18 février 2007

Outlandish Dargis Empire

I'm a contrarian all year round on this blog, thus for the fun of participating in Jim Emerson's Contrarianism blogathon at Scanners, I'll make it an exercice de style. Following up on Andy Horbal's initiative to study the buzz generated by Manohla Dargis NYT review of INLAND EMPIRE, I've decided to take the aggressive detractor approach and give a detailed reader's feedback.
This is a gameplay of course, as Dargis is a great critic and my tentative analysis is pretentious. Nitpicky mode intentionally exaggerated. For the fun of being contrarian, at least let's not bash a little helpless reviewer, let's go for the best and see where it takes us. Why not? Keep in mind I'm not familiar with american TV culture and English is a second language, this should relativize my following remarks, but what any reader gets from a review says something about the writer. Moreover I happen to share Dargis opinion that INLAND EMPIRE is a masterpiece, and I have nothing but respect for her critiques.

I've read this article back in December and only saw the film last week. I had already a few objections back then when it was celebrated "the most significant piece of criticism she wrote for the NYT". Now reading it again, with hindsight of seeing the film, I'm able to qualify my troubled impressions.

Contradictions of my own contradictions are of course welcome and encouraged.


"The Trippy Dream Factory of David Lynch" by Manohla Dargis (NYT, Dec. 6 2006)

Dargis calls it "art", ranks it in her top10 of the year, people call her review her best job ever... Then I'd like to know what is an art review and how good can get criticism with great literary style.
I'm not siding with John Podhoretz and Andrew Sullivan who called her "pretentious" and "poser", on the contrary, I think she is too superficial and dilutes the density of Lynch works in a populist rhetoric meant to vulgarize "art", which obviously goes against her stated intention to place this movie above all.
Where is the critical reflexion about Lynch's world vision? Where is the aesthetic analysis other than qualifying actors and set furniture with colorful adjectives, and dropping as much pop culture references as possible? I don't know what was the bottom line for this review, and maybe the editor watered it down afterall.

paragraph 1 : lyrical intro, obligatory(?) filmography reminder.

  • I wouldn't even mention the triviality of the "vine" metaphor, and the insisting cliché about Lynch's "creppy-creepy" persona if this article wasn't acclaimed as a model of criticism.

paragraph 2 : vague overall description of the atmosphere

  • I wholeheartedly agree with the infamous A-bomb, INLAND EMPIRE is art. I wish Dargis had developped this angle and actually treated it as a work of art by giving up any reference to conventional filmmaking and conventional reviewing. Instead she produces a standard movie review with a plot rundown, nods to the actors, nods to the image, trivia, name-dropping...
  • "Dark as pitch, as noir, as hate" : not so subtle wording.
  • I'm not sure what to think of the Mad Magazine reference... is it really appropriate? Are we really in the same kind of humor there?
  • I'll pass on the TV reference (Ralph Kramden) which I don't know, and the painting style (Edward Hopper) which is another recurring cliché associated with Lynch (will critics bring it up in every Lynch movie?).
  • "I’m still trying to figure out what the giant talking rabbits have to do with the weepy Polish woman" : useless bit of non-information. Some think that the stream-of-consciousness note-to-self creates an informal tone that feels like a confidence... I think this is more appropriate to the blog format, while in print we don't need all the speculations going through the critics head, just to fill space in a word-limited column. Or at least could be formulated in way to commit the reader's imagination instead of laying down straightforwardly key pieces of the puzzle and revealing an approximate link between them at the risk of spoiling the experience for readers who didn't see the film. I'm not against spoilers in general (thus the critic can develop a thorough analysis of every elements). But droping a spoiler without any critical point to make is just a mean space filler.
  • "weepy" : The tone of the whole sentence is very light and almost mocking. I don't see why. I take offense to this pejorative qualifier, it gives the wrong impression to the reader who hasn't seen the film. We see the face of a woman in tears indeed, but nothing says her emotion is exagerated or faked (she weeps already when the TV show starts), in fact she might have serious troubles. Lynch films her in a very dignified way.
  • "may be a whore or merely lost or, because this is a David Lynch film (after all), probably both" : oversimplifying generalisation. Is she saying that whores and lost girls are Lynch's auteur trademark or that he systematically mixes up prostitution and confusion when portraying women? I doubt either are insightful propositions. (see comment above about useless spoilers)

