Saturday, May 19, 2007

Pop Reflexivity and Opinion-Based Reviewing

While I agree with the many critical assertions that the third "Shrek" film is a blatant cash-in to capitalize on the massive success of the previous two films, the journalistic critical community's overwhelming reliance on this is evidence of the many problems with film criticism. In short, this criticism (if it can be called that) is a cop-out. I'm not saying that one cannot take a political/media economy approach to film criticism. But relying on it to explain a film's flaws while neglecting to offer sound reasoning is precisely the reverse of what criticism is - or should be - about.

This is just one example of what is essentially an expression of opinion. Qualifications for film criticism in journalistic circuit require an individual who knows a little something about the movie industry, can conjure a few clever puns, and structure a short essay. This is how many readers perceive film criticism, and it's hard to blame them given the prominence of such "criticism." Anyone can express her or his opinion about a film - that's not difficult. But to articulate an argument and defend it elevates opinion into criticism. (Furthermore, this approach to criticism and its content fundamentally misunderstands the importance of the medium itself.)

Unfortunately, our news media culture tends to prize expression of opinion over intelligent criticism: keep it short, keep it sweet, and don't bother providing a reasoning for your argument - just throw your conclusions out there. This is the cultural attitude towards most issues involving politics, art, etc., and unfortunately many film critics perpetuate it. Rather than asking questions of a movie, observing details, engaging in thoughtful commentary, and piecing together an argument based on knowledge of the medium, they lay down the "answers," or opinions often based on nothing. A film is too much of one thing, not enough of another. [For those who haven't read this absolutely essential piece on criticism by David Bordwell, he outlines the problem with criticism far more efficiently than me. If you have read it before, read it again.]

Not all critics are guilty of this. In fact, there are many wonderful critics in the journalistic circuit. For example, on the topic of Shrek the Third, A.O. Scott's review, while brief (as most journalistic criticism demands), raises many thinking points about the nature of the film's underpinnings and, interestingly, a subtle commentary on these very issues of opinion and criticism as manifest in American popular cinema. An excerpt:

"Expressing a sometimes explicit animus against the Disney versions of well-known European folk tales, the franchise set out from the start to scramble the traditional polarities of good and evil, setting itself up as a more sophisticated, knowing brand of pop-culture magic. But those old stories — and those classic Disney movies — were almost more complicated than the parodies allowed. Their eerie subtexts and haunting ambiguities have always been more crucial to their power and appeal than the overt lessons they teach. “Shrek,” “Shrek 2” and “Shrek the Third,” by contrast, are flat and simple, hectic and amusing without being especially thrilling or complex. Their naughty insouciance makes their inevitable lapses into sentimental moralism all the more glaring."

Focusing on the supposedly witty references to previous narrative styles and elements, Scott exposes a facade permeating much of pop entertainment and pop criticism. This parodic approach to comedy and satire is typical of many digitally animated films and a surprising amount of television shows. Although these clever references appear to be satirical and sharp in their commentary, they exemplify the cultural trend of favoring quick-witted opinion over real critiques. And how fitting that one who understands criticism and its purpose - A.O. Scott - point this out. The "Shrek" films are most guilty of this; they appear to jab at fairy tales and Disney, yet they themselves very much follow the same pattern of moralism and syrupy endings. As Scott says, the referenced narratives are typically far more interesting than the film referencing them. But because contemporary films seem to be only what consumers are interested in, no real knowledge of these past stories exists outside these references.

Movies are not "texts" in the same way that a languaged argument is, and therefore cannot build arguments as an essay might. But they are capable of offering commentaries of a different variety - through narrative structure and visual style, juxtaposing different familiar elements and achieving new images through reflexivity, in a broad sense. This, I feel, is essential in storytelling, cinema, and communication; not empty referencing, but more subtle variations on styles and structural patterns. True reflexivity builds upon an idea and is more aware of the details of what it is reflexive upon, unlike the flat commentaries offered by the "Shrek" films and countless other pop-reflexive narratives. In these films and other pop narratives, real commentary or criticism is lost somewhere amidst the self-aware, endless referencing. These narratives may appear consciously rejecting the often shallowly interpreted and understood traditions of more traditional narrative, yet are unconsciously reliant on them to exist all. Pop-reflexive cinema is nothing more than an uninformed expression of opinion. (And opinion without reasoning or knowledge is not much of anything at all, as anyone who has ever seen or read Ann Coulter knows.) Unfortunately, this defines much of critical discourse in our media culture. With its championing of empty opinions and content over form, it is a criticism deserving of the pop-discourse it perpetuates.


jason sperb said...

Hi Ted,
Excellent post (as always). Perhaps the key question to consider is audience and--to bring it back to your initial point--marketing. Criticism is marketed and sold just as much as Shrek the Third was--watered down, quantifiable opinions being more marketable to the largest possible audience. Or put another way, these issues are also symptomatic of larger cultural issues (as your Coulter reference suggests).

Does that mean that informed criticism is also an implicit political act? On a note indirectly related to your post, does that open up a space for the political in cinephilia--which others seem intent on separating?

On a side note, I'm not as big a fan of that Bordwell piece as you seem to be. Don't you find it ironic that he dismisses most academic writing and journalistic criticism as overly reductive and simplistic in a polemic that is itself overly reductive and simplistic?

My larger problem with Bordwell's argument is that it perpetuates the myth that academic writing is mostly automatic and formulaic. Academic writing is almost never as reductive and empty-headed as its detractors seem intent on believing.

Just because you and I, for example, are inspired by Deleuze, does that automatically mean we are guilty of being trendy? According to Bordwell, it would.

