Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What's your guys' problem? - A defense of the lover of film

What follows is a somewhat lengthy article on the love of art and film and why it is that many people have a largely negative view of film criticism or anyone who takes film and art extremely seriously.

The piece is largely inspired by discussions Reid and I have had with people regarding our views of certain popular "Blockbuster" films, perhaps particularly Cameron's Avatar and Christopher Nolan's Inception and The Dark Knight. I believe that disagreeing views on these films have less to do with assessing their critical qualities and more to do with different views on the nature of art and the relationship between life and art.

That being said, I do need to add the following caveat: In this article I make something of a distinction between the "film lover" and the "film critic," praising the first and critiquing the second. I would like to state that I definitely consider myself more of a film critic than a film lover at this point (Reid will have to speak for himself) but that the purpose of this website is to aspire to become more of a film lover, i.e. someone who aspires to recognize what is beautiful in art - film specifically - and open up this recognition in dialogue with others.

What's your guys problem, anyway? - A defense of the philosopher critic

Anyone who loves film and appreciates it as beautiful and true - which is to say, anyone who appreciates film as art - will at some point or another be seen as very irritating in his or her discussion of film. The lover of film wants continually to discuss films on a level that seems elitist, overly analytic or absurd to the average moviegoer. The lover of film will also, paradoxically, often seem like he or she harbors largely negative views towards the majority of film, failing to appreciate many films because of a tendency to overanalyze everything in an attempt to show off his or her superior knowledge of the medium. This will, naturally enough, often elicit the question of what exactly is this person's problem. Why can't they get out of their head and simply enjoy films like a normal human being?

In what follows I would like to offer an apology (as in apologia, a defense) of the lover of film and elucidate why it is that this person can cause such an unwelcome response. In doing so I want to attempt a certain kind of dialectic between the average film viewer, who enjoys films but sees no reason to obsessively pick them apart, and the lover of film who sees criticism of a very specific kind (more on that later) as a necessary part of not only an appreciation of film but of life itself. My goal here is to present the lover of film (along with the lovers of any other form of art) as being members of a very ancient and noble tradition, namely the love of wisdom, Philosophia.

I. The gadfly

The main worry of the average moviegoer is that the film critic, and those who take films very seriously, is that this person is perhaps missing the main point of going to the movies in the first place, which is to have fun. If one were to constantly analyze, criticize and examine everything in life, like the critic seems to do, one would be miserable, unable to really enjoy anything or have any fun. The correct response to such a person is to try to get them to stop worrying so much and just relax and enjoy films (or life in general). It is especially important to try to persuade the critic in this way because if one listens to the critic for too long their pessimism and over-analysis becomes literally contagious, making one doubt enjoyable experiences of films one has had in the past. If this starts to happen the best course of action might be to simply ignore the critic. Failing this one always has the option of either running away or kicking said person in the shin.

The main thesis I want to present here is that this attitude of the average moviegoer is actually indicative of a much larger worldview, one which is afraid of not only deep questioning about film but about life in general. As such this response mirrors the extremely negative reaction many people have to philosophy and the practitioners of the love of wisdom, a reaction that is either dismissive or violent. Perhaps the best representation of this negative reaction is Plato's majestic Apology, where Socrates, the patron saint of philosophy, stands before a jury of his fellow Athenian countrymen, defending his way of life and his values. The reason why Socrates is there in the first place, having been indicted on false charges of impiety and "corrupting the youth," is that he has for some time criticized, questioned and challenged the values and norms of the society in which he lives, values and norms he sees as being destructive for the human soul. These values and norms of ancient Athens are pretty much the same that our own modern Western-European or North-American society holds dear, values that have dominated countless cultures for the three millennia. These values are, simply put, the glorification of leisure, comfort, material well-being, entertainment, position, authority and power. In short, the glorification of what people normally mean by the very elusive word "happiness." The tradition of philosophy, both East and West, is to challenge this worldview, to offer an alternative to this way of life, to offer a way (Tao/Logos) that is centered on wisdom, beauty, truth, virtue and the healing of the soul. The philosopher is someone who would choose pain, suffering and even death rather than live the life of the status quo.  As Socrates himself said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."  

Now, I would of course not want to go as far as to say that the critic, the lover of art, is an exact parallel to Socrates. After all, Socrates was willing to die for his beliefs. But insofar as one is a philosopher, not in the modern sense of an academic but as someone who seeks to think deeply and critically about the world, one will naturally have an extremely dynamic and powerful relationship to beauty and art. The critic is demanding something more of him or herself and our fellow human beings than what is normally accepted, demanding an orientation towards something higher and more noble than just to enjoy what is "fun" and entertaining, demanding, namely, an orientation towards Beauty (tรณ kalon). The film critic (or any lover and questioner of art) is, in this way, a gadfly in much the same way as Socrates, awaking people from a comfortable slumber.

