22 décembre 2006

Critical Fallacy 6 : Mannerism

Susan Sontag : "It would be hard to find any reputable literary critic today who would care to be caught defending as an idea the old antithesis of style versus content. On this issue a pious consensus prevails. … In the practice of criticism, though, the old antithesis lives on, virtually unassailed. Most of the same critics who disclaim, in passing, the notion that style is an accessory to content maintain the duality whenever they apply themselves to particular works of literature. … Many critics appear not to realize this. They think themselves sufficiently protected by a theoretical disclaimer on the vulgar filtering-off of style from content, all the while their judgments continue to reinforce precisely what they are, in theory, eager to deny." cited at Jahsonic

I know it's awkward for me to pin down mannerism because I can't write in English, and I'm not even a good writer in French. But I'm against style on principle, not to justify or excuse my own lazy and deficiant wordsmith. Actually I feel more comfortable developping content and ideas in criticism in a foreign language precisely because I don't have the possibility to resort to self-indulgent formulas that plague the French intellectual criticism where nice words worth better than ideas or even substitute them. Although the low brow reviewing is not immune to ready-made clichés. Too often words precede ideas. When you start a sentence, or when you use a certain verb, there is a selected possibilities to follow up that are engraved in the collective culture, a series of clichés embedding consensual ideas into catch phrases. Critics believe they said it all when they come up with a nice sentence while there is nothing really new or actually pertinent to the film at hand below the stylish surface.

bradstevens : "I've always believed that film criticism should be approached responsibly, not as an opportunity for stylish displays of wit that end up trivialising both writer and film. I expect film critics to inform or educate, not entertain." at a_film_by

Criticism is a literary genre and I would have nothing against this practice if it was only the icing that does not replace meaning. The reason it's dangerous and that this fallacy should be pointed out here is that most readers are duped by the icing and since they found entertainment in reading believe the critics did a good job. Mannerism breeds routine, apathy, mindlessness. Readers are happy with "word-dropping", "bon mots", and it spares them the bore of an extended demonstration or the underlaying reflexion overlooked by the critic.

Luis Buñuel : "I loath pedantism and jargon. I happened to laugh to tears when reading certain articles in Cahiers du cinéma."

In a recent article, Charles Tesson (former editor at Cahiers) compiled a list of such "generally accepted ideas" that French critics enjoy themselves with : Dictionnaire des idées reçues de la critique (in Panic #4, july 2006) denouncing these self-satisfied, superior, ridicule, smart-ass, hype sophisms.
He points out to certain absurd word combination, tautology ("rigor of construction"), pleonasm ("classic shot-countershot", "impression of reality"). He warns against denegation that spells in words something that shouldn't be brought to the reader's attention even if disabled by the negative form ("The film is not..."). He's annoyed by the trivialization of great theories through adjectivation ("Deuleuzian", "Derridian"). He calls the emptiness of some overused expressions ("debauchery of special effects", "return to real", "curious alchemy", "magnificent movie", "Death of cinema", "Subtil cinema"). If it was clever the first time, it becomes tired and voided of its sense when repeated at every opportunity and sometimes in the wrong instances. Others examples are typically French, or locale jokes, so don't translate well.

Clive James (NYT) : "To know what can't be shown by the gag writers, however, you have to know about a world beyond the movies. But the best critics do, as this book proves; because when we say that the nontheorists are the better writers, that's what we mean. That extra edge that a good writer has is a knowledge of the world, transmuted into a style."

Clive James on the rest of us -- we're doomed (at a_film_by) follow up discussion

My preference goes to rich and precise vocabulary detailing one's mind (closer to the film's reality, which is accuracy not mannerism) than the use of ready-made phrases or the elaboration of stylistic/rhetoric hallucinations (offsetting from reality). Literary skills could go two ways, one is to refine descriptions, one is to evoke a fertile imagination. The former (respectful, insightful, helpful) should never be overwhelmed by the the latter (dubious, extravagant, risky), especially when the credibility of the critic's taste is in question. If two trusted critics disagree frontaly on a film I want to see, how could I tell which one best assumes my perspective if they can only be compared by their style? It's the contrary for the journalists of course who prefer to entertain the reader nomatter what the film is, rather than to engage in an adequate reflexion on cinema.

