Frames of War: Some Thoughts on Film Criticism Now

I gave a paper at the University of Kent yesterday at the invitation of Mattias Frey to be part of a seminar on film criticism with Jonathan RomneyChris Darke and Sarah Turner. It was an intense and exciting event that became an incredible two hour discussion. I wish I could present a transcript or recording of the entire event here, but alas there isn't one: instead, I'm going to post the paper that I wrote because I'm still engaged and exercised by the questions that were raised and would love to hear more responses. You can also download the paper as a pdf here.


Frames of War: Some Thoughts on Film Criticism Now

I want to start by saying that I am proud to have reviewed Harry Potter 6, and to have been able to read it publicly queerly and as an allegory for class under Blair. Other than that I won’t be talking about my practice, but in a way modeling it: as a hybrid of my work as an academic, journalist, activist and creative writer. So I’ll begin Once Upon a Time… with a reflection on that impossible and self-evidently non-existent fantasy that film so often invites: a Golden Age; for me, a utopian moment for the triangulation of film criticism, film theory and filmmaking. It’s a subjective utopia, one that occurred before I was born and ended shortly after: that of the emergence of feminist theory and practice.


Ways of reading film that were once radical have been so co-opted, it’s often hard to believe that they were once urgent and emergent from grassroots concerns. In an article on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 40 years after its publication, Laura Mulvey’s contemporary Yvonne Rainer dwells not on the formal filmmaking practice or psychoanalytic criticism that Mulvey pioneered, but rather her feminist activism against threats to abortion rights, placing the article in a charged history. Rainer explicitly yokes Mulvey’s reading of profilmic violence against women with a socio-political context of lived violence. Rainer calls the article “a cri de coeur that was echoed in protests on both sides of the Atlantic,” creating a community of feminist artists, thinkers, and activists that took to the street as well as the cinema and academy. Furthermore, she suggests that the potent formulation instigated by that community, however briefly, could challenge to a new generation of feminists to activate a similar triangulation of writing, filmmaking, and activism. Rainer concludes the article:


with a yearning for the electrifying fervor--specifically feminist or not--of films made by directors working in those decades. . . . Whether or not these film/videomakers were influenced directly by Mulvey’s essay is moot; its effects had already entered the charged air we breathed. The air I now breathe feels weighted with expectancy. I continue to be buoyed by that history, a history that feels about to erupt again. How did it happen then? What is to be done now?


         Before I dive into some specifics of what is being done now, I want to begin with some abstract contentions, or contentious abstractions. For me, Rainer’s ‘What is to be done?,’ a cri de coeur sounded from a moment she describes as “the current ineptitudes and protofascist proclivities of Bush and company.” dovetails, echoes and expands the questions posed for this seminar.

What is to be done about film criticism is a question answered by another question: what can it do? The question is all the more poignant because, like Rainer and Mulvey when they began working in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we are living through imperial wars. All current UK and US films – the line between, given tax breaks and globalised ‘talent’ is as up for grabs as ownership of the invasions – are made under a war economy and within a media on war footing.

         As Judith Butler argues in her latest book Frames of War, war frames everything in that it informs all operations of media, and is constructed – for us – by those operations. She argues that “if war is to be opposed, we have to understand how the popular assent to war is cultivated and maintained, in other words, how war waging acts upon the senses” via – as she explores – news photography, television, film and digital media. War is primarily an audio-visual experience for most of us.

         Which, for Butler, is where critical theory and philosophy can make their intervention – and I want to argue further, that film criticism can intervene, as one strand of critical thinking about audiovisual arts and media. I want to suggest, moreover, that this may be why so many current students are drawn to media studies and film studies: not because they represent easy options, as politicians are only too ready to asperse, but because – at their most engaged – they can offer the activist and analytical commitment that Rainer desires in a landscape increasingly made, rather than just mediated, by visuality.

