When Critics Don’t Help, and When They Do

When I say “critic” I don’t mean “someone who gives you feedback on a piece of art”, I mean “someone who applies a formal critical assessment to your work”. You know, the nerds.

This video, worth watching in full (it’s less than 9 minutes), discusses well two things:

  1. That authors/artists don’t necessarily follow a logic of intent, per se.
  2. That critics are guilty of imposing narratives on works, under the guise of “uncovering”.

In the process of creation, very often the thing being created takes on a life of its own. The logic of decisions made at the begining have a way of binding the creator’s hand. When a character starts with a set of facts an author has given him, that set often requires actions in the context of the story that the author may not have considered. So unconsidered ideas have a way of bringing themselves to the top. Hence, while Tarantino did not start with the idea “Mr. White and Mr. Orange have a father/son kind of relationship”, because of the way he drew those characers and the positions he put them in, that came to the surface. Intent is not a linear reality.

Having said that, I can’t abide the notion that “The author is dead”, and critics and audiences can simply decide what a thing means and is. Anyone can describe their experience of a work, and have it be subjectively valid, even unassailable. But the post-modern inversion that the audience creates the work is inane. The video discusses the King Kong/race theory, the idea that King Kong is a metaphor for slavery in America. The makers of the film didn’t intend that. Critics have pointed out the metaphor after the fact of its creation.

Now, I’d like to draw a careful distinction here. Applying the slavery framework to King Kong is an interesting way of looking at it. It provides a fresh perspective on both. It syncs up. But so does Dark Side of the Moon sync up with The Wizard of Oz (Although not perfectly. The album’s only about half the running time of the movie). It’s interesting. It gives you a fresh perspective on both. But it’s absurd to argue that either work was created with the other in mind, or that either are necessary to the other. It is not necessary to view King Kong as a metaphor for slavery. You can do it, sure. It’s worth discussing. But it’s simplistic to take the next step and say “That’s what King Kong is. That’s all it is.”

To my mind, critics are the ones who need to be careful in insisting upon their juxtapositions. Criticism absent acknowledement of authorship is theft.

Hermeneutics of Suspicion and the Problem with Film Critics

The Sunrise Motel makes note of the same Film School Rejects article that I did, and pulls a good description of the puritanical urge to sieve any piece of art for wrongthink, “hermeneutics of suspicion”. I might go a step farther than this, and say that a great deal of criticism is done not for the sake of art, but simply to create barriers to enjoyment, that one may status-signal.

If you enjoy the same sort of thing that the masses do, and in the same way, then you aren’t a critic, you’re a press agent. It’s thus in the best interest of the critic to find reasons to find fault with things. A Hermeneutics of Suspicion will do as much as any other.

No doubt a certain degree of Exposure Effect is involved. If you watch movies for a living, you become inured to the common storytelling tropes and they cease to surprise you or have any effect on you whatsoever. So your experience of film, hoping against hope to be surprised, is vastly different from the average film patron, who is expecting merely an entertaining story for a few hours. The tendency to embrace absurdism and aesthetic extremes for their ability tweak the tropes is thus explained.

In other words, criticism has a problem.

Film School Rejects Provides Template for Crap Reviews of Old Movies

Doing the chattering class a favor.

If authors are dead set on publishing these types of pieces, then the least we can do is take a moment and work out the perfect template. This way, the argument gets made, the author gets paid, and audiences can breathe a little easier knowing that they aren’t actually missing anything if they don’t click. Film criticism moves a little closer to its future as a perpetual motion machine that chugs continuously on without outside interference. Let’s give it a shot.

Read the whole thing, and learn what not to do.