Richard Brody on the physicality of cinema

by kdlough

I was planning a response to Jason Bailey’s dopey think-piece “Film Culture Isn’t Dead; It’s Just More Fun,” but I recently saw that Richard Brody, at his always thought provoking New Yorker blog The Front Row, has already said everything I would have.

There’s a fundamental category error endemic to criticism: the notion that there’s an arm’s-length appreciation of craft that’s somehow secondary to the principal business of a movie, the creation of character, the unfolding of drama. The love of the stuff of movies is physical; a director’s style is an expression of his or her physical bearing, no less than the brushstroke is for a painter, and the pleasure in the image, in the use of the soundtrack, in the tone of voices, captures that physical connection over space and time. It’s the most immediate and the most intimate part of the moviegoing experience…  The drama, by contrast, is abstract—and it’s why critics who are most indifferent or insensitive to the particulars of the cinema assimilate movies to screenplays and spend inordinate space and energy twiddling details of characters’ behavior on the ends of their fingers rather than taking the movie experience, the spirit of the movie, whole…

The recognition that Hitchcock, Hawks, Ray, and other Hollywood directors are geniuses came at the expense of critics who repudiated Hollywood movies in favor of European art cinema. The young French critics didn’t love “Monkey Business” or “Strangers on a Train” or “Johnny Guitar” for being popular; a movie’s status in the industry was irrelevant. Rather, these critics considered these directors to be the peers of the best novelists or composers or artists of the day; they not only thought of Hitchcock as the peer of Jean Renoir or Carl Theodor Dreyer but also of Stravinsky and Picasso, and they were right. Of course, the abstractions of character and story are gripping, and I doubt whether anyone who loves “Gertrud” or “Marnie” does so in isolation from the drama. But such great movies convey an exhilarating tension—not between form and content but between the physical and the intellectual, by way of an uninhibited, audacious, morally daring, and ingeniously conceived approach to both. Great movies, whether produced and marketed as pop or high culture, do the same thing—and, over time and away from the marketing machine and from the transient vernacular markers with which Bailey and O’Hehir are concerned, the distinction vanishes.