Hello, folks. I’m inaugurating a series on what’s wrong with movie criticism. We all the know the answer in advance: The problem is, movie criticism exists but doesn’t serve any purpose. Americans want to know whether they’ll like a movie or not but they will never trust critics on this. It’s can be solved by technology; we’d all rather have Cinemascore or even Rotten Tomatoes instead. Fair enough. Them’s the breaks…
But the other purpose of criticism is to have all our feelings expressed in a pithy or sentimental way, depending on our attitude to a movie. “There, that guy gets it, and now I can share his thoughts with other people, or quote him!” Again, fair enough, we all want clever speakers on our side.
This means that we start reading an essay in full expectation that we’ll have learned nothing by the end. This view of criticism pretends to flatter all of us: We are our own masters and need learn nothing from anyone else. After all, who is so arrogant as to think his taste or judgment is better than anyone else’s? Well, really, everyone is that arrogant. The destruction of criticism is the price to pay for the truce between people who all want to say their irreconcilable tastes are all great. Fair enough — it’s a free country. The critic is the scapegoat for all our unconfessed arrogance.
I’d defend criticism from all this, but then I’d have to recommend something and I’m not sure there is any criticism that is both worthwhile and popular. The best unpopular critic is Armond White — more on him in later posts — who’s conservative and a critic and a certain kind of conservative in his criticism. That is, he tries to conserve American and worldwide works of art. But who’s popular and can nevertheless bear the burden of defending the art in an age of free consumption? Good question. I’ll give you an answer next year.
But beyond the world of movie consumers, there are people interested in how movies work, in the technical aspects, which do allow and even require judgment, not just taste, and thus create hierarchies. I’ll give you a brief example of a guy who seems like a film-school kid. He’s more thoughtful than the average bear because he applies his education about movies as storytelling. He quotes some of the stuff he’s reading, so he at least plays with his cards on the table.
I have my own podcast (who doesn’t these days?) about movies, so I look at others to try to learn in hope of finding out who is doing the hard but absolutely necessary work of defending poetry. I ran into this guy when thinking about Christopher Nolan. I recommend the video to Dark Knight fans, as well as to everyone who wants to get a bit of a structure for movie analysis. But I also have criticism of the learned:
• First, the schematics are fairly useful to make sense of a story, but they feed the delusion that making a statement is the same as asserting a value or presenting an argument or even thinking a thought.
Look at the criminal/civilian // altruistic/selfish matrix. It’s a question, not an answer. The critic presents it as sophisticated reasoning abstracting from events, characters, and dialogue — forcing order out of chaos — but it’s the most simple-minded moralism.
This is not to despise moralism — the one significant statement the man makes is that stories are intensely moralistic — but he has no idea what he’s dealing with because he neither can ask questions about his categories nor can he allow the story to do it for him. He’s never learning from Nolan, always only from the book he’s read. But Nolan is smarter than the book’s author and he’s the authority on his own movies, which he authored, as our critic himself insists.
• Next, the schematics are only useful for stuff you love, because there you’re looking for reasons to praise. This critic sounds smart about Batman Begins but mindless about Batman v. Superman.
It’s not that he has good arguments; he makes a fool of himself: He starts by defining an act in a non-conventional way, to praise the movie he loves, but then damns a movie he despises because its acts are not conventionally structured.
If he had any capacity for introspection, he’d realize he uses his theories to suit his taste, not to understand the intentions of movie-makers. Ultimately, this is my criticism of criticism: If the critic is no more self-aware than any fanboy, what’s the point?
• Finally, the schematics are about doing a job. They can flatter college kids who want to control their thoughts, but they’re only practical if you’re writing movies. Not good ones, just good enough to do the job.
Of course, they cannot guarantee you’ll get the job. This guy can heap scorn on Zack Snyder — but Snyder gets the jobs, not the critics, and that’s never going to change.
The price paid in order to be clever about schematics is not worth it — it’s preferable to understand what poetry and myth are than to seem clever by dismissing them. The pro’s attitude is always going to be cynical: whatever pays, whatever gets the audience to like you. But that’s worth nothing if want stuff that lasts. After all, we don’t read Homer because he’s relevant to our cynicism or our undisclosed ambitions…