Film Critics in Focus, Part 2: Saving the Orphans

Critics, scholars, filmmakers, and cinephiles convened April 21-23 for “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus,” a conference exploring the current state of film criticism, at the Block Museum of Art located on the Evanston campus of Northwestern University. I attended the conference rife with memories of a distant past in which I pursued an academic study of cinema, before taking the path of a moving image and sound archivist.  I was curious what this conference would inspire in me, since my practice has less to do with film criticism than film preservation. Here are five things I took from the weekend:

1) Dear Errol Morris: I’m a slave to the media too

Kicking off the conference was an advance screening of Errol Morris‘ newest film Tabloid. The subject of the film is Joyce McKinney, former beauty queen, kidnapper, fetish call girl, and dog cloner who made British tabloid headlines for the 1977 “Mormon sex slave” scandal. Morris’s documentary weaves old film clips reflecting McKinney’s subjectivity as she recounts the events of her past. Many of them are humorously anachronistic and satirize McKinney’s Hollywood-inspired spin when telling her tale.

As much as Morris sends up McKinney, I couldn’t help relating with her. I grew up in a media culture far more saturated than McKinney’s and I cannot deny the effect that film form and narrative have played in my own perceptions of reality. This is one of the underlying reasons I chose to be a media archivist.

2) I am a film critic, and so are you

So film criticism is a practice reserved for academics and professional cinephiles? No. In the panel “Present Tense/Future Conditional – The Changing Landscape of Criticism,” critic Karina Longworth echoed art philosopher Stanley Cavell’s opinion that criticism need only set the terms for a discourse about film. The conversation starts before the critic enters and continues well after the critic is gone. So when I justify to preservation grant funders the importance of a film to our cultural heritage in the moving image, I too am engaging in a form of criticism. We all are to some degree. Moving image media, whether it be in cineplexes or on cellphones, permeates almost every aspect of society, and we talk about it all the time. We tweet, blog, and chat about movies with our friends and family. We are an integral part of the cultural discourse on cinema, and we all play some role in affecting the future of the art form.

3) I might be to blame for the obscurity of certain films (but I don’t want to be)

What determines the different fates between a film writer who stands out and one destined for obscurity?  That’s a question Jonathan Rosenbaum posed  in the panel “Past Perfect – Critical Histories, Seminal Touchstones, and Rediscoveries.” The answer might be extracted from two ideas that were mentioned during the panel, that of access and accessibility. Certain voices endure and expand when they can be accessed easily through an effective distribution network or an easily accessible archive (Roger Ebert or New York Times critics are obvious examples, unlike the criticism of Sight and Sound’s Penelope Houston, whose work Rosenbaum claims has been historically suppressed). Others prevail in cultural memory as a result of the stylistic accessibility of their prose, even when articulating complex theories and concepts (like the work of David Bordwell, who in a later panel critic Scott Foundas declared as the gold standard of film writing today).

These issues had me thinking about my work as an archivist: preservation without access is pointless. Media archivists work extremely hard to preserve films and make them accessible.  Film endures through a process where both the archivist who makes films accessible and the critic who illuminates them are necessary participants. The dirty truth is that not everything can be saved. There is too little time, too little money, and an infinite amount of material. So when a critic highlights the importance of an obscure work and it generates renewed cultural interest and research, it is far more likely for that work to be granted the funds for preservation and access. (Clearly, I need to friend more critics on Facebook.)

4) Ahem… Critics don’t “promote,” they “advocate!”

A popular topic of discussion among the critics in the panel “Criticism in Chicago – A Case Study” was promotion – oops! – I mean advocacy. When the word “promote” was initially mentioned in discussing the role of the critic in society, there was a quick hush and rapid change of tone. It’s not “promotion,” it’s “advocacy.” Perhaps promotion is a word too strongly suggestive of industry. Related to this, I sensed in another panel the general malaise of critics regarding Oscar predictions in which films are discussed in terms of their award worthiness and not for their merits as films.

5) The dancing baby is an orphan film

Remember the digital, dancing baby you received in your AOL inbox all those years ago? It is a film. We could split hairs and talk about format specificity, but for all intents and purposes, “films” are images, they’re moving, they are consumed, and we engage with them. In the panel “Present Tense/Future Conditional – The Changing Landscape of Criticism,” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky sparked the discussion with his view that cinema as a conceptual understanding is less clear today than it was in the 1970s, stating, “We have more in common in 2011 with, say 1911 than we do with 1975.”

Media transformation and technological convergence are challenging orthodox conceptions of film form, narrative, and display. We can’t take the old definitions for granted, and we have an active role to play in redefining cinema to accurately describe it as it exists today. The film critic obviously plays a part. But so does the archivist who preserves and makes accessible the moving images that are obscured from criticism and history, what have come to be known as “orphan” films. That dancing baby is an orphan, and like so many films forgotten or taken for granted, it’s in need of our love.

Stefan Elnabli is a moving image and sound archivist. His archival work has included stints in the WNET Channel 13 Digital Archive, Anthology Film Archives, and major university libraries such as New York University, Stanford University, and Northwestern University. He is a devoted film projectionist and VHS enthusiast.

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