paragraph 3 : plot rundown, caricatural description of characters

  • The Wizard of Oz reference was already a stretch for Mulholland Dr., it's dubious for INLAND EMPIRE.
  • The "once upon a time" reference to fairytale is also out there.
  • Although one thing is important there is to pay attention to how the film starts.
  • Now, the derogatory terms to caricature the screen appearance of actors with funny words : "hilarious", "bulging eyes", "East European accent" was it really necessary? are they really representative of the scene or just a cheap shot at the most superficial details? Dargis seems to enjoy laughing at a freak show, while Lynch was installing the quirky calm of a possessive inescapable encounter.
    Why not talk about the gradual oppressive intrusion of this stranger in her intimate space. Or the awkward silences, the poses, the offbeat timing as if suspended in time. The time feels soft, actually making uncomfortable moments last longer, until it jumps to tomorrow, leaving the scene unfinished, as if it never happened...

paragraph 4 : Mulholland Dr. (tabloid-friendly) synopsis.

  • There is more critical analysis of Mulholland Dr. in this single paragraph than in the full article for INLAND EMPIRE!
  • "Mr. Lynch loves women, or at least their representations" : again, underdevelopped generalisations. I'd like to know more about this.
  • Should the form of a review attempt to match the form of the film, or at least adapt the review formula to its narrative specifity?

paragraph 5 : see paragraph 3

  • Continuation of the rough plot description in a very face-value, lineary way that might not be the best approach to a Lynch movie, or to a film called "art". There is this, there is that, one, two, three characters, this is what they do, that is what happens then... INLAND EMPIRE is not made to be summarized to fit in a conventional plot. If it's art, let's take liberties with the usual narration of a film review...
  • More uncalled-for derogatory terms "foreign-accented visitor", "butched-up as a neo-greaser". Maybe it's hip for a journalist, but is that GREAT film criticism I wonder?
  • "almost-unrecognizable" : star-gazing type of remark for the fanboys. How insightful is it to the film?
  • "(...) kind of" : mysterious unfinished sentence to hint at more twists, although the reasons (of the interruption and of the secret) will not be developped here.
  • Why mentionning the porn-name anecdote, the costumes... instead of installing the love triangle tension, the cursed film, the mannered spelled out inhibition, the upper-class cordial uppity, the naive clumsy lust...?

paragraph 6 : synospsis of the "film(s)-within-the-film"

  • Why go for a pedestrian description that is no use to grasp the originality of this one-of-a-kind film, nor to get a sense of its mysterious atmosphere? Citing the various disconnected scenes for the sake of an inventory without helping the reader to assemble it all in a coherent impression of the film and without adding the insight necessary to begin to interpretate the story only makes the review more unintelligible and disparate than the film actually is. At least in the film the montage and the recurrent places give an intuitive understanding of the circumvolutions, which the review lacks.
  • "Susan spends a lot of time in a sinister house" : I don't know how much Dargis appreciated the film and how much she wants to convince her readers that this art is a must see, but this kind of tired sentence doesn't shine the best light on what Lynch meant to do. It denotes that time is wasted, and that the house is repulsive instead of captivating.
  • "chew the fat and their naughty lower lips" : I guess to find 2 phrases using the same verb in a row is great poetry (is it?) but why choosing to highlight the listless aspect of the scene instead of its latent sexual ambivalence (conflation of adultary with prostitution, sex slavery with sweet infatuation)?

paragraph 7 : set design description

  • The prevalent role of places and the labyrintine architecture gives the film its structure indeed. But again, the pedestrian inventory, disconnected from the scenes described in the previous paragraph miss the connections that would give us an idea of what is going on and what Lynchian ideas are at work.
  • "weepy" changed to a preferable "weeping" here.
  • "money-for-sex transaction" : I find the phrase used there to kill the possibilities left opened by Lynch. The woman who is asked to undress appears to be a prostitute indeed, but the ambiguity of the scene relies precisely on the absence of money. Both characters' faces are blurred as if on a surveillance tape trial exhibit. The guy asks "Do you know what prostitutes do?", but this could be role playing within a married couple/adulterous lovers (theme of the film), and the importance of multiple interpretations are key. A review narrowing down the freedom goes against the film.

paragraph 8 : The only reflexive analytical paragraph so far.

