The State of the Art

New York Observer’s film critic Rex Reed has been making the rounds on twitter and the blogosphere recently as the subject of a revolving litany of abuses and defamations. Some are asking for his head, others, like this reasonably cool-headed piece by Jason Bailey, are only asking for his job, not simply for their disagreement with his negative review, but for the admission that he walked out. Heinous though that sin may be, I want to examine Reed’s review of V/H/S 2 (the particular film is irrelevant to my discussion) in more detail and consider what it might mean for the state of film criticism:

In this indescribably gory, violent, plotless and deranged purloin of every horror movie ever made by amateurs with a wobbly, nauseating handheld camera, seven unknown directors hell-bent on remaining that way enter a dark, deserted house containing a pile of VHS tapes. One by one, they insert the tapes, and onto the screen flash five episodic creep shows involving a mountain biker pursued by flesh-eating zombies, a cult of Satan worshipers and a sleepover invaded by psycho kidnappers told from the perspective of a GoPro camera attached to the back of a dog. V/H/S/2 is a diabolically psychotic, sub-mental and completely unwatchable disaster that I happily deserted when a man with a retinal implant scooped out his bionic eye with a sharp object, splattering blood all over the camera. Your move, and you’re welcome to it.

While I agree that no critic should be allowed to write a review for a film they didn’t fully see, I also fail to see why any critic should be allowed to write a piece as rancorous and cruel as this. My problem is not that I disagree with his negative review (I haven’t seen the film so I cannot even begin to speculate on its merits or detractors, much less comment), but that I disagree with its very content. To reiterate a previous argument of mine, if the film be unworthy of comment in the critical esteem, then the system should allow for the critic to ignore it. Instead, critics are compelled to grind their intelligence on just about every film they come into contact with. Though in the case of Reed, he seems to be in it for the sport.

Cantankerous wit aside, what is gained by the piece? What advancement to the art of film was made? It’s vanity flair of the lowest order—the skilled orator who, aware of his rhetorical skill, carries on well past the point is made, to the detriment of both his argument and the practice of rhetoric. I ask again, what benefit has Reed’s words provided? Though the film is relatively short, a mere four sentences seems shorter still. What is the purpose of the piece? We have a candid reason not to go see the movie, sure, but in order to make the statement Reed has effectively cleaned the carcass on the dining room table. It’s bloodsport of the lowest degree; it’s the gratuitous decadence of Rome just before the fall. The issue is that Reed is not merely some lowly internet blogger (as I am), and his column some moderately frequented blog site (as mine is), but rather a syndicated member of the elite, a critic of the upper echelons, with the New York Observer as his pedestal. How far the mighty have fallen.

We must ask ourselves, what is the point of criticism? Why bother to write? Is the purpose to denigrate or to elevate? Why bother to read? If the critics know the answer, they seem to have forgotten to let us in on the point. Though cults will have their secrets.

The problem is the dichotomy, those who believe critics must praise or denigrate. The point of film criticism is to do neither. The hope of the artist is to be praised, but then when have critics ever given in to artists? Criticism is the art of comparison and analysis, the art of interpretation and evaluation, not the business of flattering or disparaging (and the sooner we get the business out of it the better). Set aside questions of binary values. Good or bad are irrelevant where art is concerned. What is a “good” image? Or a “bad” statement? We have only the image and the statement, and so it becomes the role of the critic to spend sufficient time teasing out possible interpretations and meanings. That is why they exist, or existed—not simply to get cushy seats and preview screenings so that they might jot out a four sentence review after twenty dismal minutes.

This is the production of noise, not information. Assaulted by such voluminous bursts of static, the public tune out. The result is an uneasy divide between the public and the critical sphere. Rarely do the two ever intersect, and if they do, it is usually out of coincidence rather than collaboration.

It would be unfair to say that nobody reads film critics anymore, Reed’s digital lynching is proof that people still do. Yet the frequency of readership seems unfortunately relative to the severity of the assault.

Reed is not a straw man for my fire, strands of Reed are to be found in every major critical publication—sources who watched the big boys play and naturally assumed that’s how it was done.

Lest it seem as though I lay all the blame at the feet of critics, the public are not wholly innocent in this matter.

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather

I must confess I’m at a loss to understand people’s adverse reactions to negative criticisms of films, especially of those that they enjoy. Why should a film be impervious to criticism? Is any film truly perfect? Is The Godfather a perfect film? Certainly not! The fight sequence in particular leaves room for improvement; one of the punches even misses by a clear mile. Should this scene be impervious to criticism based on the strength of the rest of the movie? That’s not to say we should be given free license to attack the film ad nauseum, just for the sake of doing so. There’s no point in pointing out that the blows don’t connect, unless you’re going to make some kind of point with that. Even something as seemingly trivial as one actor’s fist failing to convincingly connect with another’s face tells a great deal of information, aside from “lousy punch”.