Anthony Lane (The New Yorker/Nobody's Perfect) : "The primary task of the critic, and no one has surpassed Miss Kael in this regard, is the recreation of texture, filing a sensory report of the kind of experience they will have if they decide to buy a ticket. A review should give off some reek of the concession stand." at Undercurrent

When a good writer with a contradictory taste talks lyrically about a film I haven't seen, I'm particularly warry of stylistic flare focusing on abstract/general appreciation rather than specific evidences... It's easy for the positive review to emphasizes solely on hyperbolic enthousiasm that informs one of many possible experiences of that film. Excess of literary style celebrates the individual emotional reaction of one person as if it was any indication of what every reader will feel themselves.

What is a spellbinding story? What is a haunting movie? What is a mesmerizing performance? What is a riveting plot? Translating a film into appreciative adjectives assumes we believe anything the critic says without the need for an analytical demonstration or any kind of descriptive evidences that would corroborate this summary opinion. First they are impersonal abstract wordings and could apply to any movie, taken out of context, copied and pasted ad infinitum. Second they are evaluative (on an unspecified scale of values) instead of qualitiative (to characterize a certain detail defining THIS film in particular). Perfect quote-ables.

It could be a relative adjective without referential comparison : "it's great/bad, believe me"; unverifiable gradation (praise, success, quality level) "it's the best film of... [insert director, year, country]".

And finally we have the professional jargon (ellitist technical words), abbreviations (acronym, hip shorthands, truncated titles) -- see Variety!, metaphors (themed vocabulary calling all the funny expressions linked to the film's topic) -- see David Edelstein's review of The Devil Wears Prada, puns (smarty wordplay, jokes with the title or actor/character's names) ...

This fits in the larger rhetorical questions : Can words incarnate the multimedia experience of cinema? And what exactly do readers imagine when reading chosen words? What is the gap between the reader experience and the viewer experience? Don't critics manipulate this gap with stylish obfuscation to push their opinions?

Jonathan Rosenbaum : "although initially [Moving Places] had a very negative effect on my career in film criticism, because it wasn’t film criticism and it wasn’t something that could pave the way toward a career in film criticism. I was naïve enough to believe it was a road out of film criticism. I still have a side of me that has an interest in literary writing." Interview at The House Nextdoor
Mannerism could be the vertue of a certain kind of impressionistic criticism, but I leave that to others to chant its glory because this series only deals with the flawed habits of critics. So please defend mannerism in the comments if you wish, to offer a more balanced view.

See other entries in the Critical Fallacy series on the sidebar menu.

18 commentaires:

Pacze Moj a dit…

Although I agree with most of what you say, I think some of the examples you give are very specific types of mannerism: chiefly, a lazy variety.

I hate clichés, vagueness, and jargon as much as the next person, but I don’t think those are problems with mannerism, really—or at least not with mannerism as I understand it: a distinct, visible (and usually exaggerated) style of, in this case, writing.

Instead, I think it’s more the case of a writer trying to cover up a lack of thinking about a film with the veneer of writing “well” about it. The result is shiny, empty criticism that slides off the tongue and right out the ear. If clichés and jargon are mannerist, then the manner is no longer distinct, right?

So, perhaps there has evolved a type of “manner” for film criticism in general. Lifted from and exaggerated beyond some initial critic’s style, it has become a common way of rushing off review after review, criticism after criticism, without the need to actually think about a film. It’s vague, repetitive on purpose; and it includes worn-out expressions, serious-sounding film terms, and oft-repeated turns of phrase. In this case, style becomes mere filler, a boosted word count.

But what about an original style? It can all be elongated shapes and heavy daubs of paint, but at the beginning of it all there was still the El Greco or the van Gogh. Perhaps we disagree then on whether or not film criticism is itself an art—and end, or only a means that can never stand alone. For my part, I know I’ve often read criticism (although not reviews) without ever having seen the film being criticized, and walked away happier and wiser for it: privy to a tiny bit more of The Truth.

