On the Need for Critics, and the Means by which their Field might be Improved

In an interview with Nathan Rabin over at the A.V. Club in May of 2007, Louis C.K. remarked with pointed reprobation the distinction between critic and reviewer: 

To me, there’s a huge difference between criticism and reviewing. I really love reading good criticism of television and film. To me, a critic is someone who analyzes a show, describes it, talks about the people in it, puts it in historical context of other shows like it, compares it and stuff, and then talks about the intent of the show and whether it failed or didn’t. At the end, they usually say, “By the way: not for me.” But reviewers now just go, they’re like bloggers, they go, “Ha ha hi. Don’t bother seeing this, it’s shit. Trust me, it’s crap. I like this show. That show I just saw sucks. Fuck you. And by the way, I ate a muffin today.”

I offer his statements into evidence not just to mock those whom I hold in the extreme contempt for this heinous sin of treating all media as their excuse to share flimsily constructed and more often than not ill-considered expressions of something groping an aesthetic impulse, but also because I think it speaks to a broader issue I’ve contended with on my site since its inception and which I have as of late been derelict in my duty of flogging to death. 

I’ve already turned my caustic focus to some of the more rebarbative criticism lately to suggest a growing and worrisome trend for critics to turn into C.K.’s definition of a reviewer. And while I intend to continue my criticism of these critics and, more specifically, their work as the material presents itself, I want to use C.K.’s remarks to instead argue the value of C.K.’s version of the critic. In the process, I hope that my words will also bear out the profitless work of reviewers.

I want to engage with his statements the same way I often approach any statement: indirectly and with extreme amounts of explication to arrive at my point. That in mind, bear with me as I begin my explanatory preamble.

It is with hesitation that I admit I had not read Herman Melville’s seminal American classic Moby-Dick until my fourth year of university, and with greater reticence do I admit that the novel provoked little more than a resigned shrug when I first read it. More to the point, I found the characters too obviously allegorical, the prose leaden for much the same reason, and the pacing turgid as chapter after chapter rambled on about everything but the titular whale. It wasn’t until I was granted the opportunity to examine and engage with the work over an intensive series of seminars in my final year of my undergrad that I began to see the grand and supreme literary and aesthetic ambition and, more importantly, the success of Melville’s most celebrated novel. I was stunned by the skillful way in which Melville used the crew of the Pequod as a metonym for the American ship of state, amazed at the equivocal readings of both Ahab and the whale, and astonished by the supreme complexity of the novel’s apocalyptic structure and the sublime way in which Melville stitched it all together with the concept of American Exceptionalism, closely related to manifest destiny and with it the whole evangelical tradition of American history. All of this bound up in a seemingly dull and laborious book about a sperm whale. As the discussions progressed all the seemingly inchoate aspects of the novel’s themes and structures began to take on refined and ever more complex and brilliant meanings.

The problem then, as I quickly understood it, was neither that the novel was dull or that I was too idiotic to understand it, but that I was entirely ignorant of the language Melville was employing to communicate his ideas. We know from his previous works and vast correspondences that he was no doubt grappling with these themes, and so through strenuous consideration we come to understand how they reached their ultimate expression in what is arguably his finest work. What it took for me to understand this was an ominously titled “The Political Theology of American Literature” fourth year seminar course and a professor with the sense and the wherewithal to contextualize the novel for a modern audience, and especially for dispossessed twenty-something Canadian students who may have been–at the time at least–unversed in the rhetoric, ideology, and, more importantly, political theology of America. Armed with the life, times and concerns of Melville, quickly and visibly did the work then begin to disclose its meanings to the renewed interest of the dedicated reader. Connections assembled themselves like a web in my brain; the assemblage described a vast reservoir of ideas that lay buried beneath the surface of the once forbidding words. The book has since become one of my favourite novels, and rather than greet each page with anguished contempt as I once did, I now turn to the pages frequently for contemplation and reflection in much the same way that others might regard a holy text.

