Sharpening One’s Teeth in Lisbon

in 13th IndieLisboa - International Independent Film Festival, Lisbon

by Michael Pattison

Soon after returning from my fourth consecutive edition of IndieLisboa, I read All Over the Map (Verso 2012), a chronological collection of essays by the architectural critic Michael Sorkin. In the Autumn 2004 issue of Arcade, Sorkin — himself a practising architect — wrote a twelve-point manifesto of sorts imparting wisdom to fellow critics. I have thought of this sharp, incisive guide since reading its reproduction in the Verso collection, and of how most of its individual points might apply to my own work as a film critic. Though Sorkin’s headings are here retained, any elaborations outside the below quotation marks are mine, re-mapping where appropriate the original text to my recent stint in Lisbon.

1. Always Visit the Building

“A photograph is not worth a thousand words, although many millions have been generated from them.” See the film and see it big: in the cinema with other people. Video libraries are for programmers and curators who have too many films to watch and too little time in which to give them their full attention. My recent stay in Lisbon was unfortunately brief. Agreeing to be on the jury at IndieLisboa, a festival I love, on the understanding that the workload would suit the timeframe, I was upset upon discovering that only two of the films in our juried selection would screen in the cinema during my stay. The others, which amounted to more than fifteen hours of viewing material, were to be watched through online ‘screener’ links, which are always marred by watermarks, timecodes, and substandard image and sound quality — not to mention a dependence on fluctuating internet connections, a small screen-size, the strange isolation of hotel-room laptop-viewing and all the distractions that come with that. It’s my regret (and embarrassment) that I found myself in the position of assessing Liu Shumin’s apparently beautiful, 280-minute debut feature Jia against other films having only watched it (and them) on a computer. An even bigger regret, however, was not being able to squeeze in a trip between bed-bound Vimeo viewings to the Cinemateca Portuguesa, a truly great exhibition space and host this year to the festival’s Paul Verhoeven retrospective.

2. Style Is Seldom the Issue

“Style is what [filmmakers] and editors generally prefer you to write about. Not that expression is unimportant, simply that it often conceals more than it expresses… Don’t get caught defending the indefensible by too much fascination with form.” Films are art in the way that buildings are not, precisely because even in their basic form they cannot be reduced to, or justified by, notions of utility. But we critics are too often bedazzled by form and forget to interrogate its meaning. The medium is not just its message; pretty images alone do not an enduring film make. Exhibit A: Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Kill Me Please, whose gorgeousness is also rooted to its depthlessness; this is what we mean when we call a film a ‘tone-poem’ or ‘mood-piece’.

3. Credit Effects, Not Intentions

“Architects always tell a good story. And, certainly, one should listen with care and take note of any worthwhile ideas… A critic, however, should arrive on the scene with a quiver full of her own values and take her best shot, not be a conduit for someone else’s delusions.” Read what you feel you need to in order to get a sense of where a film comes from. No lack of specialty should preclude a thinking, sensitive and honest critic from taking a stab at a work, however unfamiliar or exotic it seems. But beware the press-kit trap: don’t regurgitate promotional materials for the sake of it. Criticism is not a service industry — and in any case, a jury consisting of critics from different backgrounds (national, social, cultural, etc.) is always necessarily incomplete. Work well within your limitations, don’t trick your way beyond them.

4. Think Globally, Think Locally

As cultural events that cannot take place without appropriate levels of funding, material labour and energy resources, film festivals ineluctably express the social and political contradictions of their environment. “To fail to note this particular effect is to abrogate one’s critical duties.” Find out what the budget of the festival is, and who its primary sponsors are; to what extent does it run on voluntary labour, and is this in contradistinction to the cultural currency of the festival? (How many volunteers does it take to roll out a red carpet?) Take time to speak to those who don’t get to go on stage, whose names are limited to a back-page acknowledgement; find out what values they might perceive in the festival and in dedicating their time and work to it. Where, on a basic face-to-face level, do the festival’s priorities lie? What can be gleaned from this?

5. Safety First

“As physicians are counselled first to do no harm, so too must architects.” And artists. Interrogate images and ideas with extreme prejudice: a film that is in some way advancing a harmful, regressive politics should be engaged appropriately (which is not to say the same film cannot also advance, through confusion or otherwise, a more progressive politics at the same time). These are not just immediate or explicit symptoms, such as overt racism or sexism. Intellectual complacency has its own insidious character, as do simplistic plotting and an all-too-righteous sense of worth. Exhibit: Leyla Bouzid’s harmlessly floppy As I Open My Eyes or Rachel Lang’s offensively inoffensive Baden Baden; in the grand scheme of things, however, one must choose one’s battles and retain one’s energy. “These issues are not trivial but central for critics, and they should equip themselves to inventory such effects.” Equip yourself: watch more films and more still, but know you can’t watch them all. Find time to strengthen your armour by other means too. Read Trotsky.

