The Passion of the Critic: On Hoberman, Kracauer, and the Future of Film
By Phillip MaciakNovember 7, 2012
Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings by Siegfried Kracauer
Film After Film 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 clear image of the nexus of American film and culture during the Cold War. Now, with Film After Film, a collection of writings from the Bush era, Hoberman has attempted something approaching the ambition and daring of From Caligari to Hitler. Turning his gaze to the first decade of the twenty-first century, he has dutifully reaffirmed Kracauer’s dictum. Let us look at Hoberman, looking in the mirror.
In November 2011, a few months before Hoberman was laid off, the Verso Books website posted a page announcing his forthcoming book, Film After Film, or What Became of 21st Century Cinema. According to this website, the book, which featured a crisp still from the Pixar film Wall-E on its cover, ran a little under 200 pages and was scheduled to hit stores in February 2012. As it turned out, however, this promise was never fulfilled. Instead, in late August 2012, Verso released a book under the same title that ran nearly 300 pages and featured, on its cover, a parody of the 20th Century Fox logo superimposed over a New York City skyline with the Tribute in Light 9/11 memorial in the background. This busy image is a little on the nose (especially given Verso’s recent taste for gorgeously minimalist graphic design), but it gives an accurate preview of what lies inside. Film After Film is a sloppy, brilliant, patchwork statement about the future of the cinema — spoiler alert: there is a future — in the face of reports of its imminent demise.
It’s foolish to speculate about what precisely transpired during this time that led Hoberman and Verso to decide to expand the book, but, at some point around January 2012, Film After Film transformed from a slim volume with a modest film still on the cover to a pretty sizable work of criticism with an awkwardly argumentative cover image. I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine that, newly freed from the shackles of his weekly Voice column, Hoberman was feeling a little moved by the spirit of Siegfried Kracauer to make a statement. That said, the book is, like his previous publications The Magic Hour and Vulgar Modernism, a collection of essays representing his journalistic output over the course of a decade. Unlike those collections, however, this one has loftier ambitions. It is clear from the start that Hoberman very much wants his reviews and essays to stand as as a cohesive history of American foreign policy’s influence on world cinema since 2001. In other words, he wants the book to tell a story.
That story, which is centered around the emergence of an aesthetic trend that Hoberman calls “the New Realness,” is synthesized most pointedly in “A Post-Photographic Cinema,” the first of the book’s three numbered sections. Substantially expanded from a 2009 essay published in Artforum, “A Post-Photographic Cinema” introduces Film After Film’s triad of crucial terms: 9/11, realism, and the digital. In its simplest terms, Hoberman’s book argues that the televised cultural trauma of the 9/11 terror attacks, combined with the near-simultaneous technological shift from film to digital at the turn of the century, forced the cinema to reassess its relationship to the real. What happens to the global film industry after the seeming destruction of both American exceptionalism and the film medium itself?
Without exactly being a ray of sunshine, Hoberman resists the apocalyptic conclusion of Susan Sontag’s 1996 centennial obituary of the medium, “The Decay of Cinema.” In that piece, Sontag makes the mournful, nostalgic prediction that, as the quality of new films declines, the old technology becomes outmoded, and the studio profit motive soars, the cinema of the first half of the twentieth century will die a grisly death. She presciently argues that the proliferation of individualized viewing experiences has de-centered the ritual space of the theater and the traditions of cinephilia born from the possibilities of that communal experience. “The sheer ubiquity of moving images,” Sontag writes, “has steadily undermined the standards people once had for both cinema and popular entertainment.” Moreover, what have we come to, she asks, when even the great Jean-Luc Godard has met what she calls the “melancholy fate” of shooting a “film about the history of film, on video?”
