Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1992
Photogenic Papers
Edited by John Richardson

Critical alibis and thin description

Noel King

Power grows under weight, and one way to claim power, critical power, is to profess that one is not doing what one wanted, that one is following the imperative of the text. Criticism represents itself as bound, as not making significant choices, as being commanded against the will of the author. (Geoffrey Galt Harpham)

In his article "Mise en scene is Dead", Adrian Martin alludes to my review article of David Bordwell's Making Meaning, saying that I work 'a minor sleight of hand' by bundling together new criticism, structuralism and post-structuralism as if they were equivalent critical practices.1 In fact it is Bordwell who works that sleight of hand, if it is one, and Martin's confusion probably derives from the Continuum journal's computer programme, which somehow managed to indent only part of the Bordwell quotation. The result was that the non-indented part of the quotation merged with my commentary and so, perhaps understandably, Martin mistook the statement to be coming from me rather than from Bordwell. So, to begin, I'd like to let Continuum readers of Martin's piece know that, at that particular point in his article, he is having a difference of opinion with Bordwell rather than with King.

At another point in his article - which, by the way, looms as the most elaborated statement of his film-critical interests since his contribution to the Island in the Stream anthology - Martin quotes approvingly from Victor Perkins' review of Bordwell's book, showing a particular fondness for Perkins' slogan, 'meanings are filmed'.2 And Martin quite correctly points out that I cite Perkins' piece but do not mention it in any detail. As it happens I had thought of including a sub-section on the critical reception/non-reception of Bordwell's book in English-language film journals, but I felt the article already was too long and unwieldy. (I've since been heartened by seeing the 146 footnotes at the end of Martin's article). Making Meaning has been reviewed in half a dozen or so journals but not in any of the "heavy" critical spaces represented by the likes of Camera Obscura, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, October and Screen. A while ago, Camera Obscura was trying to get together an issue on "the institution of film criticism", a topic which certainly would have called for some account of Bordwell's book, but that proposed issue recently fell through, and so it seems unlikely that Bordwell's book will receive attention there.

I actually agree with Martin when he says that Perkins' review is an interesting one but I suspect we are interested in it for different reasons. To begin with, the admired slogan 'meanings are filmed', for me, is open to a couple of different interpretative uptakes. It could be taken to say that "meaning" is performed in the scenic unfolding of a particular film but equally, it could be taken to suggest that "meanings" pre-exist their particular scenic performances and then are "filmed". In this case "meanings" would have something like the status of the "pro-filmic", a category capable of being as stable and decided or as elusive and ambiguous as you like, depending on the particular critical discourse you're activating at the time. Or it could be some combination of these two things.

What interests me most in Perkins' article is the critical alibi it gives itself by way of its opening gambit. Perkins opens his review by providing a fairly detailed account of a fifteen second segment from Ophuls' Caught. Having given his film-critical version of the anthropologist's 'thick description', Perkins immediately declares it to be, of necessity, a 'thin description' because it has not been able fully to convey all that is going on in a viewing of that particular sequence. So, at this point, Perkins' reader encounters a humanist, film-practical-criticism version of what Raymond Bellour called 'the unattainable text'.3 And it's worth recalling the extent to which a semiotic, structural-linguistic textual analysis, for all its imposing scientificity (or 'dream of scientificity' as Barthes later came to call it) shared with the humanist criticism it was hoping to displace, a belief that the text would always, in some measure, escape, evade or exceed its critical analysis or description. For Bellour, the film text was unattainable because it was unquotable. The moving image was 'peculiarly unquotable, since the written text cannot restore to it what only the projector can produce: a movement...' (25). And although indispensable, reduced film stills are 'already derisory in comparison with what they represent' (26). Consequently, filmic analysis 'constantly mimics, evokes, describes: in a kind of principled despair it can but try frantically to compete with the object it is attempting to understand. By dint of seeking to capture and recapture it, it ends up only always occupying a point at which its object is perpetually out of reach' (26). Moreover, filmic analysis 'always seems a little fictional: playing on an absent object, never able, since their aim is to make it present, to adopt the instruments of fiction, even though they have to borrow them. The analysis of film never stops filling up a film that never stops running out: it is the Danaid's cask par excellence' (26).

If one were to take seriously the Perkins/Bellour claim that criticism can never really represent its object, film, then criticism (of the Bordwell Making Meaning sort) could only be a deeply misguided endeavour. As Ian Hunter puts it: 'It is like trying to represent distance with a thermometer or temperature with a ruler. Very well then, let's give it up and do something more worthwhile - teach children how to read and write or learn to cook fine food. But the theme of the impossibility of criticism never goes in this direction, unfortunately. Rather than signalling the abandonment of a useless endeavour this theme announces its redoubled application'.4

Perkins' opening gambit is meant to demonstrate the aridity and reductiveness of Bordwell's tactic of typologising interpretative manoeuvres of various kinds. But if you read Bordwell's book and then read Perkins' review, you find that this opening gambit exhibits one of the interpretative strategies outlined by Bordwell.5 So, although Perkins' opening strategy seemed to me straightforwardly calculated to stand as a decisive reproach of the central thesis of Bordwell's book, it caused me to wonder how carefully Perkins had read the book he was reviewing. It seemed to me a bit bizarre to think that you could provide a powerful or persuasive rebuttal of an overall argument when the critical act you were performing was providing further evidence of that overall argument.

