Friday, March 28, 2014

The Decently Interesting Film Criticism Debate of 2014

As some of you who are avid film-writing junkies may have seen, there has been a slightly viral (as in between an elite tribe of a few hundred people) debate taking place on the intertubes about the "nature of film criticism." 

Because I'm interested in the question for my own education, and because no one seems to have done it yet, I thought for my first blog post I would do a timeline-style curation of the conversation. If I missed any important tweets or articles, please tell me in email/comments and I'll update accordingly. 

Obviously the debate about the role of criticism and how to do it properly is an eternal war in which there is never peace, but only the occasional ceasefire. But the start of the latest outbreak of conversation and dialogue seems to have started on March 24th when Sam Adams of CriticWire put the following question in his weekly survey:

Q: Jazz critic Ted Gioia recently lodged a complaint that "music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting" because most most critics lack a musical background and theoretical tools. Do movie critics need filmmaking experience or an understanding of film theory to do their jobs?

Everyone gave lengthier-than-average answers. While most were wisely tempered with qualifications, the responses and general leanings of the sample can be reduced as follows:

Disclaimer: I had to squash many eloquent answers to fit this graph. Yes and No should perhaps be understood as "Overall, Yes" and "Overall, No." You had to really work to make it into that coveted "Fence" category--way to go, Richard Brody.

Here are some favorite lines from the various camps.

Peter Labuza of Cinepheliacs provides an excellent diving board for anyone looking to start a basic film theory education:

The more interesting question for me is the "film theory" question. Film theory can be broken down into three questions: Munsterberg to Bazin asking "What is cinema?" Metz to Screen asking "How does cinema function?" and Deluze to other continental philosophy asking "Why cinema?" These theoretical questions are the basis for strong criticism, though often corrupted by misreading or complete ignorance. 

John Keefer of 51 Deep zings the no's:

I can only surmise that a critic who does not want to read theory, read the history, attempt a film on their own, submerge themselves in the medium, is a narcissist who just likes the look of their by-line.

While an equally witty response from the Yes camp comes from Michael Pattison:

Lacanian lobsters and Baudrillardian cul-de-sacs should be left at the classroom door. (And sorry, but: no Zizek.) Talk about how a rightward traveling shot exemplifies a non-bourgeois filmic language all you want, but if you don't convince me that you want also to change the world that conditions a bourgeois filmic language to begin with, you'll forgive me if I scream "tl;dr."

Finally, Glenn Kenny of gives advice that will seem prescient by the end of this account.

Do your own work the best you can, don't appoint yourself the Internet's Critic Police, and when you see someone you think is a moron or an intellectual opportunist or morally/aesthetically reprehensible retweeted, don't punch the nearest mirror or refrigerator. Kids, I know. I've been there. It's not a fun place. 

The conversation continued when Matt Zoller Seitz published a follow up piece the same day, titled Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking. A passionate alarum for the forces of critical aristocracy, I found it inspirational. All of the short term incentives for "those who want to write" yield to publishing as much as possible, as quickly as possible, for as wide an audience as possible. A recipe for criticism-as-an-art this is not.

Seitz's piece attracted a lot of attention among film enthusiasts on social media. It started when he tweeted the link to his piece at 6:44 pm that evening. 

The debate increasingly evolved towards the classic "form versus content" question, with Seitz bemoaning the lack of form-talk in contemporary criticism. 

An early bit of pushback, though, came in this interchange: 

And another example from the following day:  

As the snowball began picking up speed on the 25th, what I think was the first piece in conversation with Seitz's came up: a supportive, "Hell yeah!" from Jake Pitre over at Movie Mezzanine

Taking the opposite opinion was Robert Mackenzie of The Geek Commissar in the next response post from the 25th: "It's the appeal to authority that's gone for good."

The next day, Seitz's piece was followed by a response by Noel Murray at The Dissolve. This piece would continue to set the anti-authoritarian tone for the minority camp in this debate going forward. The thrust of the opinion can be summed up by this line from Murray's essay: 

"Me, I'm not sure there's any one way to write about any one particular movie."

The piece was tweeted out at 12:36 pm that day. 

A few hours later Sam Adams, Editor of Criticwire and overseer of the survey that started things, weighed in with his own response piece. His tweet of the article sums up the important break with Seitz:

Adams and Seitz had some back and forth both in the comments section of Adams' piece, and on twitter. He continued in the "free-spirit" vein with the tongue in cheek "I don't need your rules, man."

The rest of the debate played out on Twitter. It was generally more of the same battle of visions, with the requisite subtweeting:

and snarking:

and Richard Brody insights that happen during these sorts of things. 

An interesting debate, to be sure. I have no thoughts of my own--I'm here to learn. However, while looking over this debate I was reminded of a few quotes.

Roger Scruton's Oxford Very Short Introduction to Beauty has an, unsurprisingly, very short section on the topic of form versus content. Of Van Gogh's The Yellow Chair, he says:

"Why does he need a chair to communicate a thought like that? I am likely to respond that my words are only a gesture; that the real meaning of the painting is bound up with, inseperable from, the image--that it resides in the very shapes and colours of the chair, is inseperable from Van Gogh's distinctive style, and cannot be translated completely into another idiom."

Scruton concludes: "For the most part you can say much about the meaning of a poem, a painting--even a work of music. But what you say will not explain the particular intensity of meaning which makes the work of art into the irreplaceable vehicle of its content."

The philosopher also has insight into the disinterest in authority shown (often cordially) by Seitz's critics. According to Scruton, one thing that will always be uncomfortable about aesthetic judgment is that it "is urging upon us distinctions--of taste, of refinement, of understanding--which cannot fail to remind us that people are not equally interesting, equally admirable, or equally able to understand the world in which they live."

Will idea that simply one's own emotional reaction is not enough to qualify as good criticism--even if it was nicely written--forever jar democratic sensibilities? Perhaps. But at the end of the day, you can always take a bubble bath and read Film Forum.