"How Nikki and the other characters wind up in these rooms — how, for instance, the pampered blonde ends up talking trash in a spooky, B-movie office — is less important than what happens inside these spaces. In “Inland Empire,” the classic hero’s journey has been supplanted by a series of jarringly discordant scenes, situations and setups that reflect one another much like the repeating images in
the splintered hall of mirrors at the end of Orson Welles’s “Lady From Shanghai.” The spaces in “Inland Empire” function as way stations, holding pens, states of minds (Nikki’s, Susan’s, Mr. Lynch’s), sites of revelation and negotiation, of violence and intimacy. They are cinematic spaces in which images flower and fester, and stories are born."
  • "How Nikki and the other characters wind up in these rooms is less important than what happens inside these spaces" : 1st insight engaging with the film purpose. Although instead of asking why the same actress appears in milieux that have nothing to do with each other (without explanatory narrative transitions), a better insight would be to note the way Lynch re-use the same actress to play different roles in the same film. The fact we can recognize Laura Dern each time doesn't mean we are expected to believe she is the same person. This is art. Let's think outside the box and forget about long lived narrative conventions. Lynch obviously introduces a shift of time and place, possibly fantasized by the character itself. So the pertinent question is not to make sense of the logistical link between each story but the mood they describe and how they resonate in relation to each other. For instance Lynch puts rabbit heads on the sitcom actors so we don't identify them, he blurs faces (because they are symbolic/archetypal scenes) to prevent the viewer to draw immediate conclusion about the persons themselves.

paragraph 9 : 2nd insight of the review.

"Each new space also serves as a stage on which dramatic entrances and exits are continually being made. The theatricality of these entrances and exits underscores the mounting tension and frustrates any sense that the film is unfolding with the usual linear logic. Like characters rushing in and out of the same hallway doors in a slapstick comedy, Nikki/Susan keeps changing position, yet, for long stretches, doesn’t seem as if she were going anywhere new. For the most part, this strategy works (if nothing else, it’s truer to everyday life than most films), even if there are about 20 minutes in this admirably ambitious 179-minute film that feel superfluous. “Inland Empire” has the power of nightmares and at times the more prosaic letdown of self-indulgence."
  • "Each new space also serves as a stage on which dramatic entrances and exits are continually being made" : Well, I used to find it interesting before seeing the film, but actually only a few scenes function that way in the film (sitcom, small house at the end).
  • The "20 min too much" comment feels quite petty, the kind of thing you say of some pretentious director who doesn't know what he's doing, not of a film you call "art".
  • "prosaic letdown of self-indulgence" WTF does it mean? again, I'm afraid Dargis has issues with artistic vision that are too personal, too far away from traditional cinema. I can't tell if she actually admires this film.

paragraph 10 : banalities about Lynch and subconscious. Nod to photography

  • The kind of useless press-kit info that is repeated in every review. I realized by reading other interviews that this concerned only the preparatory phase of the work, then ideas came together and he had a larger crew and an uninterrupted shooting schedule that was prepared in advance. It's fine to mention it, but to build the buzz of a film on geeky trivia doesn't elevate it to art territory.
  • Seriously though, the surrealist gameplay of automatic writing doesn't quite correspond to the practicality of a film set. It implies to write mindlessly, beyond attention span, in order for subconscious word associations to surface without the conscience to register and filter it. Maybe some improvised scenes allowed to last 40 min could take an actor to act subconsciously. But these are rare occasions in the film with Laura Dern alone. Most of the scenes are fairly constructed and reworked in post-production.

paragraph 11 : Impressionistic conclusion

  • "Inland Empire seemed funnier, more playful and somehow heartfelt" : something the lame director Bob Brooker in Mulholland Dr. could say.
  • Somehow Dargis attempts to sympathize with readers disappointed on first viewing, by sharing a similar experience, and then promising a funnier second viewing. In principle I don't approve appeal to sympathy, especially when it relates to (re)viewing recommendations. A critic should leave the decision to buy a ticket or not to the reader. The consumation-driven rhetoric is for the marketing campaign.
  • "It’s easy to get lost in a David Lynch film, but Ms. Dern and her amazing rubber-band mouth, which laughs like the sun and cries us a river, proves a magnificent guide." ain't it corny?
  • "rubber-band mouth" : derogatory qualifier, and only refering to a couple of shots of Dern's distorted face.

Conclusion:

I don't see how this particular review is any different from any other one. It doesn't strike me as such a writing mastery (I'm French, I wouldn't know), nor does it feature the greatest filmic insights we've read in a long time. As for the film, I'd wonder if she liked it if she didn't call it art and put it in her year-end top. Lots of nitpicky notes, seemingly off-the-cuff, on details of minor importance and few demonstrations of the greatness of the film. From the review alone I would say she liked it but will move on quickly to the less artsy fare. These words don't shine with passion and adoration as we could expect it from a glorified art piece. But maybe Dargis just doesn't like art that much... ;)

27 commentaires:

David Lowery a dit…

It doesn't strike me as such a writing mastery (I'm French, I wouldn't know)

Harry, after reading this, I think it's safe to say that you do know! Bravo! I am too a fan of Dargis and this movie - and I really enjoyed the review in question - and it's great to see her taken to task so seriously, so critically. I think she'd enjoy reading this, as any writer would should their work be given such fair, such careful and lucid consideration.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks a lot David, I appreciate you saying so. It's comforting.

