Most criticism of contemporary art and popular culture follows either of two trends: nostalgia for the past, and acceptance of the present. The first is an act of yielding, of giving in, while the second is an act of accepting what is generally considered to be inevitable and inescapable. Given this crude dichotomy, it’s no cause for wonderment that contemporary criticism is muddled up. That it survives in some form in a country, any country, particularly one as packed in and small as ours, is a miracle.
For a genuine culture of music, theatre, cinema, dance, etc to subsist here, a veritable culture of criticism must be in place. In this paper some weeks ago I pointed out that we can’t be a nation of writers without being a nation of readers. Well, we can’t be a nation of critics either, a problem given that in Sri Lanka, artistry is predicated on critical judgments; put simply, our artists can disseminate their work most effectively through discerning critics. The problem is the gap between what is deemed as populist, unserious, frivolous and what is deemed as arty, profound, obscurantist. The former is ignored to such an extent that there aren’t any critics to discern them at all; the latter is inflated so much that there aren’t any critics to intelligently discern them.
The hysteria associated with the latter is an ironic reversal of the hysteria that was once associated with the former. What is considered tasteful and serious, in our cinema and theatre, still thrives on a conception of these mediums that flourished in an earlier era. The cinema of Asoka Handagama derives its outlook from the cinema of Bergman, Antonioni, and the East Europeans, for instance, which he goes for, again and again, with despairing frequency. (Is it any wonder that, to me at least, his best films, like Channa Kinnari and Ini Avan, are less derivative in this sense, while his lesser work, like Aksharaya and the more recent Age Asa Aga, are more so?).
The first film critics were writers and journalists. Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw were nearing the end of their careers and lives when the cinema was born
Because our critics, in whatever media, are so enthralled by what they see on the surface – etched in black-and-white symbols, metaphors, and unfinished, mangled sentences – they are inclined to heap praise on the objet d’art without delving into what makes up that object in the first place. They are ready to forgive what a plain, unsullied audience may consider as unforgivable errors of judgment and taste. On the other hand, as members of that audience we exhibit roughly the same kind of joy or cynicism regardless of whether what we see is commercial or art-house.
Two years ago, I believe on a Sunday, I was at a cousin’s house watching one of those populist reproductions of history that win so much at the box-office and yet say so little about our history. This film was based on a Jathaka tale, and involved, towards the end, the impending murder of a princess by a horde of lascivious princes and kings demanding their pound of flesh. Now in a chivalry-laden romance like this you know what’s going to happen: like the poor woman tied to the rail track in those early silent movies, the princess is bound to be rescued by the same man she had earlier spurned.
Film criticism, because movies are still fresh, is not surprisingly the most misunderstood form of criticism, because intellect never really works. You need to FEEL what you are writing, what you are reviewing
Which is what happens, and what compelled laughter from my cousin and his family, as we watched, with baited breath, that prince arriving on horseback and preventing that butcher of an executioner from despatching her for good. “Ohoma wenne naha, pissu yakku!” my cousin, who was still at school, roared, grinning so widely with the satisfaction of knowing in what way the hero and heroine would be reconciled. The hero, incidentally, had a physical deformity; in the original, his lover marries him despite that, while in here, she marries him and he is cured. (Perhaps Deadpool – yes, that Deadpool! – was more faithful to the Jathaka tale: after all Vanessa’s love for Wade Wilson doesn’t redeem his earlier figure.) I think it apt to mention that none of those Hollywood sword-and-sandal epics of the forties and fifties were accurate either. We despise the Americans, but follow their penchant for a historicism.
It seemed curious to me at the time that this cousin, and his family, had thought highly of the picture. Their general high regard for it did not compensate for or even outweigh their disgust for such crudely conceived sequences. Such a concurrent attitude of admiration and disgust, which reflected the film’s own unenviable blend of high production values and zero aesthetic values, confused me for a long, long time, because I thought it odd that a film that could wring so much from the box-office could also wring so much cynicism from the audience, a fairly good microcosm of which was my cousin’s family. They were reacting to the picture in parts: perhaps a reminder that in this digitalised, pixelated era where we watch television with all those commercial breaks while tapping on our phones and stalking other people on their Facebook profiles, we no longer react properly to anything. How we react is tempered by how we take to something. Our art is closer to advertising than art in this regard, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: for directors to win us, the audiences, they must deliver on our briefs and get us to the theatres from the word go.
In any given society, if critics are like audiences in their opinions about a film, a play, or even an art exhibition and dance item, they are disregarded and put off as impressionistic. Their tastes and criteria of value are questioned as being random, arbitrary, and irrational, forgetting that what is random, arbitrary, and irrational in them was what drove the first critics of any art-form. Since I can speak with any kind of coherence only about the movies, I will limit my views from this point to the cinema, the art-form that has evolved faster than any other. My cousin had reacted to a film; had the critics reacted in that same spontaneous, immediate way to what are deemed as art-house pictures, which they are invited almost every other week and month to, the art-house directors would have seen the light of day, and vanished.
The first film critics were writers and journalists. Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw were nearing the end of their careers and lives when the cinema was born: what they wrote, consequently, reflected their distrust of a medium which seemed to privilege visual excess over imagination, while confusing the one for the other. Bernard Shaw had his stints at journalism, but didn’t belong to that field. Those who did, and wrote like artists, were destined to be the first purveyors of the world’s most industrial art.
They came in a particular order, and most of them are forgotten but still read today: Manny Farber, James Agee, and Pauline Kael. All of them were idiosyncratic and, at a time when newspapers devoted meagre spaces to movie reviews which forced the reviewer to tone down, prospered in magazines or became their own publishers: Kael with The New Yorker, Agee with The Nation and TIME. Their discovery of the publishing industry was a blessing, but was also a curse: when postmodernism arrived, those who prided themselves on being purveyors of the medium academised their feelings and put them on print. The result was a proliferation of intellect, and a diminishment of sincerity. Film criticism, because movies are still fresh, is not surprisingly the most misunderstood form of criticism, because intellect never really works. You need to FEEL what you are writing, what you are reviewing.
Susan Sontag, in her groundbreaking essay “Against Interpretation”, argued that inasmuch as interpretation was and is essential to art, culture, even society, its contortion at the hands of some of its wielders meant that there was no consistency, no cohesion, in the field of criticism. What this means is that when you read into a text – a film, a play, a dance item, a concert, etc – you often become unaware of what you are reading into.
When it comes to movie criticism here, the hackneyed phrase and cliché and tribute are held as sacrosanct, inviolable. Added to this is a horde of superlatives which are there, not to reduce the film to its barest essentials and dissect it, but to push forward the artist’s perception of his own work (manifestly different to his intentions: how you rate your own work, after all, is different to how you intend its message to pop out).
The reviews that Prasanna Vithanage’s Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka compelled were rather symptomatic of this trend: one by one, the reviewers all came out in their universal, almost unanimous summing up of it as probably the greatest post-war film ever made. Regardless of whether it was great or not (it may have been Vithanage’s least visual film), its treatment at the hands of journalists did a disservice to the director and his vision, particularly since the easiest way to sum up a movie, for our critics that is, is by resorting to the cliché. They will say it’s great, just as they will say Handagama’s Age Asa Aga is a cinematic masterpiece, but why? And how?
Agee could get away with overblown adjectives, and so could Kael and, closer to home, Regi Siriwardena (who used such adjectives sparingly, by the way), because in their hands even a cliché became more than what it was. Perhaps that’s the first point I can make of our (movie) critics: they lack the prose, the feeling for words and phrases, which can help them tide over their penchant for those adjectives and adverbs.