21 novembre 2006

Critical Fallacy 5 : Complacency

To put it plainly, "complacency" is the contrary of "being critical". It's the censorship of the Political Correctness mentality.
Some critics claim to write only on movies they liked to communicate an honest enthusiasm rather than a bitter resentment. Although favorable reviews always sound complacent to detractors. Except a chosen few masterpieces, every movie could/should/must be engaged both on its strong and weak aspects, to create a balanced, credible critical assessment.
Because of the lack of cinema culture and the domination of marketing brainwashing, critics fill a gap that isn't their job, which is to nurse, champion and promote the underexposed or panned movies... But critics aren't supposed to do P.R., that would be a conflict of interest (another installment of this series). Even back in the time of Bazin (40-50ies in France), instead of fully dedicating their time and writings to criticize and evaluate movies, critics had to advocate certain neglected auteurs, notify their screenings, drag the audience in, say a lot of good things about the film and overstate an hyperbolic enthusiasm... Where is the critical thinking when there is too much praise? The point isn't to pick a challenger and feel gratified if it scores a big B.O.
Klaus Eder : "That we write about this film and not another one, is dictated by the strategy of the distributors. They decide if and when to release a film, and we react and become a part of their strategy, whether we wish to or not. Specialist magazines fortunately have a bit more freedom and distance from the marketing system." Undercurrent #1
Criticism should, in theory, be disconnected from the commercial distribution and success of a film. Ok, maybe newspapers worry about the appeal to readership productivity of reviews, but the press doesn't define the ethics of criticism. Although they may decide whether a critic gets exposition, the compromise with aesthetic standards defines the critic's personality and complacency.
News journalists have the same duty to truth, whether it is pleasant to hear or not, but unlike critics they could/should remain neutral. The word "criticism" often implies "negative comment", because a critical judgment precisely denotes the flaws and weaknesses in a film, or else there is nothing to say but congratulations. There is a fine line between "respectful" and "complacent"... which will always be argued from a subjective standpoint. It's not easy to voice out a critical mind if it's going to hurt someone's pride or feelings, although some people enjoy just that, and think the most vociferous they are the most feared their "authority" will be (those controversial slanders aren't sound arguments).
The other side of this coin reminds us that "art is difficult and criticism is easy". Even the worst film, collective achievement of many artists and technicians, requires more work than the best movie review! So, due respect for the hardworking, yes, but partisanship, pontification, apologia, flattery, connivance, conformism, political correctness... no.
The spectrum of the film critic press shows variable tolerance to complacency, from specialized revues (filmcraft only) to glamour info-tainment (star system promotion), and some aim to be balanced or neutral, others just make their living of press-junket bribery, cover photo deals, indulgent interviews, advertisement/sponsors, mass-appeal to the point of being integer part of the marketing machine.
Promotional interviews (is there any other kind? these guys only meet the press when they have something to sell)
Certain films do deserve a humble, admirative, unconditional praise... sometimes the critic is useless in front of cinema genius. But looking at the reviews it's like there is at least one masterpiece each week! movies that are quickly forgotten after the award season.

15 commentaires:

girish a dit…

This series is such great and valuable work, Harry!

And thank you for providing handy links to all the installments in your ambitious CRITICAL FALLACIES series on your sidebar....

Harry, you are the avant-garde of film criticism, leading the way for us....!

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thank you for the supporting words Girish. You're most welcome to participate.

Brian a dit…

I think a lot of my writing, especially that on my blog, often fails to live up to the standard espoused in this thought-provoking entry in your series, harry. Though, perhaps paradoxically, I don't think you're exactly wrong, nor do I expect to change.

I think there are a few reasons for this. As a non-professional, I only cover the films I want to cover. I mostly stick to corners of my local film scene that I fear might be overlooked. Why bring up negative points of a film when I personally think they're clearly overshadowed by positives? I want to encourage people to attend the event and see the film for themselves and mke up their own mind. I'm rarely convinced that my reaction is even "the correct" one. Perhaps this is why I squirm whenever someone tries to tag me with the word "critic"; as much as I value film criticism, I don't generally feel I have the disposition to be a critical writer.

HarryTuttle a dit…

You're right Brian, these principles are not meant to be argued because there is no instant universal truth. It would be as interesting to argue and support the counter-position of each entry in the series.