Jonathan Rosenbaum's review gives aesthetic insights and political interpretation.

Cahiers re-publish online a review of Serge Daney on Elephant Man, from 1981.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Une Femme Mariée / A Maried Woman great critique of IE by Stéphane Delorme at Cahiers.

I just rewatched IE, so magnificent! Everything is spelled out right there, we just have to listen carefully. I need a DVD with a pause to piece it all together...

andyhorbal a dit…
Ce commentaire a été supprimé par l'auteur.
andyhorbal a dit…
Ce commentaire a été supprimé par l'auteur.
andyhorbal a dit…

Deleted comments are mine and I apologize for them because they're ugly. But I think I want to respond at length...

andyhorbal a dit…

Okay, here's what I'm thinking:

#1--I, of course, think that Manohla's review is a good one for all of the reasons I explained in the post you link to and I won't repeat anything there here.

#2--I think here and there (at my post) you've made the point that this isn't a brilliant masterpiece of a review.

#3--I think this is an interesting resource for someone (like me) who's interested in working with Manohla's review and the reaction to it. For reasons of my own (and unrelated to this post) I've decided not to undertake the project I was thinking of on this review.

That's what I said in the comments I deleted. But I just re-read your post more closely and I have something that I now feel like I need to add:

#1--I think almost any review dissected in this much detail is going to reveal itself as not "a brilliant masterpiece of a review."

#2--You don't really address anything that people like David Poland and Larry Gross said when they praised it.

#3--You don't account for the specific demands of the daily review format. I don't have a sense for what you think would constitute a "great" review, or even a "great review" of this film.

All of that said I do still think that this is an interesting exercise, if for no other reason than because it reminds us that anyone who puts themselves out there is potentially putting themselves out there to be scrutinized.

But upon reflection I'm not sure what purpose breaking the review down this thoroughly serves: what's the point?

I definitely still think you're awesome, Harry, and it occurs to me now that there was no reason to delete my earlier comments and rephrase them here! But I am a hasty person so it was, at least, in character.

Looking forward to your response...

HarryTuttle a dit…

I prefer your expanded thoughts Andy. Thanks for taking the time. I regret you don't carry on your project. I hope you will with another film and another review.

"I think almost any review dissected in this much detail is going to reveal itself as not 'a brilliant masterpiece of a review.' "
... unless it is a brilliant masterpiece of a review. ;)
Besides I hope my reading didn't intentionally overlook all the good sides of the review only to focus on the bad sides, that would be manipulative on my part. Although by underplaying my nitpicky excess it would be easy to show how good the review is. But I intentionally took the devil's advocate perspective striving to keep fair.

re: Poland & Gross
I think what I had in mind was "the review reaches well past traditional reviewing and speaks in a very interesting way to how we watch movies and how we should be watching movies." and that's what I looked for in the review.

Honestly I didn't take into account the (self-imposed) limitations of the format, that would imply ranking critical insights by the type of publication they come from. There has been remarkable critiques written for dailies (Bazin, Daney, Rosenbaum...), often better than bad books. It's about insights, not about the length. But that's what we judge when we talk about greatness in criticism, the ability to overcome the format, and make the best impression given the circumpstances.
Greatness is tossed around far too lightly, everyone wants to be (or to spot) a great writer. Well, a great writer can pass the test unarmed, and it proves a command of the practice, superior to anybody else's, thus eschewing the simplest flaws.

Scrutiny is proportional to your profile and the profile of your publication, or to the number of readers willing to question your reviews. If you get many enemies, if you bash movies a lot of people love, if your publication has a large circulation... you are more likely to be taken to task. With greater exposition come greater responsabilities. But that's the flipside of making a living of deconstructing other people's work when bashing movies. It's easy to criticize, it's less easy to hold against criticism. That's why writing ethics is so important for a critic.

andyhorbal a dit…

I regret you don't carry on your project. I hope you will with another film and another review.

I might one day go forward with this film and this review. Basically, I'm just not feeling that project right now...

Not to mention that I don't know what exactly I want to do yet!

