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On liking and not liking (Part Deux)

I greatly appreciated A.O. Scott's NY Times piece last Sunday, under the headline "Everybody's a Critic Of the Critics' Rabid Critics." (And not just because he had kind words for me and Dennis, though I most certainly appreciate that, too.) The article was about the curious reception of "Inception" (before it even opened), and the critical rush to proclaim it either a masterpiece or a disaster. As if it could only have been one or the other.

Scott's review of the film itself, like my initial response and many others, was ambivalent. I love his summation of the critical reaction (and reaction to the critical reaction) in his final four paragraphs, which I quote in their entirety:

So maybe I was subconsciously splitting the difference. Or maybe -- like the Nolanistas and anti-Nolanistas who had come before -- I was just trying to give an honest account of what I had seen. In the end I don't believe that the smitten first responders were simply bedazzled by hype, nor that the second-wave skeptics were merely being contrarian. Just as critics need to operate in good faith, so should consumers of criticism proceed from the assumption of good faith. We may be wrong, but we tend to say what we mean. It's a responsibility of the job, as well as one of the perks.

Nonetheless, over the first weekend of the release of "Inception," I braced myself for brickbats for both sides. Either I had been suckered by the Hollywood publicity machine, or else I was blind to the visionary genius of a great artist. And some e-mail messages and comments on the Web site did express those views with varying degrees of eloquence and coherence. But for the most part the conversation had shifted away from the criticism of criticism toward other, more relevant matters. What did the last shot mean? Is Cobb still in a dream at the end? Whose dream is it? What's going on?

What is odd about these questions, which shrewdly invite a second viewing, is that they seem to come at the end of the argument about "Inception" rather than at the beginning. Film culture on the Internet does not only speed up the story of a movie's absorption of a movie into the cultural bloodstream but also reverses the sequence. Maybe my memory is fuzzy, or maybe I'm dreaming, but I think it used to be that "masterpiece" was the last word, the end of the discussion, rather than the starting point.

But in this case we end up with where we should have started, wondering what the movie is about, what it means, puzzling over symbols and plot points. It's almost as if we're all in a movie that's running backward, like "Memento." Which was totally overrated. Unless it was a masterpiece. I'm going to have to see it again.

Regular readers of Scanners will instantly see why I find this analysis so gratifying, as it speaks to my deeply held beliefs about the art and craft of criticism itself -- things like: a movie critic's opinion is worthless unless it's supported by evidence from the movie; ad hominem is not a form of argument; of course critics have motives for saying what they say, but all that matters is what kind of case they build; of course critics are going be selective (and subjective) in citing examples to illustrate what they like or don't like; and, as I repeated just last week, whether somebody likes or doesn't like a movie is the least interesting thing they could possibly have to say about it -- because if it isn't, there's nothing to talk about. An opinion tells you something about the person who holds it; film criticism is the practice of exploring, analyzing and interpreting the film. (I can't believe I just crammed all those aphorisms into one paragraph.)

Now, let's take the case of A----- W----, the polemicist whose very name is a distraction from legitimate criticism because, like the tantrums of A-- C------, his ravings consist almost entirely of paranoid fantasies and nonsensical insults. Paul Brunick, who is in the middle of an ambitious examination of online film culture for Film Comment (Part One, "The Living and the Dead: Online versus Old School," is now live, along with an "annotated user's guide to the best film-crit blogs and websites," cross-posted at The House Next Door), recently conducted a line-by-line autopsy of an ostensible review of "Toy Story 3" by A----- W---- ("Hating the Player, Losing the Game"):

By my count there are about three declarative statements in this entire [five-paragraph] piece that are not categorically inaccurate. The rest is a seething tissue of factual errors, self-negating examples, glaring elisions, logical inconsistencies, specious industrial analysis, mystifying rhetorical constructions and basic grammatical errors. It speaks for itself.

(Reminds me of analyses of Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck spewings.)

While finding that the review "contains practically nothing (nothing!) in the way of analytical insight or emotional truth," Brunick concludes:

Is [W----] being sincere? I think so. I think he sincerely despises his "shill" colleagues and the "brainwashed" audience. I think he sincerely sees himself as a maverick outsider to the media establishment ("They don't see what I see, where I'm coming from--they couldn't") and that he is sincerely invested in this narcissistic fantasy to the exclusion of most everything else. Reading [W----], I am constantly reminded that the human intellect, which we often analogize to a courtroom judge dispassionately weighing arguments and evidence, actually operates much more like a lawyer-for-hire, rationalizing and enabling our emotional narratives. What makes [A-----]'s reviews perversely fascinating is that he is so obviously intelligent, yet this intelligence has been harnessed to the warped imperatives of an increasingly frustrated personality. Where your average critical hack job is just banal, [W----]'s ability to disconnect the dots exerts a kind of bizarro brilliance. Try to take any of his recent reviews as seriously as he insists and you'll find yourself, like Alice and the Red Queen, running in hermeneutic circles, getting nowhere fast. It makes for mediocre criticism but lurid psychodrama.

Glenn Kenny sees another bogus form of argument coming down the pike for those few who still notice A----- W----. An ominous feeling came over him after he made the mistake of trying to make sense of W----'s review of Todd Solondz's "Life During Wartime":

Now I understand that, around the time of "Transformers 2" if not well before, [A-----] traded a more-or-less conventionally "contrarian" stance for an extremely aggressive Bizarro World ("Us do opposite of all earthly things!") approach to film criticism; it was no longer enough to condemn that which was largely embraced by the critical community, such as it was; [W----] now took up as his duty the slathering of thoroughly irrational praise on certifiable dogshit. None of this would matter if people just stopped paying attention to [W----] entirely, but one peculiar bit of blowback from the situation is that [W----]'s praise for a particular film can now be used as a cudgel against that picture by those who aren't as enthused about it. Hence, someone such as myself can be put into a position of defending Solondz's film not only from attacks against it, but from [W----]'s praise of it.

