For a selfless and multitudinal criticism, today more than ever
By Giovanni Vimercati
Creative unemployed and full-time wage slave, Giovanni Vimercati is also (ir)responsible for the failed attempt at multitudinal criticism (un)known as Celluloid Liberation Front. His writing, which is visible to the naked eye from outer space, has appeared in Cinema Scope, Sight & Sound and MUBI.
A lot of my fiction is cautionary. It deals with possible end points or trends. I wrote a short story called The Intensive Care Unit (1988) about a world where people never meet. They simply make contact via TV. Marriage is conducted hundreds of miles apart. And in my story I visualize a man who actually decides to meet his wife and children in the flesh. Of course, it’s a disaster. They just cannot bear the sensory overload. On a mere neurological level, they can’t bear to be together – rather in the way that we can’t bear to be too close to strangers. So I can believe that, in the future, people won’t be able to bear to be in the same room as others. Or even on the same street.
One of the supposed perks of the ongoing pandemic and the resulting lockdown, for a cinephile at least, is the proliferation of programming, screenings and even entire festivals taking place online. I for one have been incapacitated, due to an unfathomable drag, to keep up with any of it. The sudden availability of time resulted in its methodical waste. Early pandemic resolutions, which for the most part amounted to self-exhortations to be more productive (i.e. to consume more: more films, more books, what have you), remain unachieved. It is telling that the first impulse when faced with the availability of time is to fill it, not to enjoy it. Though it is admittedly early to theoretically diagnose the structural effects of the pandemic on the film industry, its immediate repercussions can hardly be ignored. One unexpected repercussion, as far as yours truly is concerned, was the sudden realization of the purpose and utility of film festivals. While their offer was made available online, their physical absence somehow invalidated it. Was I curious to watch the films being programmed at historic documentary festival in England under its new director? Absolutely! Did I do it? No. If anything, this pandemic has shown us that the virtual can complement the physical but hardly replace it. The collective dimension film festivals constitute, however subjected to the individualist diktats of the market, served a propaedeutic function that we perhaps had given for granted. Now that it is (temporarily?) gone, and that filmgoing has been coercively reduced to its isolationist essence, its practical purpose feels clearer, even more cogent. As clear and adventurous as it felt when I first attended the inaugural edition of the Locarno Critics Academy in the year of our lord 2012. If I was to reflect on the significance of that first iteration I wouldn’t hesitate to identify in its communitarian character the most valuable attribute. While the memory of the countless films watched that year has for the most part faded, my fond memories of the fellow critics that took part in the academy is still vivid. As cheesy and preposterous as it may sound, the convivial aspect of that experience is its lasting legacy. At least for me. And what else does matter but me?
I have always been skeptical towards criticism written in the first person singular, including my own, possibly because, by virtue of its professional nature, the life of a film critic tends to be boring at best and intrinsically onanistic in any case. The personal anecdotes of someone who spends a good part of his waking hours in the dark invariably range from mildly irrelevant to excruciatingly tedious. Suffice it to say that the adventurous highlight in the (professional) life of a film critic is often represented by an unpaid appearance as an extra in the film of one of his or her favorite director (being an extra, as anyone who’s even done it can testify, mostly consisting of waiting around on set for hours only to be featured for a fleeting second on screen, if at all, hardly an adventure by anyone’s standards…). In spite or maybe because of it, a good number of critics feel compelled to share with their readers details not always pertaining to the subject matter. Most writing about film is insistently predicated on a heavy dose of subjective ruminations which, instead of reaching out to a wider collective dimension, tend to revolve around the author’s personal opinions, only seldomly a grounded argument. This is hardly the sole preserve of film criticism, over the last twenty or so years auto-fiction of all sorts, personal essays and various forms of masturbatory literature having successfully conquered our bookshelves. The very word “we” is hardly ever used in a world where individuals struggle to conceive of themselves as part of anything but their own unique selves. In this respect, the pandemic and the consequent lockdown feel like the natural continuation of a course taken long before COVID-19 entered our lives. Isolation, far from being a side-effect or unexpected event, is a constitutive element of the mode of production that from the Fordist assembly line stretches to the data-mining of social media. Individualized seclusion, even if experienced together, is the precondition for the extraction of value to take place. The pandemic has simply forced us to experience individually what we have been experiencing socially for a long time.
I, always and inexorably I, have had the misfortune and privilege to go through this pandemic in Beirut, Lebanon, where I have been living for the past two years. My abstract and blissfully unaware interest in this tiny Mediterranean country where I ended up living was first triggered by, among other stimuluses, Eric Baudelaire’s 2011 film The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images. Having re-watched it recently, I was struck by the director’s ability, in line with the internationalist flavor of the film’s subject, not to exoticize Lebanon and its images. A very rare quality can be found in this and other films by Baudelaire: the disposition to listen rather than pontificate. Even on the stylistic plane, the film is the plastic filiation of an anti-authorial curiosity. The director in fact lends his filmmaking in solidarity to the “landscape theory” of Masao Adachi, filming an imageless story through the Japanese director’s aesthetic postulates. Positing the visibility of power structures in the urban landscape, Adachi had devised a politicized tracking shot that was to visually expose society’s hierarchy and exploitative relations through the filmic image. The most manifest rendition of this technique is to be found in Sekigun-P.F.L.P: Sekai sensô sengen (1971) which Adachi and his co-director Kôji Wakamatsu shot in Beirut on their way back from Cannes. A cinematic call for world revolution and solidarity with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the film mostly consists of long tracking shots of the Lebanese capital and the refugee camps on its outskirts. The same landscape captured by Baudelaire’s tracking shots forty years later substantiates Adachi’s theory as Beirut’s cityscape […]
August 5th, 2020, midday.
