Monday, January 15, 2007

The Bond Between Cinema and Criticism (Critical Debate Part II)

Recently I suggested that the cinema and criticism may not be very different from one another. I have always felt that any story can be told effectively through the cinema, which is what separates the cinema from most other art forms and narrative media. Because as any writer on the cinema knows, the content of a film arises from its form. Without form, there can be no content, which is what Roger Ebert evokes with his famous statement: "A movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it." I think that this approach is significant in regard to film criticism as well. There is no linear formula for writing engaging criticism.

Andy Horbal at No More Marriages! approaches the issue with a keen understanding of film and criticism as important art forms, not trade practices:
"It is not the job of a film critic (in my humble opinion, of course, and this is the only time I'll actually say that) to assess a film as 'good' or 'bad.' This is an impossibly subjective judgment, one that requires an immense amount of space for examples, discussion of standards, and placement not only in the history of film and film criticism but in the history of art and art criticism...

To assess even one film as 'good' or 'bad' requires a book's worth of argument, and multiple volumes at that. Which doesn't change the fact that this is the tacit goal most professional film critics have for both their reviews and their year-end lists...

Describing and analyzing a film is work enough for any one review or article, evaluation is a waste of time. 'Good' and 'bad' are irrelevant: what's important is what the film is, what is is. To this kind of critic 'good' films are not more valuable than 'bad' films; instead, primary emphasis is placed on interesting. And because new/different is interesting, new/different films are especially worthy of attention."

Andy's use of the terms "good" and "bad" with quotations emphasizes the point of how flimsy such terms are. Yet they are often the ends of so much critical thinking; a fact that I find depressing. If we are to form our arguments and criticism around such ideas, should we then not consider how and why readers/viewers determine what makes up "good" and "bad?" Andy surmises that one would have to build extensive arguments in an attempt to objectively encompass something that is, quite simply, subjective. Some will inevitably claim that since it usually comes down to a matter of opinion, criticism is not to be trusted and is not as informative as it should be. But like the cinema itself (or any other art form), criticism is about perception and interpretation. One cannot construct engaging criticism by simply saying a given film works or doesn't based on certain grounds.

Apart from representing an expertise in a given field, it is meant to be a reflection on film images: how they are constructured, positioned, and perceived. Varying approaches reveal different perspectives and ways of seeing images, uncovering meanings and ideas through discourse and interaction. Of course opinion enters into it, but the expression of an opinion is not the basis for the criticism itself. Opinions are informed by a knowledge and exploration of the cinema, its history and its practices. Those opinions are presented in relation to one's knowledge of and experience with the cinema. This can be done in any number of ways and from various approaches.

Yes, of course it's about expressing an opinion through the structure of language, but, like films, criticism can provoke feelings and thoughts that can cause one to think or question how he or she sees and interprets a film's images. Some of it will abide by certain writing structures or styles, as some films do, but the written form is a complex beast as well. The moment one attempts to structure it with a "formula for success," it becomes monotonous and boring. However, there is a great struggle amongst many critics to provide simple ways of conveying whether a movie is worthy of seeing, e.g. thumbs up/down, stars systems, annual top ten lists.

I think that is one of the great tensions of film critism as a practice, which I have mentioned in my previous post about criticism. Since many journalistic film reviews appear in newspapers and magazines, they are positioned as marketing devices and serve as consumer guides. "Here is why you should see this film," is what most journalistic film criticism comes down to, and that is more a necessity of the context in which it exists. The tension emerges because that attitude greatly undermines the goals of film criticism. It's a similar tension that constitutes the "art versus commerce" war within the cinema. That is what I mean when I draw comparisons between film and film criticism, which inevitably influence and are influenced by each other. So long that much of the moviegoing public is interested in witnessing the same images, conventions, and cliches that make up a great amount of mainstream films, mainstream journalistic criticism will continue to be defined by the very same trends. Because it doesn't make any sense for reviews to be analytical and incisive if readers want to go to a film and become passive recepients of recycled and sloppily constructed images.

The star system, a trademark in film reviewing, is a perfect example of how criticism is being reduced to a consumer guide, one meant to briefly sum up whether the reader should go see a film. The star system is now such a staple in journalistic film criticism that many readers complain to newspapers that don't use them. But they are limiting, restricting devices that are as impractical as they are structured. When I was writing reviews for a few local papers and my college paper, I used the four star system. I kept a log (and still do) of movies that I see and how I rate them, which can be beneficial for the individual, but it can also be damaging. I've realized that such devices represent another futile way of giving some kind of order to things that cannot and should not fit such an order.

