On the Role and Power of Film Criticism

For Martin Heidegger, the role of linguistic poetry is in preserving the primordial poetry of language. “Other modes of poetry, such as visual arts and architecture, only occur within the clearing of beings, which is opened by language.”[1] In Heidegger’s words: “Building and plastic creation, on the other hand, happen, always and only, in the open of saying and naming. It is this open which permeates and guides them. For this reason, they remain their own particular ways and manners in which truth orders itself into the work. They are an always unique poeticizing within the clearing of beings which has already happened, unnoticed, in the language.”[2] Simply put, visual arts, and cinema is one of them, happen in the realm of language, they have their origin in language and are “opened by language”.

In this instance, we are dealing with a distinct visual art, cinema, but our final point of departure and the main theme of this essay is film criticism. There are films, for example F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, in which the use of language is almost non-existent, or films like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which communicate mainly through the visual form, rely on soul-absorbing acting, editing and other cinematic techniques to convey a certain mood or an idea. Although film is a visual art, it communicates by language as well, by the words of actors on stage, voice-overs, or in the case of silent films, title cards. Putting some notable exceptions aside, even silent films could not do without language, without written word which was, after a period of time, replaced by spoken word. Cinema is a visual art whose medium is language, its source is in language and always happens (comes-forth) in the realm of language.

Cinema is a way of poeticizing in the realm of language, and as a predominantly visual art, is bound up in language and always happens in the realm of language. Cinema comes to presence by “saying and naming”. For example, every act of filmmaking must be communicated by linguistic means, by the director on the set, his work with actors, the cinematographer and so forth, and ultimately, by a script as a source for the act of filmmaking. For Heidegger, a statue, Michalengelo’s David or a painting, Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus for instance,can only occur in the realm which is “opened up by language.” Visual arts are a way of poeticizing in a form different than language, but which has already happened in language.

Sandro Boticelli, The Birth of Venus (1480)

On the other hand, it must be noted that there are numerous examples in which sculpting and painting has influenced cinema, and has given directors ideas to make their films visually more memorable and nuanced. Editing, the technique cinema cannot exist without, gives it form and meaning, is a distinctly cinematic technique which grounds it in the realm of the visual expression. In one word, cinema is Gesamtkuntswerk, a “total artwork”, to put it in Wagnerian terms. This makes the task of understanding cinema sometimes so demanding, but equally alluring. Cinema is a visual art, which has, if we follow Heidegger “already happened, unnoticed, in language”, but is “disguised” in the visual form. Film criticism, its role and power, rests in bringing cinema back to its origin, to language; it is a way of “bringing-forth. . . hither out of concealment into unconcealment”[3]. Film criticism is about revealing the truth (aletheia) of a certain cinematic work.

To do this, a film critic needs methods and I would like to propose two of them, which are originally used in studying classics of political philosophy. I will only adumbrate them, but I believe that it will be enough to capture their meaning. The first is Quentin Skinner’s, who advocated a contextual reading of a certain work, by studying the time and context in which a certain work originated, and by studying the intention of the author, so one can grasp the meaning of a philosophical work. By a meticulous study of a historical and a social context and the intention the author had behind creating his work, we can interpret it adequately. For instance, studying film noir is pointless if we are not aware of the American post-war context in which they emerged. We cannot understand Yasujirō Ozu’s post-war films without understanding the Confucian idea behind his work, and the social context in Japan.

Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu (1953)

Finding out the author’s intention behind a certain film can nowadays be rather simple, since many directors openly speak about the reasons for making a particular film. As an example of this method, I would like to single out my essay on Alex Garland’s Annihilation. The second method is Leo Strauss’, who advocated the careful reading of the text. For Leo Strauss, the work which came into being hundreds of years ago speaks to us in a concrete way, and we can learn a lot about ourselves by studying the text (for Skinner this is not possible), interpreting its meandric quality, finding out hidden meanings, deciphering them, since for Strauss every great author wrote in a cryptic way to escape the harsh social condemnation. Strauss’ reading of the text implies the meticulous study of the text itself, in modern terms a critical discourse analysis, and this can be a fecund way to discover the truth about the text by looking at the text itself. This method can also be used for interpreting a film, and as an example I would like to propose my essay on Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.

To conclude, the role and power of film criticism in today’s world can be great, if it takes its task of revealing the truth about cinematic works seriously, with great care. Film criticism, as a mode of revealing, uncovers the truths about a cinematic work which are disclosed to us only when we adequately bring a film back to its very source – language.

Hrvoje Galić

[1] Vincent Blok, Ernst Jünger’s Philosophy of Technology: Heidegger and the Poetics of Anthropocene, Taylor and Francis, New York, 2017: 97

[2] Martin Heidegger in Ibid.

[3] Martin Heideggger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, Garland Publishing Inc., New York, 1977: 11

5 responses to “On the Role and Power of Film Criticism”

  1. Great work. You brought up some things I didn’t even think about when it came to film criticism. I definitely agree when it comes to researching historical and cultural contexts because that is extremely helpful whenever I review international cinema.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, and thanks for reading! Yes, knowing the historical and cultural context can help a lot, we can understand films much better, or any work of art. I realized that the methodology used in studying classics of political thought can be quite useful when researching about cinema.

      Liked by 1 person

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