"The Ethics of Film Criticism" by Chris Fujiwara, 28 Feb 2010, published at Undercurrent #6, April 2010
"Chris Fujiwara didn't choose the topic, it was thrust on him." (FIPRESCI website)
Chris Fujiwara : "I guess in a way I am a little afraid of the word ethics"
I don't think he attempted at any point to engage with issues on an ethical level. And most of the so-called responsibilities he comes up with deal with either the pragmatic modus operandi of film journalism, or film appreciation, neither of which have to do with ethics... It takes 15 seconds to pick up an erudit book from your bookshelf, or to type in the word "ethic" in Wikipedia on your computer. This little "waste of time", ultimately pays off. But then again, if you need to do that, maybe you shouldn't patronize your audience with a phony lecture on "ethics"...
"Although the terms ethics and morality may sometimes be used interchangeably, philosophical ethicists often distinguish them, using ethics to refer to theories and conceptual studies relating to good and evil and right and wrong, and using morality and its related terms to refer to actual, real-world beliefs and practices concerning proper conduct." (Wikitionary)
Life and Death matters, Human Rights, Justice or Universal Truth are above individual particularities, above professional rules, above social conventions, above the human law.
Cinema is a trivial activity, as far as ethical philosophy is concerned. We don't judge the ethical standard of spectators for watching a crime scene, or critics for praising a "bad" film.
Deontology is the branch of philosophy that will examine the moral obligations, the moral rules, the moral consequences at stake within a given profession (film criticism).
Fujiwara delineates the responsibilities of film criticism on a philosophical plane (so says he...), with a vocabulary barely clear enough for psychology (as symptoms!) or folksonomy ("enthusiasm", "favorable", "absence", "ambiguity", "unfamiliar", "strangeness", "power", "badness", "experience"...), just like Adrian Martin leaves ethics up to "intuition" (see below). This is no philosophical lecture.
In 2006, doctor in Philosophy, Professor Adrian Martin discussed the same question, under a title best suited to the subject : "responsibility" [PDF]. Although he does drop the E word a few times.
Adrian Martin : "[..] I realized that everyone working on such a publication must be able to draw a line - a line over which they will not cross. An ethical line. In concrete terms, that means being able to say, absolutely, what kind of thing you are not willing to publish, under any circumstances. [..] one must strive for an ethical standard in on-line publishing, and not let the moral slippery slide begin.That slippery slide is usually inaugurated, in the film magazine business, by one thing: money. And most particularly: advertising. [..]"he continues:"This is the ethical responsibility of a film magazine: to seek an alternative, and then to communicate it, understand it, transmit it. [..]But once, again, an ethical orientation is possible: a direction, an intuition towards the future."
He begins with "conflict of interest" which is one of the main issue within criticism deontology. So this passes as ethics just fine. Then somehow he slides in distant territories where giving attention to non-commercial films, counter-culture, intuitions become ethical problems... Covering the "wrong" films (define "wrong" in philosophical terms please!), ignoring whole areas of cinema, refusing to be pedagogical is not "immoral", it's just being partial, short-sighted and plain stupid for an educator. But nevermind. The word "responsibility" is definitely more adequate for this topic.
Fujiwara doesn't even acknowledge the possibility of a conflict of interest in his article...
And that's a text that the guy wrote once for an oral speech and then REVISED it (really?) for a publication in Undercurrent.
The fact that a doctor in philosophy let his Undercurrent co-editor publish such mumbo-jumbo is itself a case of unethical complacency. But I guess if he approved, he must have found traces of philosophy in there, or he's a bad friend to let Chris embarrass himself and do nothing about it.
THE "ETHICAL" FILM CRITIC
According to Fujiwara there are two ways for a critic to be
1. to be pro a certain cinema and con another kind of cinema (responsibility to ALL cinema)
2. (responsibility to ONE film)
And obviously you have the choice to pick one or the other : Text OR Context. He suggests that a critic could do one without the other. For someone uncomfortable with dogmatic categories, he's pretty binary on this one.
Apparently the critic lives in a manichaean world devided between good cinema and bad cinema (existing or hypothetical films). He doesn't define which is which, but it's about "past" (?) and "future" (?), about "validity" (?), about honesty (we could maybe relate to this one at least in abstract terms), about "personal vision" (?) and about "society" (?). Wait, he defines his own breed of vision by a word list : "absence", "ambiguity", "space for reading"... get whatever you can from that, cause he aint gonna explicit what they correspond to in terms of "cinema validity". I suppose he believes this word dropping was self-explanatory.
I don't know if all "ethical critics" are meant to share the same dichotomies, good v. bad (thus defining THE only single correct cinema), or if every "personal" visions are each ethical in their own way (thus subverting ethics to individual subjectivity)
Chris Fujiwara : "So the ethical question of someone in this position becomes: what justifies my judgment? Am I merely recording what I like and what I don't like?"