The above was the last sentence I typed earlier yesterday before an explosion, the likes of which Beirut had never seen, torn the Lebanese capital apart. While our house was spared and I am intact, the devastation around is jaw-dropping […]
August 8th, 2020, morning.
I’m not even sure continuing this piece of writing makes any sense, but, if only for the fee in Swiss Francs, I will fulfil my professional duties. Beirut’s cityscape we were saying…half of it lies now in ruins. Gone. Ravaged by one of the most powerful explosions in history. Adachi’s theory turns out be applicable in reverse, in the negative. Against the crater that the explosion left behind and that now threatens to swallow up the whole country we can still read the structures of power and the economic interests that always drive it. What happened in Beirut in fact is not a tragedy, but a man-made disaster. While what exactly happened is still unclear, and open to speculations of all kind, what we do know is that almost 3000 ton of explosive material was stocked at the Beirut port for the past seven years. The authorities knew and they did nothing. They did nothing because there was no money to be made from its disposal. That being said, it’s misleading to blame the current crises in Lebanon (which tragically culminated in last week’s blast) on corruption and mismanagement in that it implies the mythological existence of a just and functioning system that crooked politicians have merely ruined out of greed and incompetence. What if the Lebanese ruling class is the result and not the cause of a broken socio-economic system? That is not to absolve them of their criminal responsibilities, but to frame this man-made catastrophe materially rather than morally. It is said that Lebanon is a dysfunctional country, I beg to differ: Lebanese capitalism is extremely efficient, every single lucrative thing has been put to profit and successfully so. Only air hasn’t been privatised (yet). When it comes to the ruthless art of money-making, Lebanon is one of the most organised and functional countries on earth. It is said that Lebanon is a divided nation, I beg to differ: the worship of private property, the sacralisation of business and an unwavering faith in the supposed benefits of consumerism are truly inter-sectarian and ecumenical sentiments. It is said that Lebanon is exceptional, I beg to differ: it is the microcosmic reflection of a world devoured by the contradictions of an unsustainable, exploitative system. It is in fact worth noting that the neoliberal doctrine in Lebanon was adopted long before Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize for it in 1976. Long before it was tested to the tune of torture in Pinochet’s Chile and then triumphantly championed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Economic laissez-faire and its predatory corollary coupled with the financialization of the economy, the core of neoliberal economics, are among the founding principles of post-colonial Lebanon as exemplified in this passage from “Propos d’économie libanaise” by Michel Chiha, one of Lebanon’s founding fathers, who firmly opposed any public interference in the private sector:
“After having exchanged shells and bombs, men want to exchange merchandise again. Do ut des. It’s an old story. We fight one another to open or close a market. We knock a man out to turn him into a client while waiting to knock him out again if he looks for another supplier. Such is the law of necessity and profit, of fraternity and civilization.” (28th August, 1945)
It turns out that fraternity and profit are not that compatible after all and that the inability to prioritise collective wellbeing over individual gain is not an ethical issue, but a systemic one. There clearly never was a “Golden Age,” only the illusion of it that (financial) capitalism gives during its expansionary cycles. This debt-ridden illusion has now come to an abrupt and painful end, with the middle classes getting a taste of what it means to be working class and poor. If anything, Lebanon is a cautionary tale. One that will probably go unheard. If you believe in God and want to #PrayForLebanon, then please ask Him to freeze and expropriate the assets belonging to the Lebanese ruling class (politicians, businessmen, CEOs, contractors, bankers, etc.). Once the Almighty's done that, please ask Him to use those money to rebuild Lebanon with affordable housing, public schools, public hospitals, roads, theatres, cinemas, concert halls, parks and free beaches. The majority of Lebanese people deserve it. Though I'm against prisons of all kind, let alone capital punishment, if your God happens to be of the vengeful kind, please ask Him to sentence the Lebanese ruling class to a life of starvation wages. They shall work seven days a week as mini-bus drivers, maids and couriers for the rest of their despicable lives. If, conversely, you don't believe in God: welcome to hell!
Where does cinema fit in all this? At the moment I’m not sure. All I know is that cinema is hardly a non-partisan entity existing above the rest of society. It’s neither inherently magical nor constitutionally corrupted. It is what we fight for it to be or what we accept it to be. Like anything else. As for the films of Eric Baudelaire, I think their most precious gift to the spectator is represented by their generosity, their openness, their aesthetic lack of aesthetic pretension. Whether corresponding with the diplomat on an inexistent nation (Letters to Max) or visually staging an explosion on the billboard of a metro station in Paris, his films create a space for encounters. And in this age of atomized individualism, that is a lot. The same goes for the Critics’ Academy which I hope with all my heart will resume next year to train a new batch of film critics: the most useless, unprofitable profession one could possibly think of. And all the more precious and vital for this.
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