14 octobre 2006

Critical Fallacy 4 : Burden of Proof

Critical Fallacy 4 : BURDEN OF PROOF

Or lack thereof... the fallacy being to expect detractors to bring evidence you are wrong.

"Meanwhile, film magazines and free city weeklies promote that self-assured nonconformity which prizes jaunty wordplay and throwaway judgments. (...)
Academic writing, you might think, runs in the other direction, overdoing ideas and information. Actually, prestigious academic film talk is drenched in opinions. Theory is a matter of taste: you say Virilio, I say Deleuze. Most film academics don't critically examine the doctrines they applaud. Many dismiss requests for evidence as signs of 'empiricism' and when they cite evidence it's likely to be tenuous or tendentious. They too have a touching faith in zeitgeist explanations. And too many academics seem to illustrate Nietzsche's aphorism that to most readers muddy water looks deep. (...)
But what's an insight? Is it just a twitch or tingle? Or is it closer to a hunch--something that should be speculated on, investigated, analyzed, and tested? Intellectuals should turn insights into clear-cut ideas, reliable information, or nuanced opinions, but neither journalistic critics nor academic ones do this very often."
Against Insight by David Bordwell at Cinemascope

Any journalist knows they are responsible for what they write, and would only print something they double-checked with distinct and reliable sources. Giving one's opinion after watching a movie, anybody can do. Film criticism implies credibility and informed judgment. So as we developed precedently, making sure to avoid deception, manipulation and simplification, the burden of proof is on the critic, which precisely helps to prevent the aforementioned fallacies. Throwing the ball at the reader, or even at the filmmakers, is too easy a cope out to contradict everyone and expect them to disprove every assumption you formed.

Moreover, concerning the job of a film critic in particular, it's not only a journalistic ethic to carry the burden of proof, but also a facilitating way into the film for the reader who hasn't seen it. It's always more interesting to read a review illustrated by examples directly taken from the film, instead of a succession of universal opinions and evasive evaluations out of context that could apply to any other movie. When you read how good or bad was the performance, how good or bad was the story, how good or bad was the direction... in the end all you have is an impersonal list of appreciations that tell you what the critic felt but nothing about the film itself.
We should be able to read a review without agreeing with the writer's opinion, and find some substantial meat that is not censored preemptively by the partisanship of the critic. Otherwise readers would avoid contradictory reviews and that would defeat the purpose of constructing a critical assessment. If dissenting reviews are ignored for opinions out of context that cannot be evaluated by the reader in front of tangible filmic illustrations, then (in the mind of the readers) a "good critic" is a taste pleaser and a "bad critic" is one who disagrees with my anticipation.

By complying with the burden of proof, a critic allows the reader to compare reviews from a common analyzed material. It's interesting to know why this critic liked this scene and that critic didn't. Better even is to be able to confront and evaluate ourselves (as readers) which critic elaborates the impression closer to what I might most likely feel myself, not from his abstract generic qualificatives but thanks to a sensible empirical demonstration. At least part of the review should provide some evidence, description of the film, supported arguments, statements backed by their sources. Again, not only it makes criticism more credible, but it's an invitation to the reader to participate in the evaluation of the film step by step, instead of being delivered a definite conclusion coming out of the blue.

DISCLAIMER :

Speaking of evidence, I'm not pretending to give a patronizing lecture or a sentence on right and wrong, (And I'm certain many find it condescending) I'm not pointing finger to the bad apples like if I was a model myself... Quoting other critics and showing snipets of bad examples is meant to make the fallacy easier to understand and to prove I'm not the only one to think that way. I see my job here just to organize a list, cause nothing there is new. Who am I to go judgmental like that? I'm not a critic, journalist, writer or scholar... I'm just a wannabe on a learning curve. And this type of listing secures the obsessive in me. I mean it's easier to notice flaws than to write well. The reason why there are more critics than artists in the world!

