Ubiquarian – Reflections 6: What does it mean to contribute to film criticism?

Reflections 6: What does it mean to contribute to film criticism?
By Tara Judah

I think about this, often.

Every now and again – probably when producing yet another panel on film production feels onerous – a festival will hold a panel on film criticism. I’ve sat on, in, and around these panels before, but they’re rarely honest. Let’s Get Critical!, the joint virtual brainchild of GSFF (Glasgow Short Film Festival) and Short Waves Film Festival in Poznan, both of which had to postpone earlier this year, was actively and refreshingly interested in this question, and its key word, ‘contribute’.

Laura Walder from Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, Julian Ross from IFFR, and Ubiquarian’s own Marina Richter spoke frankly about the possibility and openness short film affords reflective writing practice, and how, as Walder so perfectly put it, “a dedication to the work” produces good criticism. But spaces where writers can focus on, and really engage with a single short film, according to affect and impact instead of zeitgeist and hot takes, is a rare, beautiful thing. Any time this lack of space comes up – and I have written my share of round-up pieces, so-called Best Ofs, and thematic reports over the years – I wonder why film criticism is so often thought of as the act of reviewing rather than responding to films.

I like to think about art as a call; to action, to arms, to consciousness, to mind, to the self, the Other, to something. Call and response is democratic; broadcasting is tyrannical. Canons and auteur theory would have us all sat in the dark, tuned in to tyranny. But call and response offers us another option: we can participate.

Though unpopular, the idea of ‘reviewing’ films is, to me, turgid. And in the wake of cinematic change, I think we ought to challenge the so-called critical landscape. To review art – even the most plastic therein – strikes me as absurd. 

Imagine if we binned it all: theatrical windows, poster pull quotes, review embargoes, festival and press screening FOMO. Just bin it. What’s left? What survives?

Affect. Impact. Space.

I answer an email telling a filmmaker who has reached out, hopeful I will write about their film, that I’m not writing on fiction features, or as reviews. I don’t say that I can’t understand how reviewing their film would help, but I do wonder why they wrote to me. Not enough to ask. I have other things on my mind: August has flown by and my column is late.

It’s September 3rd and, at 3.30am. I can’t sleep. I have 23 tabs open in my laptop browser and another 42 on my phone. I have just watched Jemma Desai’s “What do we want from each other after we have told our stories?” Desai’s performance is just under fifty minutes but spans lifetimes; written, voiced, recorded, documented, felt, connected and articulated, demonstrating how incredibly gifted she is as a curator and creative. Drawing connections, here, in the form of a desktop documentary, Desai looks at chasms, ancestry, history, movement, historiography, affect, self, feeling and reflective practice in a way that pierces the soul and challenges the fibres of my being. I am not certain that I deserve the affect and education she affords me through her work. I am most concerned that my impetus is to write and talk about her brilliant work when I know I am a part of the whiteness that is clouding her and others in the industry.

I think about how, because of so many things, including personal feelings of fear, guilt and shame, I am and have always been nervous about trying to connect with artists I admire, other than to write or speak about their work. In this way, I exist as a shadow artist. I lurk, somewhere behind a laptop, writing my thoughts and feelings down in the dark. What would happen if I picked up a pen and wrote to someone?

I’ve been thinking about this for weeks as I want to write to Lynne Sachs, whose wonderful films I was given space to engage with and respond to here at Ubiquarian after Doc|Fest’s focus on her. Sachs sent me a copy of her poetry, Year by Year Poems, fifty poems that inspired her film Tip of My Tongue, which is available to watch online, for free. Watching Sachs’ and Desai’s films, both so incredibly cerebral and felt, both so personal, affecting and formally brilliant, I wonder about the role that festivals and cinemas will play in my life – in all our lives – now that the world has forced us to take the time to think and feel differently. If this is indicative of what I would watch when freed from the shackles of a release schedule, the imperative of ‘coverage’ and the self-flagellating FOMO that social media tricks me into believing is a thing IRL, then I wonder if I ever want the world of our industry to return to how it was before. So big and oppressive; so small and narrow.

Desai layers open windows on top of one another, and in layer two we see her forearm and her hand, resting on the edge of her laptop. Sachs shows us the gesticulation of hands as different people – New Yorkers with experiences and feelings from around the world she has gathered to make her movie – tell their stories, share their memories, and reflect upon their embodied lives through the words they can place at the tips of their tongues. These hands are a gesture, to the viewer, showing us that skin matters and offering to connect us, even though those hands themselves were sometimes taken instead of held.

One window in Desai’s desktop doc keeps finding its way to the fore, like a buoy, bobbing up and down, determined to keep afloat, acting as a lifeline for someone stranded out at sea, it reads, “What words say does not last. The words last because words are always the same, and what they say is never the same.” Next to it is a clip of the sea, on a loop, started in the hope of enabling the act of trying again. One voice in Sachs’ visual poem speaks to the inherent impossibility of putting memories or remembering into words, “Some stories we have told over and over, some we have never put into words.” If memory is an abstraction and experience is both lived and felt, then what does it mean to put those things into words and then to put those words into images?

“Everyone is using so many words,” Desai says.

I am using so many words. I have this space, to write and to reflect and, in it, I am wondering if I ‘should’ talk more about how Il Cinema Ritrovato took place online last week but I missed every screening, catching glimpses of Cary Grant in one of his early career roles in rom-com Ladies Should Listen (1934), and snatches of silents as my partner attended, or if I should write about Maneater, a Swedish short film from GSFF where aging white men eat bananas against a pink background, with all of the inuendo that implies, humorously exploring attitudes and preconceptions around gender, sex, and sexuality. Desai talks about disappointment as a dis-appointment of people in posts, and I think about, as I return to work this week, redundancies that have taken place – at my workplace and elsewhere. Instagram and Twitter have this past week been filled with photos of Tate United protestors and the #hashtags #CultureinCrisis and #SaveTateJobs. Desai also talks about disillusionment and hope. Both permeate everything; interior, exterior, and anterior spaces. Her performance contemplates and predicts its reception.

What is the aim of public programming?

Yesterday, eight artistic directors of hefty European film festivals attended the opening night of the 77th Venice International Film Festival. Press releases tell me they reaffirmed the value of cinema. I wonder who was there to hear them.

Am I an ally or am I amplifying myself?

I don’t want to review anything. I want to participate in the alternative ethics of care that Desai talks about when she talks about slowness. I think that what it means to contribute to film criticism is a dedication to the work, as Walder says, and I think, as both Desai and Sachs explicate, that it must be embodied, whole, full, and unflinching. The dedication to the work requires our whole selves. Because the artists gave their whole selves. Desai remarks on how many people have told her that This Work Isn’t for Us is generous. Generosity is necessary if we hope to connect and hold each other’s work, words, and experiences. Desai’s forearm, resting after so much writing at her laptop, Sachs’ camera, focused on hands, are generous gestures. They are there for us to connect to, but they are not ours to take.