Hoberman is certainly alive to this anxiety, and he is no less concerned than Sontag about the ultimate fate of cinema. But this critic, who notably and provocatively named Godard’s aforementioned Histoire(s) du cinéma the greatest film work of the 1990s, does not see film’s post-digital, post-blockbuster fate as quite such a diminished thing. Instead, 9/11’s oft-cited echo of Hollywood disaster film staging and celluloid’s seemingly inevitable decline in the face of cheaper, more malleable digital imaging have actually served as a provocation to what Andre Bazin liked to call “the Plastic Arts.” Regardless of the status of film’s materiality or its ethical relationship to world events, and regardless also of the brutality and conservatism of much of the work that has resulted from these paradigm shifts, Hoberman holds that the cinema has adapted in the face of its own potential extinction. If Sontag argued at the fin-de-siècle that both film and film culture were facing irrevocable decay, Hoberman counters that it is exactly that decay which has brought the cinema new life.
That life, as Hoberman frames it, takes the form of a “New Realness”: a broad term encompassing films as seemingly divergent as The Passion of the Christ, Wall-E, and Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark. The films that fall under this umbrella do so somewhat haphazardly: this is no self-conscious movement like Italian neorealism, for instance. Indeed, the canon of New Realness, as described by Hoberman, is defined less by a set of maxims or rules than by a common approach to a shared set of problems. Hoberman names these problems as two uniquely contemporary kinds of anxiety: the “objective” anxiety surrounding the decline of film’s primacy as an object, and the “hysterical” anxiety of 9/11:
Objective anxiety is manifested both in a recognition that the motion picture medium, as it has more or less existed since 1896, is in apparently irreversible decline — the mass audience is eroded, national film industries have been defunded, film labs are shuttered, film stocks terminated and formats rendered obsolete, parts for broken 16mm-projectors are irreplaceable, laptop computers have been introduced as a delivery system — and then in a feeling among cinema-oriented intellectuals that film culture is disappearing.
In lieu, then, of curling up in their freshly dug graves, Hoberman suggests that contemporary filmmakers have used this anxiety as a prod to imagine new relationships to “the real.” Andy and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski’s The Matrix took this schism as the topic of its now-dated philosophical musings; Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 group sought to purify film’s mediation of life by taking a “Vow of Chastity” with regard to post-production effects; Godard began his ambitious experiments with mixed-media; Abbas Kiarostami and Aleksandr Sokurov employed an almost orthodox Bazinian realist aesthetic in their digital works; Henry Selick’s Coraline, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police, and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox have led a return to what Hoberman calls the “neo-retro primitivism” of stop-motion filmmaking; and filmmakers from all parts of the globe have made works that draw attention to the medium and raise questions about cinema’s power to capture reality. “The loss of indexicality,” Hoberman writes, meaning the material or chemical relationship between an object in the real world and its filmic image in celluloid, “has promoted a new, compensatory ‘real-ness’ emphasizing film as object (if only an object in decay).” Cinema, in other words, responds to the decay and derangement of the world with innovation.
But the anxiety at the root of Hoberman’s New Realness is not limited to the panic of a cinephile coterie about the transition from film to digital. The “hysterical anxiety” of the post-9/11 period provides the cultural counterweight to aesthetic worries about film’s objecthood. In beginning this discussion, Hoberman quotes the composer Karl Stockhausen’s controversial claim that 9/11 was “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” In other words, the attacks, which were designed both to physically destroy but also to create an archetypal image of destruction, became the most globally immersive visual event in history. In this way, 9/11 was the apotheosis of the fantastical visions of destruction and catastrophe that propelled the careers of Hollywood filmmakers like Michael Bay. Taking this argument to heart, Hoberman suggests that the attack “was understood by some filmmakers as a horrible unintended consequence of their medium and taken by others as a challenge to the notion of the movies as a medium with a privileged relationship to the real.” Filmmakers would spend a decade coming to terms with that event by traumatically echoing its form and impact.
