22 avril 2008

Critical Fallacy 8 : Prejudice

Continuing with this series I've neglected for long enough, the current debate around the responsibility crisis among film critics is a perfect excuse for this new segment.

Critical Fallacy 8 : PREJUDICE

There are various sorts of prejudices that may hinder the expected proverbial "neutrality" of the critical distance required to judge a work of art.

It's a personal conflict where the particular position/background/acquaintance of a critic render his/her judgment less neutral, more suspicious. For example, certain aggravating circumpstances will color one's perception of the film in a distorting way.

An excessive familiarity/antipathy (emotional relationship) with one of the filmmaker/star (eg. David Thomson).
A generational/social class gap (sometimes belonging to a different milieu blinds you to certain subtle aspects of a film designed for another niche).
A political/religious incompatibility (we don't expect from radical bigots a fair appreciation of a film pamphlet).
If the film aesthetic belongs to an aesthetic movement in contradiction with the writer's own preferences (the review of a musical by a hardcore neorealist critic will most likely miss the entire point of the film).
If the critic used to be/is/will be a filmmaker his/her personal conception of cinema may conflict with the one defended and applied in the film reviewed (same aesthetical contradictions may lead to false expectations, as the critic reviews the film he wanted to make of it rather than the film that was made).
Dan Sallitt (Aug 23, 2006, on a_film_by), Theories of Disagreement :
"What occurred to me this morning is that maybe we underestimate: a) the incredible amount of data available in even the simplest work of art; and b) the mind's ability to find strong, coherent patterns in even a small collection of data. So, for instance, I come to Kubrick with a particular heightened aversion to a certain acting style which is connected to a certain personality trait. I identify this element, am ticked off by it, and calibrate my perceptive apparatus so that I start picking up any other element with some aspect in common. Because there is so much data in a movie, I have no trouble finding lots of support for my initial aversion, and in discarding the occasional data point that doesn't fit what I'm looking for. Within minutes, voila! I have constructed a coherent Kubrick-pattern that I call a sensibility. Meanwhile, other observers, without the same baseline aversion that I have, not only construct a different Kubrick-pattern, but also lack a slot in their Kubrick-pattern to help them identify the traits that look obvious to me."

hotlove666 (Aug 23, 2006, on a_film_by) :
"I don't attempt to construct a personality for an auteur. I'm looking for something else. When I look at North By North West, I am not thinking about Hitchcock's personality. I'm thinking about his art. And I know a lot about Hitchcock's personality! Ditto for Fuller and Boetticher, whom I knew well: When I watch China Gate or Seven Men from Now, I'm not thinking about Sam and Budd, except as artists, and strangely, I don't see much of the man in the artist. The films are always a surprising revelation to me of "who" the men I knew really were - a misleading way to put it, because that "who" isn't a person in any of the usual senses. Maybe I'm arguing for a theory of artistic impersonality? I'm not sure. The one case where this may not apply to how I saw the films in the early days is Hawks, where certain eccentricities I loved in the films did suggest a "person" behind them. But I wouldn't see them that way today."
"But I remember meeting the author of The Blue Iguana for a presskit interview and finding him terribly obnoxious -not a bad guy, just obnoxious. I still watch his films. I think he "has something." And I suspect his unfortunate personality has kept him from making a name for himself in the businss. It isn't what I watch his films for, however."
J. Rosenbaum (Oct 11, 2006, at The House Next Door) :
"The problem is that if and when these films [Welles' Don Quixotte & The Other Side of the Wind] see the light of day, they will not be received well by critics because they aren't what people are looking for from Welles. In fact, that was the genius of Welles. He never wanted to give people what they expected from him. They wanted “another Citizen Kane,” whatever that means. One always has to adjust one’s preconceptions and expectations and that's one of the great challenges of his work."
Cultural barrier, language barrier, historical rivalry may lead to misunderstanding, oversimplifying caricaturization, false characterisation, cultural blindness, missed in-joke humour, double-entendre, local cultural references, innuendos, regional accents... I know most of this is usually exploited by mainstream cinema as unmissable laughter signposts. But when serious criticism seeks to understand a film that doesn't functions on easy ropes like that, it become crucial to have a minimal understanding of the cultural context. To abstain from commenting such details might also be wise.

I'm not suggesting that every critic with a suspicious profile is unable to overcome the bias of a cultural/emotional frameset, but the idea to leave the review to someone more apt to neutrality should at least be considered in such case. Hard to believe for some, but a strong "subjective bias" is not a proof of greater insightful response for a film. It sure makes for a more entertaining read (people love animated polemics), but it doesn't give the film at hand the most adequate appreciation. If critics differ it should always be on aesthetical level, not because of preconception that exist in their worldview, outside of the film itself.

Then there are practical reasons why a critic should pass on the review to a colleague. Missing the begining or walking out before the end, might not be a big deal to the casual movie-goer, but if someone is asked to judge a film, a complete viewing of the work, under decent conditions (original aspect ratio, continuous projection without technical interruptions, quality soundtrack, eventually correct subtitle translation, close attention throughout...), is a mandatory requisite. Not everybody in the audience rate the film they saw, but those who do, shall know what they are talking about at least (not to mention being a competent critic).

Certain pre-screening information may also spoil your "virgin experience" of the film, or the conditioning by a partisan crowd...

