26 septembre 2009

Critical Fallacy 11 : Egocentrism

"It's too big, it's too wide | It's too strong, it won't fit | It's too much, it's too tough | I talk like this 'cause I can back it up [..] Some call it arrogant, I call it confident | You decide when you find on what I'm working with [...] Ego so big, you must admit | I got every reason to feel like I'm that bitch"
Beyoncé (Ego, 2008, on the album I am Sasha Fierce)
A critic is an individual human who develops a judgement based on personal preferences, like anyone else of course. Unfortunately, when taste becomes the only referential for every opinions issued on a film, the level of critical insight lowers considerably.


Assuming whatever affects you, influences you, shocks you, makes you think and dream is somehow universal therefore applies to everybody else, assuming that the expression of your own taste will set everyone else's taste in tune is the delusion of the infant whose psyche is underdeveloped. The infant believes to be the centre of the universe and that people around think exactly alike. Later we learn that taste is particular and personality is what makes everyone unique.
Each viewer can relate to a film for different reasons and the reaction can be totally contrary due to taste differences, even if the rational understanding of the film is equivalent.
That's why the debate of taste preferences is left to the basic audience chatting up what they experienced outside the theatre. Writing on a film as a critic involves going beyond this immediate state of personal impressions (self-indulgent preferences, self-reflexive experiences) otherwise the review will be entirely interchangeable with anybody else's report on the film... not because of the opinionated stances it takes, but for its level of superficiality.
Taste is equally shared among people. The taste of a film critic is no better/finer/more authoritative than any average viewer's. In fact when it comes to subjective appreciations, the critics' taste is probably less spontaneous, less genuine than the general audience (who is not conditioned by theories, trendspotting obsessions, "professional" fetishism, friendly acquaintances with people working in the film industry...) The critic fabricates a certain sophisticated taste, based on knowledge, canons, compulsive viewing, this taste becomes more objective, more informed, more reasonable, more based on facts and understanding than the fully emotional response of a common movie goer. So critics can't operate within total subjectivity and shouldn't deceive their readers by pretending what they offer is pure taste and impressions.

Lorena Cancela : "Or why — if most teachers celebrate Godard's inserts or interruptions in a film as the introduction of the first person, as the presence of a voice calling for attention — can't they accept that someone uses the first person in writing as a way of saying "Hey, here I am"? "

Klaus Eder : "[..] you start, as a film critic, on a white sheet of paper or an empty monitor and it's always painful to find the first sentence, to write something. And you write about yourself. I'm deeply convinced that, if you read film critics, you'll probably understand more about the critic writing it than about the film. About his personal humor of that day. You slept, you didn't sleep well, you had some problems with your wife or your lover. I mean, it's all in there. "

Adrian Martin : "Now the gut response is not the be-all and end-all of film criticism, but you've got to start with the gut response. Hopefully, it travels from your gut to your head at some point and you write something intelligent — but you've got to trust your own gut response."

David Bordwell : "Most orthodox criticism overdoes opinions, which create the critic’s professional persona. Soon opinions crystallize into tastes, and the persona overshadows the films."
Well, the first person is indeed preferable to the impersonal style using third person, "we", indefinite subject or infinitive verbs... Because the writer should endorse his own opinions when they are just opinions, and distinguish that from factoids and general wisdom that belong to culture and are not based on impressions/assumptions. The first person corresponds to the acknowledgement of the writer of his unique personal perspective. I care less for its stylistic advantages than for its inherent qualification of a point of view and discriminate the levels of reliability of informations contained in the article.
It's OK to let the ego speak, to express personal opinions, to share subjective interpretations, to throw tentative assumptions, to suggest speculative theses. But it's better to make it clear who speaks, where these statements come from, since the journalist publishes informations for the mass that might misinterpret the level of truth of a sentence. Good critics shouldn't build a reputation on such misunderstandings.
Read also Leo Charney's article : "Common People with Common Feelings" on Pauline Kael. (in my previous post)
That's why I believe film criticism is a collective action, one nurtured by the ego and subjectivity of many, to form an ensemble of perspective that balance eachothers. Film culture is not the sum of unilateral authoritative statements imposed by a self-appointed chosen few who say "I'm a film critic so you must watch what I like". Only the plurality of voices, the checks and balances, the self-criticism, the open debate of opinions, the mutual engagements with eachother's ideas could build an accessible film culture.

