May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
November 12, 2012
There is an interesting discussion on Andy Crouch’s recent essay about the “common good” brewing in the comments section of Alan Jacob’s response. I tentatively agree with a few of the points made in the back and forth that can be found at those two links. What I do find fundamentally constructive about Crouch’s overall theological vision here is that his This is Our City project generally embeds abstract discussions of the “common good” in actual stories of how various cultural practices have taken shape in local contexts. Once this discussion leaves the orbit of these civic narratives, we have started talking about something entirely different.
One area that could use a bit more work in this respect is coordinating film criticism and the “common good,” as the Venn diagrams here are far to interesting to ignore. A few potential inroads to this discussion:
1. Thinking of film criticism in terms of a/the “common good” reminds us to make film talk a local habit. The expansion of the Great Conversation through social media and the transition of the bulk of filmwriting from meatspace to cyberspace has made the esoterica of international cinema far more accesible. This is a good thing. But, many (if not most) of the great movements in film criticism and theory have developed out of collectives of people at a certain place, at a certain time, attempting to engage similar ideological concerns. The Paris of Cahiers. The Prague of the Czech New Wave. The New York of the the New American Cinema Group. Similarly, we need greater vision for our cities as studios, our local arthouses as portals to otherness, our local film review columns as conversation starters about who we really are and what is good or bad about the stories we tell ourselves. Good cinema is a space in which we can begin to flesh out what a “common good” looks like in our cities and neighborhoods.
2. International cinema constantly reminds us that the “common good” is not a fixed position – a little black box that magically produces non-partisan moral norms on command. Rather, the “common good” is something that usually looks as every bit as messy as our lives, habits, and cultural systems. I can’t think of a better example of this than the transnational craftiness that happens in Kiarostami’s Close-Up, which tracks the shape “common good” takes in an Iranian court trial of someone fraudulently posing as Mohsen Makhmalbaf. At the time, the self-reflective grace that follows was a stunning subversion of Western audience expectation – forcing a similar pattern of civic introspection upon the viewer. But the whole affair is messy, layered with biography and re-enactment; it is an in-vitro reproduction of how we actually talk about justice in our local contexts.
3. Good cinema helps us trade the utility of political or moral sloganeering for discussions about the narrative shape various spiritual and ethical concerns take in our lives. The phrase “common good” often becomes the box into which we get to toss our favorite moral or ideological convictions, thus stamping them with a gloss of charity or civility. Films that challenge our assumptions about others corrode this simplistic process, making the “common good” a matter of ongoing discovery rather than flattening it out via fiat.