         Yet arts and humanities have been absent, or absented, from the political scene, their role in the definition of dominant culture via the media supplanted by the sciences, whose most popular pundits and political supporters are re-invoking grand narratives of technological progress, Western superiority, market logic and objectivity that had been thoroughly critiqued by feminist, Marxist and post-colonial theories. An Enlightenment rationalism has been foregrounded within the war discourse – supposedly as a response to religious extremisms, but really as part of a self-perpetuating (and money spinning) cycle of inventions and statistics.

As Donna Haraway argued in the 1980s in “The Cyborg Manifesto,” well before embedded reporters, we are in the grip of the media-industrial complex. Cinematic technologies have been beholden to battlefield developments since the Second World War led to the development of lightweight cameras and sound recording equipment. CGI began as a military imaging tool. This is something that film criticism and critical theories can address, and can make apparent in the way that it has engaged with economic and embodied theories of film, as I will discuss in a minute.

Film criticism is one among many canaries in the coalmine of political and cultural discourse: its political efficacy or otherwise speaks volumes to the need for arts and humanities to make their case not just for public funding, but for that which funding makes possible: a public platform, public attention, public engagement. The sciences – defending us from wars they design, and protecting us from fundamentalisms that they fuel – have done their work brilliantly in capturing public attention and pleading for their necessity and public interest. Arts and humanities face a predicament where researchers now have to submit proposals that imitate the shape of science funding: with discoverable facts or findings of monetary value. Value is precisely what engaged criticism is concerned with – specifically, with defining it not in relation to measurables, objectives or cost-benefit, but to communities; and criticism can also work not just to address, but to help define communities.

As an early adopter of cyberculture committed to the democratisation of cultural formations and expression, I have spent nearly fifteen years building community online: reading, writing and commenting on art and politics in usenet groups, on listservs, via websites and now through social networking. I relish the ability to save and share links to articles, blogs and even (so help me) promotional websites, and to engage with artmakers and writers via their virtual personae. I also want to eat, however, rather than make Mark Zuckerberg richer by providing content for Facebook.

The critical community is deeply divided about digitality, as I suspect all users – and non-users – are. Regardless of its benefits or depredations, the new media environment, as Henry Jenkins suggests, makes humanities-based critical thinking more rather than less important. It is in the interest of Murdoch and his – sorry, the – government that consumer-citizens are not able to think critically about media and culture.

Even if we take digital democracy, the internet as temporary autonomous zone, as a given, questions of the constitution of community and value remain – and are intensified by virtuality. The culture of distraction now seems to disguise a culture of consolidation, in which art, entertainment, media and politics are elided – as witness the Fox channels in the US. There is a need for film criticism – thinking of film as a meeting point of art and entertainment, aesthetic and industrial practice – to investigate these connections.

Henry Jenkins re-appropriates the term ‘convergence culture’ to think about the human beings and forms of thinking and practice that are enabled to converge via new media. In light of that, I want to suggest briefly some areas of ‘convergence culture’ that raise questions around the practice of film criticism – questions whose answers could usefully allow us to formulate a more expressive, more impressive, wider-reaching, deeper-reading film criticism – AND to answer the challenge of what arts and humanities are good for: an answer that doesn’t hinge on instrumental reason or the production of obedient consumer-citizens.

There are sites of resistance to the increasingly hegemonic homogeneity of opinion and user experience on the internet, which are working to use the tools of digital media towards the user as a participatory critical labourer, or communard: archives that make the work of filmmaking and the labour of film criticism and film theory visible, accessible, explicable and transferable. I have listed some on the handout, as part of a small, highly subjective selection of sites that I visit because I feel that they offer access and also advocacy [see the bottom of the essay]. I prefer to think of myself as a film advocate than a film critic, and I tend to seek out sites that do the work of advocacy: not presenting films uncritically, but debating and foregrounding films – and ideas about film and cinema – that counteract the oppression of the media-industrial complex and the uncritical consumer-citizen.

