Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Nature of Film Criticism

(NOTE TO READER: The above image is of a spade. Anyone wishing to call me an elitist for thus labeling said picture is directed to the comments section of this page. Thank you.)

Ross, a writer/musician/poet who occasionally contributes to this site, recently commented on my "review" of Spike Jonze's recent film Where the Wild Things Are. Here is a part of Ross' comments:

"Please take no offense, but this is the kind of movie review that makes me not read movie reviews--not because of your opinion on the movie (or is it film? oh crap!...), but because you show your better-than-the-common-viewer elitism before you really even talk about the movie. You may be right (if only a little), but I could probably care less anyway. It's like an evangelist on the street telling me I'm going to hell without even saying hello."

This quite hilarious and probably well-deserved critique made me think quite deeply about many an interesting thing, including the nature of film criticism and the American psyche. Perhaps I will start with a few thoughts on the latter that might shed some light on the first. I sincerely hope both Ross and anyone else who might be reading this site will contribute further to the discussion.(I would also like to add that the following words are not, in any way, directed at Ross himself, but simply at what I take to be a prevalent viewpoint that may or may not be reflected in his words).


An interesting aspect I have noticed repeatedly since moving to the US is that American's of a certain generation (Generation-X and later) seem to fear any kind of objectivist speech like the flames of Hades. This is not to say that all or even most of them are necessarily relativists or that they reject objectivist (realist) philosophies. But there is a tendency to balk at any and all statements that imply that the speaker believes his or her statements transcend a relative viewpoint and that they touch on the nature of reality (i.e. what is true for all of us). A prime example of this fear is the fact that American's become literally afraid and nervous when any conversation moves towards the topics of politics or religion. I've been at many a gathering where the topic of conversation has moved in this direction and people immediately either move away or politely ask for a change of subject. The primary reason seems to be that people are afraid of "getting into arguments."

There are two interesting things to note about this: First, if we can't talk about politics or religion (surely among the most important topics there are to discuss for any sensible human being) with friends in a comfortable setting, then when and where are we supposed to discuss these things? Second, why do people always think that such topics necessarily need to be mired in sentimentality and emotions (the cause of a reasonable debating falling to the level of a crude shouting-match)? Both of these points, and the issue at large, seems to be related to the horribly low-level of public discourse in the US, most obviously in the American media. For several decades Americans have been subjected to nothing but polarization, sentimentality, anger and fear-mongering in their nightly news. The latest and most pathetic depths of this are most abundant in the network "news" such as Fox and CNN. It seems that the result of this is that many young Americans believe that all discourse about certain subjects is always doomed to fall to these same depths. One can note a marked difference between the openness and charity of Europeans and Americans when it comes to speaking about values and philosophical viewpoints and I would argue that much of it has to do with the simple fact that one can actually see level-headed, intellectual and philosophical debates about a variety of subjects - including religion and politics - on a nightly basis on many a European television network. This is not to say that American media does not have it's fair share of wonderful and balanced programing (many of which I prefer greatly to their European counterparts) but I don't think anyone would argue that these fly well under the radar compared to the screaming hate-mongers that seem to occupy the most powerful positions in American media.


What has all of this to do with film criticism? Well, perhaps not much. But I wonder if the terrible state of American writing on art - and film in particular - might not have something to do with this development of American public discourse. It seems to me that the most popular and visible kinds of American film criticism fall into two categories. The first is that of the "starred review." This format, first made popular by critics such as Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and Leonard Maltin, publisher of the Film and Video Guide, has probably done more to damage intelligent film writing than any other development in this genre of writing from its inception. (Sidenote: Ebert is actually a wonderful writer, and to this day the only film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Yet this does not change the problematic style of his reviews, that ultimately label films with either stars or "thumbs up/thumbs down"). This development has recently reached an odious zenith with websites such as Rottentomatoes and Metacritic. What exactly is the appeal of such sites? I would argue that it's the fact that they are (seemingly) "objective." Instead of having to read someone's opinion (which are, after all, like assholes) you can have an objective, "scientific" standard by which you can gauge the merits of a film. Let's leave aside the totally ridiculous ways in which these websites operate and move on to the other style of criticism that is popular today. This is the subjective fanboy style, flaunted most famously by the influential website Aint-it-cool-news. Far from being limited to nerds and 14 year old science-fiction lovers, this style of "review," which revolves entirely around hyperbole, unchecked emotion and an absolute disregard for any technical or philosophical knowledge about filmmaking, has actually become quite influential in "mainstream" media. One has only to read recent reviews in publications such as Entertainment Weekly or Premiere to see that Harry Knowles and company have changed the way we talk and think about film, for better or for worse.

