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Cineaste's Early Years: The Quest for a Radical, Readable Film Criticism

by Robert Sklar

Cineaste covers from the seventies

Cineaste cover from the seventies

When histories of Cineaste come to be written—after the first one, there are sure to be rebuttals—the magazine's interviews are likely to be of primary importance. Already collected in two capacious volumes published in 1983 and 2002, these recorded sessions set a standard for reaching out to politically minded filmmakers, writers, critics, and other cinema workers and engaging them in probing give-and-take about their artistic and social values. For Cineaste's fortieth anniversary, I thought it might be noteworthy to launch a comparable archaeological survey of the magazine's record as a journal of film criticism—a practice inevitably more variable, personal, and contentious than the consistent interview form the editors achieved. Consider this an interim report from a single, unofficial point of view, focusing on the magazine's early years of struggle, in more than one sense of the word. This account will cover the first forty numbers, from 1967 through 1980, which, for the record, precede its author's first appearance on the masthead as an Associate.

How important are origins? "The art and politics of the cinema have been the twin concerns of Cineaste ever since its founding in 1967," Dan Georgakas and Lenny Rubenstein began their introduction to the first Cineaste Interviews book back in 1983, but the brittle, yellowing mimeographed early numbers, fortuitously bound and preserved at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, tell a less seamless story, of a journal seeking, and eventually discovering, its core and purpose in the late-Sixties maelstrom of esthetic and ideological transformations. (The founder and Editor-in-Chief, Gary Crowdus, whose remarkable dedication and perseverance has maintained the journal's survival and independence over four decades, will have his own version; this one is based solely on the original printed words).

The inaugural issue of Summer 1967 announced that Cineaste was "written for, and by, film students," which referred, in that day and age before the proliferation of academic film studies, to those who were learning how to make films. (Crowdus would eventually identify himself as a student of film production at NYU.) "The editorial policy of Cineaste is not based on the auteur theory or any one cinematic viewpoint in particular," read the editors' statement of purpose in the Summer 1967 inaugural issue. "By not advocating any one theory, we hope to avoid the petty politics that is so much a part of current film criticism as well as enable ourselves to cover a much wider spectrum of films and filmmaking. We also want to avoid the flippant, irresponsible type of criticism which can be more damaging than the excesses of any theory." This appears as a manifesto of youth more cogent about what it opposes than what it advocates. It seems to respond to the rivalry between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael that had been carried on largely in the esoteric pages of periodicals like Film Culture and Film Quarterly, but was soon to absorb the baby-boomer "film generation" as Kael became a reviewer at The New Yorker and Sarris published his widely influential compendium, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. However, little in the first few issues suggested a new approach until the fifth issue, in Summer 1968, which featured a multivoiced symposium on 2001: A Space Odyssey, headed by Crowdus's modestly-titled "A Tentative for the Viewing of 2001."

The mimeographed era ended with issue number seven, and the first offset-printed number elaborated on the opening manifesto, this time in the editor's first-person voice: "We also hope that Cineaste can develop as an alternative to much of the trendy critical orientation and film activity on campuses where film societies schedule Allan Dwan retrospectives or little magazines on film will discuss the moral implications of a cut in Nicholas Ray's Party Girl or do a thirty page, in-depth discussion of the character relationships in Howard Hawks' Hatari. This is, distressingly so, just so much intellectual diarrhea (and I'll bet that will make me a lot of enemies)." But where would they go from here? The editors' first positive steps seem to have come through contact with a French filmmaker based in New York, Yves de Laurot, who made two controversial short documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Black Liberation (1967) and Listen, America! (1968). They interviewed de Laurot and published over several issues the filmmaker's manifesto for a "Cinema Engagé." The ninth issue of Summer 1969 was the last to print "A Magazine for the Film Student" under the title, and two issues later a statement declared that Cineaste "has also progressively become a magazine of cinema engagé—a cinema engaged in the movement for social change."

Cineaste covers from the seventies

Cineaste cover from the seventies

And suddenly there appeared an engaged cinema to report on. Cineaste was of course not prescient in discovering the radical filmmakers of Europe and Latin America—Costa-Gavras's Z won the best foreign film Academy Award in 1969—but the density and trenchancy of its coverage made it different. Its Winter 1970-71 number (Vol. IV, No. 3) was a special issue on "Latin American Revolutionary Cinema." Equally important was an expanding film review section that acknowledged and critiqued the new efflorescence of self-proclaimed radical films—from a historiographic point of view, these are among the most valuable items to be found in the magazine's archives, since many of the films received little or no sustained attention elsewhere, then or later. The Fall 1970 issue (Vol. IV, No. 2), for example, offers two valuable commentaries on Robert Kramer's Ice, by Joan Mellen and Lenny Rubenstein, a review by Bill Nichols of Michael Verhoeven's O.K., and Calvin Green on Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn!