So in my case, reading Perkins' review simply convinced me of the need for some film criticism to attend to the various kinds of critical alibis we encounter whenever we read film criticism. I'm not saying everyone should do it but I am saying that some people should do it, and that doing it is just as important and interesting as trying to generate ever more vivacious descriptions of particular filmic encounters.

A slightly different example of the sort of thing I'm talking about here occurs when Martin quotes Bellour's gloss on Lyotard's notion of acinema,6 and then goes on to say that 'the writings of Brooks and others point to a comparable conception - cinema as a reservoir of excessive flows, pulsions, psychical-physiological effects' (117). Martin had earlier cited Jodi Brooks' description of a scene from Dreyer's Gertrud as evidence of the kind of film-critical analysis he felt was on the right track. The article in question begins in the following way:

Some films elicit particular types of cinematic obsession and fascination. Dreyer's Gertrud and Duras' India Song offer themselves for (and seem to encourage) obsessions with cinematic immobility - fascinations with the immobility of the body/figure in film, with the immobility of the image/shot itself - held, suspended, but precariously so. (79)

Every article has to have a beginning, has to enact what I am here calling a "critical alibi" of one kind or another. In the case of the Brooks article, it is the familiar alibi of implying that the critical assemblage the reader is about to encounter does not in itself constitute a productive theoretical apparatus. The alibi being enacted here is that the critical description contained in the textual analysis will not be a rewriting of the film but rather will have been compelled by the film or, more phenomenologically still, will have been compelled by the experience of encountering/viewing the film. While speaking of encounters, it must be said that the reader of Brooks' article encounters an intelligent, elegant piece of rhetorical film criticism, written in a very distinctive voice and built up by an equally distinctive processing of some writing from Balazs, Ropars, Caws, Lyotard, Caillois, Kristeva, Deleuze and Barthes. Come the end of the article, various traditional understandings of mise en scene and film performance have been unsettled, reformulated by way of a highly suggestive, even alluring, notion of a cinema of what might be called 'scenic devastation'. As it unfolds, the article presents its reader with a series of disorientatingly paradoxical formulations, ranging from a notion of vertiginous immobility, through notions of vectorised, volatile scenic tableaux, until eventually the film shot itself is reconceived as a moment of luminous decay.

As a critical performance, Brooks' article certainly deserves the praise Martin brings to it. It is very much an example of 'the action of critical writing' he so desires and throughout its argument, Brooks' article everywhere indicates just how much an act of criticism can 'conjure, perform, circulate, transform' (131). But in the terms of critical attention I'm proposing here, Brooks' article is also an example of an alibi in motion. If it is a given that 'immobility is a central thrill of cinema' then the tacit claim of Brooks' article is that, for all the elegance of its critical assemblage, it really will be doing no more than rendering the experience of viewing these films. And since it is also a given that 'some films elicit particular types of cinematic obsession and fascination', then the particular critical performance contained in Brooks' article accordingly will do no more than elaborate that circumstance, albeit with somewhat more pizzaz than would some other critical discourse. At least this is the alibi her article seems to me to give itself, and it has to be said that, as alibis go, it's not a bad one.

Brooks' strategy in that article has something in common with Stanley Cavell's comments at the start of his book on screwball comedy, Pursuits of Happiness. Cavell, a distinguished Harvard philosopher who has written on everything from Coriolanus (in the new historicist journal, Representations) to Now, Voyager (in Critical Inquiry), has a particular fondness for the nineteenth century American transcendentalists. So it is perhaps a naivity of the kind discussed in the writings of Thoreau and Emerson that Cavell is urging on his reader when he says, 'I am always saying that we must let the films themselves teach us how to look at them and how to think about them' (25). This dictum seems close to Perkins' attitude, as expressed in his review of Bordwell (and it might well be the case that the title of Perkins' article alludes to an earlier book of Cavell's, Must We Mean What We Say?).

Elsewhere in his introduction, Cavell says that 'to take an interest in an object is to take an interest in one's experience of the object' (7). And at another point Cavell explicitly announces the 'performative' aspect of the criticism he will be writing in this book: 'I would like to say that what I am doing in reading a film is performing it (if you wish, performing it inside myself)' (37-8). Beyond representing Cavell's version of a phenomenological approach to film analysis, what those remarks seem to me to exhibit is a rhetorical sleight of hand wherein a highly sophisticated critical apparatus (in Cavell's case, involving the writings of Kant, Wittgenstein, Frye, Austin, Emerson, Thoreau, Shakespeare) must somehow be thought to have been summoned by the film rather than brought to bear on it within a particular critical milieu. Far from indicating the presence of an intrusive pedagogical apparatus, the 'films themeselves' will be the true pedagogical instrument, determining what is to be said about them: in this fantasy scenario it is 'the films themselves' that will provide the pedagogical dimension for the encounter of the philosopher and the cinema.