Magazine sites such as Media Commons and group-authored blogs offer speed of engagement but also a discursive space extended by volume and by interaction, as well technological possibilities of interacting with the moving images such as integrated video, and video with comments and tags integrated. These sites are often poised between the academic and the journalistic by virtue of the films they address, and they also offer an alternative to, or thirdspace between, both. They often frame their debates through one of three approaches that I have observed emerging in film theory, that are directly or indirectly informed by journalistic film criticism and its connection to popular discourses about film. I’ll mention them briefly here and can say more in the discussion if anyone is interested:

Related to the film essay, in which film itself does the work of critism: filmmaker autopoetics, a derivation both of auteurism and the continuing popular fascination with the director with as author and expositor. For me the most exciting books in film studies are those by, for example, Yvonne Rainer, Michelle Citron, Trinh Minh-Ha, Abigail Child, and Raul Ruiz – although, despite Projections and Faber’s director series, there’s no UK equivalent at book length. That I’m aware of – I’d love to stand corrected!

From auteurism to a resurgent Marxist critique: picking up on popular concerns with the value for money of cinema attendance and DVD purchases, as well as production costs, a contextual reading that makes visible and legible that which dominant cinema works seamlessly to disguise – the legal and economic framework (including war and imperialism) in which cinema is produced, for example Tamara Falicov’s revelatory book on Argentinian cinema The Cinematic Tango that looks at film’s use as economic colonialism as well as political oppression. If that concern sounds abstruse, consider the amount of attention paid to the labour disputes over the filming of The Hobbit in New Zealand. This is related in to both star and performer studies and to fandom studies, although Dorothy Richardson was analysing and interviewing audiences at different screenings (by neighbourhood, film and time) for Close Up in the 1930s. Henry Jenkins takes it further with the idea of the aca-fan, but like Jackie Stacey, is specifically concerned with the context in which viewers receive films.

Relatedly, phenomenology and the sensuous and affective experience of a film, as pioneered by Vivian Sobchack and deriving from taking the viewing experience as embodied and important, rather than an invisible framework for intellectual labour – or a perversion. Bodily memory is that which cannot be excerpted or tagged in a YouTube clip or embedded film article, nor can it be conveyed except through a precise and shared language.

For me, all of the above offer a way of thinking not only about value, but about community, in a way that escapes the reactionary humanist notions bandied about by ConDemNation. Film criticism, I would argue, is not there to produce a Big Society, but rather to enable and engage a community that is critically aware of itself, as cinema has educated and arraigned us in our other viewing practices – and as digitality increasingly shapes cinema. In reframing war and capitalism and patriarchy and other forms of violent oppression, film criticism can alter the sublime gaze of superiority to the Other that unites them, proposing instead through its care for films, their makers and their viewers, what Kaja Silverman and bell hooks have differently called the look and Donna Haraway regard: a look that, through respect, bridges difference without ignoring it.

I imagine a cinema that is like the sweat lodge ceremony described by Chicasaw poet and naturalist Linda Hogan, with the film critic-theorist not as some shamanic cliché, but perhaps as the person brave – or foolhardy – enough, to speak first to (but not for) the community in the terms Hogan describes:


In a sweat lodge ceremony, the entire world is brought inside the enclosure … It is all called in … It is a place of immense community and of humbled solitude; we sit together in our aloneness and speak, one at a time, our deepest language of need, hope, loss, and survival. We remember that all things are connected.

… The ceremony is a point of return … But it is not a finished thing. The real ceremony begins where the formal one ends, when we take up a new way, our minds and ears filled with the vision of earth that holds us within it, in compassionate relationship to and with our world. 





Henry Jenkins’ Confessions of an Aca-Fan:

Vivian Sobchack, “What My Fingers Knew”:

Filmmaker Jenn Reeves:

Daniel Heath Justice on Avatar:


Magazines & Group Blogs

Dr. Mabuse Kaleido-scope:


Film Studies for Free:


Women and Hollywood:

Blogs&Docs [in Spanish]:


Jump Cut:

Vertigo Magazine (archive):


Institutional Blogs/Sites


Tate Film on Facebook:

LUX blog:



Alternative Cinema Digital Archives

Cinefiles (Berkeley/Pacific Film Archives):

Tribeca Film Institute:

LUX Moving Image:

SP-ARK (Sally Potter Online Archive):