Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Critical Debate About Criticism... Contrarians Galore

A very interesting discussion is currently underway at Jim Emerson's Scanners blog about a contrary approach to contructing criticism. In short, contrarians base their criticism upon rejecting others' (or the popular view) without really forming a basis for which they assert their own often-empty claims.

The very practice of criticism - not just film criticism - is perhaps designed for this kind of banter. If we are all such discerning critics, much discrepancy will inevitably emerge amongst our discussion, often inciting discourse and (sometimes) frustration amongst participants when someone else fails to see one's viewpoint. This of course leads to name-calling and other forms of verbal abuse, or (to a smaller extent) calculated, slyly written jabs, which are just as damaging.

I think many of us at some point have engaged in these sorts of things, but I would like to think that we have all learned from our mistakes and experiences enough to know that engaging in such behavior is highly unproductive. Apart from that, it also undermines the fundamental values and benefits of the practice of criticism, an institution designed to allow people to share their views, hold discourse and understand different perspectives on a given subject. It's a cliche, but there is no right or wrong answer. And those who assert their own views, especially in opposition to others, are often doing little more than putting on display how little they understand what criticism is all about.

It seems that a certain image has been perpetrated on critics, one that is now perpetuated by many. So many journalistic critics have reduced themselves to byproducts of pop-culture, appealing to the populus, and in so doing damaging the image and reputation of critics. In many cases, critics themselves have fueled this idea that has lately defined a great deal of criticism. There is very seldom discussion about the cinema in any productive way; rather, so many journalistic critics sound the same, as if buying into a trend about a given movie, all spouting off the same thing. Of course, there are many exceptions to this. These exceptions show that there are ways of appealing to the public ithout being condescending or disrespecting the institution of criticism.

Critics need to be the ones informing debate and discussion about the cinema. They should set the trends for thought about the cinema, not react to them. But right now some critics are upholding a natural contrarian nature that supposedly is built-in to being a critic. But such a mindset has only emerged because critics are no longer viewed as those who inform about a given subject, but rather cranky people who are out of touch with consumers and now desperately trying to win their approval. Sadly, too many people have bought into this idea that now even some critics have as well, fueling a cyclical process that has resulted in the current image of film critics.

Naturally, this image has affected criticism itself. Case in point: contrarians. There are some who consider the only worthy criticism is the kind that wouldn't have anything to do with the established norms of dominant critical thinking and reviewing. But I have observed that many of these people who purport such ideas are often perpetuating the same flaws of whom they criticize. They are slaves to the same system, thus do not achieve anything constructuve fresh in the world of film criticism. It's the flip side to the same coin. The problem is in the belief of the generalization that if you abide by the conventions that define mainstream criticism in any way, you can't possibly have anything relevant to say. Never mind that some critics can accomplish great things with a certain method (not to mention bring up deeper issues and commentaries on practiciding such methods). But, this contrarian approach breeds a self-riteous attitude and a reverse establishment usually taking the form of academic prose - the other extreme to mainstream commercial criticism. (The system appears to be much complicated than this - with contrarians emerging to tear down more "mainstream" academic film criticism) And so what you have is two warring ideologies defined by each other. Meanwhile, actual criticism is lost in the mix. I'm not doubting that that there aren't thoughtless pop-culture critics out there giving real critics a bad name, just as there is plenty of empty rhetoric amongst the academic community. There are a great deal of good critics that contribute significantly to the discussion of cinema on both sides, and in between.

I think there are more productive ways of evaluating criticism than merely slamming critics like AO Scott and Roger Ebert (two critics I greatly admire) for their homogenized styles. Merely pointing out how bad one's opinion is by using your own differing opinion as a source of comparisson is just as foolish and reveals a great hypocrisy in the claims of anti-establishment intellectuals, as many of their own styles of criticism are subject to a series of conventions and ideologies which dictate the nature and direction of their own criticism. If you acknowledge the impact of critics like Ebert and Scott, then they have influenced your own standpoint in some way and you are positioned to react to it either by making it part of your own or rejecting it and choosing to make your criticism and observations less homogenized. For this reason, I think it is foolish to lambast popular critics for their writing and critiquing styles, especially when the best form of doing so is to tear them down for their conventional approaches to criticism; rather than actually criticizing the text and providing a valid argument for why it makes for ineffective criticism and pointing out the grounds on which you form your own argument and building one's own approach. Because, in the end, those views are defined every bit as much by Ebert and Scott's critical ideologies as Ebert and Scott are.

Criticism is similar to the cinema in many ways. These contrarians remind me of the avant garde filmmaker who insists upon how uniform and cliche mainstream Hollywood films are. What these people don't realize is that their supposedly original styles still stand in relation to the pre-existing conventions with which they have become familiarized. That very mainstream practice that they tear down essentially allows for contrarians to exist at all. They are still members of the same system of communication. The very idea of a contrarian supposes a two part system and the more everyone buys into that, the more that system permeates and defines what we know as criticism, which has resulted in two extreme groups polarized by each other.

Gilles Deleuze emphasized that true originality is only possible when you can utilize what has been made familiar and make already established elements and styles interact differently. It is a building process which thus unveils new perspectives and approaches. This is true of filmmaking, film viewing, and film criticism, all of which cyclically influence each other. Being contrary by insisting upon how original one's ideas in relation to the dominant ideology is incredibly foolish and a highly unproductive manner of engaging in criticism. In fact, it's only perpetuating the same cycle, one that does not allow progress to occur. There are great critics on both sides of the spectrum, and in between. But the only way of changing and allowing that spectrum to grow and encompass a wider capacity for learning and knowledge is by productively participating in criticism and allowing your own views as well as the institution to grow. Not by playing contrarian.

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