Just today, Kenny writes about (mostly New York-based) movie writers (I don't know if they qualify as "critics") who drive him up the wall and wonders if he's objecting more to what they write (or, god forbid, tweet) or simply who they are. He began with a quotation from Herbert Spencer: "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation."

All of the above raises crucial questions for criticism but, as I keep saying, motivations for opinions are irrelevant; what matters is how well they are expressed and argued. As GK says:

I'd think we all agree, though, that prior to unleashing one's contempt, a critic ought to do what lawyers call due diligence, and have a pretty thorough understanding of what they're lashing out at.

I certainly have tried to do that throughout my career, and in all my different manifestations as a writer; lay out precisely why I've come to a particular negative conclusion. And sometimes I keep some arguments and evidence in reserve; extra material, as it were, in the event that backup is needed. Which in the give and take of the internet, often is. But then, what's left? Once the contempt has been expressed, the reasons for it articulated, what's in the dregs?

Sometimes I think the act of writing criticism involves a concerted effort to overcome the deficiencies of the human brain. Because, as we see all the time (most obviously in politics), that's the way we're wired. Jonah Lehrer cites a study by Princeton political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels in which they concluded that "Voters think that they're thinking, but what they're really doing is inventing facts or ignoring facts so they can rationalize decisions they've already made."

Or, as Michelle Cottle says in The New Republic, "Increasingly no one cares about (or recognizes) the difference between marshalling facts to make your argument and just completely making shit up."

But there is a difference, and that's why I think Scott, Brunick and Kenny are all onto something important about the dynamics of contemporary film criticism. Brunick correctly states in the introduction to his dissection of W----'s review that "not all opinions are equal":

Reviews should be challenged on the grounds of descriptive accuracy, clarity of expression and intellectual consistency. More ephemeral qualities like fairness, usefulness and originality can be grounded in textual evidence and comparative criticism. No one's opinion is more objectively right than any other, but there's no question that some are better argued, better supported and ultimately more interesting.

(Please see my posts, "Opinions: Are they really worth a damn?," "Oh yeah? Well, I criticize you back!," No right to an opinion," and so on...)

What it comes down to, I think, is this: Chicken-or-egg arguments are a waste of everyone's time because 1) by definition they can't go anywhere except 'round in circles; and 2) they shift the subject from the movie to the person.

So, let's say you are (in Scott's terminology) a "Nolanista" -- that is, someone who has generally liked/admired the work of Christopher Nolan in the past. Is there really any significance in saying, "Well, of course you liked 'Inception'! You're biased!" I mean, if your argument is in good faith, wouldn't you assume that this person's "like" for Nolan was based on seeing Nolan's movies? It's either that or he/she first decided to buy a "Team Nolan" t-shirt, espouse a liking for the fellow -- and only subsequently, also, see some of the films he made.

Of course, the same goes for the opposite tack: "You didn't like that movie because you don't like that director/actor/writer/gaffer!" Well, one should have enough sense to assume that people develop their likes and dislikes based on past experience, so what kind of bullshit argument is that? It's obvious and self-evident, isn't it? You know what I don't like about directors I don't like? It's the same thing I like about directors I like: their movies. Now, can we talk about something real?

This is why I try to keep terms like "agree" and "disagree," "like" and "dislike" out of my vocabulary on this blog. First of all, who cares? Second, they're too vague to be of much use in a discussion. In a post called "On liking and disliking" a couple years ago, I cited some questionable assumptions about how critics choose examples from the movies they're writing about:

I've been trying to imagine a conversation about a movie that would include the argument: "Well, you only point that out because you liked the movie." Or, "You wouldn't have noticed that if you didn't already like the movie." In response to all the stuff I wrote last year about the many moments of brilliance in "No Country for Old Men," I don't recall anybody saying, "Well, you wouldn't have liked that if you didn't like the movie."

As long as the discussion focuses on "like" and "dislike," it's not going to get us anywhere.

Another insipid and meaningless rhetorical device is to base or blame an opinion on something other than the movie -- like, say, the budget, or the box-office, or the star's salary, or some tabloid story. If a critic hasn't cited evidence and built an argument, then any opinions expressed are worthless for those reasons alone. Speculating about other possible motivations just makes the accuser irresponsible, unable to focus on the matter at hand.

We keep hearing that on the Internet "Everybody's a critic." Not true. Maybe everybody thinks they are entitled to publish an opinion, but don't confuse the expression of moods with the practice of criticism. Let's get back to talking about the movies...

ADDENDUM (07/29/10): I wanted to add one other item to my list of non-arguments: the charge of "hypocrisy." Accusing someone of not living up to their own standards is fine (and don't we all fail to do that at some time or another, being mere mortals?), but it does not refute, or even necessarily address, what they're saying. It's just another evasive tactic, an attempt to shift the argument from the subject to the person.

- - - -

Footnote: My gratitude to Paul Brunick for citing Scanners as one of the web's best film criticism sites, and especially for this:

A formalist at heart, Emerson will spend weeks at a time analyzing isolated aspects of cinematic style: opening shots, close-ups, long-take staging. And he isn't afraid to revisit his past favorites again and again, obsessively attempting to pin down what it is about certain films ("Chinatown," "Fight Club," "No Country for Old Men") that he finds so compulsively watchable.

For a writer, there's nothing better than when somebody notices what you're trying to do!

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