23 septembre 2006

Critical Fallacy 3 : Simplification

Critical Fallacy 3 : SIMPLIFICATION

Jim Emerson : "One of my favorite propaganda techniques -- used in politics, journalism, criticism, you name it -- is to present evidence (or, better yet, opinion polls cited as if they constituted evidence) refuting something that was never true -- or even widely thought to be true -- in the first place. (...) This is that kind of story that is based on "overturning" assumptions that never were. "
The death of film criticism has been greatly exaggerated, Part I

Continuing on the idea of Manipulation, but less of a Deception is the intentional omission of certain aspects that would disprove the point the critic strives to push. Simplification of facts could remain in the realm of truth, but a selective truth, therefore giving a partial and inadequate perception of the whole. It's easy to list only the good points, or even embellish them through lyrical rhetoric, so the reader gets a positive impression. The key in criticism is that the reader only builds a judgment from the elements delivered by the review. By ignoring the evidences that contradict our opinion, the reader is prone to conditioning, and it also reflects a blatant disregard for journalistic impartiality. Conversely, mentioning a couple of bad points in the film without balancing with its overall redeeming quality is enough to put off readers disingenuously.

This is not about "objective" criticism (this hot controversy will be for a later entry in this series). Asserting a subjective opinion, siding frankly in the detractor's camp (or proponent's) is part of reviewing, but what constitutes a flaw of the critical duty is to fail to provide a representative rendition of the entire film by eliminating obvious counter arguments that the reader might want to contemplate before falling back behind the writer's ready-made mindframe. Afterall a review isn't a partisan manifesto aiming at recruiting sheep followers.
Shouldn't film criticism balance good and bad points equally to invite the reader to participate to the evaluation of the film's potential? Especially since every viewer has a different tolerance for flaws, and different expectations/needs. I believe to offer readers the most accurate rendition of the film, in terms of narrative arguments and artistic achievements, is more helpful to let them figure if the film is what they are looking for or not. Why should critics decide what is good for you and go extended lengths to persuade you they are right?

Klaus Eder : "But in general I would say it's your job as film critic to know as much as possible about all different sorts of backgrounds, not only backgrounds concerning the film, but also the country, its history, its culture. For example, I have problems understanding certain Japanese films because my understanding of Japanese society is not perfect. I think you should know about everything around a film, the conditions it was made in, the script, where it came from, the subject, as much as possible. What you use for your writing is another thing."
Undercurrent #1 critics' roundtable

A film review doesn't have to sound theoretical and intellectual, but we should at least be able to notice there was a thought-out preparation resulting in what we read. The reason why anybody cannot be a film critic is that the risk for misconception and oversimplification is higher with people without any kind of cinema culture or artistic knowledge. The audience's personal appropriation of the film and the crazy interpretations running through word-of-mouth are part of the immediate film experience, but they shall not constitute a critical judgment. The critic who sentences a final judgment in print cannot bring up on a whim whatever crosses his/her mind (or guts) for everyone else to believe. Fantasies and speculations should stay within the unverified street noise and not pretend to pose as criticism.

Jim Emerson: "So, for me, reviewing is the crudest level of film criticism -- just one basic building block in the edifice. There are critics who can elevate it to an art, but the form itself is by nature extremely narrow and limited in scope. You would hope that a film critic, or reviewer, brings a broad knowledge of the history and traditions of film, to what they write, but that's not often the case. But we all bring our experiences and knowledge to the viewing of a film -- including what we know about all the other films we've seen, books we've read, subjects we've studied, ideas and conversations we've had, and so on."
What we talk when we talk about film criticism - Scanners

Adding savvy insights to the film experience is the duty of a film critic, a valuable commentary that the general audience will not likely be able to imagine on their own. The point of journalism is to bring information, not to share the kind of unreliable incompetent impressions that anybody can get anywhere. We don't need hasty generalizations, shallow stereotypes, ridiculing caricatures, dumbing down puns, narrow viewpoints, ignorant statements, vulgarization, superficial judgments, trivial chattering... Tossing buzzwords to raise controversy, bringing up big theory labels without demonstrations without direct obvious relations to the film reviewed are "smarty" fills and easy cope outs.

Straw Man is another common fallacy :
The critic would fabricate a dubious issue extrapolated from one of point developed in the film, by making it sound more extreme, more indefensible than it actually is. Therefore sidestepping the important argument of the film, failing to address the real question and turning onto an easier flaw to pan. Once the Straw Man is debunked, the critic will use this conclusion, which was proved out of context, and assume the film can thus be dismissed altogether. Again this is a shameful rhetorical technique to obfuscate a critical argument for gullible readers who don't pay close attention to the articulation of a critic's train of thought. But if a reader hasn't seen the movie, it could be difficult to notice a Straw Man diversion at all... Which makes it even more unethical for a critic to go down that way.

We see this at work mostly for innovative, challenging movies, or extreme genres, the ones pointed at by the rating board of censorship, and all critics follow, resorting to big words like "fascism", "nihilism", "misanthropy"... Violence is bad for kids therefore a violent scene should be banned regardless for its role in the film, the meaning of its representation. Sometimes there is a subtext that criticizes violence by overdoing it or through the irony of the violent character arc involved. If the film ends on the victory of evil characters (anti-happy ending) it doesn't imply it condones this type of agenda. The bitter aftertaste of seeing justice unresolved is much more powerful and educational. The film itself might be reprehensible, aggressive, offending, immoral, but more important than its face value is the analysis of the situation it puts the audience in. Are we passive? Are we involved? Are we accomplice? Should we judge the fictitious characters or our complacency towards them? Are we invited to take a stance? Are we provoked to react to manipulative storytelling? That's why critics should discuss the moral implications beyond the apparent synopsis.