I tend to see film as a pivot for a great criticism, from which a critic can go in a number of directions, one of which is great writing—stylized or simple, mannerist or not. Hence, a great writer, if he or she is also a great critic, can have great ideas and present them to us in a manner of great clarity and precision. It’s also possible for a bad critic to be a great writer, and I think that’s what you see as the problem, but I’d be wary of labelling all risky, stylish writers as bad critics. Perhaps another difference between us: you distinguish between mannerism and accuracy; I see accuracy as a possible part of mannerism.

I can definitely see the point that you’re making: that mannerism is a distraction (deliberate, meant to disguise a deficient criticism, or incidental) from a critic’s text, and that language itself is a barrier between cinema and spectator that mannerism tends to only exaggerate further. But, one of my favourite critics is someone who goes by the pseudonym Duke De Mondo, and who writes in a heavy, heavy mannerist style. His writings on film are some of the most original and striking I’ve ever read. Furthermore, they constantly incite new ideas about a film in my mind because of their style. I’m simply not prepared to discount them.

“Mannerism breeds routine, apathy, mindlessness.”

The reverse can also be true: a good mannerist is anything but routine, constantly building and refining a personal style that sets him or her apart from the cliché-miners; passionately concerned with not aping another style, with forging new expressions; and mindful of his or her communication, expression, distortion will affect understanding of the content.

HarryTuttle a dit…

You write it better than I could, Pacze Moj, it sounds so clear and evident the way you put it. I know my "style" is too dry and obtuse.

I don't think we disagree, if we do it's about the connotation of the word "mannerism". To me it's pejorative, and maybe to you it's positive. The idea you defend is STYLE, as in : personal language. I'm not dissing style at all, I admire it in writers I enjoy reading (even if I consciously avoid any style in my posts).
In my mind "mannerism" is the excessive vanity of stylization, and it's not laudable, not for writing in general, not for criticism in particular.

Whether film criticism is art is another debate. Even if you can read a review without watching a film, that review wouldn't come out of the critic's mind without the existence of that film. Thus criticism will always be a second-hand art, dependant, subservient.
The critic is an observer, a commenter. But the source, the inspiration, the essence will always be in cinema itself.

Meanwhile you know I admire grand criticism. I just don't need to call it "art" to value the artistic merits of these writers. I believe that when a writer approaches literary art, it automatically loses in insight. I don't see wordsmith and reflexion multiplying eachother, on the contrary they are a balance. When one goes up the other goes down. Sidestepping for a nicer ornament always diminishes the original truth. It's a compromise between style and meaning. And keeping that balance level is the talent of a great critic, IMHO.

Again, only the excess undermines writing quality. But that's this excess I see sported and acclaimed in popular criticism... readers forgot about depth. Now if the critic can't write funny about a grave movie, anti-intellectual readers blame a poor talent. This is the sin of the society of spectacle, the need for entertainment, and I don't think cinema needs more of that!

In the realm of arts, the movement of Mannerism was the bastardization of many common styles and the exaggeration of a certain dramatized language. It's like a parody of Classicism, so it's not in distinct rupture to everything else. It's not the development of an individual manner. It was "art for the art", the promotion of "spectacular" appearance for itself, in a self-contained universe, unrealistic, exaggerated, irrational, out-of-balance... too much. I doubt the personality of the artist really emerged from this fashionable trend. This is this "too much" that kills film writing.

I wonder if you enjoy what you call "mannerist writers" for their insight on cinema or their literature. And if they really enlight you about cinema, aren't they just good critics, despite a mannerist tendency? A showy writer can happen to be a great thinker too. I mean it's not style, however superb, that brings content to film criticism.

Although you're right to correct me about the bounderies of "mannerism" (whatever that is in the field of film criticism). It should be essentially about sophism, rhetorical devices, lyrical development, heavy-handed sentences, bottomless amplitude, colorful adjectives.
I did add a lot of traits that aren't properly stylistic, like cliché, puns, gradation, jargon, abbreviations... but all in all I believe they too participe to this filler routine for rushed weekly deadline.
Your observation is very astute. The emphasis of formulaic stylistic devices is probably due to the redundant and accelerated job of a serial-reviewer. It's the only way to be able to have always something to say for 7 movies a week.

girish a dit…

Fascinating post, Harry. And great comments, Pacze.

