By Tara Judah
I often feel pressure to accept the notion that attending festivals or preview screenings to produce content in the form of an opinionated review or saleable interview is somehow valuable. But I don’t believe it; it is not inherently valuable to have an opinion, or to express it. What can be valuable in that context is when art creates affect and then that affect creates anew. Many lauded critics and mainstream press trade on the vapid system of snark, superiority and privilege but meaningfully communicating with an audience seems far more productive, inclusive and relevant, to me. Re-connecting with Dana Linssen and Jan Pieter Ekker’s Critic’s Choice engagement at IFFR (International Film Festival Rotterdam), I am reminded that the role of the critic is far more exciting and effective than the loudest voices would have us believe.
Building on last year’s audio-visual essay provocation – Whose Cinema: the video-essay on the big screen of the International Film Festival Rotterdam – critic and filmmaker Mark Cousins returned to screen his 2016 contribution Bigger than The Shining one last time before destroying it (the DCP) with an axe. The desire to see a DCP axed in a cinema auditorium appealed to me for a number of reasons:
1) the physical axe (present) invokes violence that exceeds its screen reference in The Shining, which is because,
2) an axe is, traditionally, what was used by film studios to junk (destroy) photochemical film prints once the theatrical screenings rights expired, making the axing of a DCP (photochemical film’s contemporary counterpart but also its rewritable replacement to a large extent) even more delicious to watch,
3) because the act is also a performance that changes the charge of the environment – that is to say that the cinema auditorium, so often considered a passive space, for reception, would become active even if we, as viewers, refused to activate it in viewing the film,
4) because destruction creates scarcity, which makes this the only viewing I could ever attend and
5) because the event, owing to that scarcity, even if photographed and filmed for perpetuity would only be relevant to me, personally, if I engaged with the experience in an embodied, sensory way (aka: FOMO).
These points notwithstanding, Cousins did admit that edits exist elsewhere and that others who have a copy of the work have been asked to destroy it, but there is no guarantee they will. I am reminded, here, of the example of experimental filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos, who withdrew his films from circulation and didn’t intend for them to be restored or seen posthumously but for his partner Robert Beavers, who has since taken the decision to restore and show some of his works. The question, then, that the Critic’s Choice asked – Whose Cinema? – extends beyond the practical, legal, ethical and aesthetic implications it set about and ventures boldly into the very personal domain of affect, which is precisely what cinema is all about, anyway.
This particular video essay, among other things, was a magnificently stitched together work that drew Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) into new light for me, owing to its counterpart, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956), which I had never seen. Using the latter to comment on the former – as if one were a premonition of the other, as Cousins puts it – the films’ themes around broken masculinity, failed and abusive patriarchy and substance dependence opened up a new and quite honestly terrifying critical space for me. Few intertitle interjections from Cousins gave us more than enough commentary to condemn both Jack (Jack Nicholson) and Ed (James Mason) from a social, moral, ethical and emotional place – questions like,
What if the nuclear family is like a bomb?
What if cinema is good at breaking down?
Because this last screening of the film, the “screening dernière” as Cousins called it, was a moral decision – Cousins did not wanting it to go out and make money in the world – the potency of its message feels somehow heightened. I am haunted, truly, by the image of Wendy (Shelley Duval) bowing to Jack’s monstrous abuse as he begins to spiral out of control – Bigger than The Shining shows the scene where she ‘interrupts’ his writing, then shows us Ed forcing his wife into submission in Bigger Than Life before cutting back to the start of the scene where Wendy approaches Jack. The effect of anticipating abuse after watching it and having it explained by another film was so impacting that I wonder, now, if I will ever watch The Shining again. The chills I experienced are not attributable to Kubrick. It is the critique of Kubrick and the strong and convincing argument Cousins makes that The Shining is a dangerous film, that was affecting.
Late last year, at a UK industry conference I listened to Sight and Sound’s Nick James and Hannah McGill deny the importance of cinema-going and politics to their practice. James said, “I don’t really care how many people come to see the films,” and McGill commented that criticism should only be political “in a soft way”. But today, after engaging with Linssen and Ekker’s interrogation of cinema, and through Cousins’ exemplary work, specifically for audiences, I am more convinced than ever that criticism is only relevant and only valuable if it takes part in communicating with audiences. Otherwise it is only the perpetuation of privilege enforcing itself on others.