Last month, on a Sunday morning, I was sipping on a cup of tea while reading 'Transcendental Style in Film,' a book by writer/director Paul Schrader about the films of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, when I first came across the name ‘Susan Sontag.’ In a revised introduction to the book, Schrader mentions how Susan Sontag's collection of essays on art criticism communicates the true essence of film analysis better than even his own books. Not one to ignore a Paul Schrader book recommendation, I immediately ordered Sontag's book "Against Interpretation" after, as one does in today's day and age, Googling who Sontag was.
One of America's most influential intellectuals, writers, and philosophers, Susan Sontag published a number of highly influential essays in the 1960s and 1970s, writing about everything from films, photography, and literature to pornography and the Vietnam War. "Against Interpretation," her collection of essays on the problem with the modern way of art analysis and criticism, is one of her most popular and influential essays on film analysis, and is also seen as a precursor to 'Postcritique,' which in simple terms, is a form of literary and cultural criticism that, as an alternative to critical theory, is motivated by finding new forms of reading and interpretation by gaining an in-depth understanding of how we, as readers, interact with a piece of literature.
Once I started reading Sontag's book, I immediately understood what Schrader was talking about. Sontag, in this essay that she published in 1966, was able to explain all those things that currently bother me about film criticism, especially in India. Before I delve into Sontag's essay and how it is relevant to the current state of film analysis in our country, let us try to define the job of a film critic.
What does a film critic do? The obvious answer is to guide the audience into making decisions about which movies to see. A review should give an idea of what the movie is about and whether the critic thinks it's worth the audience's time or not.
But a film critic has another function, a more important one, which was perfectly explained by New York Times writer Douglas Martin in his obituary for the critic Roger Ebert: "Not only did he advise moviegoers about what to see, but also how to think about what they saw." This second component is what most film critics lack.
A film critic critiques and analyses cinema as an art form. Art is not absolute, not definable. A critic's job is different from a sports writer who creates poetry out of something that is clearly defined. They have to analyse a game and present it to the public in an accessible, entertaining, and poetic way, waxing lyrical about a beautiful Kohli cover drive or a Lionel Messi run, finding elegance and beauty in feats of power, precision, and athleticism.
But what a sports writer eulogizes is absolute, always within the framework of the rules of the game. You see a goal, you analyse the goal (as amazing as it may be) within the context of the rules of the game, and then you write about its brilliance.
A film critic doesn't have to derive poetry out of something absolute. Art, in itself, is poetry. They have to experience and communicate that artistic experience as honestly as they can, helping the reader understand how the filmmaker was able to create that experience for their audience.
However, most of our film critics lack that understanding. Their reviews are literary reviews of a visual medium, no different from a sportswriter's style of analysis, describing nothing more than what everyone can see, giving a short synopsis of the plot, what "works" and what doesn't, mentioning the performances they loved or hated, and listing out the reasons why, according to them, one should or should not watch the film. The few that do try to talk about the form, do so poorly, giving vague statements peppered with empty adjectives. The one that always makes me laugh is "The cinematographer does an amazing job in creating breath-taking visuals" or "Every frame looks like a carefully drawn-out painting." This is just ornamental writing, meant to fill the page, not helping the reader in any way at all.
“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art and, by analogy, our own experience-more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”- Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation.
Now, I also understand there are people who have no problem reading these kinds of reviews. In fact, a lot of people just want to hear someone articulate what they already think. Most of us would rather read a review for the enjoyment of watching someone praise or destroy a film than to learn something. But this kind of content-based criticism that focuses more on the content than on the form, as Sontag says in her essay, is harmful to the nature of the artistic medium and ignores the sensuous impact of the art form.
"Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable."
Let's get one thing straight. I am not saying that a critic needs to be or think like a filmmaker to be a good critic, but he still has some responsibilities to the medium or the art form that he is writing about. He needs to be a student of the art form, should have a proper idea about its history and evolution, and also have some basic understanding of what separates a great piece of visual art from a passable one, which, of course, is form.
For the sake of comparison, let's try to understand how a filmmaker watches a film and how it is different from how the current crop of film critics watch a film.
Let's take the opening four shots of Yasujiro Ozu's 1959 film 'Floating Weeds' as an example. There are four shots of the lighthouse with varying distances, more or less on the same line of axis. The lighthouse is always in the background but the objects in the foreground keep changing. We see an open bottle of alcohol occupying the foreground as the white lighthouse towers in the middle of the ocean in the background. In the next shot, we see the lighthouse in the centre of the frame, still in the background, a little more distant, and boats occupying the foreground. In the third shot, the lighthouse gets more distant, with a wooden hut in the plane between the foreground and midground, and a boat moving in the ocean between the hut and the lighthouse. In the fourth and final shot of this montage, we see a red letterbox in the foreground, with the lighthouse even further away.