But that's what we judge when we talk about greatness in criticism, the ability to overcome the format, and make the best impression given the circumpstances.

There's the rub. Best impression given the circumstances. I think we have to accord daily, "front-line" film critics a certain amount of leeway. That "brilliant masterpiece of a review" we've been bandying about is going to be one in a million...

everyone wants to be (or to spot) a great writer.

I think I see where you're going with this, and that's why I wonder if you wouldn't be better served by taking on Gross'/Poland's praise for the review rather than for the review itself.

"Reviewing the reviewers" is a tricky business...

And by the way, you're not really up at 3:30am working on your blog, are you?

Santosh a dit…

Hi there, I'm a big Manohla Dargis fan and while I don't particularly enjoy David lynch's movies, I do think you are mistaken in some of your interpretations of Dargis' review of his movie. I don't know if something got lost in translation.

Let's take your interpretation of Paragraph 2 for example: you object to the use of the word "weepy" because it is "pejorative". When I read the review, I simply got the impression that this woman, well, weeps a lot and not necessarily that she is prone to tears at the slightest provocation. Which is to say, I did not feel, when I read the review, that the woman was a weak-willed person who "exaggerates" her emotional discomfort, if any, which is what you seem to interpret this as.

Same thing with "rubber-hand mouth"; it is not necessarily derogatory, merely descriptive.

Next, you ask, "Is she saying that whores and lost girls are Lynch's auteur trademark or that he systematically mixes up prostitution and confusion when portraying women?" when Dargis writes "...may be a whore or merely lost or, because this is a David Lynch film (after all), probably both". To answer your question: NO, that's not what she is saying. What Dargis in fact means is that in Lynch's movies characters usually do not fall into a single category (i.e. either whores or lost girls) but rather, the audience does not know what the character actually is and in many cases, the character ends up being more than one thing (i.e. both whores AND lost girls). Dargis is not saying that Lynch's movies have women who are either whores or lost girls.

I also need to agree with what Andy has to say about the demands of "the review format". The fact is Dargis' review is or was meant, first and foremost, for NYT subscribers and others so that they could find out, atleast vaguely, what the movie was about and make up their mind whether to see it or not. Hence, the plot synopsis, as well as the "mysterious unfinished sentence" in paragraph 5, the latter suggesting that, yes, the trademarks of Lynch's film-making are indeed there is in this one as well, "so go see it, Lynch fans!" This piece of movie criticism would have been entirely different if she had written it for her own book, for example.

Finally, I do not know why you would say, at least based on your interpretations, that this is not Dargis' "most significant piece of criticism for the NYT". Look how limiting that accolade actually is. According to the phrase, this review, first of all, is not a very significant piece of criticism in itself. It is not even the most significant piece of criticism of Dargis' career. It is merely the most significant that she has written for the NYT, and the mere fact that it is not a perfect review or a masterpiece of a review, does not preclude this possibility! I don't know how popular this review has been with people in general, but this "accolade" could also be attributed to what I like to call the "impact factor" of an article i.e. how often have people cited this particular review.

I'm done!

HarryTuttle a dit…

Andy,
Why giving a free ride to reviewers just because they choose to write an easier form of criticism? If you look back on history of criticism, few stand the test of time as a masterpiece of a review still pertinent and stylistically impressive today... But the ones that do are not hallf-good, or filled with "forgiveable flaws". A masterpiece is a masterpiece, or else it's just a very good review... no need to pull out hyperboles every time something new comes up.
As for the newspaper format, I've read better word-limited reviews, so it was not a landmark within this ballpark either in my opinion.
You're right, what I was after was the exaggerated praise of Gross and Poland, without which I would have no particular issues with Dargis' decent review. But it was the same thing to dispute the praise or to examine the text itself. And to answer your earlier question, it was much easier for me to do a nitpicky close reading than to engage in theorical/abstract appreciation of Dargis' style/pertinence (which I'm not qualified to judge, and it wasn't the point either)

Reviewing the reviewers is not a tricky business, in fact is is more fair game than to review a work of art. But in theory, it's harder to attack a (good) critic because the review is supposed to be based on valid reasoning and fairness. The artist however doesn't comply to any moral rules.

p.s. insomnia does help to keep me bloging ;)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Hi Santosh,
I appreciate your corrections, these points were indeed very superficial and very arguable on my part, but that was the point of playing a contrarian.

