3 Faces
Plaire, aimer et courir vite
Laurie Anderson over Chalkroom
Stills from CLOSE-UP (Nanouk Leopold & Daan Emmen, 2009) a seven hour film that will be projected on the Hofpoort building in the framework of the Size Matters program at IFFR slow criticism | Where do cinema and philosophy meet?

'Can movies think?', American film critic Kent Jones asked. Or should he have asked the movies?

"It's more than a great film", said Quintín, my friend from Argentina, "it's philosophy." We were raving about Fincher's zodiac, something I spent the better part of a year doing with an assortment of friends, acquaintances, strangers, and pretty much anyone. I was intrigued by his comment, which put me in mind of a question posed by James Wood in the Times Literary Supplement: 'Can novels think?' Wood had James' The wings of the dove in mind, and if I remember the piece correctly, he was wondering if the massive accumulation of details, possible courses of action and reaction for the characters and scenarios for the origins of human behavior inferred within its pages made the novel, in essence, smarter than its author. In other words, does it, as opposed to its creator, engender within the reader an ever-expanding consciousness of the parameters of human experience? One might ask the same question of The Brothers Karamazov or Hamlet or Messiaen's L'ascension, works with massive constructions and a near-erotic sense of the unknown, the mysterious. The balance between randomness and specificity, between the known and the unknown, is not just carefully but passionately, even devotionally rendered in such works, or in films like zodiac or conte de noël. So that each new viewing or reading or hearing incites ever more delicate sensations of longing, irony, terror, and exhilaration, perhaps leading to a greater fortitude in the on-going contemplation of life and its mysteries.

'Can movies think?' In a sense, Stanley Cavell asked the same question of the comedies of re-marriage to which he paid such exquisite homage in Pursuits of happiness. For Cavell, these films about conversation converse in turn with one another and with their most devoted viewers, and open avenues of thought and feeling about the possibilities of harmony and disharmony, sometimes creative, between people in love. They may not be epics like the works mentioned above, but Cavell sees within them a similar abundance and variety, and in their filigreed pursuits the same ardent caress of mystery and the limits of experience.
This convergence of American philosophical pragmatism with the cinema offers an appealing alternative to the essentialism that has plagued film criticism for years. One sees such essentialism in David Thomson's contention that there is such a thing as a philosophy 'of' the cinema, inscribed within its production and exemplified in certain passages in Mizoguchi, Altman, Renoir and Rivette, or in the famous camera movement out the window and into the courtyard in Antonioni's the passenger (professione: reporter, 1975). In other words, moments in which light and movement are allowed to speak for themselves and bestow their innate grace on the comparatively paltry human affairs transpiring within or 'beneath' them. Of course, Thomson is describing something quite real, a glorious strain in filmmaking, but he goes wrong when he characterizes it as the essence of cinema, in a polemic disguised as a declaration of moral enlightenment. Jonathan Rosenbaum's infamous New York Times op-ed piece written shortly after the death of Ingmar Bergman is a more honest variation of the same idea, the origins of which can be found in Luc Moullet's dismissal of Akira Kurosawa back in the '50s. Moullet and Thomson both reject the manipulations of film language in favor of the patient, de-dramatized gaze of the documentary-based camera eye. The filmmakers who build their films around the cinema's capacity to record existence in progress, as opposed to the ones who continue to fabricate new intrigues, supposedly possess a higher moral truth. They see not just the drama of human affairs, but the mysteries of light, air, earth, sky, time and space which contain it.

In André Bazin's eminently reasonable response to Moullet, one can see the same opposition that crops up between pragmatists and seekers of ultimate truth in philosophy. You'd have to be blind to miss the superiority of Mizoguchi to Kurosawa, he famously wrote, but anyone who rejects Kurosawa completely is 'incurably one-eyed.' Which is another way of saying that the distinction between Mizoguchi and Kurosawa is not one of different places on an imaginary scale of morality, but of temperament and, perhaps, talent.
This confusion between simple description and moral accounting, between making art and finding ultimate truth with a camera, a microphone and an editing machine, is an old story in filmmaking and criticism, but it continues to be told, over and over. At this point in film history, I have to wonder why. The appeal of systematic rather than case-by-case exploration is obviously great, as great as the lure of enlightenment in the realm of art and outside of organized religion. However, I find it troubling to read rejections of religious and political dogma and embraces of aesthetic dogma within the same passage of criticism. It's as if serious film criticism was afraid to hoist up the anchor of moral essentialism for fear of drifting off into connoisseurship. I suppose that moral essentialism offers a guarantee of being taken seriously.
Bazin once claimed that the evolutionary progress of cinema had occurred at an accelerated rate. Artistically speaking, he was right, but the acceleration did not occur in the area of its appreciation, still dogged by questions of origins and essences. One clearly sees this in the characterizations of Jean-Luc Godard and Serge Daney as secular saints (Colin MacCabe, in his biography of Godard, used this term to describe his subject, modified with the adjective 'Lacanian'; Daney, in his final book Persevérances, used the term to describe himself, albeit with a rather unsettling irony), in Godard's touching yet hopelessly sentimental judgment of the cinema's refusal to recognize its documentary foundations at a crucial historical moment, which resulted in its failure to film the camps, or in Daney's equally touching, equally sentimental assertion that we are all 'guilty' in the light of the projector but guilt-free in the television's glow. These are supposedly advanced notions of cinema and its relationship to history and morality. Why? It seems to me that they represent something else: grand, interrelated metaphorical formulations from two great artists, both of whom have their flagrantly unreasonable sides, as most great artists do. Along with Rivette's famous condemnation of the tracking shot in kapò (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1959), they offer moral accountings as stringent and punitive as those found in a sermon by Jonathan Edwards.

I think that serious criticism needs to wriggle out of this moral stranglehold. We are guilty or innocent as individuals rather than units within a sponge-like body politic, in whatever light, and I seriously doubt that round-the-clock screenings of filmed documentary evidence of the gas chambers would have brought about their earlier demise. Does cinema really need a sense of original sin in order to attain moral gravity? We need to trust in our own intellects rather than in systems of thought, to stop thinking in terms of moral-aesthetic hierarchies, and to start letting Mizoguchi talk to Kurosawa, letting zodiac talk to his girl friday as two films from two different filmmakers speaking to, and from, two different eras, each one carefully allowing for a sense of experience beyond its own parameters.
In short, I think we need to stop thinking so much about this thing called 'cinema', and start letting movies think for themselves.

Kent Jones

Kent Jones is editor-at-large of Film Comment and member of the IFFR's Tiger-jury 2009.

Originally published, in Spanish translation, in Cahiers du cinema. España (October 2008) and in Rouge 12, October 2008 at Reprinted with kind permission by the author and Rouge.