6. Who Profits?

“In our beloved capitalist system, buildings are generally not acts of charity. Private engorgement is what produces most of our built environments, and profit is not known for its generosity.” Films, and the festivals that screen them, require money. A critic’s duty is to see, where possible, how such funding is distributed, and to decide for herself the extent to which her assessment (scathing takedown, gushing endorsement) factors in matters of budget. Incestuously small industry though this may be, name names when cutting through any façade.

7. Consult the User

Films are made for audiences (never let filmmakers convince you otherwise). See films with a paying public, with a local audience. “Their opinions count and should be counted. Which is not to say that their taste should trump the critic’s. However, [audience] happiness is primary and their unhappiness truly significant… To begin, people are to be given some credit for understanding the terms of their own comfort, convenience, and taste. Our consumption system, though, is founded on the provision of illusory choice; a million brands of soap, all the same.” IndieLisboa’s audience award went to Rudi Rosenberg’s debut feature The New Kid, my own personal favourite of the films our jury saw. This is a film in which hardship is palpable but in which humour is also evident as a survival mechanism. Rosenberg elicits amazingly rounded, infectiously naturalistic performances from a cast of young teenagers, the pick of which is Joshua Raccah. It comes as no surprise to me that this film should speak to audiences: it’s very far from fanciful, it’s not overly self-conscious, it concerns itself with relatable adversity and its primary thematic thrust is one of togetherness and solidarity. Is it “cinematic”? By virtue of having been filmed, of being made as a result of cinematic thinking and conscious decisions, yes. (See also: the critical backlash against I, Daniel Blake.)

8. History Is Not Bunk

“History is written by its victors, who generally prefer to see its progress as positivistic and singular. But culture writes many histories all at once, and the critic must be acute in unravelling whose history is being served, and whose is being suppressed.” This point ought to speak for itself: no film is made in a historical vacuum. All formal decisions and aesthetic choices are historically informed, consciously or otherwise. A film arrives and stands in history — but whose, and how? Be alert and open to histories other than the one you have learned. At the same time, beware superficial endorsements or dismissals of a film based on the gender, race, ethnicity or political stance of its maker. A criticism based on such facile identity politics is often fashionable in the short term, but doomed to bankruptcy in the long.

9. It’s the City, Stupid

“…the big picture can only be observed by looking at the big picture.” Any criticism that orients itself so myopically and unquestioningly around the bigger-budgeted ‘A-list’ festivals is debased and defunct. Of course a festival like Cannes is the circuit’s most significant: with a budget of €20 million, it has every right to feel entitled to this dubious honour. Festivals exist in relation to other festivals; and films to other films. From this, an image of cinema culture emerges. But cinephilia isn’t itself an object: it exists at the interstices of physical space, intellectual discourse, and the multiple histories undergirding both.

10. Defend the Public Realm

“Threatened by the repressive sameness of global culture, contracted by breakneck privatisation, devalued by contempt for public institutions, and victimised by the loss of habits of sociability, the physical arena of collective interaction—the streets, squares, parks and plazas of the city—are, in their free accessibility, the guarantors of democracy.” Be loud when questioning hikes in ticket prices, monopolies in distribution and exhibition, devaluing wages, and so on. Cinema and criticism will never save themselves. Find ways in which both are prone to, and perpetuate, the objectively harmful processes that drive a system built upon profit.

11. Keep Your Teeth Sharpened

“Courtesy is an important value, but a critic should prefer to be fair. Judiciousness should never trump candour, however, and a critic often needs to shout very loudly to be heard over the din of interests that surround the [filmmaking] process. The rapier will always defeat the noodle, and almost always produce a better prose style.” A fully honest criticism must never pull its punches, must never be dragged into a culturally or institutionally awkward position that compromises its rigour. Write well; frame your persuasion with cutthroat imagery. Work to destroy the property relations that demand from you a collegial attitude towards those who have power over you.

12. Play Your Favourites

“This can, of course, get out of hand: a critic should not be a publicist or a slut.” Recognise how and why your criticism is biased, and that no critical circle or federation advances a single, homogenous standard. Embrace it: “the critic is out there to describe and defend a set of values in which s/he believes. If there are [filmmakers] who embody these same values, they deserve special treatment. They also deserve to have their feet held to the fire if they falter in advancing them.”

Michael Pattison