Thursday, August 13, 2009

Solanas and Getino's Problem with Film Criticism

Jack Attard told me about this interesting article he read - 12 great foreign films you won't find here - by Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Jack and I were having a conversation about the distribution of global films, and LaSalle offers some good, if ambitious, solutions to folks who want to expand their global film watching. The article is good, even if his list of movies is pretty Eurocentric. Jack was telling me that LaSalle has a sort of cult following in the San Francisco area, or at least among readers of the San Francisco Chronicle, so I started reading what was available by LaSalle online.

I find a lot of things LaSalle has to say interesting, but I started to notice that he is clearly building an Ethos that positions itself as above the average movie goer, and often incites response from readers (he likes to respond to 'hate' mail publically in his column). This sort of positioning turns me off as a reader, not because I'm looking for something objective, but because I'm wary of some sort of appeal to 'mastery.' I'd rather read reviews that clearly outline the reasons for the opinions of the reviewer. Take this question and response for example:

Dear Mick LaSalle: Is it idiocy or sacrilege to watch "Casablanca" and think that it's really not such a great film? Having just seen it again, I found it rather awful - melodramatic, poorly scripted and acted, and bordering on boring.

Paul Holtz, San Francisco

Dear Paul Holtz: It's not sacrilege or idiocy, because you're not a critic. You're simply doing what 99.9 percent of the public does (and maybe 50 percent of critics do): You're mistaking a personal predilection for an aesthetic judgment. You don't like it, but that doesn't mean it isn't great. It means it's not your cup of tea. That's OK for a nonprofessional, but a critic should be able to tell you why a movie is good, even if he or she doesn't enjoy it. Or, conversely, a critic should be able to explain precisely why a script that has been loved and lauded for 70 years is actually lousy - and why no one else has figured that out until now.

It is all fine and well for the critic to understand what I'm assuming LaSalle is referring to as formal features of a film (he uses the terms good and bad), but I was having a problem with the rhetorical positioning of the critic over the average viewer - as well as stating that there are 'good' formal features and 'bad' formal features. I'm not sure I understood why I was having a problem (gut reaction) with these features of his answer here, however, until I came to this passage from Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino's Towards a Third Cinema:

The placing of the cinema within US models, even in the formal aspect, in language, leads to the adoption of the ideological forms that gave rise to precisely that language and no other. Even the appropriation of models which appear to be only technical, industrial, scientific, etc., leads to a conceptual dependency, due to the fact that the cinema is an industry, but differs from other industries in that it has been created and organised in order to generate certain ideologies. The 35mm camera, 24 frames per second, arc lights, and a commercial place of exhibition for audiences were conceived not to gratuitously transmit any ideology, but to satisfy, in the first place, the cultural and surplus value needs of a specific ideology, of a specific world-view: that of US finance capital.
The critic, or at least the way that LaSalle is invoking the critic in his response, serves as an arm of this homogenizing apparatus. The entire goal of this apparatus is to divorce film from its social role in order to turn it into a consumer product by creating a subject that demands a particular (critically acclaimed) product. While this clearly damages the distribution of alternative films (foreign, independent, experimental, etc.) by crowding the market with a particular type of product, it is doubly-damaging in the sense that it creates a subject, an average film viewer, that cannot understand alternative, potentially political, products.

We can all think of someone that loves Hollywood action movies, but just can't understand the point of documentaries or 'art' films. This person has been cut off from a wealth of films, not to mention points of reference for understanding the world. This person has also become very valuable for the Hollywood film industry.

Now, I'm not saying that LaSalle is a tool of Hollywood - I haven't read nearly enough of his reviews to make a judgement like that (and it appears he certainly
is not a tool of Hollywood, considering the articles on French and UK productions I posted above). But even this concept of the critic that appears as a refrain in his response to reader letters inherently carries with it values that pre-emptively oppress minor works of cinema, or even the idea that cinema could be a political tool (Solanas and Getino's militant cinema). Of course, if LaSalle did not include this refrain in his works, perhaps he wouldn't have the luxury of such an established place at the San Francisco Chronicle.


  1. You should definitely post this to LaSalle...maybe he'll publicize your blog by responding! I would definitely be curious to know he would react to this position.

  2. I follow the logic of your argument and understand how the "power" of a critic can be used as a marketing tool but: 1. Aren't there technical and, I suppose, nontechnical criteria that can be used to objectively evaluate a film? 2. Doesn't education and experience (i.e. watching a lot of movies) put the critic above the average viewer in terms of his/her ability to use this criteria
    to judge the merits of a film? and 3. Aren't some films superior to other films? WHY?
    I feel that, with all the movies that are out there, reviews provide a valuable service to help the reader decide whether to see a film or not by giving it a sense of the movie's worth or non-worth . It's the responsibility of the reader to trust the critic's expertise to a degree but to also analyze the merits of a review, to make a judgement as to any bias of the critic, and to not just blindly accept it . This is similar to visiting a doctor. You take the information he gives you and decide on its merit by talking to another doctor and friends, reading up on what he said, etc. He's the expert BUT...

  3. Jack,

    I like the metaphor of the doctor here. I think this is very true. I believe that the critic also has some ethical responsibilities as well, which LaSalle fulfills in articles like '12 great foreign films you won't find here.' That being said, the critic is always employed by someone, and must cater to what that employer wants (reviews of popular movies, a unique voice and point of view, and other 'things' that build readership). This is part of what Solanas and Getino are worried about. Perhaps not how LaSalles employment impinges on his creative freedom, but how does this sponsorship help dominant ideologies trickle into his ideas, and by doing so, his readers?

    Of course, Solanas and Getino were responding to a specific historical situation (Latin-American cinema and revolution, 1969), which makes their wariness of the overbearing US cinema machine make much more sense. At the same time, however, I wonder how much of this is still operating today - affecting US independent films for example. Why won't your average viewer really appreciate Wendy and Lucy? ("Nothing happens"!)

    I think questions 1, 2, and 3 all deserve much more consideration than I can give here! - and in the end they will all be contested ideas. A US critic, formally trained, will say: yes yes yes! A Latin-American filmmaker and revolutionary might say: no no no (though, they'd probably say yes to the last question, ha!).

    And thanks for the comments! Keep coming back!