Film: Criticism on criticism: Film

I find this whole film criticism business appealing to my sense of analytical reflection, not only on my own feelings about a film, but on a certain filmmaker’s expressed thoughts and opinions.  Which is what a film is, regardless of the impersonal sheen any number of contemporary films might employ (“It’s not my fault you see indifference to historical dilemma in District 9!” chimes Neill Blomkamp, in my head).  Michael Bay says as much about his willful bitchhood to the Hollywood System in Transformers 2 as Ross McElwee says about himself in Sherman’s March: Bay is as content to be a salesman as is McElwee to self-analyze.  That’s all there is to it.  Why do we even bother to critique, then?

Well, I probably wouldn’t bother writing on Transformers 2 on its own (I haven’t seen it, but I will admit I found Transformers an amusing, well-proportioned Hershey bar).  For every soulless action movie he makes, Bay gives critics a progressively firmer paradigm by which to judge a very particular brand of filmmaking, one predicated on noise and market research.  He’s far more interesting as a figure in the system than as a voice, easily evoked as representative of the least personable kind of cinema.  McElwee – this is probably the very first time he’s ever been mentioned in the same paragraph as Bay – demands attention; nothing about Bright Leaves (2003) lends itself to your needs or expectations.  What he wants you to think about he gives you, and backs it up with precise narrative circuitry of his own design.  These guys aren’t really diametrically opposed in terms of craftsmanship – Bay isn’t an incompetent filmmaker; I think he executes exactly the films he wants to make – and I think you understand roughly as much about each of them from their respective films, about their attitude toward communication and introspection, their regard for art as an act of principled self-expression, and their perceptions of the force of the tools of their trade.  Let us assume McElwee lands on the more diligent end of the spectrum.

So what does a critic get out of this?  To read a good critic – a Pauline Kael, a David Edelstein – it’s clear that it’s a mixture of receptivity and taste, an open-mindedness tempered by, let’s say, objective subjectivity (they both know when they’re being assholes; they can admit when they might be wrong, even as they plow ahead with a ruthless attack).  The point is not to be right or wrong, but to dive into a film’s river and mull over the pace and eddies of its current.  Too cold here?  Only because it was so warm there, and slower than it ought to be now…I’m feeling rushed, or rolled over on my stomach, and I have to say, this is a bad call, it’s too shallow, you’re scraping my knees on the rocks…you could be sending me through the rapids down there with perfect clarity if only you prepared me for it now… It’s true, these critics speak with forceful voices of unerring authority, as though lording over cinematic creation with a view of its entirety.  It can send a reader running, with its distasteful scent of godlike disdain…but one second, reader, hang back a bit.  A good critic will circle back on himself, at least indirectly; however right he may feel he is, if he’s on his game, he’ll tell you why.  Implicit in his criticism is his personal sense of why film matters – not whether he likes Slumdog Millionaire, but how he values it as representative of its maker’s intentions.  And then – oh yes – he tells you how he feels about that.  On the understanding that you’re welcome to do the same.

A bad critic ignores a film’s intentions, or shrouds his criticism in his own idea of what a film should be.  Thin line?  I guess so.  It’s about grappling rather than bouncing.  In addition to an apparent compulsion to disagree with the consensus, Armond White filters all his criticism through his own preoccupations – not with film, but with pop culture and politics. His is true disdain, his professed affection for pop culture at polar odds with his verbal obscurity.  Rather than addressing a film directly for its explicit content, he buries it in sweeping, academic, obfuscating judgment – his recent review of Shutter Island proclaimed that “The time has come to ask Scorsese to move on” and stop directing films entirely.  Moreover, you are not free to disagree with his assessment; creeping through his syntax are aggressive insults and flip derision – directed frequently not toward the film or its content, but toward the consumer who may like it.

All of which makes him nothing more than an educated bully, and this snide playground drama with which he’s fully engaging with J. Hoberman and the Greenberg crowd – taking great pains to point out the “racist lynching by white critics of a black critic” – is as silly as suggesting that bad critics have no right to critique.  They have as much right to write as I have to charge him with recklessly diminishing the scant respect critics have to begin with.  The good ones are doing their damnedest to make heads or tails of a film and its creator – or to watch with awe or disappointment as the coin spins endlessly on edge, unwilling, in the critic’s mind, to lop one way or the other, in an ongoing effort to wrestle meaning and purpose out of another craftsman’s work.

The whole thing is remarkably strange and self-indulgent, full of piss and wind and body odor.  But what are you gonna do?  If you ask the critics to stop, you might as well ask the filmmakers to stop too.

Jim Emerson’s blog is responsible for this tirade.  Thank you, Jim.

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