In response to this hysterical anxiety, Hoberman argues, filmmakers returned to a visceral kind of realism that would represent trauma and suffering in ways that were “experiential, communal and above all naturalistic.” The standard bearers of this mode of New Realness are, for Hoberman, purveyors of “torture porn” like Eli Roth; makers of harrowing “anti-entertainment” like Gus Van Sant, Julian Schnabel, and Steve McQueen; the low-budget hipster realists of the “Mumblecore” movement; and mainstream filmmakers like Danny Boyle and Paul Greengrass who have sought to claustrophobically recreate “the reality of unspeakable suffering” in their films. He cites the brutal, almost documentary aesthetic, of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), both fantasy films in their own wayswhich nevertheless insist on a gritty, uncomfortable realism: blood and dirt splatter the shaking camera lenses, while long takes and tight shot compositions immerse the audience in the inescapable terror, trapping them in the real-time depiction of events. They are exercises, to some extent, in endurance.
But this mode of New Realness is not only concerned with brutality. It is also occupied with finding and articulating the “social real” of twenty-first century networked existence. In films like Wall-E and Avatar, the question is not whether cinema has a privileged relationship to the real but what the real, in an age when so much of so many of our identities is condensed in the digital cloud, exactly is. Wall-E, like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, raises this question through its ingenious, silent meditations on mediation. The film is the height of CGI animation technology, and yet its protagonist is a filthy outdated robot whose prized possession is a VHS tape of Hello Dolly. The world of Wall-E is a world in which one can feel not only nostalgia for film, but nostalgia for its video transfer. As “a post-photographic film set in a post-human universe,” Wall-E is, for Hoberman, “the twenty-first century’s quintessential motion picture to date.”
James Cameron’s Avatar, which Hoberman sees as the “most elaborate evidence of the New Realness,” is far more ponderous in its philosophizing. The story of a war fought like a video game through human-controlled alien avatars, shot in immersive digital 3-D, James Cameron’s film comes to the saccharine, Matrix-lite conclusion that the virtual world of the avatars has become the real world. As Avatar’s hero, a disabled veteran, finds himself able to walk and run and explore the voluptuous world of the film, so too does the spectator, and, while Wall-E fetishizes and memorializes the past, Avatar does it one better. For Hoberman, the public’s frenzied, obsessive response to Cameron’s virtual world-making “attests to the continuing power exerted by what Bazin called ‘the recreation of the world in its own image,’ and the attraction of that world, however fantastic.” The CGI environment of Avatar was “unbearably distant, yet overwhelmingly near,” and thus, a cutting edge, post-photographic conjuration of the cinema’s earliest dreams.
The New Realness is a provocative and important, if not wholly original, concept, and Hoberman’s book should be read at the very least for this attempt at the large-scale socio-cultural analysis of contemporary cinema. It is, first of all, a mercifully cool counter-weight to all the alarmist “Death of Film” hypotheses (“TV is killing film!”; “Sequels are killing film!”; “You meddling kids are killing film! Get off film’s lawn!”) that has gripped America’s think-piece writers every couple of months since the beginning of the medium itself. And it’s also a valuable popularization of some of the most vital recent academic thinking on the subject of digital cinema. Hoberman’s book is, in a sense, the popular cousin of film scholar D.N. Rodowick’s slim, dense volume The Virtual Life of Film (2007). Rodowick, one of Hoberman’s key sources, suggests that, in the digital age, “[f]ilm is no longer a modern medium; it is completely historical.” His book seeks, with an uncommonly graceful command of technical detail, to articulate “what the moving image is becoming, and indeed, has (un)become in the era of digital capture and synthesis.” And while Rodowick’s “Elegy for Film” professes a deep nostalgia for the analog, it is primarily a theoretical guide to how and in what form the “cinema” might persist in the age of what he calls “digital will,” or CGI’s unique relationship to reality. If film as a medium is no longer “constitutive of our modernity,” then what is?