Just a thought. Lately I've been thinking of film criticism in terms of 'form' and 'content'. When I was younger, the film critics I was drawn to, like Pauline Kael, etc, were those who were 'writerly': their 'form' dazzled me with its color, inventiveness, humor, and crackle. The film was sometimes a vehicle, a pretext for the bravura display of the 'writerliness' of these critics.

Today, I read far less film criticism of this sort because it often (but not always) is accompaanied by a lack of strong, substantive ideas about cinema, which interests me more these days than displays of great writing. (I'm not knocking great writing here--merely saying that these days I personally value good ideas and their elaboration, in however rough a form, more than I do virtuosic writing about cinema).

I realize that this is to think of writerliness as 'form' and ideas as 'content' (I realize this is a false and reductive dichotomy....). But there are writers (like Manny Farber) whose ideas are expresssed through the challenge of their (difficult) form. Form and content are as inseparable in their writing as they would be in a good work of cinema. They can be perhaps roughly separated but not completely and cleanly....

But often (and Farber here is an exception), ingenuity in film writing (writerliness) is in my experience not matched by an equal heft in ideas about cinema (just an observation). One or the other tends to outweigh/overshadow the other...

In the end, my highly personal reading preference is for cinema writing that is thoughtful, eclectic and wide-ranging, un-reckless (in its casual dismissals, etc), systematic and careful in its thinking, and most of all, lucid, clear....

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks for commenting Girish. I realize the wording "mannerism" was probably not the most appropriate to what I meant to emphasize on. "Writerliness" would be less controversial I guess. In French, "mannerism" is definitely a sloppy trait even for formalist writing.

Anyway, for the record, this Fallacy series only deals with the little things that corrupt the integrity of "fair criticism". I'm not pretending to define what type of style is best suited to write film criticism. As long as a critic is rigorous, independent and insightful, the style will be a matter of personality to color the individual voice.

What you say about your preference for style in your younger years, is what I'm after here. The general public, or influencible youth are attracted to a colorful and humorous voice, easier to read, because the content doesn't seem so heavy or boring. And even if the writer is a great critic who familiarizes higher theories to a larger audience, I think it's a dangerous practice to numb readers in effortlessness and complacency. Because by contrast, challenging criticism will look harder and more difficult to a public used to simplified writing.

HarryTuttle a dit…

At Scanners, Jim Emerson quotes excerpts from Renata Adler's jab at Pauline Kael's objectionable "mannerism" : Pauline and Renata Go Showboating (1980)

"Over the years, that is, Ms. Kael's quirks, mannerisms, tactics, and excesses have not only taken over her work so thoroughly that hardly anything else, nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility, remains; they have also proved contagious, so that the content and level of critical discussion, of movies but also of other forms, have been altered astonishingly for the worse."

"She has an underlying vocabulary of about nine favorite words, which occur several hundred times, and often several times per page, in this book of nearly six hundred pages: "whore" (and its derivatives "whorey," "whorish," "whoriness"), applied in many contexts, but almost never to actual prostitution; "myth," "emblem" (also "mythic," "emblematic"), used with apparent intellectual intent, but without ascertainable meaning; "pop," "comicstrip," "trash" ("trashy"), "pulp" ("pulpy"), all used judgmentally (usually approvingly) but otherwise apparently interchangeable with "mythic"; "urban poetic," meaning marginally more violent than "pulpy"; "soft" (pejorative); "tension," meaning, apparently, any desirable state; "rhythm," used often as a verb, but meaning harmony or speed; "visceral"; and "level." These words may be used in any variant, or in alternation, or strung together in sequence—"visceral poetry of pulp," e.g., or "mythic comic-strip level"—until they become a kind of incantation. She also likes words ending in "ized" ("vegetabilized," "robotized," "aestheticized," "utilized," "mythicized"), and a kind of slang ("twerpy," "dopey," "dumb," "grungy," "horny," "stinky," "drip," "stupes," "crud") which amounts, in prose, to an affectation of straightforwardness."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Can Criticism Be Considered Art? by Belinda van de Graaf, at FIPRESCI :
'Sontag (...) doesn't think criticism can in any way be considered art. Seligman agrees: "To promote criticism as an art is to betray the purposes of criticism."
John Updike : "the artist sails in the open sea, while the critic hangs back, hugging the shore." '