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6 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

At The House Nextdoor, Matt Zoller Zeist:
"And it’s not enough to say you love this movie because you saw it at a particular time in your life, or you were having a good day when you saw it. (...) It may be entirely possible that you see a movie that is innovative in some way, perhaps even a masterpiece, and it makes no impression on you, or less of an impression than it might have if you’d been having a better day. If you hadn’t had something horrible happen recently. If you weren’t worrying about paying the rent or, you know, “What’s that spot on my neck?” I mean there’s all kinds of factors that come into play."

Mark a dit…

You mentioned in your post that "language barrier... may lead to misunderstanding, oversimplifying caricaturization, false characterisation, cultural blindness, missed in-joke humour, double-entendre, local cultural references, innuendos, regional accents...," but I actually wonder if the opposite occurs.

For me, when I watch a film in a foreign language and am forced to rely on subtitles, I often wonder whether I like the film better precisely because I don't judge the dialogue as harshly. For example, I'm fluent in English and, therefore, am able to judge all the puns, the wordplay, the colloquialisms, the nuances, idioms, etc. at a high level, but am unable to in foreign languages. As a result, when I read some bad pun in a foreign film subtitle or encounter some on-the-nose dialogue, I find myself usually chalking it up to either a missed translation or a lack of cultural and linguistic understanding.

This positive prejudice, I theorize, could explain why foreign language films tend to get inflated scores from American critics (in my humble opinion), myself included.

One example, which Pacze Moj and I were discussing one night, was My Blueberry Nights. He suggested that, maybe, if Wong Kar Wai had made it as a Chinese film, it would've gotten a much better critical reaction just because of the fog of language, so to speak.

Then again, I thought Lust, Caution (I have a basic understanding of Mandarin) was underrated by American critics, so who knows.

HarryTuttle a dit…

You're right that a positive aspect of the language barrier is "exoticism" (the superficial appeal of an original folklore we are less familiar with). Actually, in my mind, a prejudice can be either positive or negative... the point is that it departs from reality one way or the other hence gives a wronged criticism. It's equally bad for a critic to overestimate the actual qualities of a film.

The issue with Blueberry Nights isn't just a matter of dialogues... it's just a lame plot with cliched situations. But we don't care, it's beautifully filmed. I enjoyed it ;)

Though if we look at the quantity and commercial success of subtitled films in the USA, I wonder if "inflated appreciation" plays a big role on the market at all...

HarryTuttle a dit…

Ronald Bergan in The Guardian (July 3rd, 2008):

"Is it possible (or even desirable) for film criticism to be free from personal bias? In fact, in the 70s, when interpretation followed semiotic and structuralist models often augmented by Marxist historical and Freudian psychoanalysis, hidden assumptions about race, class, gender and language itself were revealed as never before. Many of the film theorists, who came from other disciplines - linguistics, sociology, political science, philosophy and psychology - did not disguise their ideological agenda. Thus we had analyses of films from a Marxist, Freudian, Feminist, Gay and Black perspective. In a way, they were more interested in moral relativism than moral absolutes.

But what of the humble film critic grinding out his copy weekly and feigning objectivity? Is it possible for a male, female, white, black, homosexual, left-wing, right-wing, or bourgeois critic to assess films in the same objective manner and not let these truths colour their writings in some way, even unconsciously. Does one's nationality and language play a part? Can a critic be objective when faced with the politics of a film that he or she finds anathema? Is the ideology of a film as important in judging it as the aesthetics?"

HarryTuttle a dit…

Roger Ebert: "Be prepared to give a negative review. If you give one to the work of a friend, and they're not your friend any more, they weren't ever your friend. As Robert Altman once asked me, "If you never gave me a bad review, what would a good review mean?" He was a great man. He thought over his words, and added: "But all your bad reviews of my films have been wrong.""

"No posing for photos! Never ask a movie star to pose with you for a picture. No movie star ever wants to do this. They may smile, but they're gritting their teeth. "It is the Chinese Water Torture," Clint Eastwood told me. "And 99 times out of a hundred, the stranger they hand their camera to looks through the lens, pushes the button, and says 'It isn't working!' and then the fan has to walk over to the guy and demonstrate the camera and say, 'now try it'. And then it isn't working again. Looking at someone looking puzzled at a camera, that's the story of my life.""

"Remember, you are a professional. You are not a friend. You diminish yourself by asking for a snapshot. I so firmly believe this, I have a sad lack of movie star photos co-starring me. For example, the University of Chicago Press asked me if I had photos of myself with Martin Scorsese to help promote my new book Scorsese by Ebert. [Note: Plugging your own book is ethical.] I have been in Scorsese's company in Cannes, New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Toronto and Columbus, Ohio. But I had only one photo of us together, from the time when he was a guest co-host on "Siskel & Ebert." That sort of situation is okay. By posing, I was just being nice to the guy. I couldn't use the photo. We were both wearing TV makeup and looked like an exhibit at Madame Tussaud's. I once visited a set of an Ingmar Bergman film, and Bergman and Liv Ullmann signed a photo to me when they heard it was my birthday, but I didn't ask them to pose with me. Damn it."

Roger's little rule book (October 28, 2008)

HarryTuttle a dit…

"It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields."

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854