Again, being emotional, subjective, summary, random is not immoral. Even for a critic. It's just bad (or incomplete) practice. You don't need to characterize it as "unethical" to rule out such flimsy attitudes from cinema literature. It's wrong, not in ethical terms, but in practical terms : it's against the very professional PURPOSE of art criticism, on a basic level (before any philosophical levels).
"[..] remain alive to the possibility of the new and unfamiliar.That possibility always exists. In any important work, there is a strangeness that is irreducible. If it lacks this strangeness, it is not a work that we can seriously discuss in aesthetic terms.The strangeness is something that sticks, that resists being easily described, much less made into a formula [..]"
The word is vague enough to change its definition however suits you, and make your favourite films "strange", and films you dislike "not strange enough" to dismiss everybody else's favourite films. Clearly this is not helping film criticism to subordonate the "seriousness" or "worthiness" of a film to such an intangible concept. The examples cited didn't enlighten me.
Besides it doesn't mean anything. Even if you defined "strangeness" in unequivocal aesthetic terms, it's always in the eye of the beholder. And to assume that "familiarity" is automatically disqualifying is pointless. As much as I prefer "strange films" (probably my own idiosyncratic definition of "strangeness"), it's not because a film is inexplicable that it will be great, and vice versa. Actually this contradicts the goal of film theory to EXPLICIT film language.
I'm pretty sure the everyday layman will call "strangeness" what they can't quite pinpoint in art, but art critics need to go a little bit deeper, I think.
"[..] But isn't there something purely outside category that we fail to respond to when we meet the film in such a way? Something that might even be a challenge to our categories?Yet how else is it possible to "account for" a "power" other than by using the categories we already have? And if we must grant to every work that comes along the potential to transcend or tear down our categories, what are bringing to the work, what does criticism do? Is there even criticism where there are no categories?The best answer I can see is that we don't bring just our categories, but our ability to pay attention, and, in fact, we are better off pretending we have no categories, throwing them away at the moment we approach a film as critics (but keeping them close by for when we need them as historians and theorists). "
I would say that throwing away what he refers to as "categories" is the first irresponsible attitude a critic could have... Tabula rasa criticism, theory-less impressions, guesstimations and speculations. Are you trying to persuade yourself that you are allowed to talk about cinema without knowledge, or are you actually trying to define the criticism praxis through empiricism? Either way it's no ethics, and passing THAT (which is your personal interpretation of what Film Theory should be) as a philosophical rightness for everyone else is kinda wrong... I mean, you may argue that categories are sometimes invalid or self-limited or failing us; but you shall not define this controversial opinion into a universal truth, and that's for sure.
"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."
Yes neutral, in the sense of NEUTRAL. Don't be afraid of the word. Embrace the fact that claiming to deserve the right to judge somebody else's work puts you in an elitist spot, de facto! Or do something else than film criticism.
Keeping our subjectivity in check (which is different from erasing subjective impressions) means maintaining an objective mind.
One of the advantages of being immune to ethics is that self-contradiction doesn't really distract your train of thoughts.
"the critic has to figure out how to guard against too-easy assimilations and comparisons "
like to mix up ethics with professional duty maybe?
"[..] these days I usually write only on things I want to write about, and these are usually films that for one reason or another I feel close to.""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."
Responsibility to : (from less urgent to most urgent)
1. the reader
2. the filmmaker
3. the (film) community
I'm confused by his reverse urgency order... the most urgent comes last on his list? Is it a suspense effect? If it is a list of priorities, then "myself" should be first. And not because it's the most important, but because it's the necessary pre-condition to engage with anything else onward. It's a matter of knowing yourself, in order to gauge what is your relation to others, to objects, to the world. It is primordial, but it's the less important, it doesn't mean you're egotical if you cite yourself first (in case there was a doubt here).
Adrian Martin : "[..] no matter what critics think they are saying or not saying in their writing, they are betraying themselves, giving away their deepest selves, their full system of beliefs and values, at every single moment. It is important for every critic to come to a realisation of this truth. What you think about music and art, what you think about sex, what you think about family and friendship, what you think about politics and history: it's all there, plainly there, for everyone to read in what you write, in your slightest expression, your smallest turn of phrase. Any critic's biases are always going to become apparent - so it is better to master those biases, use them, include them, be up front about it them. Or else, those biases will rule you, like nasty unconscious impulses, and you will end up looking like someone who has a sinister agenda, an axe to grind."
Being objective doesn't mean to erase your Self, to become insipid and interchangeable... it means being aware of your own limitations and your predilections, therefore most adapted to calibrate your personal vision, your apprehension of somebody else's art, your place in the world.