I understand why you don't want to change, and you're in good company as serious specialist magazines like Cahiers also used this policy to defend the underexposed mavericks.
But I'm wondering if you are able to overlook the negative points, why couldn't your readers? Why the imperative goal to make people buy a ticket is more imperious than to expose a complete information?
Personaly I would rarely let negative points discourage me to go to a film I want to see. And if it was a major characteristic that turns me off, I'd rather know beforehand and make up my mind myself (in spite of the critic's enthousiasm), instead of being maliciously persuaded into consumerism at all cost.
I know the non-commercial branch of cinema needs the conciliation of positive critics to survive... This double standard only applies to the indies though, as criticism never alters the commercial viability of "blockbusters" either way. So in the end, critics who review challenging cinema appear to be more complacent (less free to get into nitpicky details) than mainstream critics (who can be alternatively hyperbolic in positive and negative ways without worrying about the consequences)

Brian a dit…

Thanks for your generous response, harry. I feel a little humbled being lumped in with luminaries like the Cahiers crew, even on a single philospohical point. But for me it's not so much a policy as a tendency. On the occassions that I have a strong negative feelings about a film I see, I won't shy away from saying so (though I don't usually go out of my way to do so, either). The thing is, I rarely have such a strong negative reaction. More often when a film fails to move me I have little confidence that a second viewing or a better understanding of the context of its creation (such as a familiarity with its auteur's themes) wouldn't do the trick to improve it in my eyes. Sometimes I know I "just didn't get it" and my tendency in such cases is not to blame the film, but myself.

Of course, it's rare that really do a proper "review" of a film on my site. My primary goal is not to delve deeply into individual films, but to give a reader a feeling of excitement about film culture in my area. I wish I had time to write full-length reviews and properly dissect films in depth, but it's not the strongest calling on the limited time I feel I have to write. Especially when there are others doing such a wonderful job in this arena (like yourself). Which is why my policy is always to link to another review or link of interest when mentioning a film title. In many cases I pick a review that I generally agree with. Other times I pick one that goes against my own thinking. I like to have fun with this process. Hopefully it mitigates against my own tendencies toward complacency.

As for "consumerism at all cost," I don't mean to come off exactly this way. But I do want to encourage readers to go to the theatre, not to "wait for DVD" (another kind of complacency these days), which I know can be a tempting option in the face of traveling across town to see a film we're not sure will be an utter masterpiece.

I'm not saying I'm right and you're wrong, but I just wanted to explain a little further my thoughts at this moment. It's interesting that a few hours ago I wrote that I "don't expect to change", but I hope that my writing WILL change and evolve in new directions, hopefully for the better. And perhaps this discussion will have an impact on my approach after all. Anyway, I hope that if you ever feel something I write is egregiously complancent (or deceptive, manipulative, etc.) you'll let me know!

HarryTuttle a dit…

Sorry for the late reply Brian, my cable was down for a while.
First this series is not meant to police critics, just to propose a confrontation to certain (maybe conservative) standards. And you don't need my bickering, you're doing very well ;)
I'm also guilty of positive reviewing myself... the last bad movie I wrote about is probably Million Dollar Baby. I know writing a negative review is less inspiring.
My point was mainly to propose both sides of the coin to the reader, some of the major positive aspects and some of the major negative aspects of the film. I'm trying to do that as much as I can, but I admit it's difficult to bring up a dissonant touch when the goal of the review is to convey an enticing atmosphere that will convince the reader.
What I'm saying is that the system that allows this type of one-sided review (either all positive, or all negative) is the one to blame rather than critics themselves. Like you say, the time limitiation, but also the space and the editorial line impose dichotomic reviews.

Thanks for your participation Brian! I like your interview with Crispin Hellion Glover. He's a genius. :)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Manny Farber & Patterson's point #2 in a list of 7 critical precepts proposed in an interview (via Keith Uhlich at The House Next Door) :

"Anonymity and coolness, which includes writing film-centered rather than self-centered criticism, distancing ourselves from the material and people involved. With few exceptions, we don't like meeting the movie director or going to press screenings."

Paul Martin a dit…

I've been commenting on films for a couple of years, and it's stepped up in just the last couple of months for various reasons. Underpinning review or criticism is a passion about cinema. You can't really limit or completely define the conversation that is review or criticism no more than you can limit or define a film. There are many different ways to have a conversation about film.

For my own writing, I think it's important to be as honest as possible about both the strengths and weaknesses. Brian mentioned not raising the negatives of a film you like. I don't agree. For example, I felt Children of Men used some highly innovative and effective techniques but failed to be an important film because the director didn't fully commit to some of the risks he took.

On another theatre site, there's been a discussion about the role of criticism. Someone said that not reviewing a film can be as effective as giving a bad review. Because the Australian film industry is so brittle, I tend not to review a local film that I find mediocre or poor. I don't want to savage a film that is unlikely to be seen by many people anyway.

These are just a few rambling thoughts of a very tired person. Nice post, Harry.