HarryTuttle a dit…

More at FIPRESCI : »Eunuchs in a Harem« by Ronald Bergan (2004)

'The Irish playwright Brendan Behan put it very well when he spoke of theatre critics as being "like eunuchs in a harem: They're there every night, they see it done every night, they see how it should be done every night, but they can't do it themselves." Also like eunuchs, they guard a treasure but cannot touch or change it.
Critics are reflexive. They exist only in relation to the art of others. They react, they don't act. Critics cannot exist without art, but art can exist without critics.'

HarryTuttle a dit…

Still at FIPRESCI: An Exceedingly Harmful Idea, by Bence Nanay (2004)

'My fear is that what they do have in mind is that criticism should be art, which is, of course, an entirely different question. I think that this is quite probably the most harmful view one can have about the nature of criticism. It is harmful because it makes criticism, and especially film criticism, seem easy. (...)
This widely held belief may explain the surprising low quality of film criticism these days. A great number of film critics lack any kind of knowledge of the great classics or of film history in general. The idea of criticism as art can serve as a convenient justification for such critics to ignore this deficiency. The point is that ignoring it is both unprofessional and irresponsible. Probably we should start thinking about film criticism as a profession instead of an art form. No doubt that would mean more work for the critic, but would probably be more rewarding for the reader.'

HarryTuttle a dit…

Filmbrain on mannerism (08-11-2008): "Great Moments in Uncriticism: Time & Newsweek in the 50s & 60s"

HarryTuttle a dit…

Roger Ebert (9-14-2008) "Critic" is a four-letter-word :
"Is he correct that "average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so?" I would suggest that the average piece of junk is not meaningful at all, apart from the way it conditions the minds of its beholders to accept more pieces of junk. How important is criticism of it? Powerless, usually. Why do critics bother with it? I will appoint myself spokesman. We had to endure it and want our revenge. We enjoy writing scathing and witty prose. We know we are rarely writing for those who seek out junk. Perhaps we hope we entertain, and encourage the resolve of those who avoid it."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Look for "Little Lexicon of Anglophone Cliché: A Work in Progress (For Charles Tesson)" at the bottom of the sidebar on Craig Keller's blog: Cinemasparagus, which is the English counterpart of the Tesson's
"Dictionnaire des idées reçues de la critique" I cited in my post.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Guide to self-editing for good prose at Jump Cut : "A guide to instant self-editing" :

- Excessive passive construction
- Failure to use the first person
- Excessive qualification
- Excess prepositional phrases
- Arch terms, translations, and unclear neologisms
- Complicated clause construction
- Clichés
- Style

HarryTuttle a dit…

Bordwell on style in film criticism :

"a piece of critical writing ideally should offer ideas, information, and opinion—served up in decent, preferably absorbing prose. This is a counsel of perfection, but I think the formula ideas + information + opinion + good or great writing isn’t a bad one.
You really can’t write about the arts without having some opinion at the center of your work. [..]
We all judge the movies we see, and the world teems with arresting writers, so with the Internet why do we need professional critics? [..]
I’d also be inclined to see description—close, detailed, loving or devastating—as providing information. It’s no small thing to capture the sensuous surface of an artwork, as Susan Sontag put it. Good critics seek to evoke the tone or tempo of a film, its atmosphere and center of gravity. We tend to think that this is a matter of literary style, but it’s quite possible that sheer style is overrated. (Yes, I’m thinking of Agee.) Thanks to our old friends adjective and metaphor, even a less-than-great writer can inform us of what a film looks and sounds like."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Girish (7-13-2009) : "In addition to their customary mode of writing--with their peers in mind--scholars could learn much from critics about cultivating this alternative and useful mode of writing that can bridge the gap between academia and the general reader."