As for the reader, it is merely a rhetorical commitment to your readership, in case you expect to become popular or famous. There is absolutely no imperative to please a hypothetical reader when writing about film, other than to sell copies of the journal you work for (which is an entirely different logic!) Just like there is no imperative, a priori, for an artist to fulfill the desire of a potential/hypothetical audience of his/her films. You may make films, or write articles for "Your Public" (whatever that is), but it doesn't fall under responsibilities, much less ethical ones...
If there was no readers, Cinema would still need a critical literature, for the sake of history records. The presence/absence, support/discord of readers (no more than the employers in the film press) are not a limiting factor. It's not readers who decide whether film criticism shall be or not. So I would completely evacuate this item in the list.
For the "film community", I don't get it well... It's not what people say/think today that matters, but how critical texts will sustain a historical legacy, with the critical distance of time.
I would prefer the idea of "Cinema" as a timeless, impersonal, transnational family, like the notion of "Literature", or "Painting", in general, abstract terms, for other arts. Cinema as an Art, as an entity. Yes, the critic has a responsibility towards the art of Cinema, in regard to the history of film criticism and film theory. To fit in the tracks of the revered elders, or to reassess a questionable legacy... but always with solid arguments.
ACTUAL MORAL RESPONSIBILITIES FOR FILM CRITICS
- Don't lie to yourself, consciously or unconsciously (see point above)
- Be educated, knowledgeable, insightful; only claim authority on what you master, admit to your blind-spots
- Be pedagogical, contribute to improve and reinforce film culture. Be attentive to its corruption and its shortcomings.
- Only criticize and evaluate films you've watch (entirely) in decent conditions, and you feel comfortable dealing with, to do them justice
- Be fair, open-minded, tolerant, adaptable
- Be impartial, objective, rational, clear-sighted
- Be CRITICAL, which means weighing the value of each arguments, your own and those of the artists, the audience or your peers. Not only critical of films, but critical of yourself, of your peers, of the system allowing you to do your job, of society as a whole and of the world we live in. No one, no publication, no film is beyond cross-examination... but the most aesthetically important they are, the deepest your counter-argument ought to be to question them.
- Be irreproachable : if you want to point to other's mistakes, don't be guilty of making them yourself. One easy way is to contain yourself to your domain of competency.
- If you're not 100% behind the words of your article, if you're going to blame someone else (your editor, your publication, your sponsor, your readers...) when the content of your article is questioned, think twice and DO NOT let it get published in the first place. Nobody can force you to write anything against your will (unless you live in a dictatorship). So if you get yourself in trouble, blame yourself. That's part of the responsibility tied to exposing your views in public.
N.B. loving cinema, having emotions, having opinions is not a RESPONSIBILITY, it is natural and inherent to EVERY human beings. We don't need a deontological rule to enforce THAT! (Deficient Subjectivity)
If you don't like any or all of these responsibilities, you're not really in a position to judge people and people's artwork. Because it's not just a fun game to show off your taste, it's a privilege granted to those who deserve it. Else, no credibility, no authority, no tribune for your opinions.
* * *
I welcome the publication of educational articles on critical responsibilities, of course. If you take out the word "ethics" from this article, the advice he gives there are all good to improve film culture and the practice of a respectable discipline.
But when you give referential moral standards it's better to get it right, isn't it? Or else people who really need a solid moral framework will be further confused and misdirected. The fact FIPRESCI got their ethics wrong is proof that film culture is badly in need of better education on this subject.
I wonder if everything is all clear in his mind (not surprising he wants to discard big concepts and intellectual categories). It is so deceiving to sell these talking points under the label "ethics". It is not helping. Morality is no business to toy with, it's already complicated enough for philosophers who master it, no need to mash it all up to pieces. What kind of audience would benefit from such lecture??? Even a high-school class would deserve better than this type of "philosophy" vulgarisation... Who reads Undercurrent? Philosophy-illiterates?
Who is it again who said : "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." ;)
Oh I get it. The only possible explanation is that I'm wrong, and I was unable to understand this deep treatise in Philosophy. And that all the happy bloggers did understand it before linking to it. So keep spreading misinformation to dumb down film culture in guise of "fixing" it with grandiloquent patronizing lectures about pseudo-philosophy. Why not?
- For a (more) interesting discussion of this topic, read the thread on the Mubi forum, aggregated by simple random netizens who don't have the authority of the FIPRESCI's editor in chief: Objective criticism (Dec 2009)
- Consensual criteria for a good critic (Prédal)
- La Condition Critique (Blanchot)
- Responsibilities of Criticism in NYC
- A French Perspective (Responsibilities)
- unslow criticism
- Ideas and Excellence (Bordwell)
- Emancipation du jugement de goût (Kant)
- Critical Fallacies series
- If critics cared about ethics...