The distinction between "weepy" and "weeping" is called poetry... it's not just faithfullness to the film, but it also involves the level of engagement of the writer. Does she highlight the superficial result, the causes, the mood, the posture, the emotion, the personality, the speculation... when she describes the face of a woman with tears?
I tried to ask the question : "is this review a summit of English poetry?" Dargis never claimed it was, but apparently some readers believed it when they saw it... so I'm wondering about the standards of such readers.

I'm not sure the NYT is your average synopsis dispenser... the stature of this national newspaper can give a little more than what everybody can read in the alt-weekly press. So by begging for mercy for a NYT writer is in fact saying that this paper is not as good as it should if it allows readership-taste-flattering compromises.
I have no doubt Dargis would have written it much better and much longer in a book, but it was THIS review that received the praise, not an hypothetical book.

Finally, I cannot judge if it is in fact "her most significant piece of criticism for the NYT" for the simple reason that I didn't read ALL her columns. Now if I have issues with her "best" one, maybe I don't need to read the "lesser" ones ;) (joking)
Maybe I didn't make it clear enough, I never meant to judge Dargis as a writer or her career or the NYT... my study was limited to THIS review BECAUSE of the irrational accolade.
Like Andy suggested, this post was to debunk the buzz, not the author.

andyhorbal a dit…

And to answer your earlier question, it was much easier for me to do a nitpicky close reading than to engage in theorical/abstract appreciation of Dargis' style/pertinence (which I'm not qualified to judge, and it wasn't the point either)

Fair enough. But with all due respect, I'm not sure what value your "nitpicky close reading" has to someone who wants to understand more about film reviewing, this film review, or this film. What can we take away from your exercise that will help us in the future? What have you proven exactly, except that this review isn't perfect?

It's an interesting exercise, but if I were to apply the same rigorous standard to this blog post as you do to this review I would have to conclude that it is terribly, terribly flawed. Should I not give you a "free ride"?

I'm all for standards, Harry, but where does the vicious cycle your extreme interpretation of the word "standards" end? We'll just go back and forth forever "nitpicky close reading" each other.

To dissect Manohla's review like this is to ignore what it does do and does do well. Minus that consideration, no treatment of her review is complete. There's nothing wrong with an incomplete blog post. But there's also nothing wrong with an incomplete review.

You did take the easy road here, and you succeeded admirably at reaching your destination. But perhaps you would have been better served by failing to reach the end of the harder road.

andyhorbal a dit…

Maybe this will help explain how I feel about your contention that I want to give a "free pass" to daily reviewers. Maybe it won't, but it's worth a shot:

Should we be hard on paper because it tears? That paper tears marks it as imperfect, but we don't care: paper is perfect in other ways. It's perfect for writing on. It's light and disposable. In fact, it's perfect in some ways because it tears: we can shred it, destroy it. Tearing is a necessary evil to be endured.

HarryTuttle a dit…

I don't want a free ride! You know what, I think you should apply this exercise to my post... in retaliation (if nothing else). I can sense a lot of resentment in the air. I promise I won't dissect your dissection of my dissection to end the vicious circle. ;)

You don't see the point of the exercise, and Jim Emerson suggests that I made bad arguments against a view he holds dear... In fact if my gameplay had gone after an easy target like Armond White, there would be much less outrage and resentment. Apparently the "perversity" of contrarianism goes only one way. Would I do the contrarian if I had taken apart a review that was actually dreadful?

andyhorbal a dit…

There's no resentment on my part: You know and anyone who wants to can read about how much respect I have for you and your writing.

Both your post and this conversation, I think, spring from the calls both of us have made for more criticism in this community. I hope that none of our comments is construed by anyone as crossing over a line of civility, and if someone does feel that way I hope he or she will let the offending party know.

In fact if my gameplay had gone after an easy target like Armond White, there would be much less outrage and resentment.

You're probably right, and that is too bad. I value what you've done here for precisely that reason. This post lends itself to a consideration of accountability, both of film critics and bloggers. But I don't know that this observation, however true, changes the meaning of anything I've said.

I don't want a free ride! You know what, I think you should apply this exercise to my post... in retaliation (if nothing else).

My point, though, is that a dissection like this isn't productive. You've used the same eye for detail and thoroughness that distinguish much of your best work at this site and turned it on a film review. But there's a difference, I think, between this post and, say, your fantastic analysis of a scene from Climates. Namely, where that post opened up a film, this post seems intent on shutting down a strain of conversation about this review.

You object to the idea that this is a "great" review, and because you disagree you've set out to definitely end all speculation that this is the case. In doing so I think you've missed the point of the praise showered upon it.