HarryTuttle a dit…

I agree with you, there are several possible definitions that co-exist without contradicting eachother. But I believe one should go by one of them that correspond to certain principles, if only to make one's body of work more coherent. If there are auteurs in cinema defined by a clear vision of the world, thus critics should as well demonstrate a coherence of ideas, a continuity of "taste"... to avoid flip-floping along with the fads of zeitgest.

I know these fallacies can always be argued back and forth, and that's what they are meant for. I can only present the perspective I know. Anyone is free to advocate counter-arguments.

Please link to this discussion about the role of criticism, I'd like to read it.
I agree with your example, the selection of films to review is a political statement in itself. It's weak and ill-intentionned for a critic to beat a dead horse. Conversly, I doubt it helps the industry to turn a blind eye on people who encumber the market (and waste money) without proving they know how to make movies. I don't mean low brow flicks (when they are well made), which have a popular legitimacy, I mean lame movies without talent at all. There is no rational to support (by the industry, critics and the audience) useless projects but to save the filmmakers feelings. Not everyone can make cinema... leave room for people who know their job.
If poor films are discouraged, the industry will try harder and grow better eventually. Complacency only comforts the weaks.
(I'm playing Devil's advocate there)

HarryTuttle a dit…

More on complacency and engaging criticism :

"I remember getting the first really negative review of Deadroom, which also happened to be our first review, period. It was derisive, it was snide, and it was frustrating, mostly because it was printed on the eve of our premiere and could have curbed attendance; but also because we couldn't dismiss it. It was the best and worst of slams, because it was pretty smart. The author presented a perspective on our film that we hadn't yet considered, didn't want to consider, but which was too well put to ignore - or to really be upset with. In other words, it engaged us, which is precisely what good criticism should do, regardless of the polarity of the piece, and regardless of who it is reading it."
David Lowery at Drifting

Paul Martin a dit…

In my earlier post, I mentioned a similar discussion regarding theatre. There are several current threads at Theatre Notes of some relevance. In one of those threads I quoted from a posting I made at At The Movies. To selectively quote from that:

If we are not sufficiently critical of our own films (1) we give the wrong message to the film-makers that the crap (as you called it) is good, and that they will then continue to make crap films, and (2) we learn to disregard the reviewers who give inflated reviews, because we've been burnt so many times by lavish praise of films we detest.

By giving a mediocre film like BoyTown or Irresistible four stars, we are unable to ascertain from a review of Kenny, for example, that it really is a good film. This doesn't help our industry at all.


I agree that critics should ... demonstrate a coherence of ideas, a continuity of "taste".

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks a lot for the links. I like your quote there.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Adrian Martin in the cinemascope.it (#7 2007) interview on Critical Responsability :
"That slippery slide is usually inaugurated, in the film magazine business, by one thing: money. And most particularly: advertising. The moment you allow advertising onto a site, you have bought into compromise. Can you be truly critical, any longer, of those distributors, exhibitors or publishers who are helping to subsidise your site? (...) advertising money, however, comes with the pulverising force of capital and its sole aim, which is to sell, to expand itself, and to win passive social consent. (...) This is one of the most socially and politically responsible things that a publication can do: resist complicity with the system, the industry, the establishment."

HarryTuttle a dit…

(via weepingsam) Peter Keough in The Pheonix "Don't Count Out Critical Clout", on advance screening privilege and Studio PR poliices :

"when critics aren’t proving their mettle by getting on the bandwagon for the most recent heavily promoted summer movie, they can show their stuff by scaring off anyone who dares to show originality and talent on a tiny budget."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Steve Almond (bad music 'critic'): "Criticizing a particular band or song might make you, and some of your readers, feel smart or sophisticated. But it rarely does anything to advance the cause of art. After all, you can't rescind the pleasure someone derives from a particular piece of music. All you can do is deride that pleasure, which strikes me as a fairly stingy way to make a living.
I myself still write about music a good deal. But I devote myself almost exclusively to spreading the gospel of those bands that I love. As for the bands I don't like (and there are still plenty of those) I tend to assume someone else will."

Jim Emerson : "He is so right about this: "you can't rescind the pleasure someone derives from" a piece of art or entertainment -- even by derision. But why is he even thinking along those lines? Oh, we already established that: He's a bad critic who is only familiar with bad criticism and doesn't recognize what good criticism is.
Further proof is his attitude of "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." If you cared about music -- or food or movies or sex or politics or anything at all -- you would know that passions run in both directions. To feel intense love is also to know intense hatred. If you don't care enough about something to hate the worst in it, then you aren't capable of appreciating the best. You're either numb or have no standards (which is the same thing). So, to say you will only write about what you like is vacuous, dishonest, one-dimensional. If you care enough to write about something, you can't ignore a whole part of your sensibility. Your yin is shapeless and meaningless without your yang. Dammit." (at Scanners, 24 Mar 2010)