A filmmaker would carefully look at the composition of these shots, notice the natural light source in the frame (which in this case is the sun shining down from behind the left side of the camera), the lens choice made by Ozu for these shots (which was always a wide lens, typically around 50mm), and the low angle from which all these shots were taken (another signature of Ozu's style). Finally, he would assess this montage in relation to the upcoming scenes and the duration Ozu chose to keep on each shot before every cut, to understand if the montage fulfilled its cinematic purpose. This purpose, of course, was to establish the setting for the plot to unfold, but also, as was often the case in Ozu's use of his signature ‘pillow shots,’ to align the audience with his storytelling rhythm.
A film theorist or analyst might attempt to ascribe additional meaning to these shots (something Susan Sontag fiercely objects to) by drawing parallels to the importance of empty space in Japanese Zen art, and how emptiness, pauses, and stillness can represent presence rather than absence. They might compare the visual grammar of these shots to the concise, poetic form of a Japanese haiku, and highlight how the shot of the moving boat full of people in front of the lighthouse expresses permanence within transience.
A journalistic film critic may choose not to mention these four shots at all and skip straight to the plot, or if he does mention them, he may simply express appreciation for the calm and meditative aspects of the film. However, that is not enough and does not provide a comprehensive understanding of the film’s visual language. I am not suggesting that journalistic film critics should be as academic as a film theorist or as technical as a filmmaker, but they should strive to watch a film for its visual syntax and help the audience understand why a director made certain decisions for a shot or a scene. They should highlight moments where the director chose not to move the camera, or moments where they did. They should speculate on the desired effect the director was aiming for with these cinematic choices and draw attention to films that, regardless of the plot or performances, truly utilize the medium of cinema to its fullest potential.
For example, in Ritwik Ghatak's 'Subarnarekha' (1965), in the scene where Sita and Abiram are getting to know each other in the woods, Ghatak chose to keep the camera completely still, with the two characters in the foreground, the towering forest behind them, and the cloudy horizon in the distance, using nature as a witness, as Ghatak himself mentions in his 1969 essay “The eye: Movement on film,” to highlight ‘the simplicity of first love.’
Another more recent example is Vikramaditya Motwani's 'Jubilee.' There is much to be written about the challenging filmmaking choices that Motwani may have had to make while creating this ambitious series, but most reviews have spent little to no time discussing his visual choices, instead focusing solely on the plot and acting. While the acting is indeed incredible in the series, solely talking about the performances of actors like Sidhant Gupta as Jay Khanna or Wamiqa Gabbi as Niloufer (despite their undeniable talent) is lazy writing.
I wish a critic had focused on those little strokes of visual magic that Motwani has tried to create throughout the series, whether successfully or unsuccessfully. For instance, how Motwani chose to use eerily similar lighting choices in the last scene between Niloufer and Jay, when she keeps calling him, and all he can do is look at the phone ring. Although they are in two different places, the lighting makes you feel like they might be in the same house, highlighting their connection on a metaphysical level.
Sontag, in her essay, advocates for this formalist approach to criticism, focusing purely on the visual aspects and the way a piece of art is made rather than its narrative content. She firmly rejects the different interpretations popular amongst film theorists and encourages treasuring the most primitive encounter one has when engaged with any form of art, without scrutiny.
"I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place? What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary—a descriptive, rather than prescriptive."
Film criticism, when done right, can do much good for the medium. There have been quite a few instances in the last 100 years when critics with a clear understanding and idea about cinema like Pauline Kael, Andre Bazin and his famous disciples, the young critics at Bazin's 'Cahiers du Cinema' magazine (who, as we all know, went on to revolutionize the medium of cinema as filmmakers and pioneer the most famous film movement in history), were able to show a path to the art form whenever it felt like it was stagnating. These critics fought fiercely for the purpose, integrity, and intent of the art form, and not only brought due recognition to great films that may have been ignored by contemporary critics and audiences at the time of their release but also helped the public understand which filmmakers truly understood the form and deserved recognition for being masters of their craft, and which ones didn't.
Most of the current crop of critics in our country are excellent writers, much better than I could ever be. They write with confidence and style, and clearly have a passion for cinema. If some of them, after reading this, scoff and say that everyone loves to blame the critic, and I shouldn’t be complaining about the quality of film criticism when the quality of the films themselves isn’t that good, I wouldn’t not sympathize with them.
But I will say this. The 1950s is generally considered one of the worst decades in the history of American cinema, and critics not only from America but from other countries, by criticizing the deteriorating quality of the movies of that decade compared to the 30s and 40s, by demanding accountability, and bringing attention to the real masters of the moviemaking craft, showed a path to young, impressionable movie lovers. Because of their efforts, a whole young generation of film lovers who wanted to get into filmmaking knew whom to look towards, and whom to learn from. That’s how we got the movie brats of the 70s, and maybe the best decade in American Cinema’s history. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the critics of the late 50s and 60s were catalysts for positive change in American moviemaking, and I truly believe our Indian critics are capable of bringing about a similar change in our cinema too.
*A Call for Nuanced Film Criticism by Sagar Varma*
Sagar Varma is a Writer and Cinephile from Mumbai. A Film school graduate, he likes to read Russian Literature and is a big fan of French new wave and Italian neorealist films.