No one ever said that this was the greatest review of all time, perfect in every way. That's what you've refuted here. I think your talents (and you are one of my favorite film bloggers) would have been better served by a different approach.

jim emerson a dit…

Harry -- Your piece was not what inspired me to add that quote to the top of my site about "bad arguments FOR a view I hold dear." (NOT "against.") I just happened to run across that when I was looking up something on Daniel Dennett. And it's something I've said (less pithily) many times: Whether I agree or disagree with a critic matters far less to me than how well the critic shows evidence of having closely observed the film itself. It was also addressing the "taste" issue that Manohla brought up, and that was among the three quotations at the top of the blog-a-thon -- they were variations on a theme (not quite contradicting one another, but offering different shades of meaning). I think all three of them are true: Critical taste is essential (criticism is meaningless without it), and not something we should try to strain out of criticism (as if that would even be possible), but something we should try to support by building a case based on analysis of "evidence" within the film(s). I don't think criticism is science or poetry, but I think good criticism may contain elements of both in that it uses empirical reasoning and tries to deal with imagery in language.

You set up your argument/analysis quite clearly as deliberately "nitpicky" -- an experiment to see where parsing the work of one of our best critics would get you, and I accept it in that spirit.

Personally, I would have taken on a review (as I have in the past, with Rosenbaum [whose review of IE was also terrific, I thought], Stephen Metcalf and others) in which I thought the REASONING was faulty or lazy or a misrepresentation of what was going on in the film. I think poetry in criticism is rare, and when I see writers deliberately trying to be "poetic" it often makes me cringe -- even though I understand the impulse behind it (because I do it myself). But a movie like "IE" poses real challenges in the context of a daily newspaper review (as I noted in my own for the Chicago Sun-Times). In this case, I think the reviewer has a duty to try to convey what the experience of the movie is like, not to misrepresent it by describing it in the usual formulaic terms (plot, character, acting, cinematography, blah blah blah).

Yes, I did feel like sticking up for Manohla, because I think she's the best critic the NYT has ever had. She and AO Scott are far and away beyond any of the paper's previous movie critics. But she's tough, and experienced, and she can take it. I didn't want to take issue with the concept of your piece AT the Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon because I wanted all the pieces to speak for themselves (and to let readers comment -- as they have here), and if I responded to yours then I'd have to respond to them all, and I'd have my own nits to pick here and there and I didn't want to get into all that because the point (as I saw it) was to open my blog to OTHER points of view.

I'm really glad you contributed! I guess what I'd like to know more about now is: What do you think YOU got out of the exercise? Did you learn anything about the art or craft of criticism? (Aside: What do you think of Renata Adler's demolition of Pauline Kael's writing?) Would you be willing to do a similar analysis of a review you DO think is "great" sometime? I'd love to read that, too!

HarryTuttle a dit…

I know it's not disrespect Andy, I just feel that instead of engaging with my point about critical perception, you take it personally and ask me to pick another target or to be less negative...
Why is it anti-constructive or shutting down the debate?
I don't understand the purpose to moderate standards, to take exceptions, to give a free ride, to compromise with values of references...
Either you consider film criticism for its result (amount of insight delivered) no matter what is the format, or for its practice (the act of selling a synopsis to a reader).
Actually all I ask a critic is to be good at criticism... style is a bonus. And style is part of the sugar coating to keep readers entertained in case they wouldn't read for cinema itself. I don't care much for readers who are bored by in-depth analysis and complain when the review is not "fun" to read. When criticism catters to the lowest common denominator of a readership that needs to be seduced (like a commercial) into seeking more information on a film it is far from art and critcism. We can't always write something that flatters the reader's ego/emotion.
Now you tell me that this type of entertaining advertisment has set its own standard for film criticism and that we should respect it for itself... This might be a standard for journalism (although not the most respectable) but not for cinema criticism. Not in my opinion at least, and that's what I stand up against (I know it doesn't make me popular).

Just forget about Dargis and the NYT, it was a rhetorical example. Both of you guys call for more positivism and complacency, which is exactly what I meant to oppose here.
The reason I'm less tempted to give bliss appraisal on my blog is precisely because the crumbling of critical standards is caused by an absence of self-criticism (I mean the community of critics for itself). Everyone expresses disapproval through PC indifference (absence of accountability, complacency), to focus on the sunny side of life (voicing out only admiration). The few (readers or critics) who dare to engage in a controversy get into personal attacks, flawed arguments and taste disagreement, which discredits the value of negative criticism.
I, for one, think negative criticism can be constructive and that film criticism needs it badly to debunk the consensual assumption that any and every opinion is laudable.
Freedom of speech protects the right to express one's thoughts, but that doesn't mean anything one says is valid criticism. And validity doesn't mean agreement on a certain interpretation or on taste (multiple righteous possibilities to debate here), but about fairness and integrity of judgement.