I make mistakes all the time in my tentative reviews, and that's why I firmly believe in collegial discussions and online interaction to be able to confront opposing views, measure up to their equally sound arguments and reassess my assumptions. The point isn't to be ashamed of occasional fallacies, conscious or not, because one could argue and defend the rational and redeeming value of such fallacies. I mean it's an open debate! (Just read how pro's and con's Farber quarrel on a_film_by to justify with hindsight his arguable "mistakes")

Although I kinda expected to stir a debate around these issues that plague credibility of film criticism, either in the comments or by inspiring responding posts on other blogs... So now it sounds like I'm lecturing or even talking to myself. I wonder if it's an outrage to criticize critics, if I'm just overstating truisms, or if all this is just B.S. My intention wasn't to make new enemies or make my readers think I'm accusing anybody in particular because it's really just an theoretical overview of most frequently found errors, general principles, from my limited/biased/uneducated perspective. External contributions (which I'm trying hard to include with citations), references and comments would perhaps confirm or infirm these points brought up in the series.
If you practice criticism, just like me, you obviously have a conception of how it should operate and how you function everytime you write on a film, be it an academic rigor or an autodidact improvisation, and it's worth talking about it, and defending the various options and capabilities available to everyone of us.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do a remarkable job at debunking fallacies used by journalists and politicians in mediatic affairs, through irony and caricature. These comedians are more critical than actual journalists even though it's not their job to be relevant and educational. I would have never thought Politics (which is inherently boring and obscure) could feed successful punch lines, much less than comedy would provide check and balance to alienating moral controversies. Where are the Stewarts & Colberts of film criticism to use witty literary style to expose faulty reviews (without taking sides for a movie) and to defend standards of criticism?

I'd rather believe my posts are bullshit than that let readers be cautious against feedback without this little disclaimer. Anyway this is another ambitious project I don't see the end of, so bear with me and be patient if it's of any interest. Comments and support would help no doubt. Or else I'll take this series home, at snail pace, for what it's worth. ;)

In the meantime don't miss Andy Horbal's blogathon on film criticism at No More Marriage! (December 1-3)

Contributions, disputes, examples are encouraged as always.
Coming up, Critical Fallacy 5 : Complacency

9 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

Robert Davis on Absurd Extrapolations by critics at festivals.

HarryTuttle a dit…

I found a great book by René Prédal : La Critique de Cinéma (2004), theorizing the history of film criticism in France, its nature, function, methods, trends, ideologies, subjectivism, influence, and future...

I also need to read Roland Barthes' Essais Critiques

I grow more and more interested in theory of criticism and cinema than in actual movie reviewing. I guess i take this too seriously.

johanna a dit…

Harry,

This fallacies series is simply phenomenal. Really, there are so many different ways to look at writing that almost never get explored. I'm reading this textbook right now titled The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by Wall Street Journal writer William E. Blundell, and have become endlessly fascinated with the breakdown of the writing process.

It can be argued that the elements of essay writing are limited; but, if as critics we are thinking about film pieces as works of journalism, as acts of journalism, then we must begin to think of them as living creatures with legs. Not giving certain elements their just due leaves a story without a lot of layers. Films being so layered themselves, it often feels (especially among beginning writers) that an emerging critic only sluffs the surfaces, and tries only to think of one element within the film to discuss...I have been guilty of such oversimplifications myself.

But thinking about the approach to a film article has to be the most important deciding factor of whether or not a criticism is going to succeed as a reflection of the work...hell, it's not even so much a reflection of the work itself that i think is needed but a reflection of the work that went into the work. Breaking down the components of a film can be so tedious, can leech the magic from the spectacle -- but learning how to construct a model that allows for more imaginative exploration. By God...

I will continue reading this series which I'm glad you've posted on your sidebar.

...incidentally, did you get around yet to reading Roland Barthes' Essais Critiques?

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks a lot for your good words Johanna! :)

The world of film criticism is too disparate to figure what it is. And on the side are the cinema scholars who raise the standards of analysis even higher, but it is impossible for a weekly reviewer to find enough time for this.