HarryTuttle a dit…

It's less an issue of arcane vocabulary (when it's used appropriately) than when intellectual words and pre-packaged concepts are substituted for actual ideas. Sometimes this "huge collective effort that builds upon the work of others" can be overestimated... Citing references doesn't mean they understood the material, or that they don't manipulate it to fit their own mindset and make a point, even if it betrays the referenced author.

But that's how scholars are trained to function : Citations, jargon, esoteric concepts, intellectualism, hollow rhetoric... They learn it in school and are encouraged to do it by peer pressure.

Though critics at the NYT do indulge in dropping literary vocabulary when a simple word would be clearer for the average reader. Sometimes I wonder if they don't make up sentences just to show off fancy words, while it has little pertinence to the film at hand...

HarryTuttle a dit…

Socrates' Criticism of Sophism in Plato's Protagoras

HarryTuttle a dit…

David Bordwell : "Writing style is overrated. Many people think that good reviewing amounts to personal opinions whipped up in frothy prose. Perhaps the snazzy styles of Farber and Kael have led people to weight style too much. Granted, the Web has revealed that a lot of people are excellent writers, and without the Web they would probably never have found an audience. Although lively writing is always welcome, though, it gets heft and endurance through its arguments, and that comes back to ideas and information as much as opinion. [..]
Goodman [Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood, 1960] includes a long chapter on film reviewers, which launches with a decidedly contemporary ring:
It has been said that there are sometimes more clichés in movie reviews than in the movies they are discussing. Sample review phrases: “sure-fire,” “stunning,” “taut with suspense,” “lavish and exciting,” “sumptuous,” “captures the imagination,” “moving,” “significant drama,” “sheer screen artistry,” “uncommonly good performance,” “dramatic urgency,” “enormous compulsion,” “spectacular finish,” and once in a while, “ineptly directed,” “singularly dull.”
Fifty years later, Goodman would have to add jaw-dropping, adrenalin-charged, mindbending, hellish/ hellacious, resonance/ resonate, lush, dark, incredible, intensely personal, pitch-perfect, and our two all-purpose adjectives of praise, amazing and terrific.
You’d think that we were staggering around astounded all the time."
(Fim criticism Always declining, never quite falling, 16 Mar 2010)

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Il est très important aujourd'hui de réaffirmer une pharmacologie positive. Derrida (la pharmacie de Platon) a mis en évidence ce que Platon soulevait contre la sophistique, à savoir que la pratique de l'écriture par les Sophistes était quelque chose qui détruisaient l'anamnésis (connaissance vraie, l'accès à l'aléthèia, la vérité).
Les Sophistes en manipulant l'écriture, faisaient une confusion - l'anamnésis et l'hypomnésis (la remémoration mécanique, technologiquement ou techniquement, mis en œuvre par la mnémotechnique de l'écriture). Platon accuse les Sophistes de donner le sentiment aux jeunes Athèniens qui viennent suivre leurs conférences, qu'ils pensent alors que au contraire ils ne font que rabâcher quelque chose qui est dit par les Sophistes. C'est très dangereux. Au moment même où ils ne pensent pas on leur fait croire qu'ils pensent. Et ça, cela s'appelle la bêtise : le caractère sentencieux de celui qui dit quelque chose alors qu'il ne fait que rabâcher un sottisier.
Derrida a objecté à Platon que l'hypomnésis est la condition de l'anamnésis, donc on ne peut pas opposer hypomnésis et anamnésis. Et donc Derrida a montré qu'il faut du pharmacon et de la négativité technique (le supplément), pour que quelque chose comme une anamnésis soit possible. Il contrarie l'opposition que Platon fait, d'un côté, entre la sophistique et l'hypomnésis, et de l'autre côté, la philosophie et l'anamnésis.
Mais ce qu'il n'a pas fait c'est de soutenir une pharmacologie positive (critique de la situation pharmacologique pour permettre à la société de mettre en place les thérapeutique). Les philosophes sont des puissances critiques, hypercritiques, déconstructionistes... qui ne doivent jamais elles-mêmes proposer la positivité (thérapeutiques). C'est la société (polythéia : communauté citoyenne) qui doit s'en emparer. Les philosophes doivent apporter à la polythéia la capacité à se ressaisir positivement de sa situation pharmacologique."
(Bernard Stiegler; 12 déc 2011)