The other point I was making with this post, was a continuation of my Mannerism Fallacy, because the accolade described above assumes that film criticism is poetry and it's something I disagree with. And I tried to show reviewing is a long way from literary subtlety, well at least it strikes me in the case of this particular review, but it could be any other one.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Jim,
Sorry I miscontrued your quote then, no worries I wasn't mad or anything ;)
Yeah I think there is more reflection in Rosenbaum's (weekly) review of IE and then even more in Delorme's (monthly) Cahiers essay. And your own review doesn't just point and name things present in teh film but does address the core of the film, Lynch's intentions and its artistic grammar of time and space. This is the initiation to an analysis of the film, and it prepares the reader to the specific form experimented by the film.
Compared to your review, Dargis review is merely a movie trailer. ;)

To answer your questions :
I didn't get anything new from the exercise, it was only an opportunity to illustrate a point I already made in the past. But usually we talk about it in general terms and in theoretical concepts. Here by considering the impact and affect of each word onto the imagination of a reader, I hoped to make it more concrete and tangible.
Your suggestion to deconstruct a good review is interesting, but the problem is different, we can't approach the description of greatness as easily. First because a flaw can be deceptive/manipulative, so it requires a certain educational scrutiny. While greatness is usually self explainatory, and pointing to brilliance seems superfluous and pretentious, when it is even possible to put it into words.

HarryTuttle a dit…

What is your favorite piece by Dargis?

I didn't read the Renata/Kael post yet, I will.

andyhorbal a dit…

Harry, you're completely misinterpreting pretty much everything that I'm saying.

First, I have never once asked you to either pick a new target or to be less negative. Not once.

Second, "positivism and complacency"? That I will take personally! How can you possibly take that away from either my writing or my comments here?

I, for one, think negative criticism can be constructive and that film criticism needs it badly to debunk the consensual assumption that any and every opinion is laudable.

I do too! I think you're post "shuts down" discussion of this review because there's no way to respond to it except on a word-by-word basis. You still haven't convinced me that the discussion of your post/that response would be worthwhile.

It's not your negativity I object to, Harry, it's your methods. I don't know what other way I can say this: All you've proven is that Dargis' review isn't perfect. So what!?

You're not imagining any resentment you read into this comment. Have you even read anything I've said before now?

And incidentally, what we now have on our hands is a failed exercise in precisely the sort-of "self-criticism" you call for. This comments thread has not advanced any sort of discussion of either Dargis' review or of film criticism in general. Who can read this and think that more criticism in this community is a good thing?

andyhorbal a dit…

Here by considering the impact and affect of each word onto the imagination of a reader, I hoped to make it more concrete and tangible.

My point, the point I've been trying to make all along, is that you failed to do this. Not that this goal is worthwhile. Not that this article is inappropriate material. My point is that it didn't work.

You do not paint a coherent picture of either the review or your disagreement with it. At the level of detail your criticisms operate they are meaningless.

andyhorbal a dit…

"isn't worthwhile" that last comment should read.

HarryTuttle a dit…

I know your blog goes against complacency and I appreciate that. It's just I couldn't understand your reaction reaction to this post.
Ok sorry for misinterpreting your words then. When you put it plainly I understand that my method failed. It's a let down to be useless, but it won't be the last time... ;)
No hard feelings.
For the record I didn't disagree with the review, my contention was the lightness and conventionality opposed to the upfront "art label". Nevermind, it's not worth wasting anymore time on this. It was worthwhile to me, that's something.

jim emerson a dit…

Harry: Off the top of my head,two of Manohla Dargis's reviews that I thought were fantastic were her takes on "A History of Violence" and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." There was another one in the last few months that I thought was so dead-on that it brought tears to my eyes (I try not to read reviews until after I've seen -- and written about -- the movie myself), but my mind is mush right now...

andyhorbal a dit…

No hard feelings and I apologize if things got a little too heated there.

I don't think this post is useless, I was just struggling for a way to make the nature of my general disagreement with your approach to this project clear.

I also don't think that this represents a failure of "self-criticism." I think it demonstrates that we have a lot to learn about how to go about this productively, but there's nothing wrong with that.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Jim, I'll be a contrarian again, cause these are 2 films I disliked against the critical acclaim, I my reading might be biased, but I'll check them out, thanks for pointing them to me.