In this way, Hoberman’s book is a broadly accessible Rodowickian errand in the articulation of how we might imagine digital cinema to reflect twenty-first century culture. But this task, which takes up most of “A Post-Photographic Cinema,” is only the tip of the CGI iceberg, so to speak. Film After Film is, after all, composed of three discrete sections. The next two, entitled “A Chronicle of the Bush Years” and “Notes Toward a Syllabus,” are what both make the book more than a targeted film-historical polemic and, occasionally, compromise its goals.
The middle section of Film After Film, a year-by-year “Chronicle of the Bush Years,” reads at times like a private diary, with all the alternations of jarring insight and embarrassing revelation one might expect from such an artifact. Comprised mainly of Hoberman’s Village Voice reviews that dealt with the socio-political landscape of George W. Bush’s presidency, this section is crucial to his attempt to elevate his book from “essay collection” to “cultural history.” But rather than take the content of these reviews and synthesize them into a cohesive historical narrative, Hoberman’s chronicle awkwardly insists on reproducing unedited columns from this period alongside more recent commentary (typographically set off in bold) by the author. Instead of a canny retrospective history of this period, then, Hoberman offers us a record of a public intellectual feeling his way through that history.
As a result, what could have been a sleek and elegant work of historical criticism comes off as repetitive, dated, and sometimes even sloppy. The reviews — of such films as Munich, Borat, and There Will Be Blood, not to mention illuminating pairings like Errol Morris’ Abu Ghraib documentary Standard Operating Procedure with Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay — are all interesting time capsules, but Hoberman’s commitment to publishing them as is without even continuity edits (many repetitions in style and redundancies that might have otherwise been smoothed by an editor remain intact) detracts from the power of the work as a whole. Hoberman is a historian as well as a critic, of course, and his fidelity to the archival record is admirable, but one ultimately wants to tell him that we trust him enough to re-edit his essays without giving himself unearned prophetic powers.
I think we should rightly read Hoberman’s work here alongside Kracauer’s. But while Kracauer’s critical writing of 70 years ago, steeped as it is in the historically specific movements of the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals, remains vital, wise, and even eerily prescient, Hoberman’s essays of just a few years ago often feel uncomfortably dated. This is because these reviews, in their own moment, were more than just brilliant analyses of film (and, for what it’s worth, those analyses remain, for the most part, brilliant, even with all of the meta-textual distractions). They also offered a bracing sense of relief for liberals who were concerned with the uncritical exuberance many of their nominal allies were showing toward the War on Terror. And part of this contrarian zeitgeistiness was the very MoveOn.org-esque vitriol Hoberman expresses toward Republicans. Calling Ann Coulter a “right-wing skank” in print, for instance, might have seemed like cutting-edge political rhetoric at the time, but outside of the passions of the Bush years, the only surviving content of that zinger is its bracing misogyny. Indeed, the vacuousness of the conservative foreign and domestic policy agenda during that time was often matched only by the well-meaning competitive vacuousness of its liberal critics (here’s looking at you, Air America). Rather than project world-weary wisdom, Hoberman offers only a stark reminder of that confusing and embarrassing time: he is often right in these pages, but the slapdash anger of his columns mires the middle section of this otherwise present-minded book in anachronism.
It’s a shame, and all the more so because, if properly presented, this archive — which, we ought to remember, was constructed week by week in the pages of an alternative newsweekly — ought to be Exhibit A for any defense of journalistic film criticism as a genre. If nothing else, these reviews demonstrate that important political work can be done even in the Entertainment section. But if this section is an implicit argument for the importance of film criticism from a recently dethroned king of the genre, then it ought to emphasize the enduring over the quotidian. Hoberman’s Chronicle of the Bush Years too often feels like a Relic of the Bush Years.