I wouldn't say it's a bad thing to single out one element from the film, if it is indeed primordial and pertinent to the film. A review could develop a single "angle of attack", as long as it is treated with the whole context in the back of your mind. The oversimplification is not to make the review structure simple but to make the film look simplistic. The review should aknowledge the self-imposed limitations of the singular survey proposed to the reader.

Yeah, I agree with you on the decisive approach elected. It's what makes a great reviewer. Anyone can give a synopsis of the film they just watched, faithful and detailed. But to be able to figure what are the essential parts and the other moments that can be overlooked, and then pin-pointing one (of many) interpretation that deal with the central issue developped by the film (which might not be part of the apparent plot). This is talent and insight.
I often don't even bother writing on a film because I lack an angle of attack worth pursuing...

No, I didn't tackle Barthes yet... I'm struggling with Deleuze now, so Barthes will wait.

johanna a dit…

I often don't even bother writing on a film because I lack an angle of attack worth pursuing...

I do this, too.. Have whole stacks of films that I have watched, some several times, some even all-time faves (like Au Hasard Balthazar) that I don't know if I have anything to say about that hasn't already been said. The cool things about this is that I can anticipate a day in which I will have something to say about the film, the process, the ideology or even just the impact it has had on the filmic world. So I don't mind so much...

You've been challenging me to start at least trying to use French again, btw. It's hard when no one around you speaks the language, but I did take five years of it; and, while my teachers were mostly atrociously inept, I had started to get rather good. Could you possibly recommend a website where I might read French news or something that would be fairly easy for me to understand and incorporate into my weekly reading? (It would have to be free of a lot of technical terms, mostly, and be more conversational...)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Je ne dis pas que c'est une bonne chose, parceque c'est inhibant et en fin de compte je n'écris plus rien. Parfois c'est mieux de penser après.

J'ai peu de blogs favoris en français en fait.
Tu préfères un blog sur le cinéma?
Tu devrais essayer de visiter le forum des Cahiers. Ou bien Objectif Cinema qui est un bon site.

Portail d'info généraliste:
Télérama, Les Inrockuptibles, Fluctuat...

Et enfin un blog avec une très jolie bande-dessinée électronique faite par une copine à moi : Paprika

johanna a dit…

Toutes des ces blogs sont bons...merci pour prendant (?) le temps...tu es un homme douce et generaux et je n'oublerai pas!

Le blog de ta copine, c'est tres joli! Quand on dit 'bande-dessinee' en francais, est-ce que il signifie "designer comic strips?"

Et...peut-etre un peu humereuse...quand Laurence Reymond ecrit 'Welcome to Lynchland' je sens quelque chose interressant--un joke? C'est trop mal qu' il faut que Lynch a solicite (?) la gouvernmente francais, non? Mais nous sont hereuse que ce sont possible, films comme Inland Empire (Pittsburgh encore attends le debut)...

Et finallement, maintenant que j'utiliser un iMac seulement, je ne sais pas comment a fait les accents! (Eh, Steve Jobs, je te curse...)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Adrian Martin : "These days, film criticism — even the best-written — does little for me, finally, unless it can unearth, propose and in a way prove the existence of the logic that makes a film 'tick', as we say, that coheres it into some kind of whole work, whether classical-expressive or modernist-disjunctive. Godard, in fact, said it best in his challenge to Kael and, beyond her, all critics: "Bring in the evidence", he demanded. Film analysis or criticism without that logic, that evidence, is just assertion, and assertion is something I can take or leave (perhaps depending on whether or not I agree with it!). It is the work of logic that I still admire so much today in the best work of Jonathan Rosenbaum or Nicole Brenez.
(...) I believe it was in the calm argumentation of »Film as Film« as in the proselytising eccentricity of »Theory of Film Practice« alike that I first encountered the persuasive force of that intellectual obsession which is true cinephilia."

at FIPRESCI (2004)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Roundtable discussion with Edward Casey, Francisca Cho, Harry Eyres, Robert Michels, Mark Norell, and Christopher Peacocke.
The Limits of Explanation (The Phyloctetes Center; 2007) video 1h40'