So we either have complete subjectivity and relativism ("that's, like, just your opinion... man") or "scientific" objectivity. Just like you can't (supposedly) argue with scientific data you can't argue with the all-holy and righteous tomatometer (praised be it's name). This means that neither one of these styles could ever lead to an argument. But neither will they ever lead to an intelligent, thoughtful debate about film. They are both anti-philosophical, crude and ridiculous, the perfect representations of a cynical, frivolous culture.

The corruptive and false objective (tomatometer) vs. subjective (Harry Knowles) dichotomy is not only true of film criticism but of any philosophical debate in general. We seem to continually fall back on these false categories of what can be "proven" (through empirical research or measurements) and how we "feel" about things. No wonder intelligent discussions about film, let alone politics and religion, are so rare.


We should note that these two modern styles of film criticism have nothing in common with the great style of writing that was prevalent in the 60's and 70's when American film critics were so influential that they not only influenced their colleagues but even filmmakers and artists throughout the world. Perhaps the most influential and brilliant of these critics were Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. American film lovers would have long and evolved debates about the latest writings from these critics. Reading about the era in different books and anthologies (Peter Biskind's Easy Rider's, Raging Bulls is the definite account) one can't help but admire the passion and intellectual rigor that were associated with film as an art form. People took films seriously and would have long and pointed debates about aesthetics. Furthermore, we might add, people like Kael and Sarris wrote in a highly-pointed, even somewhat polemical style. They were completely straightforward and argued for their positions with passion and intelligence. Both were (in)famous for defending pictures that were derided by others while taking the ever-living-piss out of filmmakers and movies that were championed by the public or media but that they believed to be pretentious and sentimental (a Kael review of a film like Coming Home is truly to be savored). But the difference between their writing and the opinionated, emotionally charged yelling that goes on in places like Aint-it-cool was that Kael and Sarris (and their colleagues of equal measure, American and European) used arguments and theories. They knew and loved filmmaking as an art and as a craft. They knew the history, the technique and the philosophy behind what makes a film great and they argued for their position with equal measures of generosity and ferocity.

My point here is that I think that many people reading these great writers today might accuse them of being "better-than-the-common-viewer elitists". We have become so used to relegating our views to the false dichotomy of subjective vs. objective (Harry Knowles or the tomatometer) that we tend to accuse anyone with an opinion of being a fascist. I am reminded of how my student's in the philosophy classes I teach react to Socrates: With utter contempt. They call him a jerk, a show-off and (lo and behold) an elitist. Why? Because he lives, breathes and speaks a certain world-view. And he has the audacity to claim that this world-view is not limited to a relative viewpoint but touches on the nature of reality. What a monster! Of course, one would need to apply the same labels to Jesus Christ, the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. What my student's overlook in Socrates (and often these other great figures as well) is that the world-view in question is never shoved down one's throat but is arrived at through generosity and philosophical questioning, which always entails a great deal of humility. This does NOT mean that one relativizes one's claims by reducing them to being just an opinion. Rather, one puts them forth as being true and good and provides arguments with as much humor and good will as one can muster. This can apply to both entire world-views, our views on philosophy, politics and religion, and to film criticism.

Last, we should be absolutely clear on the fact that people like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris (and most of the film critics working today) do know more about films than the average moviegoer. So do all of the people who write on this site. If you want to call that elitism, fine, but that's simply the fact of the matter. I would never write on a blog about music, pottery or Chinese cooking because I simply do not have the knowledge or training in those areas. But movies I can write about, limited though my knowledge may be. If we have gotten to the stage of lambasting anyone as an "elitist" whose knowledge of a given subject matter is greater than our own than our culture of mediocrity has become absolute.


r. charles said...
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r. charles said...
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r. charles said...