There is no way - even for one person's individual tastes - for such a system to yield consistent results. Also, an even more important consideration is that these systems condition readers and critics also to make their opinions of films conform to a pattern of measuring quality that is nothing more than a graded test, as a film does X, Y, and Z to earn three and a half stars, or a B+, or whatever system a critic may use. These systems distort our views of films to the point that many viewers and critics have bought into the mindset, seeing films as exercises to grade or rate, and in so doing have created a whole mindset for how we see and interpret films.

Every film is different, and what viewers bring to a film varies depending on his or her experiences with other films and throughout their lives. In short, there are just too many factors and variables involved to try to simplify everything into one coherent structure; it's just not possible. Which is why I think that the less stock that one puts in one, the better. Ratings and "best of" lists serve the purpose of providing some semblance of order for individuals who like to keep track of yearly lists, logs, and films they have seen and how (in a nutshell) he or she feels about a film. However, while these lists and systems serve to provide structure to one's experience with the cinema, they also shape that experience to adhere to a specific pattern, and since perception is such a large factor in seeing and interpreting films, that pattern can influence how one evaluates the experience of watching films and the quality of individual films. Concerning the impact of these systems on readers of journalistic criticism, ratings and lists also advertise film criticism as a throwaway marketing device and journalistic necessity, not a valid and strong medium for writing and analyzing another medium. All of these devices further promote cinematic consumption as an act of determining "good" from "bad." And, unfortunately, this mindset shapes how films are seen and made.

In an editorial for Cinema Scope, David Bordwell explained why he is unhappy with the state of criticism:

"Film criticism lies at the centre of nearly all intellectual discourse about the cinema, and if we take criticism to be an effort to know particular movies more intimately, it probably deserves its prime place. But contemporary film criticism is failing. In academic venues, it mostly grinds Movie X through Theory Y, in the hope that somehow the exercise will yield political emancipation. Meanwhile, film magazines and free city weeklies promote that self-assured nonconformity which prizes jaunty wordplay and throwaway judgments.

We read nonfiction for information, ideas, opinions, and good writing. Most orthodox criticism overdoes opinions, which create the critic’s professional persona. Soon opinions crystallize into tastes, and the persona overshadows the films. I realize the pressures here. Readers at all levels don’t take film as seriously as they take music or architecture, so film journalists are obliged to be superficially entertaining in a way that reviewers in other arts needn’t be. Still, most film criticism is fact-free...

As I get older, I’m less interested in opinions, whoever holds them, and more interested in ideas and information... Intellectuals should turn insights into clear-cut ideas, reliable information, or nuanced opinions, but neither journalistic critics nor academic ones do this very often.

My critique has been broad, and it sounds harsher than I’d like. There are some fine journalistic critics and film scholars. Still, no one, as far as I know, is producing what I’d like to see. The film writing I have in mind would be essayistic, but it would have a solid understructure of evidence. It would be conceptually bold and bristling with subtly defended opinions. Its judgments would be nuanced in optimal awareness of the history of cinema, its economics and technology as well as its auteurs. Add a graceful writing style leavened with humour and purged of vainglorious anecdotes. We might then have criticism in a broader sense than we now usually find it, and something worthy of the art we love."

This brief editorial made a great impression on me since I read it last year; it seemed to inform my own opinion while also validate some of my own established views. I find Bordwell's piece to be a complementary approach to Horbal's take on the "good/bad" perspective that permeates much of critical thinking. This issue takes an interesting shape in relation to the subject of the first post about criticism and contrarianism, in which I argue that there is currently a two-pronged structure dictating the course of criticism, splitting it into two factions warring each other, but both distancing each other from the heart of what criticism is all about. The problem is more complicated, since within those two main ideologies there microcosms of the same system; two sides fueling each other's disdain for the other. All this ultimately feeds the "good/bad" ideology that now dominated so much critical thinking, as David Bordwell alludes to. And this has affected all circles of criticism, I fear.

Right now, the blogging community is breathing new life into the greater discussion of cinema. But even amongst some of the more intelligent and serious venues, I sense similar attitudes that make up the "good/bad" approach to criticism, which was the subject of my last post about warring ideologies devolving into cyclical trends in which true criticism and cinema appreciation is glossed over in favor of being contrarian. I am all in favor of disagreement and debate, but when this simplistic attittude begins defining what it is we claim to care so seriously for, I worry. Those ideas and attitudes often fuel the "good/bad" approach to cinema and criticism, in which viewers base their interpretations more on presumptions and unquestioned acceptance of pre-established conventions and structures. When that perspective defines critical thinking, criticism is thus reduced to a consumer guide meant for passive absorption. And that is not something that should ever constitute cinema and film criticism as aesthetic practices or essential art forms.

1 comment:

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