Friday, April 7, 2023

When I got out of film school in the late sixties I was able to make the films I wanted to make for a while. If they are inaccessible and too allegorical it’s because I was inaccessible and too allegorical myself. I was never interested in the world as it was. Things of this world were only manifestations of a ghost world or of a long-gone past I tried to evoke without much success. That kind of filmmaking requires a patron. If I ever had a chance to acquire one, and in retrospect I think I might have had a chance, I didn’t snap to that at the time. I guess the lesson there is to keep your eye on the main chance. There was only one film I wanted to make that I couldn’t. I saw Jerry Jeff Walker perform at Liberty Hall in Houston and left the hall thinking that anyone who had ever had a friend or hoped to have one would want to know Jerry Jeff Walker. But the timing was bad. Before I could put the film together, Walker’s career was in a tailspin. If I had been Albert Maysles, Walker would have been a perfect subject, but I was still thinking like D. A. Pennebaker and trying to get in on the beginning of something good, not to document its end. What I remember best about my career as an independent filmmaker is the generosity of friends who gave me jobs, loaned me equipment and helped me make my films.
In the introduction to I Lost It At The Movies, her 1960 collection of film reviews, Pauline Kael asks: ‘Isn’t it precisely the artist’s task to give form to his experience and the critic’s task to verbalize on how this has been accomplished?” Yes. But to what end? Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: "Our knowledge of the particular facts of the world around us is gained from our sensations. We see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and feel hot and cold, and push, and rub, and ache, and tingle. These are just our own personal sensations: my toothache cannot be your toothache, and my sight cannot be your sight." What mathematics does, Whitehead explained, is create a public world that's the same for everybody. Mathematics imagines a world "as one connected set of things which underlies all the perceptions of all people. There is not one world of things for my sensations and another for yours, but one world in which we both exist."
Can film criticism, or any kind of criticism for that matter, discover one world that underlies all of the perceptions of all people? And does it matter if it can or not? Mathematics is essential to the science of bombs, and vaccines, and medicines. It makes architecture and engineering, air and space travel possible. That these things matter is obvious. But do things like films and what we make of them matter in the same way? And to whom do they matter? Tom Wolfe famously pointed out that without the theories of Rosenberg and Greenberg, Red Mountain and Green Mountain, le monde, the little world of artists, dealers and collectors in the fifties and sixties, was unable to see. Until you grasped the theories, you saw something all right, but not the "real" paintings. So what? Rosenberg and Greenberg didn't even have the same theory about what they were looking at. They weren't seeing the same things at all.
Physicists sometimes think of light as particles. Sometimes they think of light as waves. Neither particles nor waves by themselves explain all there is to know about light, but taken together they do. And that matters. Because the bomb blows up.
What matters about criticism is that it should be useful somehow. A modest goal for a critic might be to make something accessible to a viewer, or listener, or reader, or filmmaker that wouldn't be accessible to them without the critique. And my thought is we should do that without going overboard about the importance of the work we're talking about. We should talk about art the way we talk about mushrooms on our lawns, keeping our heads straight when we swim, finding our way home after a night on the town, or whether we prefer one-egg or two-egg omelets. All I can make accessible to anyone is what I see, hear and think when I watch a film. But again, to what end? To stay afloat as the wave of pap rises to fill the bandwidth streamers are creating.

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