many ways to offer an opinion on a film? It would be the most humble and at the same time the most indifferent approach possible to film writing. It would be the glory of the red neon sign.

But does that mean that while “all films are born equal” (Eduardo Antin), some opinions are more true than others?

Extending Mia Hansen-Løve’s line of thought a little could mean that one could argue that it is not only time to “invent new ways of writing about aesthetics”, but that the main task for a new generation of film critics is to re-invent film history. And while we are at it, formulate some new insights on the canonized history of film criticism itself.

The Viennale is a glorious celebration of cinephelia, entwining both old and new traditions, coinciding directors of form and directors of contents, cross-referencing between outsiders and ‘auteurs’, roaming loners and ascetic hermits. Where else could one see a film by the notorious Vlado Kristl, starring Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet?

Sometimes one could wish that film writing itself would not be so paralyzed by directing these different ways into dead end streets. Just as it is surprising and enchanting to see Straub trying to perform in an anarchistic film, it could be equally clarifying to approach his oeuvre from a less hermetic starting point as now too often is the case. Film critics, and especially the future ones, should be encouraged to do so, not to relate on other’s comfortable truths, but to express the debris of their own doubts and wonders.

‘How’ therefore means: by asking questions, researching, forgetting, clearing your mind and gently filling it with your own dreams, fantasies, associations, observations, thoughts, questions and love for cinema.

Or as some wandering and wondering philosopher once wrote: “The commentator could study the wood and the ashes… the critic is concerned with the enigma of the flame itself.”

Dana Linssen
© FIPRESCI 2004