Such an awakening can be awfully irritating and perhaps even painful. It might mean we have to give up on a great many things we hold dear or that we have to challenge ourselves in extreme ways. But it as an awakening to a more fulfilling life, if a harder one, a life centered on beauty rather than on fun, an appreciation of film as art and not merely as entertainment.

II. Ways of being a philosopher - The film critic vs. The Lover of film

There is an initial problem with this parallel though.  The fact is that there are many different ways in which one can be a film critic or a philosopher, some of which I believe can be termed "right" (as in healthy) and others "wrong" (as in misguided, unhealthy). The difference lies in whether one believes philosophy, and love of film, to be something one does or something one can be.

Let me illustrate this difference by focusing on the philosopher, for a moment, before moving on to the film critic. In the ancient world philosophers were considered to be sages and teachers, holy people whose lives were devoted to the pursuit of peace and wisdom (what in Buddhism is called the Boddhisattva, in Hinduism Guru and in Christianity a Saint). As philosophy developed it became increasingly abstract and rationalistic in the West (and only the West). This was due to the fact that Western culture become obsessed with focusing solely on the reasoning faculty of man as the seat of our humanity. This is in direct contrast with ancient and Eastern cultures which saw man as a primarily spiritual being, one that could transcend what can be understood rationally. This rationalism in the West eventually led to the so-called Enlightenment where the glorification of systems, principles and axioms, along with the influence of scientism and the industrial revolution, reduced philosophy to an entirely abstract, analytic discipline, culminating in the Anglo-American analytic tradition of the 20th century. For this reason most philosophers are today viewed as entirely neurotic people completely stuck in their heads, endlessly analyzing bizarre theories and concepts which have no bearing on real life, arguing in esoteric and obscure language about useless dilemmas. And such a view is largely (and very sadly) entirely correct. The modern critique of the philosopher as a neurotic worry-wart and aloof intellectual is very often true and to the point. Yet we need to realize that this modern manifestation of what people call "philosophy" has nothing to do with the ancient love of wisdom, nothing to do with the tradition of men and women who devote their lives to bettering themselves and the society they live in through humility, intellectual inquiry and spiritual development.  

This unhealthy, "diseased" method of doing philosophy can is reflected in very similar ways in film criticism. The fact is that the average film goer is often right in deriding the critic for his intellectualism, pride and reliance on theories, abstractions and esoteric concepts. Criticism of art, much like philosophy, has been tainted by the methodology of the modern sciences and the pernicious influence of Enlightenment philosophies. We can see this in the way that the writings of many films critics represent the completely false dichotomy between "subjective" and "objective," between "emotion" and "reason," as if these dimensions of human experience and thought were easily separable in to rational categories. Film critics either pretend they are privy to some secret, esoteric formula, theory or conceptual schema that allows them to understand whether or not a film is really good or bad (people's opinions be damned) or their reviews are reducible to nothing but hyperbole and unjustified opinions (this latter version of film criticism is especially prevalent in the age of the internet, heralded by the fanboy-anti-intellectualism of websites such as Ain't it Cool). Either position is completely erroneous and both go a long way in explaining why it is that people's reaction to film criticism is so negative.

In opposition to this stands the the true philosopher and the true lover of film (who can never be simply reduced to a "critic"). Such a person offers an invitation to a questioning, a dialectic, a shared dialogue in which two people attempt to open up realms of truth and beauty. Philosophy - and film criticism, understood in this way - is an attempt to hone one's vision, to be able to see what is truly real and what is truly beautiful. This vision cannot be taken for granted, it needs to be trained and developed. It denotes a way of life, a way of being a person, rather than something one simply does from time to time. This is the tradition given to us by Socrates, Plato, Buddha and Lao-Tze. The modern analytic philosopher, as well as the modern academic critic or film theoretician, is usually completely ignorant or dismissive of this ancient way of thinking. Here there is no dichotomy between objective and subjective, reason and emotion. Here there is simply the opening up (aletheia - an unveiling) of possibilities, of recognizing what is truly real and truly beautiful through shared communion and appreciation.  

The true lover of film needs to be careful about how they speak, how they carry themselves, how they offer this invitation to the beautiful. It is so easy to fail at this by being flippant, cynical, elitist. I do this continually myself in my own writing and speaking about film, alienating people rather than helping them to see what is beautiful and true in a work. This is a failure shared by the majority of film critics and writers today. Anytime one asserts one's own ego and pretends to be superior to others one fails as a philosopher. And this is exactly the failure of so many film critics and the reason why so many people dismiss them.

