The Last Word
To unite filmmakers and film critics

by Ernest Larsen and Sherry Millner

from Jump Cut, no. 20, 1979, p. 39
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

As previous editorials have noted (Nos 3, 6, 7, and 9), Jump Cut could and should erect a bridge over the yawning chasm that separates film critics and scholars from independent filmmakers. Unlike the Grand Canyon, this chasm is not the breathtaking residue of natural forces. It is no surprise that it exists and it will in fact continue to exist because of the antagonistic ways in which U.S. capitalism produces and socializes both groups.

What has separated the two groups? The bureaucratic apparatus of almost all schools divides the study of film criticism/theory/history from production. This routine segmentation of activity from reflection, characteristic of Western culture, encourages two forms of mystification. On the one hand, theorists, rendered insecure by a lack of contact with the actual tasks of filmmaking, elegantly club filmmakers with heavy-metal jargon. On the other, filmmakers retaliate by immersing themselves in the virtually inaccessible jungle of technoid professionalism. Having been stripped of the potentiality for a complete knowledge of the film process, both groups, under extremely pressurized competition for scarce jobs and resources, escape to the compensating privileges of their separate (and for that reason enervated) disciplines and activities. A lurid portrait, accurate perhaps only as a profile, but it does sketch some reasons for the fissure.

Taking these things into account, how can the critic, the filmmaker, and Jump Cut struggle against this situation? The ultimate stake is the creation of a viable opposition culture. If we are successful, our success will be gauged by how often the bridge is used and not by how beautifully the steelwork glitters at sunrise. Which is to say that work should begin immediately with the materials at hand.

We have to begin, however, by admitting who owns the shop. The twenty issues of Jump Cut have been edited, controlled, and written very largely by critics and/or academics although some editors are or have been filmmakers. (Despite Jump Cut's continuing eagerness to print the writing of filmmakers, our attempts have met with little success. Thus, we've resorted to interviews for some first-hand attention to the filmmakers' concerns.) The burden of our argument will be to show how this communicative emphasis could be shifted. How could the critic accommodate the concerns of the filmmaker? Under what conditions will filmmakers drop some of their longstanding reticence? This shift could then facilitate the explosions, the series of polemical detonations, necessary to allow real dialogue to emerge. Thus despite our metaphor we can't predict the actual shape this closing of the gap will assume.

The critic's role? In our critical writing we need to take the actual conditions of filmmaking — technical, economic, and political — into account rather than simply focus on the political and artistic failings and virtues of the individual film object. All too often we rashly assume our activity is a "higher calling" and fail to recognize how the conditions of production affect the final product. It becomes an educational task to distinguish the political failings of a specific film from its circumstances of production (such as funding problems). Also, to become more accountable to filmmakers as well as to our general audience, we need to rigorously access the clarity and usefulness of our terminology and language. An attention to the broader ramifications of our work beyond the hour or two in the darkened theater will help animate everyone's wits, including those of filmmakers.

We do not wish to degrade the sanctity of film-going by our emphasis on film production. In fact, it seems clear that critics and film academics have something to teach filmmakers about audience response. Strategic comments in Jump Cut from theoreticians about how films actually work on audiences can broaden filmmakers' awareness of their technical effectiveness. Jump Cut articles on audience response can complete the process of production begun by the filmmaker.

When critics move from total concentration on the isolated film object, they have a better chance to place ongoing practice into the cultural tradition of U.S. political filmmaking. This orientation in turn enables specific polemical work to continue on both sides about the relations of form and content, the increased receptivity of audiences to forms advanced beyond the standard public-television type documentary, the potential for stronger political content, and other issues.

This kind of engagement, wherever it begins, is dependent on filmmakers' willingness to state their theoretical and political concerns. They have the experience now after so many years of filmmaking to state pragmatically what worked, what didn't work, how other filmmakers can build on current practice, and how intellectual and political problems have affected practice. This means taking the risk of shedding some of the anti-intellectualism they have fostered to protect themselves from even their most sympathetic critics. It means articulating in print the unstated ideas, whether political or formal, that guide their practice. Without some articulation in forms other than film (letter, journal, article, theoretical manifesto, ghost-writing), filmmakers jeopardize the chance they now have to consolidate the gains of the last ten years.

Jump Cut will try to make this chance more tangible by greater responsiveness to the immediate material needs of political filmmakers. We will try to publish more about the economics of 16mm and Super-8 filmmaking, about the sources of funding, about how organizations like the Film Fund work and how well they work. Other possibilities are to publish requests for documentary footage, help mobilize scarce resources, start an information exchange, etc.. This effort serves notice that Jump Cut is prepared to engage political filmmakers on their own ground. It may also strengthen confidence among both critics and filmmakers that the larger effort to build the bridge will be worth all the false starts, the doubts, and the sweat needed to bring us together.