Very good. I'll not remark so much on the first section other than to give a general nod of agreement to it; however, it is a far bigger topic than the immediate one at hand.

The second section I really couldn't agree more with (tomatometer...). Your critique of scientific (starred/numerical) reviews is pretty much the same thing I was thinking about earlier this week before I read all this.

I won't attempt to dissociate myself from your accusations of relativism; I can see how you'd draw that out of my comments. You can make what you will from them; our words often don't honor our views as much as we'd like.

Your primary beef seems to be that I called you elitist. I found this portion (the last paragraph or two) of your post humorous because of how much I shared your sentiment. I have a very similar opinion about myself in relation to music; I'm often accused of elitism, but generally I take the view of "fine, it's not my fault for being passionate and knowledgeable about something." But it’s also not someone else’s fault for being more passionate and knowledgeable about something else.

The reason I called you elitist has nothing to do with the fact that you took a firm position on something. In your second-to-last paragraph you said:

"What my student's overlook in Socrates (and often these other great figures as well) is that the world-view in question is never shoved down one's throat but is arrived at through generosity and philosophical questioning, which always entails a great deal of humility."


r. charles said...

Your first-thoughts--particularly the first five sentences or so--did not do this. You open up a can of worms in your tossed off assessment of Jonze's earlier films and establish your position with inflammatory language like "painfully pretentious" and "pathetic characters." Firstly, I wouldn't recommend making statements like this without intending to unpack them (at least not with films with as varied of a reception as these two have). Secondly, this language is the equivalent of shoving your view down one's throat. It implies that everyone ‘in-the-know’ understands that these are awful films, and if you don't, you aren't in-the-know (smart), when in reality, there are probably many intelligent people who would argue for the quality of those two films.

Now, I'm OK with inflammatory, even derisive, language from time to time; sometimes it's necessary. But if it's relativism you wish to conquer, or the shortcomings of American discourse, you're not going to win over any disciples by making them feel stupid. Such flaws exist largely out of a desire not to look stupid. You need to meet your audience where they're at and intrigue them enough to make them read further. Someone might be curious to understand your view if they feel they can learn from you rather than be belittled. I don't think this is an easy task. Some people aren't going to try or care either way; in this case, inflammatory language might be the best option (even if only for selfish reasons).

I might be overlooking some things, but I’ll try to wrap this up. I’m sorry that a rude and flippant comment on the internet caused so much effort on your part, but maybe you didn’t mind too much. I certainly appreciate your essay. This was likely blown out of proportion due to the fact that we’re primarily responding to “first thoughts.” But I think it’s good to know that our words can easily betray our intentions. Also, you remarked that everyone who writes on this site has a better-than-average knowledge of films. Thanks for the complement, but I don’t consider myself a film buff. Though I like movies of all ages a great deal, and have seen many, I’ve never heard of the critics you listed (aside from Ebert). I don’t have a great technical knowledge of film. I couldn’t, off the top of my head, tell you what I look for in a film. Does this make my opinion less valid? In some circles, yes. And that’s as it should be. Does it make me more inclined to relativism concerning film? Probably. And that has negative aspects. Does it invalidate me as someone who still has good, passionate taste about film? I don’t think so. I’m willing to learn, but if you want to teach, you can’t expect your students to be masters.

(sorry for the deleted comments...I copied and pasted incorrectly.)

r. charles said...

One important thing I just realized we are sort of neglecting is that it matters a lot who your writing is meant for. If it's intended exclusivly for other academics/critics (particularly critics who felt positively about WTWTA, in your case), then your review makes so much more sense (in keeping with what you said of Kael and Sarris: "Both were (in)famous for defending pictures that were derided by others while taking the ever-living-piss out of filmmakers and movies that were championed by the public or media but that they believed to be pretentious and sentimental"), though I would still have a problem with making such bold statements about two controversial films without intending to talk about them.

But if it's being read by potential viewers or just general fans of film, my argument stands. I wish I'd realized earlier that you were likely thinking along the lines of the former. Correct me if I'm wrong.