Beyond suggesting Coppola should have reshot the scene, the punch reveals to us the extreme constraints of the film’s production, it hints at the conservative budget, which did not allow for many reshoots. “At that point we were just rushing, and it turned out that the best take had this one miss,” Coppola admits, noting that “Today they could fix it with digital effects.” Thus it also reminds the viewer of the analogue production techniques of the era, where film was shot on celluloid, sent off for processing at the end of the day, and wouldn’t be screened for the crew until the next day (“Dailies”). It wasn’t until the advent of video that on-set playback actually became a reality, and so the director, the DP, the actors filming a scene, none would truly know if they had the shot until the next day, if that. All of this information is revealed to us through the pull of a single punch. Who has the right to insist the punch should look otherwise? Just because this punch isn’t perfect, does that mean we treat the scene, or indeed the movie, with any hyperbolic reaction less than wonder?

If the sole intent of a “critical reaction” is to phrase all statements as a one-two punch, the good with the bad (and the ugly in Reed’s case), it begs the question of why bother to comment. Criticism should exist only at the expense of making a point, or not exist at all. If the sole point is to disparage, the message goes without stating.

The purpose of criticism is not simply to criticize. It is first and foremost to interpret, and to offer those interpretations in the highest form of rhetorical skill—that acerbic wit which Reed possesses in abundance but with which he makes a mockery of his profession. And you can hold me to this definition, dear reader. If I ever lapse in that judgement—if I ever criticize unjustly and with undue jurisprudence—I welcome the same delivered in kind. I welcome being corrected, so long as it is a correction and not the automatic naysaying of whatever point I may make. For just as critics interpret and criticise films, it is the duty and the privilege of the public to do the same to the critics (as it is to the films).

So by that same degree, I welcome and appreciate the same reaction upon my work. It is far from perfect, I know, but the path to perfection is my road. And by perfection I mean that sublime majesty of art and skill that alters consciousness and sets forth new avenues of creativity—of being and becoming. I may never reach this transcendent plane (for which mortals might? Such lofty arenas are not their place), but that just gives me somewhere to go. And I’d love for you to help me.

It would be impossible to find any film enjoyable if the sole criteria for doing so was its sole and utter perfection. At some point we must all put our scarred psyches aside and understand that there are things about the films we love that could be improved upon, that could be better. And so long as the film criticism offers productive means for achieving improvement, should we not consider it?

But to simply say a film is perfect, and to especially stress you can’t mention the fight scene is the wrong tactic. This is not the way we should be talking about film. It does not exist in a vacuum of absolute values. We need to be able to talk about things without fearing it will destroy what we love. If you respect film, if you respect what you love and cherish, if you respect the art, you will know that criticism, constructive criticism, is vital to the alimentation and amelioration of cinema. So long as it is done, I must specify, with an emphasis on construction, rather than mere criticism. Build with what you destroy.

Film is my passion and my life. Films are my friends. And I love my friends as I love my life. But they are capable of letting me down, just as my own life can. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still love them, flaws and all. But because I love them it behooves me to offer my suggestions for ways that they might be improved.

There is a time delay with this strategy, of course. If I’m commenting on a film already released, and which has long since languished on the shelves, I don’t expect the film to be changed. I am not advocating for recuts, reboots, or redoes. I advocate only for the art. If, for example, Blade Runner is better served by having five variant copies, as I believe it is—one for each replicant, as it were—then so be it. My intent, as I will continue to argue should be the intent of all critics, is that filmmakers may consider our work as reflections of their own. As interpretations and as suggestions. The process becomes a feedback loop, where artists nourish the art, sustaining the critic, who then renews the artist.

Who am I to offer such advice? I am but one person, but all things must start somewhere. Because now you’ve read my words, they’ve entered your brain, and then you’ll share these words with another, and another, and while my original premise might be nothing more than a flash pandemic, a short lived virus that burns out before it gains traction, the damage has been done, the virus is airborne, free to mutate and proliferate.

Film deserves a better class of critics. Film needs a better form of criticism.

If you like where my words are going, follow me on twitter @binarybastard.

Give me your take in the comments below. Let’s get a discussion brewing.

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3 thoughts on “The State of the Art

  1. So . . . I LOVED the Southland Tales essay, and the piece about Pacific Rim has put that movie at the very top of my “must see” list. But I wasn’t entirely sure what you were getting at with the Mission Statement. There were parts I liked, but also parts that I wasn’t really sure about. But this article has helped me start to make sense of it all. I’m beginning to see the light! But I still need more to go on, so I look forward to hearing more about the changes you have in mind. It sounds like you have some pretty revolutionary ideas about how things need to change in terms of criticism. Sounds like a difficult fight, but a worthwhile one. You’ve definitely piqued my curiosity.

    • I have two more pieces written on the matter so far, I’m partially withholding them to see if I might glean any new insights from ensuing discussions on these pieces, and I’m also waiting for a relevant event to prompt me to post them.

      It’s a long battle, to be sure, one I doubt I stand any chance of winning, we all may be too far gone, and the impulse for apathy too great, but I intend to keep fighting nonetheless.

      If you notice any gaps in my logic (I don’t doubt they’re probably there), or see areas I still need to consider, by all means point them out, I welcome the chance to go exploring.

  2. Pingback: How Modern Film Critics Are Killing Creativity | digital didascalia

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