Contributions, disputes, examples are encouraged as always.

Coming up, Critical Fallacy 4 : Burden of Proof

7 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

BklynMagus (on a_film_by) : "I think that popular criticism needs to explicate this fun. I think too often criticism takes an eat-your-peas approach -- proclaiming that a work is great and that is why you -- the plebian audience -- should go see it. If critics want to write for anybody other than each other, they need to become better at conveying through their writing the pleasures of rigorous thinking about film. The young people I mentor are far from cinephiles, but through careful cultivation I do increase the discipline with which they watch films. For me, a crucial function of good film criticism is building capacity within one's readership to engage films in greater depth. Unfortunately, criticism often seems dedicated to showing off how much the writer learned in film school and how much more intelligent/sophisticated she is than the average filmgoer."

HarryTuttle a dit…

I just found a great article by Charles Tesson (former editor chief at Cahiers) in PANIC (#4 july/august 2006)that is right up my alley : "Petit dictionnaire des idées reçues de la critique", which is a cynical collection of self-indulgent traits and defaults of most french critics.
Great stuff to complete my series of fallacies!

HarryTuttle a dit…

Andy Horbal notes an example of simplification in a review at Slate, by critic David Haglund, who replies in the comments.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Why We Should Throw Bricks At Film Critics in Jonas Mekas' Movie Journal, about critics' simplifications when repeating a cliched opinion on Norman Mailer's films :

“I have no idea who was the first one to write that Mailer’s Beyond the Law is “a much better film than Wild 90.” I keep seeing that statement in every review, even by the people who never saw Wild 90. I’d like to punch their noses. They almost managed to create the impression that yes, this one is O.K. , but the other one, oh, that one was really lousy. Which is not true. Beyond the Law may be better, but Wild 90 was a good film too. What an ugly habit: As soon as we find something good or beautiful we try to use it as a club to hit the other thing, that is a tiny bit less good and less beautiful. We have to enjoy ourselves through blood.”

Thanks to Brian Darr, posting this comment at Lost in Negative Space

HarryTuttle a dit…

Girish and Christian Keathley on Received Ideas in cinema:
"Sometimes received ideas become reinforced and cemented by being brought up repeatedly as critical short-hand. For example: Samuel Fuller's films are "primitive"; Lang is all about fate; Ozu celebrates quiet resignation, and keeps his camera low and static; Chabrol makes Hitchcockian films that are bourgeois satires; Bresson is austere and minimalist; Peckinpah's films revel in ultraviolence, etc, etc. Now, these pronouncements aren't exactly false, but by no means are they the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The problem is that they 'fix' filmmakers too easily and quickly, thus constraining our thinking about them to certain pre-determined pathways."

HarryTuttle a dit…

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

"For a start, here are a few words and phrases that are frequently misused and should be ignored by the reader.

- There is no need for the writer to use the first person singular, which is superogatory. At least it should be used sparingly. A review is not about the critic but the film. Rather than writing "I laughed/cried all the way through", the critic, using objective correlatives, should analyse the film's effects in a more general manner.
For example, here is an extract from a recent review: "I wasn't quite sure whether I liked it or not while I was watching it, as it was uncomfortable although it kept me intrigued enough to stay on till the end. It's an oddly affecting tale and I thought about it long after I'd seen it, but as a piece of cinema it doesn't quite deliver." As a piece of criticism it doesn't quite deliver.

- 'Slow' :
This is often employed without even the adverbs "too" or "so". When a critic calls a film "slow", it is immediately taken as pejorative. Would one criticise a piece of music by saying it is slow? The word itself carries no negative connotation. It is as neutral as "fast", "shot on video" or "in black and white", although these terms, even unqualified, can also carry with them some prejudice. Slow usually implies that the critic has found the film boring, another meaningless subjective term. If someone announces that they find opera or Shakespeare boring, it says nothing about opera or Shakespeare, but about the speaker.

- 'Too Long' :
Time is extremely subjective. The criticism doesn't really have anything to do with the running time of the film, but with how the critic experiences that time. One could sit through 3-4 hour films which don't feel long, while a bad 15-minute short seems interminable. A critic who thinks a film is "too long", is again revealing that they have become bored with the style or content and not the length.

- 'Dated' :
A film is called dated, not only because it doesn't have any mobile phones or computers in it, but because the mores of the film are no longer those of the period in which we live. But so-called dated films tell you more about the era in which they are made than most other films. In a way, it's like using the relative adjective "old" to describe a film, usually made before the critic was born. But why is "old" only used to describe films? Does one say that one listened to a concert of old music or read an old book or saw an old play?

- 'Pretentious' or 'obscure' :
which generally means the critic has not understood the film."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Roger Ebert : "Provide a sense of the experience. No matter what your opinion, every review should give some idea of what the reader would experience in actually seeing the film. In other words, if it is a Pauly Shore comedy, there are people who like them, and they should be able to discover in your review if the new one is down to their usual standard."

" Respect the reader's time. For example, in reviewing "City of Ember," a film about a city of the future buried deep beneath the surface of the earth," you must not say it "looks like it was shot on a sound stage." Some folks, they know, and the others, don't tell 'em."

"Do not make challenges you are cannot to back up. For example, never say in your "Hamlet 2" review, "I challenge anyone who goes to see the movie not to sing the words to 'Rock Me, Sexy Jesus' for years to come." When Gene Siskel predicted that "Hakuna Matada" from "The Lion King" would become a national catch-phrase, he later gracefully acknowledged he was wrong, after only a little prodding from me."

"Respect the reader's money. It is admirable that the DVD of "Cool Hand Luke" contains an extra where they guess how many eggs Paul Newman ate while filming the egg-eating scene. But in hard times like these, do not say, "Reason enough to get it!""
Roger's little rule book (October 28, 2008)