NOTE: This essay about the pitfalls of numerical ratings was inspired by a recent viewing of Alain Resnais' latest film, Not on the Lips (France, 2003). I've since decided that this short essay really veers so far off-topic that it can't be said to serve as a proper review. (In fact, I've gotten feedback to the effect that as a "review," it gives a rather unfavorable impression of the film, which was in no way my intention. So I've decided to cordon this piece off as a separate entity, and write a shorter, somewhat more focused review of the film, which can be found here. In time, I plan to revisit Not on the Lips and write a more extensive analysis, provided I can locate an adequate translation to work from. So for the time being, think of the essay below and the short review as two parts of an incomplete triptych, and forgive my verbosity and pretentiousness.
[My apologies to the seven loyal readers who've been checking in with this space. What follows, sadly, is a non-review.] Ever since I started this website, I've contemplated writing up some sort of explanation of my rating system. I haven't, not just on account of laziness but because the one-through-ten ratings seem self-explanatory. Also, I've tried to avoid needless navel-gazing, metadiscourse, tedious interrogations of what I'm trying to do with this website and film writing in general, etc. But, for the record, when I began this site I thought of it as a project, one in which I was experimenting with methods of evaluation. As I suspect I've discussed elsewhere (sorry, memory fails), my academic training has emphasized formal and thematic analysis, but evaluation -- the tricky practice of articulating aesthetic preferences -- had little explicit place. (Implicitly, of course, the academic flirts with evaluation in the objects he or she chooses for study and analysis, and the modes of analysis he or she brings to bear on the object.) An important part of this experiment for me, and the one that has always felt the riskiest, has been to adopt a method of subjective quantification, i.e. a rating system.
Most critics have a rating system foisted upon them by editors who want to provide the viewer with a quick-and-dirty consumer guide and / or shorthand to the critic's taste. I, being an academic hack, have no such mandate, and could have just as easily avoided the whole messy business. But like I said, I wanted to give it a try, since it runs counter to my deeply humanistic education, one that scoffs at anything with the slightest whiff of empiricism. A rating system lies at the heart of the divide between a film academic and a journalist, and it seemed to me when I started out that if I was going to play this game (which of course has become something much more than a game), I had to try to abide by its rules. Furthermore, a large part of my desire to write reviews (instead of just close extended analyses) came from wanting to try to make sense of large numbers of films as they flew past me -- to be, in the words of Rushmore's Max Fischer, "in the shit." This struck me as being all the more important in terms of my engagement with experimental film, since an average 90-minute program exposes me to as many as ten distinct film artists, some of whom I may not encounter again for years. I am not certain that many people in the experimental film community actually read my site. But I am acutely aware that my use of a rating system would be even more of a breach of protocol there than in academia. All of this to say, the ratings have, simultaneously, a private meaning, a public meaning, and in a very real way, no meaning at all. They represent a flawed filing system by which I try to make a particular, incomplete kind of sense of my viewing history. They also serve to articulate that "sense," my aesthetic-in-evolution, to my scant readership. And they could just as easily be ignored, because (a) I am not you, and my responses do not predict what you will find of value; (b) my responses change over time; (c) the complex experience of watching a piece of cinematic art does not really coincide neatly with any system. It's a vulgar process, but one that I am not content to stand apart from with haughty consternation.
So, sorry, reader -- you just got that dose of tedious metadiscourse I'd hoped to spare you. What prompted all this? Two things, really. (1) A few weeks ago, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a piece eloquently discussing the whole problem of quantification, and all the delicate factors that eventually get boiled down into such rank shorthand. (And he uses an even blunter instrument than me -- four stars, with no halfsies.) Shortly thereafter, and only tangentially related, the Internet critics' forum I participate in (it's invite-only, and the less said about it the better) got into one of its periodic explorations of the Meaning of Grades. So something in the back of my mind had been outwardly thrust to the fore. (2) I watched Alain Resnais' latest film, Not on the Lips, of which this rambling essay is a putative review. The film completely short-circuited my ability to even pretend to quantify. Despite the fact that I have for now slapped a rather arbitrary 6/10 on it, I still feel baffled by the film and unqualified to even evaluate it. In fact, if what you really want is a review of Not on the Lips, I direct you to more capable hands -- Ryan Wu (who comes closest to articulating my own response), Theo Panayides, Michael Atkinson, and Rosenbaum himself.
At this point I have seen all but one of Resnais' features and most of his shorts. I have been a fan of his sense of intellectual gamesmanship and explorations of the ontology of the "filmic." While I have been much more deeply moved by his experiments with time and memory (Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel, Mon Oncle d'Amerique, and my absolute favorite, Je t'aime je t'aime) than his recent work, I have been both duly impressed and entertained by his late films. Instead of using complex editing schemes to delve into Proustian time, late Resnais uses distancing techniques to explore both artifice and the false temporality of cinema. Like a more populist Manoel de Oliveira, Resnais has concerned himself with the relationship between theatre and cinema, particularly the theatre's immediacy and the way his stagy films embalm this immediacy into irrevocable distance. Some, like Smoking / No Smoking, highlight this with theatrical gimmicks (multiple characters played by only two actors) whose awkward transition into cinema turns a light middlebrow entertainment into something eerily impenetrable. Others such as Mélo and Same Old Song, use artifacts from the past to undercut the cinematic present with the past's obdurate alterity. Not on the Lips is another experiment in this vein, and my befuddled reaction to it has to do with my inability to access it on any level other than the intellectual. Resnais' adaptation of a 1925 light operetta plays it straight, and the result is cold, studied whimsy, and -- in both the mise-en-scene and the performances -- a matte-finish flatness that renders the entire film as though it were a slab of sedimentary rock, a thick slab of unmoving History plopped down before you. The songs are excruciating, the then-topical references quaint (Cubism was a punchline for middlebrow Parisians at the time), its unvarnished xenophobia bracing. As if this three-way tug-of-war -- intellectual admiration, emotional disengagement and musical disgust -- weren't trouble enough, I was reliant on Wellspring's Region-1 DVD, whose English subtitles go for rhyming couplets over semi-literal translation. I understood just enough French to recognize the disconnect, and the disc offers no French-subtitle option. (My reading comprehension far outweighs my audition.) So on the basest level possible, I feel unqualified to make a firm judgment about the film. I plan to see it again as soon as possible, but then again I plan to avoid further contact with the Wellspring DVD at all costs. The film's festival days are behind it, and a theatrical run is pretty much out of the question. So for the foreseeable future, Not on the Lips will remain filed away for me as, in Jim Hoberman's parlance, a "whatsit," an object that resists my sense-making faculties and (more importantly) thwarts my quixotic dalliance with the numbers game. Beau travail, Alain.