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 NextdoorMannerism 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.