The brief examples provided by these bits of writing from Perkins, Brooks and Cavell should indicate what I mean when I say that film criticism, however it is to be regarded, must, to some extent, be acknowledged as an "occasional" activity (in the sense that one would refer to an "occasional verse" or an "occasional address"). It is a public discursive performance, a public staging of the self by way of the activation of a particular critical apparatus or framework in which a critical alibi of some sort is put into play. And the point of the alibi is to persuade us to attend to this particular piece of critical writing by practising a form of 'willing suspension of disbelief' which enables us to think that this piece of criticism will take us someplace truer, more profound, more interesting, or simply more poetic, than will other kinds of critical writing.

Scattered throughout Martin's article are statements of the sort of film-critical practice he would like to see adopted. He prefers 'a kind of intellectual and emotional ambivalence - a worried oscillation between cinema as a socially regulated institution and cinema as a poetic art' and he 'cannot imagine a truly powerful or interesting critical practice that was not devoted - in the work it addresses, and in its own work of writing, speaking or teaching - to the living history of poetic insight' (123). I'd like to think I'm at least as interested as Martin is in the realm of the poetic (together with the various insights to be found there), and we do seem to like lots of the same films and writing on film. But perhaps I tend to find poetic insight in different places from Martin.

I'll close by making some brief references to Wittgenstein, much of whose writing was concerned to clarify what would count as an explanation in a particular circumstance, what it meant to follow a rule, under what conditions doubt and certainty manifested themselves, and so on. For Martin, Wittgenstein probably figures as one of the founding fathers of a rather dry, neo-rhetorical critical practice (with which Martin aligns me, but where I do not locate myself). But we should remember that Wittgenstein, like Perkins and Martin, was concerned with the limits of interpretation. 'Explanations come to an end' was his terse formulation of such limits. Wittgenstein's concern was not, however, to pour out more interpretation. For Wittgenstein, interpretations came to an end not in an 'unattainable text' but in a 'practice of life', a set of procedures in which one is already engaged. Explanations come to an end in the fact that we happen to do things in a certain way. Film criticism too is a particular 'practice of life' but one that regularly seeks to provide its habitual actions with mysterious alibis. On this point we could momentarily adopt a Cavell-style attitude and say that such forms of mystery are best left in mystery movies.


1. See Adrian Martin, "Mise en scene is Dead" and Noel King, "Critical Occasions". Martin's misattribution occurs on page 107 of his article.

2. Victor Perkins, "Must We Say". Martin's comment is: 'Meanings are filmed: here is a rich formulation that offers a materialist understanding of the mystique of mise en scene, returning us forcefully to an art of bodies in space' (108).

3. Raymond Bellour, "The Unattainable Text". Ben Brewster's editorial introduction advises that Bellour's article derived from a talk given 'at a seminar organised by Screen and the Educational Advisory Service of the B.F.I. at the National Film Theatre on the specific problems film raises for those engaged in its textual analysis' (5).

4. Ian Hunter "Notes on Wittgenstein". Hunter continues: 'It only makes sense as something that critics do to themselves as a condition of giving their practice ethical significance. It signals above all that the text is "difficult" in a very special way. Not hard to read like a bad fax but hard to read like a sign from God. Only those who strive after the ineffable have the ethical authority to interpret such signs. How interesting that film criticism should be able to activate all the old glory of religious hermeneutics and pass it off as a contemporary activity. But in these allegedly post-modern times the real challenge is to be post-hermeneutic. We need critical descriptions that don't inflate us to such absurd ethical dimensions."

5. See David Bordwell, Making Meaning (52-56).

6. For the Bellour, see "Thierry Kuntzell", and for the Lyotard, see "Acinema".

Works Cited

Bellour, Raymond. "The Unattainable Text". Screen 16, 3 (1975): 19-28.

Bellour, Raymond. "Thierry Kuntzell and the Return of Writing". Trans. Annwyl Williams. Camera Obscura 11 (1983): 29-59

Bordwell, David. Making Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.

Brooks, Jodi. "Consumed by Cinematic Monstrosity". Art and Text 34 (1989): 79-94.

Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. Cambridge: Harvard UP 1981.

Hunter, Ian. "Notes on Wittgenstein and Film Criticism". Unpublished manuscript.

King, Noel. "Critical Occasions: Making Meaning and Film Criticism", Continuum 6, 1 (1992): 163-185.

Lyotard, J.F. "Acinema". Trans. Paisley Livingstone. Wide Angle 2, 3 (1978): 52-59.

Martin, Adrian. "Mise en scene is Dead, or the Expressive, the Excessive, the Technical and the Stylish". Continuum 5, 2 (1992): 87-140.

Martin, Adrian. "No Flowers for the Cinephile: The Fates of Cultural Populism, 1960-88". Island in the Stream: Myths of Place in Australian Culture. Ed. Paul Foss. Sydney: Pluto Press, 1988. 117-138.

Perkins, Victor. "Must We say What They Mean?: Film Criticism and Interpretation". Movie 34, 5 (Winter, 1990): 1-6.

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