It is this potential for discovery that animates my work. The supreme pleasure of discovering the capacity of a newly discovered work to inspire is matched, if not far exceeded, by the discovery of new meanings in a familiar work, and the enjoyment is increased exponentially if derived from a work which previously enjoyed only disdain. More broadly they might be called “aha!” moments, those sublime moments of cognition that intelligent art does best. Beautiful art might take your breath away, but intellectual art sets your mind aflame. And so it was with my burgeoning comprehension of Moby-Dick, followed by a great melting away of that glacial crust of ignorance. Imagine, however, had I committed my earlier sentiments to words, and shared those for others. Worse yet, what if, in an exalted position, my statements had influenced others. We can hold these critics accountable then for their failure to adduce pertinent and relevant criticisms, for behaving, in short, as reviewers.

Artist rendering of a boat full of reviewers, grappling with their ignorance. Ignorance seems to be winning.

But how to solve this crisis? Here again I turn to my anecdote to excavate the foundation of a solution. The selection of Moby-Dick was not contingent on my professor’s enjoyment of the book (though he didn’t deny his admiration for the text) but rather because of its supreme utility in making his point and exploring the issue of an American political theology explicated through that nation’s literature. And so should it be with the critic. The point of a criticism is not to answer the question “did I, the critic, like it?” but something altogether more complex. Otherwise we’re left in this current position of attempting to reconcile personal enjoyment of the text with its perceived value, forgetting (or unaware) that the value of the work is only partially and minimally contingent on whether one enjoyed watching it. In other words, I don’t enjoy watching Schindler’s List, but imagine the extreme incredulity I would encounter if I then argued it’s not worth watching for that reason.

What then do I mean by complexity? Pop-culture criticism needs to serve two masters. A critique must simultaneously talk about the merits and flaws of the movie as it must attempt to either persuade or dissuade the spending of money to see it. This I think is a fair and admirable task worthy of time and attention from both the critic and the reader. But what if we tried a new tract of criticism? Or rather, what if we restored a previously abandoned one. What if we sought to explore the meanings of works as an ends in and of themselves, rather than as a means to determining whether a film is worth watching or not?

Of course, talking at any length about a movie without spoiling it is difficult, and especially so if the majority of readers are looking to this piece of criticism to decide whether they should even bother to see it.

So, already within this train of logic we glimpse the shake to regress to a numeric equivalent to do the work for us. I tolerate a numeric system in so far as it offers an incentive to action (or inaction) without supplanting the need for a genuine review. The need to qualify any numeric system however quickly bears out the extreme stupidity of attempting it in the first place, and more often than not the publication is better off leaving the numbers for the words. So really, in what realm is this complicated system of geomatria ever necessary–to say nothing of its utility? If by the end of the review the reader cannot determine whether it’s a film worth their time to watch then either the critic has failed to bear it out or the reader is too ignorant to catch the drift. In either case little would be gained by the substitution of a number except to insult (and sometimes even confuse) conscientious readers and give lazy readers a quick numeric fix. In both cases the film in question suffers; it collapses under the burgeoning weight of its own attention as countless reviewers hollow its meaning out piece by piece with each insipid number until eventually even the most fascinating of films is little more than a brittle casing held together by tenuous RT, Metacritic and IMDB scores. On my own site I sidestep this issue of recommendation by only talking about films I consider worth the time to watch, but I understand the economics involved in the industry, and don’t need any number of numbers the reviewers may want to throw at me to imagine the quick and bloody career suicide any professional critic would commit if they decided to only review films they judged worthy of criticism, but that still doesn’t provide any justification for passing off personal opinion as critical commentary.