Even if it doesn't work, or precisely because sometimes it can become too bloated, academic writing is much more rigorous that such criticisms would lead one to believe.

Sure, graduate student writing and even some junior faculty writing may sometimes seem amateurish or formulaic in this way (ie, "here is my Foucauldian reading of 28 Weeks Later")--but that stuff is rarely published, and what is published doesn't reflect a laziness in thought as much as it reflects someone new trying to work through remarkably complex ideas with mixed results.

"Still, no one, as far as I know, is producing what I’d like to see"--what kind of criticism is that? What kind of *evidence* is that? Aside for appalling self-indulgence, is he really suggesting absolutely no one is writing in the manner he suggests? Martin? Naremore? Kehr? Brenez? Girish?

In any case, what's the point of trashing someone else's writing just to promote your own? That appears to be the lowest form of "criticism" of all.

(sorry for the rant--I recognize my criticisms are hardly novel).


Ted Pigeon said...

Hey, Jason. Thanks for the comment. The question of the political, in my mind at least, is more an issue of emotion and feeling and a larger issue perhaps within academia of a built-in removal from such things in criticism. You mentioned this in several of your posts at Mabuse regarding cinephila and scholarly criticism. I think it's an intriguing notion, one that's not easy to grapple with, precisely because cinema is an experience in sensation. Therefore, criticism of is torn from being detached from it, yet very much in tune with those sensations and perception of stimuli. That is why I think a Deleuzian approach to cinema greatly cuts against the flow in scholary film criticism, some of which is failing, to echoe Bordwell's thoughts.

On the point of Bordwell, I think you raise some thought worthy points abouthis qualifications for good criticism. And in a way it's tied to what I mentioned above. I agree with him, Dargis, and others that film criticism is too much under the influence of the literary and needs to focus on the image and the sound. Even a formalist approach to cinema still bows to the form/content split, a duality that by its design favors the importance of content over form. Yes, it focuses on form, but only insofar as how that form serves the content.

The Deleuzian approach, and in many ways, the Bordwell approach, is to place the emphasis on the images and operate under the very simple idea that the medium is the message. If we are to accept this duality, we should at least collapse the terms rather than keeping them separate, which I think is the most mislead approach to criticism.

I see your points about Bordwell's argument and that he seems to shut out a lot of good criticism that isn't in agreeance with his perspective. But I think he argues for his point in such an assertive way to proverbially shake up film criticism. Yes, there are certainly great things going on in scholarly film writing, truly brilliant things. And I feel that there is an infinite amount of directions one can go in regarding the study of media, cinema, culture and communication. But I think his rhetoric is as such because he wants to in essence wipe the slate clean and begin anew in terms of our interpretation of cinema and how we understanding the act of interpretation and thus criticism.

Chris Stangl said...

"Obviously, movies are not 'texts'"

This is certainly not obvious, and most every communication studies department, cultural critic, film analyst and blah blah blah would be in fundamental disagreement with this point. It's not clear if you're taking issue with the accepted nomenclature of using "text" for any contained work under consideration -- e.g. the "text" may be RED RIVER, ULYSSES, a Hello Kitty T-shirt, a Fruit Loops box, or street fashions. The intention is that "text" is value neutral, though it arguably favors lit-crit traditions. I'm unsure if the perceived problem is with the use of this word in critical discourse, or you literally mean a film is not printed matter...

"... and cannot build arguments in the way that a piece of writing might."

Say what? That really needs some unpacking.

Ted Pigeon said...

I should have this more clear. By text, in this case, I mean the formation of an argument via language. I understand that "text" may serve a more broad definition of "artifict of study," which of course a film is. I realize now that my original sentence suffered from poor wording; Films are texts in the latter sense, as mentioned above, but not in the "languaged" sense. While they cannot exist outside the frameworks of language and often times function as language, movies (or more generally, produced moving images) are not themselves language. The intent of my original statement was to suggest that the interpretive abilities with which one makes meaning out of "language" and "images" are extremely different and not particularly conducive to one another.

I'm actually glad you brought this to my attention, Chris. I'm disappointed in myself for phrasing that sentence as such.

Chris Stangl said...

Right on; I just wasn't sure if you were making a bigger, bolder (and kind of difficult) argument, or, you know... just saying film language is obviously different from print media.

I've gone back and forth and back again on that Bordwell piece. On first scan, I even thought it was a passive agressive swipe at bloggers... until he started a blog. I've read it over and over, and I just can't figure out what kind of film writing Bordwell wishes were being produced. Does he write the way he's talking about? Did Bazin, or is that just an example of a probing writer?

I do, however, love with no qualification: "[today’s film critics] seem to have only one idea, and that surprisingly banal — that there is a zeitgeist and films reflect it." That is a sharp, mean and hilarious right-on observation about both popular and academic writers. If only he'd called out specific peers!

Ted Pigeon said...

The extent of the boldness (and extremely difficult) argument is that film language only exists because we enable it to through our own use and dependence on language. I tend to be among the Deluzian camp that images are themselves not a language.

As for the Bordwell piece, it is a bit maddening. But I think it's the shot in the arm that film criticism - in a general sense - needs. We all know how he feels about approaching cinema via theory, without much emphasis on the mechanics of the compositions. He has also taken shots at a purely sociocultural approach to cinema. If you hadn't yet read "Making Meaning," I recommend it, definitely. It is his best book, and after reading it, this piece becomes more clear in an intuitive sense.

I don't think Bordwell claims to have the key or the forumala for approaching cinema and criticism, nor does anyone. I think he rejects the notion of taking a single approach, though, or even a hybrid of a couple. His argument for poetics, in my mind, is very sounds after his analysis of how - in both a phisioligical and sociocultural sense - we interpret a film's images.