Tuesday, January 23, 2007

And the Winner Is... (Criticism Part III)

With the Oscar nominations having been announced earlier today, the forthcoming month of buzz and anticipation for Oscar night will cap off the season of critical discussion of the year in cinema as can only be delivered by hollow top ten lists. Like many others, I claim that top ten lists and awards don't mean very much to me, yet I always find myself writing about them and keeping up with them.

At Jim Emerson's Scanners blog, David Edelstein briefly responded to one of Jim's posts about the deadness of lists. He said: "Ten best lists are a pain. They're depressing to do. They are inherently a compromise. We do them because our readers like them and because there's something onanistic about sitting around and ranking movies. (See High Fidelity for a fuller evocation.)" This brief quote effectively summarizes the difficulty and inevitabiity of "best of" lists and perhaps awards as well. Despite my many suspicions about lists and rating systems, I acknowledge that on some level they are inevitable and, if viewed from the appropriate perspective, can be very beneficial for the individual genuinely interested in cinema.

In an earlier post on criticism, I voiced my worry that categorization and list making shapes a critic/viewer's outlook, promoting the notion that seeing films is like going down a checklist in order to determine quality. If we start to believe that these systems achieve what they are designed to do, then the perspective through which we see and interpret films becomes incredibly dull and promotes sameness. Art is not about that, criticism is not about that, and film is not about that. I hate to think of myself and others engaging in these activities, but I attempt to justify my insatiable appetite for creating lists and organizing everything by acknowledging the dangers of participating in them and understanding that they will never constitute the beauty of cinema. Rather, they serve as organizing devices to help whittle the (film) world to a manageable size (I can't use such a phrase without citing Spike Jonze's brilliant Adaptation (2003)). The fact that I even need to justify my participating in list-making and ranking speaks volumes about my mistrust of yet insatiable attraction to them (as does that I made note of it, but I'll end the reflexivity here).

To me, however, awards shows and presentations are potentially an even greater offense. Still, I say this as somebody who keeps up with them every year. I think they can be pointlessly fun, but in the end they have less importance than lists and can be more damaging. Awards presentations crown one film as the "best" in each respective category, with which I have several problems. First, there is almost no discussion. It's like a race; which ever film can get the most attention and whose studio pays the most dollars towards a campaign seems to win. Secondly, the term "best" supposes a certain amount of objectivity. It doesn't help that members of the Academy are untouchable. We never see or hear from them. "The Academy" is more of an idea, stripped of any kind individuality or perspective. With lists, there is at least variance: each critic forms a different list composed of varying films, and usually forms some kind of argument as to why these ten films are the most noteworthy chievements in the previous calendar year. The key here is that lists unveil themselves as personal perspectives. Many people like to read them, and, for their own accounts, many critics like to formulate them, despite their many drawbacks.

The other aspect to consider about awards shows is that they compartmentalize the film viewing experience, purporting the notion that filmmaking elements like costume design, art direction, and cinematography stand on their own, independent of the other elements of the film. This re-enforces a terrible approach to analyzing films. The beauty about narratives executed with moving images is that all of the elements transmorgify constantly, influencing each other to create a cinematic experience. Taking note of a particular element as it pertains or relates to other elements is acceptable, but to award specific, confined areas of filmmaking fundamentally undermines the beauty of cinema. This brings to mind the first point about the lack of discussion or commentary. This can be improved. The Oscars in particular are of interest to anyone interested in American Film history and can actually serve a good purpose in that name.

I have my critiques of lists as well, which I have voiced in prior posts, but those focused more on employing lists as a critical device. Here I will detail the elements of lists themselves. First, I try to avoid making a list of 10 films for my yearly round up, and for obvious reasons, the main one being, why 10? Why not 11, 12, or 14? That's why I encourage if you are going to partake in rating and list systems, figure out what works for you based on what you know. Don't just make a list of ten films if there are several others that are worthy of being featured in your perspective on the cinema's best annual offerings. Some critics choose not to rank either, opting for a more fair alphabetical way of listing. Again, this is personal preference. As I stated before, it's all rather unreliable in any objective sense, so if you're going to do it at all, choose what works best for you and do it. To what degree you engage in this act of making distinctions and categorizatizing doesn't really matter. We all do it on some level. It constitutes how we communicate. Language itself is a structured system of organization from which other organizing systems emerge.

Also, no critic has seen every film released in a calendar year. For this and other reasons, the act of list making all comes down to perspective. So any attempt to sum up "the best" is doomed to fail and represents a mislead approach to criticism. Therefore, I often enjoy reading lists adopting different frameworks for presenting "best of" lists. For example lists that discuss particularly scenes rather than whole films are kind of unique. It makes just as much sense as any other list, but it can allow more insight into films as a whole and can be more detailed. Some see it as a negative, but this perspective typically has been influenced by the overarching ideas that lists and awards push, which is that there is or should be objectivity to it all. But the beauty of art and criticism is that is informed by perspective. Therefore, singling out cinematic moments in a calendar year is no less valid than singling out films amongst a sea of releases.

There are so many different ways and systems by and through which an individual can present his or her perspective of the year in films, and I encourage them all. If more variability is presented not just in the content of such lists, but the structures of them, critics and readers will soon realize and consider that these lists are subjective and that individual perspective is a good thing.

But they by no means encapsulate film art by any stretch. I urge list makers everywhere to enjoy the benefits of them because they can be great personal artifacts for revisiting years later, as well as inciting the discussion of cinema in new and engaging ways. As long as that is understood, than such lists can a good thing. But I can't emphasize enough that lists and ranking system can also reduce our way of intepreting films to judgements like "good" or "bad."

The prominence of lists and awards reflects how we communicate and structure our collective and individual experience. Such things do not exist only in the film world, but in almost every aspect our social existence. To some extent, we cannot avoid but be influenced by the mentality of rating, ranking, listing, and structuring since it they are the basis for how we build and partake in a the system of signification we call language, a greater framework of which we all participate. Therefore, I realize that my idealistic perspective on film viewing and criticism is not possible, especially since I like anyone else am positioned within the system however much I may comment on it.

The problem I have with such popularly employed structuring devices is that they can determine how we understand and experience art, because art essentially flies in the face of everything that our systems of communication represent: order and structure. Art is about abstraction, thinking and feeling in unidentifiable and different ways. Therefore, criticism represents an essential portal through which we filter experience with art, making them relevant in the structured world of communication. Therefore, criticism serves a significant purpose: to incite discourse and enhance ways of understanding. Without it, we would be lulled into complacency, not possessing any incentive to question, challenge, or think differently.

Therefore, we need to be actively considering the elements that constitute criticism and the frameworks with which we structure it. Lists, ratings, and awards are a reflection of our desire to categorize and compartmentalize everything. They can be very influential and damaging to criticism as well as how cinema is made and consumed. But, given that to some extent such structures are inevitable, it is important to consider new ways of engaging them, which would therefore allow those who participate in cinema and criticism at any level to challenge the norms and conventions that determine perception. Our current systems don't need to be abolished; but if they are evaluated, challenged, and modified, we can encounter new ways of exploring cinema and criticism.

[Note: I will write about the actual nominations and more about Oscar material in coming entries. I just had to finish off this mini-series into which I've written myself. I fully expect to encounter these and other issues about the critical debate in the future, but I'm finished for now.]


Tram said...

*nit-picky alert!*

Adaptation was released in 2003.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks! I actually welcome nit-picking. I've updated it. Strange, how certain I am that it was released in 2003. I don't know what compelled me to write 2004 and not think much of it. Thanks again, Tram.