Film After Film : or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?by: J. Hoberman
“Films mirror our reality. Let us look in the mirror.”
– Siegfried Kracauer
There are two film critics. Each is in exile. Each makes his living review to review, lecture to lecture, amongst the journalistic hurlyburly of New York City. Each, in the prime of his intellectual life, writes a long, messy, virtuosic polemic about film and politics. The first traces how the political landscape of fear, paranoia, and violent nationalism in the critic’s homeland arose out of the aesthetic of popular cinema. The second, conversely, traces how the aesthetic of popular cinema arose out of the political landscape of fear, paranoia, and violent nationalism in the critic’s homeland. The first is Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), and the second is J. Hoberman’s new Film After Film, or What Became of 21st Century Cinema?
Admittedly, there’s a certain fuzziness to this comparison. For one thing, Kracauer, an elegant and path-breaking critic of film and mass culture, was in exile from Nazi Germany when he wrote his epic tome. He is rightly heralded, along with Andre Bazin, as one of the prime movers of modern film theory; his writings on German Expressionism still influence the way we think about Weimar film and culture, and he is one of the oldest standard bearers for passionate cultural criticism of the cinema.
Hoberman, for his part, is merely in exile from The Village Voice. After almost 30 years as the paper’s primary film critic, he was laid off in January of this year, eliciting a collective cry from thousands of film buffs who had been introduced to a broad swath of international art cinema by Hoberman’s writing. While Hoberman has settled comfortably at venues like Tablet, Artinfo, and the New York Review of Books and is not, as far as we know, fleeing violent persecution, his displacement has, for a certain kind of cinephile, taken on the flavor of an existential crisis. If Hoberman is not at The Village Voice, then where are we?
And then, of course, George W. Bush, for all his crimes, is not Hitler, and the post-9/11 cultural landscape that Hoberman writes about in his new polemic is a starkly different kind of fear, paranoia, and nationalism than the Weimar and Nazi cultures Kracauer analyzed. Nonetheless, both books are born out of the same critical impulse. Kracauer, in a 1948 essay collected for the first time in this year’s invaluable anthology Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings, postulated that “Films mirror our reality.” Over the course of their careers, both critics have sought to make good on this notion. Kracauer was among those who first argued that film could not only be the motor force of social change, as the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein had claimed, but that it could reflect the psychology of the nation that produced it; for him, popular cinema and the desires of the masses were in a constant feedback loop. Hoberman’s column for The Village Voice, in turn, was a weekly workshop in this mode of criticism, and his books over the past decade (especially The Dream Life and An Army of Phantoms) have produced a stunningly cl...read more