Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Guilty Pleasure and the Problem With Film Criticism

[This post is for Jim Emerson's Contrarianism Blog-a-thon.]

I had to write about it sometime...

Something about the very topic of guilty pleasures and that I'm now writing about them makes me feel as though I'm indulging in one. It's been written about in so many different ways, and, as we learn, everybody has their own unique brand of guilty pleasures that appeal to them. But what is so guilty about them? The term combines two seemingly very different ideas (guilt and pleasure) that are actually perfectly suited for each other more often than we'd like to admit. Hence the term itself. The two words repel each other, yet somehow fit together. Then, what does a guilty pleasure really suggest? To me, it's a struggle between logic and anarchy, or order and disorder. Pleasure is frequently associated with guilt, and vice versa, but why? To see a film that you deem as a guilty pleasure is to acknowledge that despite it's failing to embody the idea of what a good film is (which for each person is different), the viewer embraces the experience anyway. But if one genuinely enjoys a film and is so self-conscious about it, assuring that "this is not a good film," then what attracts him or her to it?

While each viewer has his or her own ideas regarding what constutes good filmmaking, there are definitely more broadly stated cultural and societal parameters that influence each individual interest. After all, our individual selves do not exist independent of our social environment. So in a sense context is everything. These broadly stated notions tend to be about entire genres or modes of narrative, rather than the stylistic filmmaking devices that build the genre. Within certain cultural sects, it is acceptable to enjoy or watch certain kinds of films, and not others. But there are an innumerable amount of social institutions and cultural sects to which each individual subscribes, giving each individual his or her own "taste." But the point remains that this is often determined by surroundings. But for some reason, viewers (and critics too, as I have written about before) are stuck on the type of narrative and the plot rather than the medium itself. The view that each genre is defined only by narrative traditions, each having its own stylistic conventions, or cliches, is incredibly restricting.

The idea of a guilty pleasure seems to emerge from this populary embraced notion of watching films. Viewers make judgements about certain types of films based on plot and narrative, unfortunately. But audiences are not solely to blame. Filmmakers themselves (at least lazy ones) tailor the images of their films for easy interpretation, thus fueling the spectator's numbness to filmmaking styles and devices. By employing the same ones over and over again, viewers become passive to how the images are arranged and are conditioned to focus on the content. Therefore, many viewers' understanding of film style is based entirely on fitting the style to the narrative, rather than fitting the narrative to the style. Craving sameness rather than innovation, filmmakers and viewers smother the medium in many ways by not actively thinking about ways of seeing, about the images themselves and how they execute a narrative.

I don't mean to speak for all of cinema when I make these claims. I am rather limiting this discussion to "bad" cinema, as Deleuze knows it; the kind that bows to convention and cliche without much thought or consideration, and is not concerned with allowing originality to stem from familiar ways of seeing and building images. It is a process of numbness. "Good" cinema celebrates innovation, not by presenting wholly different kinds of stories or employing a neat new stylistic technique. Real filmmakers and critics understand and acknowledge the traditions of cinema, narrative, and media in general, and focus on contributing to it. Films are complex media made up of moving images - they are much more intricate than viewers often given them credit; even the bad ones. If we expand our understanding of genre, image identification, representation, and categorization to stem not from narrative techniques, but from the images themselves and how they are constructed, we can thus embrace a more open paradigm for viewing and interpretting all kinds of films.

Which brings me back to the "Guilty Pleasure." Such an idea only exists within an understanding of cinema as plot and "content." We then become conditioned to like certain genres and dislike others on the grounds of the type of narrative they may embody. Coming from the approach that form creates content, we can open ourselves up to understanding that any plot or narrative can be executed effectively and interestingly in the medium of moving images we know as cinema. Viewers should not feel guilty for enjoying something. Instead, they should embrace their enjoyment of a film and actively think about what contributed to their enjoyment of it. If we can free ourselves from the old approach to assessing films, we can become more receptive to the idea that great cinema exists in all forms and is not limited to certain types, genres, or narratives.

Cinema is a medium about itself; its conventions, its styles, its ways of presenting images, and within those images, ideas, emotions, and possibilities. So-called guilty pleasures may not be great pieces of cinema, but in choosing to write about a seemingly inconsequential and all but forgotten film for this blog-a-thon rather than tearing down a universally loved film or defending a universally hated film, I wish to highlight how the current dominant approach to film viewing and criticism is mislead in its endeavor to try to understand cinema.

A contrarian is every as much of a slave to the current ideology of interpreting and evaluating cinema. While a contrarian does indeed question what's popular or dominant when it comes to certain films, theories, or commonly upheld notions, but by acknowledging those dominant notions and merely reacting to them, the contrarian is essentially still buying into a very limited notion of what quantifies a good piece of cinema.

I feel that we need to embrace all kinds of films, challenge standards, and question popularly upheld concepts in criticism. This isn't so much being a contrarian as it is being a responsible and active participant in of one of the most complex and relevant media. I don't think any of the dominant critical and popular ideologies about cinema are necessarily wrong and all deserve to be overthrown. I only challenge the critics, the viewers to actively think about those images on the screen and how they create meaning.

I realize that to some extent there must be dominant ways of thinking and that contrarianism also must exist, but I refuse to stop believing that someday film viewers and critics can move away from a narrow capacity for absorbing film images. Perhaps with this long reflection on accepting and rejecting cinematic ideology only makes me another contrarian. That may be. But forgive me for hoping that someday viewers and critics can more openly approach this great medium which offers unlimited ways of seeing, hearing, and feeling. Someday, as David Bordwell has said, we may have a criticism worthy of the medium we all love so much. While such an idealistic vision of criticism as not stuck in applying certain theories to certain films and breaking images down into categories and labels may not ever happen, in this perfect world of criticism, we won't need contrarians.


dave said...

one (contrarian) note: a film can be enjoyed for its plot in spite of in spite of being "bad." If I really relate to a character or scenario, I may connect with the film in spite of its formal lacks. That's why my blog is named after a movie I don't think is particularly "good" -- because I connect with it nevertheless.

Ted Pigeon said...

Which is why we need to do away with such terms at all, and redirect film criticism away from its current focus on "good films" and "bad films."

Your comment exemplified what I am after in my post. Due to the dominant practices of criticism, serious film viewers are often made to feel guilty for liking a movie that is deemed bad by the critical masses for reasons x, y, and z.

But, to use the terms against themselves, "good" cinema is about connecting to the images and the world that a film creates with them. Whether that's characters, a situation, or anything else, if a moving images is capable of provoking you, then how can it be bad?

We may not know why we react a certain way, but a redirected focus of aesthetics and film images may elucidate that connection better than the current, traditional dominant ideology of "good cinema."