The Critical Mission

I have a friend who theorizes that whatever gets preached about in churches on Sunday tells you a lot about what’s been going on with the pastor’s previous Thursday. A sermon on reconciliation implies trouble at the ranch, teaching on our imperfections suggests the pastor is keenly aware of her own, words about spiritual transition might likely precede a soon to be vacated pulpit. It’s easy to assume that the same is true of stand up comedians and CEOs – anyone with a platform is going to have to at least pass through a phase of using it to work out their own stuff. This is why we look for mental and spiritual discipline in presidents, why we don’t stick with therapists who respond to our stories of suffering with codependent discourses on their own angst, and why film critics are the embodiment of paradox.

Our job is to tell an audience what something—an art object created by somebody else (assisted by a team of up to a thousand people)—is like, yet art objects are by their very nature utterly subjective. The work itself begins as a dream, which is then transmitted through a complex system of industrial processing, captured by a lens, chopped up into parts, and sent into a tiny box from which ones and zeros are magically transformed into a light reflection of the dream, matching its heart to what degree only the dreamer can really ever know. And then the conversation happens.

Or at least that’s what we hope for – that a community of human beings will explore together what the dream means. We seek to discern this by comparing it with our own dreams, which themselves are interpretations of projections that we can learn to marshal for our good, or allow ourselves to be driven by. At its best, the conversation about cinema heightens our awareness of the artwork itself – its contours and achievements – the beauty and diversity of the other people in the conversation, and eventually, the audience of one that the dreamer may not even have realized his or her dream was intended for.

So, for me, part of the point of film criticism is self-reflection on the part of the critic, and an invitation into a spacious place where audience and creator pursue the same thing: as the Holocaust-surviving philosopher says in the magnificent exploration of moral choice Crimes and Misdemeanors says, the hope that we might understand more.

Roger Ebert was this kind of critic – knowledgeable without being patronizing. Mark Cousins is this kind of critic – curating festive spaces where films can be screened and communities formed that challenge celebrity hierarchies, aiming to envelope audiences in a cinematic church of the imagination that becomes a promise of the ideal world. The world in which everyone has a place at the table, and no heart is diminished by the gulf that exists between viewer and object in the at best antiseptic, and at worst semi-militarized experience that usually constitutes multiplex moviegoing.

Both Ebert’s and Cousins’ writing recognize that the personal cannot be divorced from the projector. Proust wrote that “every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self.” Your autobiography shapes how you see things. So, it seems to me, that critics who disclaim any personal reflection on movies as a diminution of the art of criticism, are proposing something impossible. Now there’s a difference between articulating a response to cinema as if the film were made for your eyes only (I may be vain, but I know that Schindler’s List isn’t about me) and acknowledging how the elements of a personal narrative bear upon the filmic one (my inheritance of the spoils of empire and racism profoundly affect my interpretation of 12 Years a Slave).

I think one of the reasons such a notion seems unpopular in the courts of the critical canonizers is that it emanates from another notion that often meets with suspicion. The idea of a personal mission seems outdated at best, and arrogant at worst. The irony, of course, is that most of cinema history is built on telling stories about people moving towards or away from a sense of mission. Citizen Kane lets money make him forget his earlier, playful self, and his story ends with a reminiscence of where he feels he first wandered from the path. Rick in Casablanca is discovering that after years in a drunken wilderness, pursuing the vocation to liberate oppressed people and love Ilsa is the only way he can have Paris. Roy Neary’s close encounter of the third kind transfixes him, causing him to totally reorient his life’s purpose.

More recently, Philomena outlined the personal journeys of a guilt-ridden woman and journalist in mid-life crisis toward some kind of resolution. And the most interesting movies I’ve seen in the last month—Joe, Nymphomaniac, Under the Skin, Robocop, Tim’s Vermeer, and Noah—are all about people discovering or questioning their missions in life. If cinema is so preoccupied with personal mission, then surely it’s not out of the question that critics should sometimes talk about that very concept?

I’m intrigued by the notion that exercising a mission is inevitable for all humans. The key task, of course, is to discern whether the mission is being lived consciously or unconsciously, from the refining gold within, or the Jungian shadow. Cinematic stories of mission can point out some wisdom here, but when the protagonist’s mission is turned unquestioningly inward, I’m usually bored. I suspect this is because a sense of personal mission is not complete until it is wedded to the concept of service.

The witness of history, and religion, and philosophy, is that missions that serve the common good make the bearers happier than if they only seek selfish ambition. Sometimes the movies get close to an authentic representation of the questioning that every soul must undergo on the path to discerning how to live.

Watching Nymphomaniac, Under the Skin, and especially Noah, I was thinking about mission, it occurred to me that the point here is that the films were looking for the same thing we’re all looking for – comfort amidst the storm, or, better still, reassurance that what looks like a storm is actually just a trick of the light.