Critical Fallacy 3 : SIMPLIFICATION
Jim Emerson : "One of my favorite propaganda techniques -- used in politics, journalism, criticism, you name it -- is to present evidence (or, better yet, opinion polls cited as if they constituted evidence) refuting something that was never true -- or even widely thought to be true -- in the first place. (...) This is that kind of story that is based on "overturning" assumptions that never were. "
The death of film criticism has been greatly exaggerated, Part I
Continuing on the idea of Manipulation, but less of a Deception is the intentional omission of certain aspects that would disprove the point the critic strives to push. Simplification of facts could remain in the realm of truth, but a selective truth, therefore giving a partial and inadequate perception of the whole. It's easy to list only the good points, or even embellish them through lyrical rhetoric, so the reader gets a positive impression. The key in criticism is that the reader only builds a judgment from the elements delivered by the review. By ignoring the evidences that contradict our opinion, the reader is prone to conditioning, and it also reflects a blatant disregard for journalistic impartiality. Conversely, mentioning a couple of bad points in the film without balancing with its overall redeeming quality is enough to put off readers disingenuously.
This is not about "objective" criticism (this hot controversy will be for a later entry in this series). Asserting a subjective opinion, siding frankly in the detractor's camp (or proponent's) is part of reviewing, but what constitutes a flaw of the critical duty is to fail to provide a representative rendition of the entire film by eliminating obvious counter arguments that the reader might want to contemplate before falling back behind the writer's ready-made mindframe. Afterall a review isn't a partisan manifesto aiming at recruiting sheep followers.
Shouldn't film criticism balance good and bad points equally to invite the reader to participate to the evaluation of the film's potential? Especially since every viewer has a different tolerance for flaws, and different expectations/needs. I believe to offer readers the most accurate rendition of the film, in terms of narrative arguments and artistic achievements, is more helpful to let them figure if the film is what they are looking for or not. Why should critics decide what is good for you and go extended lengths to persuade you they are right?
Klaus Eder : "But in general I would say it's your job as film critic to know as much as possible about all different sorts of backgrounds, not only backgrounds concerning the film, but also the country, its history, its culture. For example, I have problems understanding certain Japanese films because my understanding of Japanese society is not perfect. I think you should know about everything around a film, the conditions it was made in, the script, where it came from, the subject, as much as possible. What you use for your writing is another thing."
Undercurrent #1 critics' roundtable
A film review doesn't have to sound theoretical and intellectual, but we should at least be able to notice there was a thought-out preparation resulting in what we read. The reason why anybody cannot be a film critic is that the risk for misconception and oversimplification is higher with people without any kind of cinema culture or artistic knowledge. The audience's personal appropriation of the film and the crazy interpretations running through word-of-mouth are part of the immediate film experience, but they shall not constitute a critical judgment. The critic who sentences a final judgment in print cannot bring up on a whim whatever crosses his/her mind (or guts) for everyone else to believe. Fantasies and speculations should stay within the unverified street noise and not pretend to pose as criticism.
Jim Emerson: "So, for me, reviewing is the crudest level of film criticism -- just one basic building block in the edifice. There are critics who can elevate it to an art, but the form itself is by nature extremely narrow and limited in scope. You would hope that a film critic, or reviewer, brings a broad knowledge of the history and traditions of film, to what they write, but that's not often the case. But we all bring our experiences and knowledge to the viewing of a film -- including what we know about all the other films we've seen, books we've read, subjects we've studied, ideas and conversations we've had, and so on."
What we talk when we talk about film criticism - Scanners
Adding savvy insights to the film experience is the duty of a film critic, a valuable commentary that the general audience will not likely be able to imagine on their own. The point of journalism is to bring information, not to share the kind of unreliable incompetent impressions that anybody can get anywhere. We don't need hasty generalizations, shallow stereotypes, ridiculing caricatures, dumbing down puns, narrow viewpoints, ignorant statements, vulgarization, superficial judgments, trivial chattering... Tossing buzzwords to raise controversy, bringing up big theory labels without demonstrations without direct obvious relations to the film reviewed are "smarty" fills and easy cope outs.
Straw Man is another common fallacy :
The critic would fabricate a dubious issue extrapolated from one of point developed in the film, by making it sound more extreme, more indefensible than it actually is. Therefore sidestepping the important argument of the film, failing to address the real question and turning onto an easier flaw to pan. Once the Straw Man is debunked, the critic will use this conclusion, which was proved out of context, and assume the film can thus be dismissed altogether. Again this is a shameful rhetorical technique to obfuscate a critical argument for gullible readers who don't pay close attention to the articulation of a critic's train of thought. But if a reader hasn't seen the movie, it could be difficult to notice a Straw Man diversion at all... Which makes it even more unethical for a critic to go down that way.
We see this at work mostly for innovative, challenging movies, or extreme genres, the ones pointed at by the rating board of censorship, and all critics follow, resorting to big words like "fascism", "nihilism", "misanthropy"... Violence is bad for kids therefore a violent scene should be banned regardless for its role in the film, the meaning of its representation. Sometimes there is a subtext that criticizes violence by overdoing it or through the irony of the violent character arc involved. If the film ends on the victory of evil characters (anti-happy ending) it doesn't imply it condones this type of agenda. The bitter aftertaste of seeing justice unresolved is much more powerful and educational. The film itself might be reprehensible, aggressive, offending, immoral, but more important than its face value is the analysis of the situation it puts the audience in. Are we passive? Are we involved? Are we accomplice? Should we judge the fictitious characters or our complacency towards them? Are we invited to take a stance? Are we provoked to react to manipulative storytelling? That's why critics should discuss the moral implications beyond the apparent synopsis.
Contributions, disputes, examples are encouraged as always.
Coming up, Critical Fallacy 4 : Burden of Proof