21 août 2006

Critical Fallacy 1 : Deception

[EDITED : 8-24-2006]

"The film writing I have in mind would be essayistic, but it would have a solid understructure of evidence. It would be conceptually bold and bristling with subtly defended opinions. Its judgments would be nuanced in optimal awareness of the history of cinema, its economics and technology as well as its auteurs. Add a graceful writing style leavened with humour and purged of vainglorious anecdotes. We might then have criticism in a broader sense than we now usually find it, and something worthy of the art we love."
Against Insight by David Bordwell at cinema scope

Bordwell again, but that's just to contextualize this post in the current debate around criticism meaningfulness. Film criticism gets discredited for the contradictory ratings, the inconsistent taste and the polarized opinions... while the plurality of point of views on the same film is what makes criticism richer and worthwhile. There are far more dangerous issues than the arguable critical stance.
Let's take a look at the logic flaws and other errors committed by critics who disregard the reality of the film reviewed or mock their readership for a good word or just to conceal the fact they didn't see/misunderstood the film. Sad is to find these errors in the print world, where the editor corrects and the standards of journalistic ethics should prevail. So that's why I wanted to dedicate this series of (objective) mistakes that are not due to divergence of opinions but caused by a conscious or unintentional corruption of content.

Critical Fallacy 1 : DECEPTION

The first one is an easy no-brainer. Plain deception by conscious or careless presentation of dubious facts. We're talking about blatant factual errors (mischaracterization, misrepresentation, unchecked facts...), half-truth (assumptions, speculation made evidence, partial memory...), exaggerations (slant, dramatization of the film flaws/merits...), anything that could be easily disproved by anyone watching the very film referred to in the review.

Andy Horbal called this flaw the "Cardinal Sin of Film Criticism" at No More Marriages! last month : "Thou shalt not make specific critiques based on erroneous information about the film in question."
And like him I'll rank it first on my list of fallacies. The critics gives their opinion on a film before any reader has seen it, so the least we can expect, aside from arguable taste compatibility, is to get a faithful description of the film and should they choose to base their judgment on factual evidences taken from the film, they'd better be accurate since we have to take everything written at face value. With first-hand access to unseen films, being paid to watch them carefully, critics have a duty to report accurately or not report at all. I think a good critic is one alert enough to realize when a blurry memory doesn't legitimize writing in one detail or even declining to comment on the entire film if viewing conditions obviously undermine the review's worth.

Andy cites Anthony Lane's liberties with the plot accounts in Inside Man and American Dreamz. I could cite Ebert on Altman's The Long Goodbye, distorting the succession of events. or Ray Bennett on Ferrara's Mary, mixing up 2 characters in one.

Andy Horbal says it better than me : "First, if there's really a problem with the film significant enough to warrant mention in a review, it's probably unnecessary to use an example that's less than 100% certain. (...) If there's any doubt about the veracity of the complaint it should be left out of the review."
"Critics traffic in opinions, and they are not beholden to anyone in this regard. But we do owe it to the filmmakers, to our readers, and to ourselves to make sure that our review is reconcilable with the film we're reviewing. (...) We put ourselves in a rhetorically indefensible position, and we undermine our credibility."

And whether the erroneous fact slipped in "by mistake" is irrelevant to this fallacy because a published critic is a journalist above all and bears a responsibility to everything is written in public and delivered to a large population as true fact. The writer, or the editor, or the publication owner are liable to deceptive content, shall double check their facts (like any good journalist should), proofread for approval and eventually are obligated to publish an erratum to correct a past mistake. So a misleading information is a deception whether the author is aware or not because the journalist is expected to specify truth as truth and guess as guess.

If a critic cannot even be trusted for basic reporting of facts, quoting reality, how could we trust judgments based on abstract evaluation like performances, aesthetics, politics...?

Did you read deceptive reviews recently? Please share with us.

Contributions, disputes, examples are encouraged as always.

17 commentaires:

andyhorbal a dit…

Very much looking forward to the rest of this series!

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks Andy for the support (and the quoted material)

I've got a list of 17 fallacies so far, but I'm sure I'll come up with more before I'm finished with those.

I just want to make clear that to remind the rules and point finger is much easier than to write reviews and watch (too many) movies. Errare Humanum Est. And I'm guilty of a lot of these fallacies (and maybe more than professional writers who write in print in their first language), but it's no reason to close our eyes on it.
This idea was not to make fun of wrongdoings but in the hope to make readers more aware and straigthen up their tolerance for cheap reviewing when these fallacies accumulate too frequently.

andyhorbal a dit…

I think, Harry, that though we may disagree on certain points we're both after the same thing: we're both pursuing "good film criticism," whatever that may be. This is a brilliant start...

HarryTuttle a dit…

Exactly. I wish critics would at least agree on HOW "good criticism" is formed, regardless for the individual stance they come up with.

HarryTuttle a dit…

André Bazin notoriously wrongly attributed the Lion sculptures street alignment in October to Battleship Potemkin... thought on the bulk of his writings that's not much. And let's remember he worked before videotapes and DVDs, so critics could only rely on their memory for such details, not to mention film runs were shorter and it was a hassle to ask for a private screening at the archive to double check every details. We'd think critics today with the overaccessibility of digital archives, unlimited viewing and remote control that they would not make such mistakes anymore... unfortunately it seems critics before digital age were much more consciencious about preventing "deception".

