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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 4, No. 2, 2005
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Robert J. Lewis
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Rochelle Gurstein



Elbert Ventura is an arts and culture writer living in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The New Republic and Reverse Shot. This essay is published with the kind permission of The New Republic .


On January 8, the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC) gave its best director award to Zhang Yimou for his critically acclaimed double bill, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Never mind that the prize went to a director whose best work was a decade behind him. More noteworthy was the fact that Zhang was the first Asian filmmaker to win the award in the group's history. Just as surprising, it also marked the first time in 20 years the group had given the prize to a director of a foreign-language film. Traditionally the boldest and most provocative of the major critics' groups, the NSFC in recent years has strayed from its legacy as an exuberant champion of world cinema. But far from an isolated failing, the group's apparent xenophobia is emblematic of a prevailing mindset among critics that has, gradually and painfully, diminished the visibility of foreign films in American cultural life.

It was not always thus. The NSFC formed in the mid-1960s as a reaction to the middlebrow sensibilities of the New York Film Critics Circle, then the most influential of the critics' groups. Headed by provocative critics like Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and The New Republic's own Stanley Kauffmann, the group espoused film criticism that stood at the forefront of culture, rather than the smug, complacent center. In 1966, the NSFC gave its inaugural prize to Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up --- and the group only got more daring from there. The organization's year-end roster of winners from its first decade reads like an all-star team of the art house: Antonioni, Bergman, Truffaut, Bertolucci, Buñuel.

In the first ten years of the NSFC, seven of the group's year-end best-picture winners were movies in a foreign language. Compare that with the record of the last ten years, during which only one foreign film has won its top honor: Edward Yang's remarkable Yi Yi, which took the prize in 2000. The group's awards are interesting less for the actual choices than for what they suggest about criticism at large. Although there has been no shortage of support for idiosyncratic American filmmakers -- David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich were recent winners--the group has been thuddingly silent about the existence of great artists and movies in other cultures. The neglect of Asian film has been particularly glaring, as the national cinemas of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and Iran have emerged as vanguards of film art in the last decade or so. Somewhere along the way, American critics simply stopped caring about international cinema.

In 1996, Susan Sontag wrote an essay titled "The Decay of Cinema," a eulogy not so much for cinema as for cinephilia. She conjures that heroic period in the '60s and '70s when movies and movie love seemed essential to the culture. What happened, according to Sontag, was "cinema as an industry" overwhelmed "cinema as an art." There is truth in that oft-repeated diagnosis, but it's incomplete. What she didn't mention explicitly was that something else had gone missing, a spirit of adventure and curiosity that had animated the culture and given life to an expansive cinephilia. Great film artists around the world have continued to make movies in the years since, but American audiences and critics have been increasingly disinterested. Sontag's declining influence as a cineast was emblematic of the change: What had been a fashionable passion for challenging cinema in the '60s and '70s had become a recipe for marginalization by the '90s. In the past decade, Sontag championed favorites like Hungary's Bela Tarr, Russia's Alexander Sokurov, and Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien, but such names barely surfaced in larger discussions about art and culture. The great artists of world cinema had become the pet causes of cultists.

If nostalgia can burnish the past, it can also dim the present. Perhaps memories of the art-house heroes of their youth have blinded critics to contemporary artists every bit the equal of those canonical titans. In turn, their ignorance and apathy get passed down to audiences. Critics defend themselves by saying that there are no more Bergmans and Fellinis and Godards to champion, that cinema really is dying. In a 2000 symposium for Cineaste, a film journal, The New Yorker's David Denby made precisely that point and derided the few critics who persisted in pursuing a "film-festival and cultural institute regimen," calling it "an arrogant form of denial." Nothing if not self-serving, Denby's anti-intellectual stance would be merely annoying if it didn't come from the critic of The New Yorker. It's the haughty dismissiveness--that sneer with which he invokes film festivals--that gets to you. When influential critics wave off movies that do not have the good fortune to be playing in a multiplex, they contribute to the very decline that they lament.

It's a mindset that has contributed to the disappearance of foreign films from the cultural radar. One of the critic's most crucial functions is to tell us what we don't know. In cinema, what we don't know frequently comes in the form of a subtitled movie, with no studio backing, a microscopic ad budget, limited distribution, and no recognizable stars. In the heroic age of cinephilia, critics told viewers about these films with eagerness and excitement. These days, mainstream critics would just as soon waste column space on Oscar-pandering movies with millions of dollars in promotion and advertising behind them--movies that need no further publicity. What they dismiss as irrelevant esoterica remains so with their complicity.

This is not to say that there are no good critics today--far from it. Vibrant film criticism thrives, even though such voices speak, unfortunately and unjustly, to specialized audiences. In the alternative weeklies, film journals, and the blogosphere, passionate critics who take seriously movies and the various pleasures they give us serve as the standard-bearers of an adventurous film culture. Critics like the Village Voice's J. Hoberman, the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Film Comment's Kent Jones pose a challenge to the reigning, circumscribed notion of film art in this country. They cling to an unfashionable ideal: the critic as explorer, mapping out an art for a culture saturated by commerce.

But if such critics give cause for hope, their marginal role in the mainstream drives one to despair. When the self-appointed crème-de-la-crème, like the National Society of Film Critics, ignores the movies that need the most help, what chance do such movies have? The occasional foreign film will pierce through our veil of ignorance --- every once in a while comes along a Life is Beautiful or Amelie or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon --- but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. That names like Hou, Tarr, Sokurov, as well as Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zhang-ke, Takeshi Kitano, Abbas Kiarostami, Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Michael Haneke, Jafar Panahi, among others, do not register with young, educated cosmopolitans--the ardent cinephiles of a generation ago--speaks to a failure in the culture. As the would-be guardians of a vital intellectual and artistic sphere, today's critics bear the brunt of that failure.


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