The usefulness of critics is the critical perception they bear on works they understand. This includes works they understand to be incomprehensible. Yet if the critic doesn’t understand a work, what value is there in bearing out how hopelessly it has been misunderstood? I make this statement with reservation, however, for we must consider from whence the misunderstanding arises. Does the error lie with the work or with the critic? Both? Is the work obtuse and the critic dense? Or perhaps another medium is necessary to bring the meaning of the work into alignment with the understanding of the critic. In effect, does the critic need another critic? This is not to bar critics from doing their jobs, but to demand that they understand any work sufficiently before passing judgement on it, using whatever means are at their disposal, or that they avoid passing judgement by citing their lack of understanding as evidence. It is tough work, I realize, to hope to glean all the manifold meanings a work might offer, but that’s why the critic was once a venerated profession and not just a trifling amusement undertaken by anyone with a passing experience writing a diary.

Otherwise, the situation would be akin to asking a literature professor to write at length about fluid properties in quantum mechanics and for the field to then either take these unqualified opinions as tokens of value or to be extremely upset when they turn out to be rambling discursions in nonsense. Either reaction is entire nonsense, precisely because the exercise began without any sense.

Yet this example approximates what we are dealing with in the contemporary critical scene, fostered largely by the economics of the trade. Faced with an overwhelming abundance of films (too many, one could argue), the onus falls to the critic to be as well-versed as possible in all the films they cover—a feat made relatively impossible by the sheer number of films they’re often required to review. We have an abundance of critics, and a deluge of films, and yet rather than parsing out the field, we waste the efforts of every mind on every film.

The solution seems rather obvious to me, though I don’t doubt I may be oversimplifying the issue. Already in the digital space we see critics who have taken up something along the lines of the position I am about to propose. Websites and blogs devoted exclusively to horror films, or science-fiction films, or even the works of a particular director: all of them touch upon my idea. Rather than treat the field of criticism itself as an all-inclusive field, why not specialize? Why not have critics adept at reading science-fiction films, or horror films, or indie-fare, or cross-genre works. Any niche will do, they just need to pick one, or several, but specialize they must. Only the fit will survive. But to demand a critic hopelessly enamoured and thoroughly versed in, say, European dramas to sit down and argue with any measure of credibility on the latest American horror film strains credulity almost as strongly as it insults everyone involved. That said, if this same critic then sees the latest American horror film and decides emphatically to write about it, then the deviation is all the more notable and the reading all the more rewarding as a result.

If the function of the film critic is to recommend or discourage the watching of a film, which would entail talking about the film only insofar as it convinces the prospective watcher of the reviewer’s point, it seems then that the point of movie criticism as Louis C.K. defines it is an entirely antithetical purpose for professional critics. I encountered a similar problem in my latest review of Gravity. The review wasn’t intended to seriously analyse the film (though I don’t deny I could have done more to place it in context at the very least within Cuaron’s oeuvre), but to instead convince readers to go see the movie. Because my intent was to recommend a film to prospective watchers, I couldn’t talk about the film with any degree of meaning beyond simply reiterating it’s a film worth watching. To say more would reveal important plot points and perhaps spoil the experience of watching it.

An artist rendering of how the modern cinema goer feels.

It seems then that film critics need to enact a dual-pronged approach in their film criticism. Explaining this new structure of the review in reverse order, a secondary part could offer a criticism of the film, while the first part (the review) could declare whether the film is worth spending the time and money to watch, and, more importantly, would pronounce whether the film is worth the mental energy to examine and decipher. In the cases where ulterior and anterior meanings of a work are almost certainly guaranteed based on experience, such as a Malick film, the review could serve to direct the viewer to means of approaching and viewing the film as well as such relevant contexts as Louis C.K. addressed in his remark above. I realize there’s nothing novel about my approach, and that this so-called new criticism is in fact old criticism reborn; it is merely the work of the critics since the 18th century renewed, but the state of things nonetheless suggests these old ideas bear repeating. In a brief span we come to see how if a film fails to pass this third criterion that the critic will be forgiven if the second part which offers a critical commentary is limited, its brevity would no doubt be motivated by the resounding dictums of “why bother?” and “who cares?” Some films, despite perhaps being worthy of our time and money, are not worthy of any significant inquiry, if only because their meanings are so blatantly clear. It would only be the most insufferable critic who bothers to explain a painfully self-explanatory joke.