Also mea culpa, since I freely admit being vulnerable to such errors, I replaced "Nagazaki" by "Hiroshima" in my original publication of the first installment on Drawing Restraint, just because I was too lazy to check my notes, where I had it right. But thanks to the versatility of internet blogs I could correct it promptly. Which is an appreciable difference with the press where the "typo" is cast in stone on thousands copies... for ever.

HarryTuttle a dit…

JP Coursodon: "Also, factual errors in the pre-video era most often came from a faulty distant memory. In the case of (for example) LOLA MONTES, Farber was reviewing a film he had just seen at the NYFF and it's difficult to believe that he really thought that couple is running around shouting "spaghetti". That, obviously, was just a critical poetic licence to make the reader laugh with him at the film"

Brad Stevens : "Exactly. He's mocking the film for something he's perfectly aware isn't even there. This isn't film criticism - it's a stand-up comedy routine. The 'critic as superstar' phenomenon begins here."

on a_film_by

HarryTuttle a dit…

via The House Next Door :
LANE STRIKES OUT (at Screen Rush)

"Eric Kohn takes The New Yorker's Anthony Lane to task for his review of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Andy Horbal points out to a synospsis at Netflix that mischaracterize the film. See at
No More Marriage!

milenkos a dit…

Hi Harry,

Thank you for the wonderful Fallacy series. I realized, with clarity, all the points I must work on in order to improve my writing on cinema. I write for a film journal in Chile, La Fuga (www.lafuga.cl: "The Line of Flight", or "Escape"). We not only devote ourselves to the study and review of contemporary world cinema, but delve on the discipline of film writing as literature and art (and what is means to films, the viewers, and their place in society). We devote a section for this discussion. I would be very happy to translate your Fallacy series for our latin american readers; I'm sure there will be a lot to be gained from it.



HarryTuttle a dit…

Gracias para estas palabras muy agradables Miljenko :)

I'm glad you liked it and I'll be honored if you want to translate it in Spanish. Please be my guest, it's for public consumption. Like it says on my blog "no rights reserved" ;)
Do you know that the series is not finished yet? I planned to write least 20 more items on my list, and i'm really slow. At this pace it'll take me 2 years! hehe :p

Let me know if there is a good feedback.

milenkos a dit…

wow, 20 no less! I'll let you know when it's up, thanks for sharing,


HarryTuttle a dit…

Well I'm not sure when the rest will be finished. I was too ambbitious I'm afraid.

Anonyme a dit…

I don't like this philosophy, although I respect it. There is an authorial intrusion which gives a critique a personal twist when the writer mistakingly reports a story detail or something alike. If he bases a negative review entirely on a factual mistake, then it's a bit stupid, but if it's a positive review then it brings us back that all of us watch films differently (and that includes warped recall).

What I'm saying basically is that the last thing we want when we read critical opinions is 'journalist etiquette'. Critiques should be personal works, considering that all film critics create a sort of narrative of their taste as readers make a habit of reading them (thus getting to know their taste).

I guess it works fine for magazines whose existence relies on consistency of product (boring formalities), but online, we can provide interesting opinions with sprawling insights and possibly create an entirely new, personal, idiosyncratic, way of reviewing films.

Take Deleuze for example, who was often criticized for "misreading" philosophers and then releasing books based on these so-called "misinterpretations". What it came down to was that these 'new' readings which were judged wrongfully, actually opened up new ways of thinking about previous philosophers, that made sense. We had new fresh takes on something that seemed old and outmined.

Anonyme a dit…

Hello Mr. Tuttle. I'm going to go through all the posts at Screenville shortly. I started with this interesting series of yours.... I'm sure I'll love it.

I agree with the mis-quoting of facts and figures, but as for mis-reading of a film, I'm reserved. True that it is not apt to go over the top and interpreting every film, but in films that are too ambiguous for any such interpretive mistakes, it is an inevitable move I think... May be I'm jumping in too quick.... WIll check out the rest of the posts...

Keep up the great work...

Unknown a dit…

André Bazin notoriously wrongly attributed the Lion sculptures street alignment in October to Battleship Potemkin...

But Harry, the "awakening lions" are indeed in "Potemkin," following the Odessa steps sequence at the 51 minute mark on my Kino DVD. Perhaps there is a similar sequence in "October," but I haven't seen it in a decade and I don't have a copy at hand.

Dave Kehr

HarryTuttle a dit…

It's my fault for misquoting this fact. I don't remember this scene, and haven't seen the film again since I heard about it. I think we talked about it recently with "cabooze" at Girish, where I made the same mistake. I need to get it straight...

In "L'évolution du langage", Bazin attributes it to "The End of Saint Petersburg":

"Prenons par contre les lions de pierre dans La Fin de Saint-Pétersbourg"

Which is in fact from Potemkin, as you note.
Thanks for correcting me.

I allude to other mistakes by Bazin in a later post (Ouvrir Bazin - Day 2) regarding the cleaned up publication of a Bazin Anthology by Labarthes.

Anonyme a dit…

Exactly... I read Perkins' Film as Film before I read Bazin's essay. Perkins had mentioned it correctly. I have seen both the films, but when Bazin alludes to the stone lions, I got confused. I couldn't go back to the film as my DVDs got lost. Thanks for the clarification.