JP Coursodon : "I consider myself a fairly ordinary film viewer, but I have never expected film to be the purveyor of wish fulfilment. I never expected a movie to fulfill any wish I might have. I never went to a movie with any kind of 'wish' that might somehow be 'fulfilled' by the experience of watching the movie. I don't even comprehend the concept of wish fulfilment. I can't believe that I am a freak exception and everybody else goes to movies for fulfilling some wishes. Maybe I'm in denial... JPC"
Fred Camper : "Yes, I don't come here [a_film_by] to "have fun" either. I also don't go to films to "have fun." There's nothing wrong with fun, but there are other kinds of experiences in life, and great cinema offers something different."
Here is the difference between the regular audience and the professional viewer. I could as well say the difference between the casual movie goer (who is a consumer paying to receive a guaranteed entertainment) and the art lover (who visits a "museum" devoutly, with respect for the work, with understanding, with humility).
The consumers expect a service, a gain, a return for their money. They don't care who did it, or why and how, they don't care for excuses, for explanations, for messages. All they want is to get the entertainment they ordered, to kill time, to feel good, to escape daily life, to forget their problems. They are in an egocentric attitude, where the movie should come to them or fail. That's why the audience may be disappointed by a film for many different reasons, because it didn't match the expectations they built up for this movie, or their idea of an enjoyable night-out at the movies.
The critic goes towards the film, the filmmaker, in order to find the clues, to find what the auteur had to say, to offer. This is a forward pull in the direction of the film, a film-centric perspective.
This is a very different process. And if critics tell you they can predict what your ego wants in movies, what will be your favourite movies... they are lying. A film writer shouldn't make a business of dictating preferences, being a taste maker.
A critic is there to give readers all the elements necessary for you to judge for yourself if it fits your need or not, to help you enter the world of the film, to accompany you down the labyrinth.
Adrian Martin : "There is something in criticism I value perhaps above everything else: it is what I can call the ‘personal voice’. I do not mean the autobiographical or confessional content of writing, which often bores and irritates me – and, in fact, most writers ‘in person’ are absolutely nothing like what you imagine them to be from their writing! No, I mean the way in which an individual writer can communicate and draw you into his or her own ‘system’, their way of seeing, feeling and processing films, as well as the world."
Cinemascope.it (issue 7) PDF
  • See illustration here

9 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

JLG : "I prefer certain articles in L'Équipe on tennis matches that I've actually watched in reality or seen on television to certain film critics, because those articles tell you about the match at least: such and such a drive happened this way, etc. Film critics say what they would like us to think about a film. We might consider the evolution of Olivier Séguret in Libération. Before, he used to speak to his readers from a film, the way you can say you come from somewhere, as opposed to speaking about something. ... Daney was one of the last to do that work. He described the actual thing, you'd want to go or not, in any case you'd make your judgment based on the evidence. An entire paragraph of his article on L'Amant is devoted to a lace-up boot. You understand what takes place in the film. Likewise, when Rivette spoke about the tracking shot in Kapo, he described it straightforwardly, like Thucydides describing the Peloponnesian War. That dimension has been lost because we no longer see the film. You tell me it's good. You'll have to show me. I don't believe you a priori. What you say is interesting. Maybe you're even more interesting than the film."
Jean-Luc Godard, The Future(s) of Film: Three Interviews 2000|01.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Roger Ebert : "Advise the readers well. This does not involve informing them, "You'll love this!" If I approached some guy in a restaurant and told him what he would love, I might get a breadbasket in the face. No, we must tell the readers what we ourselves love or hate. If we work for employers who think we should "like more movies like ordinary people like," we should make a donation in his name to the Anti-Cruelty Society."
Roger's little rule book (October 28, 2008)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Caveh Zahedi : "Apparently, "Trinie" has an MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars, and yet she doesn't seem to understand the meaning of the word "plot," as in "a frankly disgusting plot." I'm not sure how a "plot" can qualify as "disgusting." I assume she means that she finds the subject matter of the film (i.e. sex with prostitutes) disgusting. Well, that's extraordinarily virtuous of her, but the purpose of a film review is not, as "Trinie" seems to believe, to publicize her own personal moral preferences, but rather to discuss the merits or demerits of a particular film."