To offer an example of this criticism in practice allow me to not-so-humbly return to my Gravity review, in which I attempted to consider all three aspects of worth. Without demystifying the film’s mystique, as it were, I argued that the film is worth the time and price of admission while not so subtly announcing it rewards deeper readings of the text. While I didn’t offer a more in-depth analysis as I argued was required, if only because I can only remember so much about a film after only one viewing and without the benefit of hindsight to collect and organize my thoughts, I can however gesture towards underlying themes and motifs so as to prepare the viewer for what will hopefully allow for a productive and fruitful reading of the film. My intent is not to read the film aloud to them, to constantly poke them in the brain and ask if they get it—I confess to committing this sin in some of my more adroit critiques, and the results are often assiduously dull, ironically producing the opposite effect of generating interest and discussion in a text—but to instead provoke and incite the viewer to consider and ascribe meaning for themselves.

I drone about this not because I have little better to waste my intellectual efforts on (though that may play a large role), but because I care about movies, and I care about talking about them more, and because I wish to go on talking about them, and not conducting this conversation in a vacuum only to myself and the wonderful few so inclined to engage with me on any level of discussion I offer these reflections. The popular adage “I know what I like” is contingent on the unalterable truth that you know what you like because you like what you know. Even works that possess that certain je ne sais quoi are nonetheless deciphered by the wary mind with a statement that acknowledges their very indecipherability. The goal of criticism then is not to destroy this mesmeric quality of any work, to explain away that attraction which resists utterance, but to instead qualify the meaning behind utterances, so as to arrive at some vital sense of purpose to the idea–even if the idea being communicated is paradoxically the very inutterability of the idea. In effect, the goal of criticism, as it seems to me at least, should be to broaden the scope of things that are known so that the reader can better know themselves. It’s not a matter of giving up liking what you know but to instead expand the field of things you know so that you might find more to like.

Viewers may, after engaging in some discussion, still decide they don’t like a work, as they may not be persuaded by any arguments for its merits. (Such failure then rests with the critic and not the film however; it’s not that the film is worthless, but that the critic failed to articulate this worth). Better to know through the application of logic and reason than it is to arbitrarily choose, however. So let the renewed critic set forth to inspire once again, and beckon us to follow these flashes of inspiration. So I say “Drink, ye harpooners! Drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow–Death to Moby Dick!”

Oh, and by the bye, I did not eat a muffin today; I ate oatmeal with jam.

And if you like where these words are going, follow them on my blog or get connected with twitter @binarybastard

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6 thoughts on “On the Need for Critics, and the Means by which their Field might be Improved

  1. Thank you for taking the time to do this. I had all but given up. This is clearly a labor of love and a rowing mightily against the tide of the quotidian (reviewers and critics-turned-reviewers). I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to re-blog this–MJL

  2. Way to say just what I’ve been brewing over for the past couple of years. I have little to add except:

    It is with no hesitation that I admit I have read Moby Dick approximately never. :p Though I probably will someday!

    Film Crit Hulk has written some similar comments in terms of reviewing, a person I recommend reading in general: http://badassdigest.com/2013/05/01/film-crit-hulk-smash-why-reviews-are-weird-and-how-you-can-best-enjoy-iron/

    And, ah yes, that great song by Genesis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1tFQMjc-IE

    😀

    • What an excellent link! I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Hulk (obviously). And, to top it off, I now have a more solid grasp of what to expect when I finally get around to watching Iron Man 3 than any sum of RT tomatometer scores. Thank you for sharing that!

      As for Moby-Dick, it can be a slog at times, but I cannot stress enough the value of the Norton edition. The introduction alone is sufficient reading, but the edition also includes some incredible contextual material (including excerpts from the whaling manual that inspired Melville) as well as generous and insightful footnotes further placing some of the more obscure references into context (they are indispensable for the nautical passages). I also appreciated that the editors took the time to trace out what his library would have been at time of writing (which was an extended period indeed). It provides brilliant context for any scholar so inclined to research what materials Melville would have been drawing from.

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