2020 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Mediocrity as a Catalyst at Berlinale 2020

Berlinale 2020 - Undine

“Why Criticism” is a film criticism-themed Vague Visages column featuring various contributors.

About midway through my time at the 70th Berlinale, I was chatting forlornly with a fellow writer about the fact that neither of us had been properly grabbed by any of the films we had seen. I’d watched a number of perfectly good movies at this stage — such as Bassam Tariq’s grime disability drama Mogul Mowgli and Kitty Green’s #MeToo paranoia piece The Assistant — but nothing to match the disorienting “This is Cinema!” headrush of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir or even a smaller gem like Chinese expat Xiang Zi’s delicate debut feature A Dog Barking at the Moon. In 2020, the big names were hitting expected beats and the small discoveries were gently arousing, but nothing was really catching on. That spark, that yes moment, was elusive.

Film festivals are exciting, urgent and completely alien. To immerse yourself in one as a fledgling writer is to find yourself surrounded by world premieres, celebrities, cinematic titans and, perhaps most excitingly, your personal idols (playing spot-the-big-name-critic has admittedly been a popular pastime among friends at a number of festivals in the past). For lovers of cinema, there are few places that encourage you to express that love quite so fully as at a festival. But it’s easy to allow that passion for cinema to transmute into a passion for every single film you see, meeting each one with extremes of rapturous acclaim or virulent scorn — each verdict becomes polarised and absolute, leaving no space for nuance or calm in the unique chaos of the setting.

This made me think of a monologue from Michael Stuhlbarg in Josephine Decker’s new feature Shirley. About midway through this delirious semi-fictionalised imagining of cult Gothic author Shirley Jackson, Stuhlbarg’s character — Temple’s husband and literary professor Stanley Hyman — rails against mediocrity as a thing much more egregious and unacceptable than outright failure. At least in failure, one might be seen to be reaching for something unique even in missing the mark. Shirley itself is pretty robust cinema — energetic, playful and unnerving — though it falls short of the true ingenuity on display in Decker’s previous offering Madeline’s Madeline (2018). Mediocrity is safe, it doesn’t teach us anything.

Berlinale 2020 - Shirley

Though I remember Shirley favourably now, it’s one of a number of features I caught at Berlinale 2020 which showcased inarguably capable filmmaking but didn’t quite manage to catalyse anything fresh, new or unexpected. I saw a lot of good movies over that week-and-a-bit in February but, unlike my visit to the festival last year, there wasn’t much that really set me alight. However, maybe that was the best gift the Berlinale could give. Stuhlbarg’s Professor Hyman may despise mediocrity but I think it might be incredibly valuable for young, excitable writers like myself to reckon with.

Eventually, some real treasures began to reveal themselves at Berlinale 2020. Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow was the first to truly sweep me up in that way I remembered festival films could, and Camilo Restrepo’s hallucinogenic debut crime thriller Los conductos felt like a true watershed. I noticed in my response to these films, the ones that came to define my Berlinale 2020, that I was processing them more slowly, more appreciatively. By indulging some “just-ok” films over the preceding days, I had set myself a helpful baseline for identifying the true merits of what I did enjoy. My critical faculties were engaged much more clearly than I was used to at festivals and, I hope at least, my writing benefited greatly from this more cool-headed approach.

David Hockney has said that he never wants his art to be called “interesting”: “I think I’d rather have it thought beautiful. It sounds more final, it sounds as if it did something. Interesting sounds on its way there, whereas beautiful can knock you out.” To call something interesting, according to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai, is to defer judgement, to offer a non-thought in place of substantial classification. I saw plenty of “interesting” films at Berlinale 2020, but I don’t see it as a condemnation in the way Hockney or Ngai might suggest. 

Berlinale 2020 - Undine

I think about Christian Petzold’s Undine, which failed to grab me on first viewing at Berlinale 2020, and how it has morphed in my mind in the days since. Nothing seemed to click while I was in my seat, no moment justified the film’s existence to me even as I was entertained by its constituent parts. But by deferring my judgment, this “interesting” film morphed in my mind into something beautiful, something purposeful. Without that baseline of mediocrity to temper my engagement with works such as this, I might have dismissed Undine outright at Berlinale 2020. Instead, even only in a matter of days, it has grown in my mind to such a point that I would call it one of my favourites of the festival, and one I look forward to seeing again. It’s just a different kind of beauty — organic rather than instant.

To get to the “why” of this column’s title, I think mediocrity is a great starting point for any writer focusing on the arts and culture. We are all mediocre writers when we start, and we must engage with others’ mediocrity throughout our careers. But we must engage with it level-headedly, picking out the good from the bad and making those distinctions to the best of our ability. Film festivals are incredibly exciting places to be, and that sense of vitality and discovery at the early ones is an incredibly valuable formative experience, but in the end, we must act professionally in order to offer readers the kind of considered criticism and analysis they deserve. We must not only take the bad with the good, but the “just-ok,” too.

Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.