Earlier this month, while reading Kira Cochrane’s excellent interview with French filmmaker Claire Denis in The Guardian, I got fixated on one particular anecdote. While growing up in Africa, Denis didn’t have any access to cinema.
“Some nights, though, to lull her to sleep, Cochrane writes, “Her mother would relate the films she had seen, in descriptions so detailed that, years afterwards, when the director finally saw [Alain Resnais’s] ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour,’ she realized she knew it intimately.
At first, I was fascinated by the story, marveling at the inherent magic of cinema. But then I thought how many of the young movie-going public have actually seen “Hiroshima, Mon Amour? How many have seen Denis’ “Beau Travail or “Trouble Every Day?
Denis released her beautiful new film “35 Shots of Rum a couple of weeks ago in the UK. For my money, “Rum is far superior to any of the Hollywood blockbusters showing at Britain’s multiplexes. Yet, I’d be surprised if it manages to gross more than £1 million.
The current dull summer season and unexpected huge success of the god-awful “Transformers’ sequel, coupled with a series of some of the lousiest film conversations I’ve had in recent months coerced me to pose the two questions I ask almost every summer: How did it all go wrong for cinema? Do we critics, the perishing breed of writers, matter any longer?
Another article about great critic Andrew Sarris by Michael Powell in the New York Times swelled my desolation. Sarris – the former New York Observer critic whose book “The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 is an essential read for any serious film lover – was the latest major causality of the economic recession that pushed most American papers to lay off its ‘disposable’ film critics.
At the height of his fame, Sarris boasted a large following that rivaled the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, arguably the most influential film critic in history, a time when an elusive French director like Chantal Akerman (“Jeanne Dielman ) was gracing the cover of The Village Voice.
The reason for Sarris and Kael’s popularity (and the cahiers du cinema critics before them) back then stems from the basic nature of the global film culture of 1960s and 1970s. Film was part of the cultural and social revolution that swept the world. Teens were hungry for experimentation, embracing the radicalism of Godard, Bertolucci, Resnais and Oshima. The names of Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut and Antonioni were guaranteed to pack art-house theaters across the world. For this generation, filmmakers were no mere artists, they were untouchable Gods.
Nowadays, the word art-house has become the scarlet letter of the film industry. Trade magazines like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter often use the term to designate the limited appeal of such films. The number of art-house theaters is dwindling everywhere, including France, the last harbor of great cinema.
The influence of critics has significantly declined at a time when they’re demanded more than ever with the influx of small and medium-sized indie films.
In a country like Egypt, where film journalism almost doesn’t exist, we’d be deceiving ourselves if we claim to have a noteworthy role in the local film scene. Frankly, Egyptians are no longer interested in film criticism. Word of mouth has become the norm. Not only are most people unaware of true film criticism, they’re simply not interested.
A few weeks back, a guy asked me what I do in life. I told him I’m a film critic. “So, you just review movies? he asked me. I tried to explain what film criticism means, told him that writing about film, for me, is no mere ‘reviewing,’ that it’s, as great critic Manny Farber put it, my tool to understand life through film. “Oh, he replied, “So you just review movies then.
The general movie-going public, along with an alarmingly large number of critics, regard film as nothing more than mindless entertainment and escape. Any film that doesn’t fit that particular profile is deemed ‘difficult,’ ‘demanding’ and ‘non-commercial.’ I was having a conversation with a girl I just met about Bergman, briefly discussing his long search for God, his fear of death and his complex view on relationships and marriage. “Who would wanna watch a movie about that? she said, “I watch movies to have fun.
James Gray, director of this year’s best American film “Two Lovers, said in a recent interview that “Students are no longer passionate about films and critics … They’re no longer as radical.
I can’t help but agree. How did we reach this point? I’m not quite sure.
Most critics and scholars blame Spielberg and Lucas for the dumbing down of American cinema. Several media studies indicate that the sweeping arm of American junk culture is the main reason for the spreading cultural downturn. Others believe it’s the bad shape of the economy, that people have no time to ask the big questions Bergman, Antonioni and Kubrick confronted.
All assumptions are valid, but a concrete answer remains out of reach. We live in the ultimate age of mediocrity, where “Twilight and “The Da Vinci Code are outselling Philip Roth and Kazuo Ishiguro, where generic American pop dominates the charts and where minor masterpieces like “The Hurt Locker and “Moon are struggling to cross the $3 million barrier in the US.
My favorite films of the year are a Chekovian French family drama (Olivier Assayas’s “Summer Hours ), a classroom drama (Laurent Cantet’s “Entre les murs ), the decade’s best political satire (Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop ), an American romantic melodrama (Gray’s aforementioned “Lovers ) and an original reworking of Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov (Petr Zelenka’s “Karamazovi ). All films defy genre conventions, and all are difficult to classify in general terms that we erroneously use.
In my book “Enre les murs is more entertaining than “Harry Potter or “Up. Each left me with questions to ponder about life, culture, politics and God. The intellectual and visual stimulations aside, these films brim with so much life, with ideas and moods and, in the case of “In the Loop, brilliantly uncouth irony. I realize that some of the year’s other best films (Lisandro Alonso’s “Liverpool, Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman, Zhang Ke Jia’s “24 City ) could be deemed as “challenging for even specialty film audiences, but the fact that the likes of “Summer Hours and “Karamazovi were not seen by larger audiences is a testament to the failure of our culture.
The real reason behind my disgruntlement is that I do believe that despite the stern setbacks filmmakers are facing to produce their films, they somehow manage to continue to produce great cinema that remains largely unseen. The likes of Zhang Ke Jia and Philippine’s wunderkind Raya Martin are taking cinema to new places, recording an alternative history of their nations.
There’s incredible beauty in their films, ingenuity and mystery. My main concern is to see such talents disappear prematurely.