Friday, November 9, 2007

Criticism in action: the hard-knock lives of film critics

Although I don't need to point anybody reading this in the direction of Jim Emerson's indispensable blog, I would like to take note of something that's happening there right now: critical debate. It's there unfolding before you in (almost) real time and in all of its impulsive and ideological glory-- the difference in perspective, the faux-reverence, and the rising frustration in attempting to articulate your thoughts and feelings when another person interprets them differently than how you intended.

With the release of No Country For Old Men today, the (mostly positive) reviews have been piling up over the last week, bringing into full focus the scattered critical glimpses of the film from when it screened at Cannes over the summer and more recently at the Toronto Film Festival. I remember Jim's enthusiasm for the Coen brothers' new film back then, so I wasn't surprised to see him visit the topic again on the day of its release. But his piece is much more interesting than your typical print review. Instead of sharing his opinion and interpretation of the film within the identifiable, safe conventions of structured journalistic film criticism, Jim instead voices his love of the film by taking issue with Jonathan Rosenbaum's more negative perspective. He does so rather defensively but with complete conviction and insight. Sure, it's impulsive and (as Jim admits) somewhat agressive, but it's real, as is the debate to follow.

Afer reading the debate, it's clear that Emerson and Rosenbaum are each operating under different assumptions and thus occupying vastly different ideological stances, not only with regards to the practice of film criticism, but in how they understand the ideas brought on by the film and how they approach seeing and responding to cinema in general. Their debate is fascinating on the grounds of pure content, with Jim's more form-based approach seemingly at odds with Rosenbaum's content-based views on examing cinema. This is of course overly simplistic; I would need to see the film about which they are debating to really probe their difference in perspective. But to me, that seems almost besides the point.

What's really important here is that how they're choosing to engage each other reflects more about the ideologies as writers and critics than what they are actually saying. These are two writers I respect immensely, and I feel downright lucky be to treated to a dialogue such as this, let alone be able to participate in it (which I cannot, since I haven't seen the film). And seeing them butt heads as openly as they are and in this forum is a blast. It brings to mind the harsh realities of film criticism, i.e., the very subjectivity of it all, while also highlighting the importance of this kind of writing in general; so raw and upfront and in the moment, where real ideas are discovered and eventually cultivated through the processes of rumination and editing. But here, comments have an urgency and convinction that is often filtered out of most professionally edited and handled writing. That the dialogue is between two well-seasoned professionals whose work we mostly know after those thoughts, feelings, and ideas have gone through those industrial processes is what gives it that unique flair. You won't find this kind of debate in most other forums (at least not that I can think of), other than perhaps academic conferences, which are usually sunk by their properness anyway.

Posts like this and the kind of fiery dialogue they incite reveal many of the strengths and weaknesses of film criticism, and are where real critical discourse lives. It is stripped down of the image of the critic sitting on a perch, walled away from real dialogue and debate, where s/he can comfortably judge and assert his/her own pompous views. Here we see that debate in motion and can in turn understand kind of life a critic leads (which isn't easy), and the kind of discourse s/he attempts to responsibly participate in. This discourse can be both illuminating and frustrating. Sometimes there is understanding, and new perspectives can be achieved. Other times, debate can be like two people speaking in different languages. This particular case seems to be a bit of both, recalling the pleasures and annoyances of trying to perceive a piece of art, interpret it according to universal meaning structures as well as personal ones, and then share with others with the hope of providing insight. This can be successful in some instances, but sometimes it isn't. It's the life of a critic, and it's all right there in this post/discussion. It's great stuff, and yet another reason why this form of writing lends itself so well to critical commentary.

I have not seen the film yet, mind you, but after reading each comment following the post, I am motivated more to do so.

1 comment:

jpb said...

Some nicely phrased meta-commentary here! Well put.