The early 1970s appears as a period of extraordinary energy and hope for the magazine—combined with an ideological reticence that, to its editors' credit, reflected a refusal to embrace the propensity for sectarianism and dogmatism in the U.S. left. They jettisoned Cinema Engagé with a lengthy critique by Julia Lesage and Chuck Kleinhans that found de Laurot's principles too elitist, individualistic, and spiritual. But there was no rush to endorse any opposite doctrines that bore "radical," "left," "Movement," "Marxist," or "revolutionary" labels, and variously prescribed a materialist cinema, made collectively and emanating from the oppressed. In their introduction to a special issue in 1973 on "Radical American Film" (Vol. V, No. 4, in which the Lesage/Kleinhans article also appeared), the editors voiced a different aspiration. Criticizing Movement films made only for the Movement, they called for films that could attain a wider audience.

"The vast majority of people in America," the editors wrote, "whether blue- or white-collar workers, are not going to be reached, much less radicalized, by films on the Black Panthers or even on the VVAW [Vietnam Veterans Against the War], no matter how well made. As part of their propaganda function, radical political films (whether fictional or documentary) will have to appeal [their emphasis] to what is usually derisively referred to as 'Middle America'—i.e., the films will have to be either artistically engaging or deal in a straightforward manner with issues of real, practical, everyday concern to ordinary working people." They added that "we also recognize that the most political American cinema, at least in overall impact and effect, is that coming out of Hollywood," and they promised more coverage of mainstream commercial cinema in the future.

Underlying this stance was an assumption, stated earlier in the introduction, that "there are vast, inestimable numbers of Americans who, while they may never have even heard of the 'Movement,' would be enthusiastic viewers of films with implications or suggestions for radical social change." This is a remarkable sentiment, and perhaps it may be taken as the core ideological principle of the magazine over its forty-year span. It implies an answer to the question, What is the purpose of radical filmmaking?, and its corollary, What is the purpose of radical film criticism? Some in the Seventies would have based their answers on the view that radical social change is accomplished by committed vanguard groups in the face of majority hostility or indifference, and that radical filmmaking and criticism should further the purpose of those coteries. Cineaste's position argued that radical film and criticism could inform and perhaps sway the majority, and implied that radical social change might be achieved through democratic choice rather than minority agitation or coercion.

Having articulated this vision, Cineaste soon found itself in opposition to a minority coterie arising in a different milieu: French poststructuralist theory and its offshoot, film semiotics. Commenting on Ruth McCormick's review-article, "Christian Metz and the Semiology Fad" (Vol. VI, No. 4, 1975), the editors' introduction to the issue remarked that it "should prove helpful for all those who have been unable to wade through the long, turgid, incomprehensible and esoterically footnoted articles on the structuralist or semiological theory of the cinema that have been appearing over the last few years in a wide variety of film magazines in this country." Tellingly, it added that "the article attempts to 'decode' Metz's book for the average reader…"—suggesting that the implied reader of the magazine was "outside the small circle of critics and scholars" who were concerned with such theory. The journal that had first defined itself as "for the film student" (to be sure, as noted, film production student) was now throwing down the gantlet against the dynamic mid-1970s growth of academic film studies, which was strongly fueled by its adoption of, and adherence to, the French theoretical trends. Whether one judges Cineaste right or wrong in its intellectual judgment, its stance had the effect of rendering the magazine irrelevant to many in the new cohort of academic film students, who might otherwise have been potential readers and contributors. They launched their own journals—Jump Cut in 1974, Wide Angle, Camera Obscura, and Quarterly Review of Film Studies in 1976, to name several—leaving Cineaste to ponder who its "average readers" might be, and where to find more of them.

Bill Plympton's caricature of Christian Metz

Bill Plympton's caricature of Christian Metz, part of his title treatment for Ruth McCormick's article, characterized Cineaste's skepticism about hyperintellectualized French film theory.

For its part, McCormick's article did bring succinct news of the names and ideas behind the emergence of cine-structuralism and semiology as the dominant modes of continental and British film theory. Her main purpose, however, was to critique Metz's Film Language as a work purporting to apply a positivist scientism to the project of film analysis, which, she argued, ignored the role of social structure and social relationships in shaping a film's form and signification (she did note that the book represented an early stage of Metz's film theorizing). She concluded with a restatement of Cineaste's own fundamental stance: "One thing that must be done is to make this kind of theoretical work accessible to large numbers of people. Marx and the best Marxist theoreticians were able to 'translate' the esoteric languages of philosophy and political economy into understandable and practicable theory. If this is not done with cine-structuralism, it will, I'm afraid, like so many other intellectual fads, remain forever on paper or in the heads of the 'experts,' and eventually be relegated to the dustbin of history." It was probably no accident that the magazine, with this issue, dropped the accented "é" from its name, and Cinéaste henceforward became Cineaste.