HarryTuttle a dit…

FrayMatter : "Thus, from what I've seen, he can evaluate movies with a truly open mind, rather than basing his impressions on whether or not the film confirms what he already knows to be true."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Michael Blowhard : "What's really meant when someone says, "This is the best film of the year?" Is some lofty Considered Critical Judgment being laid on us? That just makes me want to burp, fart, and throw mud. Or is filling out best-of lists simply another way some people have of saying "Hey, here are some films I enjoyed a whole lot"? If so, then why not be more direct about the fact that personal preference is at work?
I find myself wondering about the psychology of critics. What on earth could motivate anyone to even want to elevate personal response into historical ranking?"

HarryTuttle a dit…

Sometimes critics see their job like a political campaign... out to to make sure the reader shares their mindset by the end of the article, using all possible means of unfair persuasions. When did criticism become the elevation of a personal taste to universal truth? Critics should learn to make the difference between a subjective impression that readers may not share or will not share after viewing the film, and reasonably objective judgements based on artistic/technical evaluation. Both could feed the body of a review but pretending subjectivity is objective or objectivity is subjective is simply fallacious.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Tom Moon : "Seems to me this notion of perspective and context is key. The net is flooded with "music critics" who speak with enchanting glibness about their reactions to a work, how it links up with their personal love trauma and life narrative, etc. That approach has sorta poisoned the well: To devote space to the personal in a discussion of a work that some soul took a year or more to create is too often downright arrogant and not at all illuminating.

But that type of writing is what passes for criticism anymore. It doesn't help develop discernment, doesn't make connections, doesn't live up to Wombat's notion of "challenging" the reader's thinking."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Chris Fujiwara : "We also have a responsibility not to surrender to the overwhelming power of the film in a kind of ecstatic fusion, but to remain neutral before it. Not neutral in the manner of a judge who evaluates from a great height, applying invariable standards. But neutral in the sense that our own individuality and thought don't become submerged and our values remain distinct, so that we don't have to say yes to what the film says yes to, no to what the film says no to, but can hold everything in a state of suspension. The danger of love is that it seems to relieve us of the responsibility to speak. Not just the ability, which can also happen, but the responsibility. And the critic can never be without the responsibility to speak."
The Ethics of Film Criticism, Undercurrent #6, April 2010

HarryTuttle a dit…

Jean-Michel Frodon : "Dans tous les cas, affrontant ce qu’il perçoit de mystère ou d’absence de mystère et tâchant de le partager par l’écriture, le critique n’énonce jamais que sa propre vérité. Celle des sentiments qu’il a éprouvés et que sa supposée capacité d’écriture lui permet de construire, en phrases et en idées, à partir de ses propres émotions, pour accompagner ensuite chacun vers la construction de sa propre opinion. Un critique ne dicte pas son avis sur les films, il n’a aucun droit à faire une chose pareille et d’ailleurs quel intérêt cela aurait-il? Il travaille à construire un espace de rencontre plus vaste et plus riche entre une œuvre et des personnes, qui sont à la fois des lecteurs et des spectateurs." (Slate, 18 Nov 2010)

lire : Servitude narcissique de l'écrivain (22 Dec 2010)