I’m not saying I’m pretentious, but I can understand the misperception. All this babble on form, “being” and international art cinema, to what end? Why can’t I just enjoy movies for what they are and end a review with a thumbs up or thumbs down? Why the need for this loose syntax and suspension of decisive judgment? And why am I writing with the assumption that you’ve been following my column up to this point?
I’ll accept the last question as a potential problem of mine, but I know, from website analytics and reader emails (or lack thereof), that my audience is slim and composed mostly of friends who also have the time to ask questions of aesthetics. So if I write in an excessively familiar style, The Daily Sun Arts section will survive to see another day. Ya feel.
But the other questions are game, since shouldn’t criticism seek to clarify and not further obscure? Deconstruction, which I have been lately exposed to yet again, says no, but let’s limit our discussion here to the kind of cultural writing you’d find in newspapers, magazines and blogs, not academic journals. Is a lyrical tendency in criticism allowed, or should a critic’s prose seek to explain, determine and solve?
Accessible criticism, especially the sorts you’ll find online, has sided with the latter camp as of late. Most reviews dish out plot summary, with requisite compliments or swipes at the acting, script and image-prettiness, and perhaps end with a note about the film’s sociopolitical relevance. The pieces that ‘go long’ (as in long-form) trace a film’s symbolism and propose one-to-one meanings for choice shots, objects and character actions.
The films of Christopher Nolan and David Fincher are exhaustively analyzed along these lines, but as much as I’d like to gender this kind of discourse along ‘white male’ lines, it also thrives in popular progressive criticism. Critiques that claim to uncover a racist or sexist subconscious to mainstream films often raise good points but move so far away from the text at hand or zoom in so close on one aspect, sans context, that they overlook a perhaps resolute, invigorating ambiguity. What if a film embodies not just one stance — say, feminist or anti-feminist — but many of them at the same time? Is this not the age of dismantling binaries?
In her 1996 piece on Pulp Fiction, “Cool Cynicism,” bell hooks set the standard, to my limited knowledge at least, for how to write intersectional film criticism. She uses colloquial language to sneak in innovative theses, like when she starts a paragraph saying, “Tarantino’s films are the ultimate in sexy cover-ups of very unsexy mind-fuck.” That sentence may not make sense when you first read it, but it does if you take your time poring over it and, crucially, reading her supporting evidence.
bell hooks practices a form of criticism veering on poetry, and it is that poetic spirit, and with it an amorphous form, that separates intelligent analysis from superlative, risk-taking work. Yet isn’t poetry kind of antithetical to criticism? Poetry keeps its cards close to the chest, only admitting what it aims to say if the reader focuses, contemplates and re-reads. Which brings me to my central question today: Must a piece of criticism be read once to be appreciated, if not understood?
Methinks those who would say no would also be reluctant to revisit a film that has a reputation, in any way, as difficult. I have not had the chance to review Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice yet, but if I did I would definitely see it once more, maybe twice before attempting to unlock it. I am in the midst of an honor’s thesis on cinema, and repeated looks at certain Thai, French and Iranian selections have divulged details, be they plastic or political, that has increased my respect for these filmmakers a thousand fold. But while I hope to offer some coherent insight on these artistic subtleties, I also shy away from ascribing definitive explanations, opting for a twisty-turny style of prose that may be driving you mad on this very page.
A poetic tendency drives practically all the best critics, from bell hooks to Roger Ebert. “The world as processed by the mind, with finally only the bright bits magnetized by emotion remaining to flash against darkness,” is how Geoffrey O’Brien, a published poet in his own right, describes the sieved reality of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which is no stranger to charges of obscurantism. Manny Farber, one of the most distinct and byzantine voices in the history of film criticism, offers the following when praising the “underground films” of such old Hollywood directors as Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks 1918: “In the films of these hard-edged directors can be found the unheralded ripple of physical experience, the tiny morbidly life-worn detail which the visitor to a strange city finds springing out at every step.”
Do these quotes make sense? Not in any clean, easy sense. But they preserve something attractive and — this is most important — intrinsic to the films under scrutiny, and so testify to their merit. In her treatise On Beauty and Being Just, the endearingly esoteric critic Elaine Scarry writes, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Criticism will often fail to match the beauty from which it is inspired, but it should at least keep the wheel of appreciation and close attention ever turning. There is, after all, no community when every critic aims to to have the last word.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.