Up For Debate: Critics' Debate
By Lucía Salas
What is it, a critic’s debate? Critics grow up in public, as all writers do -as musicians do the most and from whom this idea comes from-. Every piece of film criticism is a critic’s debate: the critic debates with the film, usually -hopefully- for a long time, and then the debate goes live when it gets published. But even if the films watch us as much as we watch them, there is a limit to which they can say to only one person sitting alone in a room. What you see and hear depends so much on what you can see and you can hear, of what is thinkable and what is writable for someone, to someone. It is hard to elude the blind spots, both of which come from actual sight and the ones that depend on the shape we want to give to ideas on paper, as not everything fits in just any shape (that is to say: the map is not the territory).
Jean-Claude Biette, critic and filmmaker, believed that to write is the same as to talk and that one writes as a way of speaking from afar. He and his colleagues in Cahiers du Cinèma wrote as if a conversation was taking place (and it did). You debate with the film and with an imaginary audience of friends, enemies, and, mostly, others who are indifferent. It usually takes three legs to make a table stand on its own. A critic’s debate is when none of those legs are invisible or imaginary. In thinking about tables and debate, I don’t necessarily picture two people, one against each other like Jan Švankmajer Dimensions of Dialogue, but Patricia Paterson’s and Manny Farber’s table, where they wrote together their own eternal debate. They say when they were working on an essay, they would turn the house upside down. The table would be a sea of food and objects and notes. Many of Farber’s paintings are made out of that beautiful chaos, with the film inhabiting the table. Many of Paterson’s paintings are made out of the calm moments in between.
Critics, whether they are friends, enemies or strangers, live in a common world. I have never seen Grey’s Anatomy, but I gather much of the appeal lies in something similar: a hospital as a small country with its own language, its own population, its own rules, its own knowledge that seems to emanate from every sterilized tool for us to absorb endlessly in a never-ending entanglement of facts from the human body and romance. We live in a common world made out of films, ideas, and personalities. Now that is going live through the critic’s debate. Maybe the hospital metaphor is not the best right now, so the debate is more like a potluck to which we bring what we do best and we want to cook for others -while we ourselves eat only what others have cooked for us-. If for Jacques Rivette cinema was ultimately what filmmakers do, then debate is what film critics do. And the things we do are the only things we own freely to give to one another. Marx said it many times, in many ways. Here’s one: Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.
A video of the debate can be found here.