Over the next several years the magazine eschewed editorial introductions. Unannounced, there appeared on the cover of Vol. VIII, No. 4, in Summer 1978, a new subtitle, "The Art and Politics of the Cinema," which became in the following issue "A Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema." This latter change was accompanied, in Vol. IX, No. 1, Fall 1978, by the longest and most detailed ideological self-examination in the magazine's history. Its ostensible occasion was a belated acknowledgement of Cineaste's tenth anniversary, combined with a somewhat rueful explanation as to why more than a decade of chronology had produced only eight full volumes of four issues each. Its larger goal, however, over two dense pages under the title "editorial," was to chart the journal's past development—not dissimilarly from this present report—and to articulate its contemporary perspectives and goals. Central to their purpose was the aim of reaching out. Not for them the obscure and difficult language with which academic film studies was then attempting to separate itself from belletristic humanists, in part to firm up a tenuous status in university curricula—nor, for that matter, what they regarded as the determinist and reductive shibboleths of conventional Marxist film criticism.

"We are more interested in broadening the potential base of support for a left analysis of film and culture in general than in debating fine points of theory with other leftists," the editors wrote. "Our attitude has always been that while we don't expect any Detroit auto workers to be regularly reading Cineaste, if one of them should happen to pick up a copy and read one of our reviews, its style and language shouldn't turn him or her off." This may strike some readers as a form of atavistic Popular Front sentimentality in an era in which hermetic discourses, designed to confirm insiders and adepts and keep everyone else out, were the rule. Looking back from nearly three decades later, however, one has to credit the editors' steadfast adherence to openness. Other than their commitment to "a Marxist perspective on the cinema"—which might be described at this point as more rhetorical than rigorous—they intended to be no single, definable entity, attached to no exclusionary esthetic or ideological camp.

Over the next several years Cineaste organized—or embroiled itself—in two separate debates over the themes of the editors' editorial. The first was a symposium on Marxist film criticism, in Vol. IX, #4, Fall 1979. Its impetus was an article, "What's in a Marxist Film Review?," published in The Guardian, the radical newsweekly, by its film reviewer Irwin Silber. The symposium reprinted Silber's article and followed it with critical responses from film writers and editors from various "left" periodicals—Pat Aufderheide (In These Times), Leonard Quart (Marxist Perspectives), Peter Biskind (Seven Days), Lester Cole (People's World), and Dan Georgakas, representing Cineaste, as well as Lee Baxandall, a scholarly specialist on Marxism and esthetics. Silber got a chance to reply to his critics in the following issue, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter 1979-80.

The range of the arguments and the cogency, or not, of the different viewpoints are impossible to summarize briefly. Yet an overall impression stands out: Silber's respondents all may be "better" film critics than he, in the sense that they can offer a more detailed and nuanced analysis of multiple esthetic, ideological, historical, industrial and other sources of a work's meanings. But he trumps them in the strictness of his adherence to Marxism-Leninism, to an unambiguous hostility toward the products of capitalism and bourgeois ideology. He grants that they may be denizens of the 'cultural left,' but he avers that their claims as "Marxists" are—my words, not his—vestiges of the romantic leftism of the era. This may be no more than another instance of sectarian infighting and doctrinal nitpicking, but it points, in the case of Cineaste, to the shaping of a positive out of a negative: a politically informed and astute film criticism that does not require an ideological label.

The other debate arose out of the publication, in Vol. X, No. 2, Spring 1980, of Raymond Durgnat's polemic, "The Death of Cinesemiology (With Not Even a Whimper)." Less of an argument and more of a screed, the English critic's disdain for the film theories and philosophical trends primarily associated with French intellectual life of the period was more symptomatic of a gulf in sensibility than a cogent critique. If it represented Cineaste's antipathy to theoretical obfuscation, it carried the argument to an extreme petulance that was ultimately self-defeating, and the editors' deeper inclination toward moderation, or mediation, led to responses in the following issue from U.S. academics Robert Stam and Peter Lehman, as well as Stephen Crofts and Olivia Rose, British contributors to Screen magazine, writing as coauthors. Durgnat replied to them at length, and it may be telling that the Cineaste editors offered no position of their own on the conflict.

Even more than the Silber debate over Marxist film criticism, this controversy served as a catharsis, a signal that the struggle over film theory would be subsumed into critical praxis and the magazine's commitment to clear and accessible prose. By the time of its fortieth issue, Cineaste had articulated and begun consistently to demonstrate a standard of detailed, capacious, readable, and politically incisive film criticism to stand alongside its acknowledged achievements in interviewing. It would stand the magazine in good stead as the Reagan Era dawned, and in theoretical and ideological controversies to come.

Cineaste, Vol. 32 No.4 (Fall 2007).

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