“Someday films will belong to everyone. We shall be able to take any movie into our home to enjoy repeatedly, like a book or a painting print, instead of having to go to a public auditorium where films are shown at the discretion of the exhibitor. Imagine what it would be like if books were available only in libraries: that is approximately the situation of cinema. But things are changing”
Gene Youngblood, legendary reviewer and cultural theorist who died in April 2021, began a series of film reviews in the LA Free Press in 1967. Many of these reviews formed the basis of parts of his book ‘Expanded Cinema‘ which is now seen widely as a foundational document of post-psychedelic cinema. Blackmass Movies is proud to begin the process of collecting Youngblood’s reviews in one place for the first time. Youngblood’s TV interview with a young George Lucas is here.
The film has far surpassed the film critic.
There is an urgent need in America today for a new film criticism to bridge the ever-expanding gap between the public and the serious filmmaker. Partly because of inept and outmoded criticism, and partly because of poor distribution, the average serious film patron is about five years behind what is actually happening in contemporary world cinema.
In last week’s Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar, Charles Champlin made the revolutionary observation that “film is a director’s medium, unquestionably.” With our minds reeling under the weight of that heavy bit of philosophy, Champlin went on to assert that cinema is a writer’s medium as well. He cited some sterling examples: “In the Heat of the Night,” “Two For the Road,” “The War Wagon.” Evidence, he said, that movies are better than ever.
This kind of shallow, irresponsible, opportunistic criticism is inhibiting and misleading the viewing public. Champlin and his New York Times counterpart, Bosley Crowther, see no need to make distinctions between a “director” and a “filmmaker.” They do not find it disturbing that one person should “direct” a film written by someone else. The fact that some films are written and “directed” by the same person does not, in their eyes, lessen the relevance of films that are not. In fact, the entire notion of film-as-art does not seem particularly pressing to most popular critics.
Of course everyone is entitled to his own views, especially in so abstract a realm as the arts. No responsible critic would assume to define film as being universally this or that. There are no absolutes. The artist redefines his art each time he creates. That’s the beauty of art: it is, fundamentally, the probing dialogue of philosophy. Thus, as critics, men like Champlin and Crowther have a moral obligation to millions of readers. It is the traditional and inherent function of the critic to illuminate and expand the public’s awareness and — in the instance of truly great critics like Agee, Artaud, Godard, Edmund Wilson — to act as a guiding beacon for the artist him-self.
In my opinion, the only film criticism worth reading is that which is fired by passion for the medium, born of pure love for cinema. This is not possible when the critic is tethered to the studio gates by a golden chain of free passes, or when he simply rides the crest of public opinion (many of our so-called great critics are no more than walking social barometers) rather than making a few waves of his own.
Of course the new film critic and the New American Cinema are virtually interlocked. It is the New American Cinema(certainly no longer underground) that has made the most pertinent contribution to domestic movies since D.W. Griffith.
The brilliant young innovators of the NAC have demonstrated dramatically that all movies are the same-24 frames a second, whether 8mm silent or Todd-AO stereo. The difference, however, is that the smaller, more personal films come closest to the traditional notion of “a work of art,” an impossibility in the corporate endeavor movies of Holly-wood.
Personally, some of the finest films I ever have seen — Peter Goldman’s “Echoes of Silence,” Emshwiller’s “Relativity,” Warhol’s “The Chelsea Girls” — have been 16mm, with photography and sound that is substandard according to the dictates of Hollywood. People like Haskell Wexler or James Wong Howe aren’t going to tell me which kind of photography is “good” and which is “bad.” We have all been so brain-washed by their style of plastic unreality that we find difficulty in accepting the real thing when it comes along. I have heard countless complaints of the “poor” quality of photography and sound in Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back.” But I love the photography in that film, no matter how dark, unfocused, fuzzy and sporadic, just as I loved Tonini Delli Colli’s hard-edge lensing of “The Gospel According To St. Matthew.” I love it because (especially in the Dylan film) it is truth 24 times a second. It is pure cinema, not polished, commercialized artifice. Few Hollywood cameramen ever have photographed a frame of truth in their Oscar-studded careers.
The NAC and the new critics are posing pertinent questions on the entire gamut of cinematic invention. Andy Warhol explores the validity of the image and the concept of filmed time; Stan Brakhage is involved with no less than reshaping the art of vision; Ed Emshwiller makes the camera an extension of his body, a truly organic cinema; Stan Vanderbeele s Movie Drome and the total- environment experiments of USCO expand the communicative powers of cinema a thousandfold.
Faulty criticism is not the only thing inhibiting the disposition of cinema in America today. Commercial distributors have full control over what, how and when we are allowed to see any given movie. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” was made nearly three years ago (after “Alphavile,” before “Masculine-Feminine”). It is one of the most inventive, revolutionary films I ever have seen. One simply has no concept of the extent of Godard’s genius without seeing “Pierrot.” This film will virtually reshape the language of cinema. Yet it has not been distributed here and I doubt whether there are plans to do so anytime soon.
Masterworks of the other arts — especially literature and music — are almost universally considered public domain. There is an accepted feeling that the artist of stature has a moral obligation to make his works public. And rightly so. It is the artist, after all, who shapes and guides the cultural growth of society. Imagine, for example, the controversy were it discovered that one of Shakespeare’s plays or Hemingway’s novels was being kept from the public by a distributor. It’s unthinkable. But that’s not the case with cinema.
Someday films will belong to everyone. We shall be able to take any movie into our home to enjoy repeatedly, like a book or a painting print, instead of having to go to a public auditorium where films are shown at the discretion of the exhibitor. Imagine what it would be like if books were available only in libraries: that is approximately the situation of cinema. But things are changing: we are witnessing the emergence of the independent film and organizations such as the FilmMakers Distribution Center in New York. With them. the concept of film as art will grow, In the near future it will become, more often than not, a matter of one filmmaker, one film.
Meanwhile, however, we are left with the public theater. There are two kinds of public places where films are shown: the movie theater and the film gallery. The movie theater should screen only blatant, commercial pieces of unthinking escapism, much like television, and its auditorium should be as dark as possible to allow the viewer to become engulfed in the picture and forget he is watching a movie.
The proprietor of a film gallery should think of his customers as patrons of an art and should constantly seek to expand and inform their knowledge and appreciation. He should prepare program notes, illuminating the significance of the pieces being shown—just as art galleries do as a matter of course.
Some film galleries — the Laemmle Theaters, the Cinema, The Cinematheque, the Encore, the Nuart — already conduct business in this manner. I suggest they take one more step; house lights in a film gallery should be left on, dimly, throughout the screening to accentuate the feeling that one is watching an isolated and self-contained work of art and not escaping into a dreamworld of Hollywood sets.