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Reinventing American Film Criticism

Shortly after starting my first academic job as an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Montana State University, the editor of the Bozeman arts monthly, The Tributary asked me to write a weekly column of film criticism. As I learned to edit my bloated 5,000 word academic essays into terse 750 word reviews, I became increasingly convinced that the gulf between popular and academic film criticism had been vastly misunderstood. Journalists purportedly write short reviews of films in order to tell people whether or not they should spend their hard earned money on a new film. For their part, academics believe that they need thousands of words to develop methods for theorizing about the cinema.

I have spent the last fifteen years attempting to demonstrate that neither of these outcomes is inevitable because of real or imagined institutional boundaries. Instead, we should demand that our criticism find a middle ground, one which both forces journalistic approaches to say something interesting about the cinema and its relationship to the world, yet also presses academic approaches to be less filled with jargon and obfuscation. When I write a review of a film for a website – like waltermetz.com or filmjunkies.de, I am producing the same critical interventions as I am in my refereed books and journal articles, removing the footnotes and translating the theoretical methods into more readable prose.

To explicate this point, I will explore a case study of a film by a very popular Hollywood filmmaker, Christopher Nolan. In The Prestige (2006), a magician seeks out the mystery of a rival’s teleportation trick at visionary scientist Nikola Tesla’s laboratory. The scientist (David Bowie) demonstrates his electrical device, intended to make objects disappear. As Angier the magician (Hugh Jackman) leaves the grounds, thinking the machine a failure because it has no effect on the top hats Tesla uses as samples, he stumbles upon a huge pile of such hats out in the woods, indicating that the machine in fact creates clones of the original objects. In short, the device mechanically reproduces matter. The film thus exemplifies the central obsession of one of the most important acts of criticism of the 20th century, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936).

In that essay, Benjamin equivocates as to the meaning of modernity, arguing that traditional artworks lose their aura when they can be so easily reproduced, not by human hands, but instead by machines such as photographic and cinematic cameras.  Benjamin studies the late 19th century, the moment when the era of the stage magician gave way to the filmmaker. Like Benjamin, Nolan’s film equivocates about the implications of this development. On the one hand, the loss of traditional magic at the hands of ever increasingly scientific gadgetry on the stage leads to horrific death and destruction. The resultant magic trick, “The New Transported Man” requires a clone to be murdered each time the act is performed. On the other hand, The Prestige is an exquisite example of technological wizardry, using all of the techniques of 21st century filmmaking (lighting, sound reproduction, and the like) to tell its story.

Benjamin celebrated the democratization of mechanically reproduced art in the guise of Charlie Chaplin comedies while at the same time expressing his outrage at Nazi Germany’s use of mass art to aestheticize politics. For Benjamin, the Nuremberg rallies wherein masses of people were reduced to geometric arrays relate directly to the cinema’s construction of passive spectators overwhelmed by easily reproducible images. The Prestige provides a startling opportunity to pose again Benjamin’s questions. Does mechanically reproduced art render us more human because it is democratically available to all, or does it strip away our humanity in denying us access to the unique accomplishments of the artisan’s hands?

The Prestige is caught in the crosshairs of Benjamin’s essay, a populist film that laments the death of magic, and yet a masterful achievement of mechanical reproduction, a film whose aura-less top hats would have fascinated the German critic. Our 21st century American civilization, baffled by the contradiction between the benefits and horrors of technological modernity, is in desperate need of both popular art such as The Prestige and the thoughtful criticism that Benjamin provided Weimar Germany, writing for a popular newspaper, Frankfurter Zeitung. If one reads today’s popular journalistic reviews of Nolan’s film, there is no trace of such engagement. We are in need of a re-invented film criticism, imbued with historical and theoretical ideas, housed in comprehensible and direct writing. It’s time we start training journalists to write with greater theoretical and critical rigor, and academics to write with comprehensibility as a central goal. If we accomplish both tasks, it will become clear that they are one and the same.

– Walter Metz