Beyond an embattled critic’s self-justification or that critic’s bid for the creation of a “big idea,” Film After Film is powered — especially in its final section, “Notes Toward a Syllabus,” which offers exactly that — by the impulse to teach. As such, it owes a formal and philosophical debt not just to argumentative texts like Kracauer’s Caligari but also to those foundational works of film theory throughout the century that aimed to ask fundamental questions of what we often passively accept as the cinema. Rudolph Arnheim’s Film as Art (1932), Bazin’s What is Cinema? (1958), and Kracauer’s own Theory of Film (1960) sought, in the early days of film study, to isolate and articulate the medium’s unique power. They aimed less to argue than to explain, catalog, and imagine film’s past and its future. And in the latter half of the twentieth century, works like the late Miriam Hansen’s dense study of silent cinema Babel and Babylon, Laura Mulvey’s paradigm shifting Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Rodowick’s Virtual Life of Film, and, most recently, Dudley Andrew’s neo-Bazinian What Cinema Is! have looked to film history to explain our relation as spectators to the images on the screen. Film After Film is an entry into this critical lineage. Rather than a collection of reviews or a politically-charged screed, it belongs to the genre of complex answers to Bazin’s simple question: what is cinema?
In this regard, it is fitting that Film After Film would be published the same summer that the University of California Press published the first collection of Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings. While these collected essays don’t provide as cohesive an argument as Kracauer’s earlier works or Hoberman’s newest, they do insist on a kind of ethical imperative of film criticism. As the thorough introduction by Johannes von Moltke and Kristy Rawson explains, these reviews and essays were written by the exiled Kracauer in order to survive financially but also to come to grips with an often troubling modernity through film. From Hollywood’s growing exportation of American ideals to the influence of psychiatry on the cinema, these essays show a Kracauer worried less about the death of film than its current life. In other words, there is an urgency in these pieces to convey exactly how powerful what he called “those movies with a message” — even those as innocuous as Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life — could be.
In this way, Hoberman’s Film After Film and Kracauer’s American Writings are strikingly similar books. Both are intentionally collected from the occasional production of specific periods; both build arguments organically by inference. And both, moreover, are arguments for the vital political importance of film criticism in modern society. The idea that film is a mirror of reality, while basic and foundational to the art, is not just a nifty statemen: it is a warning and a provocation. If film is teaching us about our reality, we must know how to absorb its lessons. It is the most obvious assumption of film criticism, but it is one that bears repeating.
What’s especially striking, though, is how similar Kracauer’s analysis of American culture in the 1940s is to Hoberman’s analysis of culture in the 2000s. In a 1946 essay entitled, “Hollywood’s Terror Films: Do They Reflect an American State of Mind,” Kracauer writes,
Most of the current thrillers do not even pretend to motivate or excuse or rationalize the introduction of sadistic horrors. The urgency of the emotional need that is at the present moment satisfied by vicarious participation in these specific varieties of cruelty, violence, and fear becomes sufficient excuse in itself.
This is, perhaps, the Original Realness. Citing the jarring violence of films like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt and Orson Welles’s 1946 The Stranger — it’s a good thing he was not alive to see The Human Centipede — Kracauer sees evidence of the “inner disintegration” of the American psyche. “A civil war is being fought inside every soul,” he writes. “And the movies reflect the uncertanties of that war in the form of general inner disintegration and mental disturbance.”
While Kracauer would likely read Spielberg and Gibson’s films in much the same way Hoberman does, it’s unclear whether he would be able to see the evidence of film’s salvation in the midst of these particular kinds of vicarious sadism. He does, however, open up the possibility that emphasis on the shockingly raw depiction of destruction and suffering might be turned to good. “It would be a hopeful sign,” he suggests,
if films were to appear in this country that, like [Roberto Rossellini’s] Open City, really showed the principles of human integrity at grips with a deranged world — and showed them as positive forces, with a reality at least equal, if not superior to, the forces of cruelty and violence and to the fear upon which these feed.
This is a gorgeous sentiment, and it’s hard not to be inspired by Kracauer’s evocation of Rossellini’s neorealist humanism. Does Hoberman feel that such positive forces exist? Perhaps in the image of Wall-E, the digital hero, settling in to watch Hello Dolly on his VCR, we can still find Kracauer’s reality: a reality at least equal, if not superior to, the one it has apparently destroyed.
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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