III. Film as entertainment and escape - Film as Beauty

Let's say for a second that I have managed to convey something you find to be truthful about the possibility of deep questioning and thinking about film, not as neurotic over-analysis but as a call for a kind of philosophy. It would be natural at this point to then address the question of whether my parallel here is not somewhat over the top, given that we are, after all, only talking about film. Philosophy and questions about meaning and existence are one thing but what has this to do with films? Aren't movies primarily a form of entertainment, a kind of escape from the problems and worries of life for a couple of hours? If so, don't they simply fall outside the realm of philosophia?

This question is, I believe, touching on the very heart of the matter. If films are nothing but entertainment, nothing but escape, then the lover of film is a sad person indeed. It would be like associating oneself deeply with being a lover of rollercoaster or ice cream (both fine and entertaining escapes). Many people - and sadly, it seems like the number increases with each generation - do not view films as art at all. Paintings yes, sculpture yes, music maybe. But not film. It used to be that the opening of a new work by a major director - Fellini, Kurosawa, Ozu, Godard, Scorcese, etc. - was heralded as a major cultural event, a chance for dialogue and philosophical inquiry. Films today are increasingly treated as completely replaceable, yet another frivolous form of entertainment for a frivolous age. This development recently caused the great American director Steven Soderbergh to announce his retirement. In his commentary for his marvelous film Che Soderbergh lamented the fact that the film was seen as a failure because it was polarizing, a facet he himself rightly views as the hallmark of a great work of art. This is clearly represented in much writing on film where the main question seems to be whether or not a person "liked" the film. Such a question is completely applicable to the rollercoaster or ice cream (some of which you may like and some you may not) but it completely fails to even touch on the artistic or philosophical merits of a film.   
But what if film is not just an escape? What if art offers us something more than a momentary reprieve? Such was the view of every culture and every people before our modern, demented age. We have become completely immersed in the denial of beauty because of the overbearing dominance of the natural sciences where only that which can be reduced to what is measurable and "proven" has any bearing on truth. In such a culture art is nothing but a fanciful diversion from "real" life, from the serious work that needs to be done. Such a view naturally leads to a life that is cold, alienating, confusing and absurd. It is no wonder that people seek escape, and film (and all art) can indeed provide such an escape.

But perhaps this view of life, and therefore art, is wrong. Perhaps this modern reality we have created for ourselves with our cunning, our rational systems, our utilitarian thinking, is completely antithetical to what it truly means to be human. We would do well here to contemplate on the fact that before the modern age all people viewed truth and beauty as being completely interrelated, to such an extent that Socrates in the Symposium sees the philosopher - the lover of wisdom - as also being the lover of beauty - philokalon. In the ancient world - and still today in cultures that have not become unsensitized through an obsession with technology and comfort - art in all its forms, poetry, stories, paintings, pictures and (yes!) film are ways of exploring truth, of exploring what it means to be human, of opening up uncharted territories of reality, of getting in touch with the mystery of life and perhaps even the divine. Such a view of art translates into a view of life that is hopeful, joyous and illumined. If one's philosophy of life is such that one sees existence as absurd, a painful drudgery with occasional moments of comfort and "fun" that are to be extended as much as possible, one's view of art will be similarly limited. Yet if one sees life as being filled with joy, beauty and truth - not in spite of pain and suffering but perhaps even in and through pain and suffering - one will see art as an extension of philosophy, as a mode of healing for the human soul.

I do not want to provide an argument for the worldview I have espoused here. I simply point you in the direction of Plato, Aristotle, Lao-Tze, Gautama Buddha, the Hindu and Christian scriptures, the novels of Dickens and Dostoyevsky (who, indeed, said that "Beauty will Save the World"). What I am trying to suggest here is that someone who loves art, deeply and powerfully, and wants to convey this love not through pride and abstract analysis but through an invitation to a better way of life is someone that bears listening to. A culture that fails to love beauty, that fails to take storytelling, art, poetry, dance and film seriously as harbingers of truth and philosophy, is an ugly culture, one that will bring nothing but destruction and despair upon the world.

It is our duty as human beings to take art seriously, to not reduce it to mere entertainment, and in doing so to elevate our lives towards that which is transcendent and good, to not abide simply in the frivolous conformity of our day and age where everything is supposed to be "nice" and everyone is supposed to be "happy" (meaning comfortable) but to rather seek after that which is true and beautiful, no matter how hard or difficult it is. To live in such a way is to live a Eucharistic life, a life of celebration and thanksgiving. 


Haukur V said...

I guess there won't be Ocean's 14 then

Reido Bandito said...

A culture that won't allow for Oceans's 14 is clearly a disgusting one.