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September 11, 2010

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That Fuzzy Bastard

What's problematic about the Bangs quote, though, is how little interest Bangs ever had in understanding why "you" might like Joni Mitchell. Or Chicago, or whoever. That maybe it means something to "you" just like The Stooges to to him, and maybe his gleeful contempt towards artists people feel strongly about inspires the same kind of defensiveness that Bangs feels to the kids who just don't get Elvis. I do love Bangs' writing, but his philosophy in this column (and in a lot of his columns) is the apotheosis of critical self-importance: A call for universal love poorly concealing an insistence that everyone shut up and share his opinions.

Bangs is a thrilling stylist, but he's was always terribly short on curiosity---uninterested in things that didn't immediately move him, totally uninterested in understanding why anyone else might be moved by something he didn't like (yes, I know, beginning a column with "I didn't like this at first but now it's the GREATEST RECORD EVER!" is sort of a tic for Bangs, but it strikes me as more a literary device than an actual timeline).

This is an occupational hazard of the professional critic, who has little time for unforming an opinion or changing his own mind. But it's nonetheless a big drag.

Jaime

I haven't had any substantial conversations with MZS but he strikes me as a pretty stand-up guy who, for the most part, writes meaty film and TV criticism. It's disappointing that he also has to write these slide-show puff pieces masquerading as oratory/discourse. His idea? Something he has to do to pay the rent at Salon? Dunno. And the "overrated" trigger is like Trixie in THE CRAZIES, it brings out the lumbering, dumb murderer in all of us.

The way I look at it, okay, I saw THE AMERICAN yesterday and I didn't like it. You certainly did. Before it, as a bona fide Paul W.S. Anderson supporter, I saw the new RESIDENT EVIL. (I skipped the middle two.) I loved that one, and it sounds like you thought it was "iight." As a critic, I feel like I should write about both, but about the one I loved in greater depth, and try to drum up pageviews for the loved film. I have more to say about it, and waving my hands in the air and shouting "not impressed!" about another film feels...I don't know. Dirty and corrupt.

(For the record, I didn't hate THE AMERICAN, although I thought I did until thinking about it afterward. The key to the film, I think, is Jack/Edward/etc's one-foot-in-front-of-the-other motivation, which we have to work out, sort of piecemeal, by contemplating his actions in each section of the film, + the finale. So I had the weird experience of being quite moved WELL AFTER the movie, by a sequence that made me cringe at the time.)

(Postscript 2: watched the "Suitcase" episode of MAD MEN on the train ride home from those two films. Ended the evening with wine and high-carb Spanish food. Had weird dreams of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce turning into a torrential bloodbath.)

Glenn Kenny

@ Fuzzy B.: No, Bangs didn't entirely walk the walk, not in a lot of ways. I recall John Holmstrom seething over Bangs' calling out the "Punk" staffers in "The White Noise Supremacists" while tossing around racist epithets his own bad self all the time. But that hardly completely invalidates his point here, which I allow is on the melodramatic and overstated side, but which still has some valuable insight, I think. Man, though. Suppose it's nice to know you hold every damn critic out there to such a high standard...(That was meant at least a little jocular-like.)

Jaime: Matt IS a stand-up guy, from stem to stern. I merely strongly disagree with him about the aims and the tactics of criticism in this case. And you should write about "The American" if you want to. Another negative review might make Jack Matthews feel better about having been rooked into seeing it by the critics, who, according to him, are all weenies because they've seen Melville's "Le Samourai," and are thus completely all alienated from what a red-meat guy such as Matthews wants in a hired-assassin film.

Kiss Me, Son of God

I remember Seitz saying something about starting up a new personal blog, which would have been great, but it seems that's been supplanted by this Salon gig, which is not really showcasing his best work. I think he's consciously trying to reach a "general audience" instead of the rabidly knowledgeable film nerds who tend to follow his work. And he's doing a fine job of that, but it would be nice to see him getting back to the glory days of the early House Next Door era, with the addition of the pioneering video essay work he's done in the interim. That said, I didn't have any particular problem with this piece; I skimmed it and it was fine to skim. He's got a point about Pulp Fiction.

The Siren

Glenn, I get what you're driving at here. I probably had fewer problems with the essay than you did, in part because a lot of what Matt says about GWTW I said myself in a long blog post that few people read as it was eons ago. I think he's 100% dead wrong about Baxter in All About Eve; her obviousness is part of the point, that most of these theatrical people (save Ritter's Birdie) can't see a performance going on right in front of them. Given the constraints of the format, I'd say the essay is as thoughtful as it can be. We can kick all we want, but people like lists and big sites like lists because they drive traffic. I feel a little lazy putting up lists but my sitemeter keeps telling me I shouldn't.

But I digress. Surely I can't be your only devoted reader who would like to see you just lay it all out, rather than being oblique. You know how high a regard I have for Matt, so you know I'm sincere when I say he can take it. I'd like to hear your philosophical differences with the approach and whatever particulars you want to dispute.

And here I say something I have wanted to say for a long, long time. I am weary of seeing you getting jumped on (NOT here, but oh lord yes in other comments threads) for forceful expression of strong opinions. Goddamnit, that is what I COME here for--I can't be the only one. As Wolcott said, you smash the ball back over the net. I *enjoy* seeing you take apart cliched writing and sloppy logic. I *learn* things from reading SCR and spotting the flaws you cite in things I have written in the past.

A fine critic and, as you say, stand-up guy like Matt deserves a full airing of your differences with the piece and would undoubtedly have a response that would ALSO be well worth reading. I think it would be productive. And the first concern troll who pops up to call you an old meanie-boots will find himself ducking a 90-mph volley from the Siren. You're no ruder than fully two-thirds of the bloggers I read on a regular basis, and you are in fact often quite gentlemanly--the Cyrus/zoom post would be one example. I often think you get slammed more often because your critiques are so well-written that they sting a lot more.

Let Glenn be Glenn, says I.

John M

I Second The Siren.

(THAT SHOULD BE A MOVIE TITLE.)

Tony Dayoub

First of all, everything the Siren said.

Now about MZS's piece. I'm glad you brought it up because I also found it annoying, primarily because the framing of the content invites commentary, but influences it by saying, "I might jump into the comments to try to justify or defend my own rants. But I'd much prefer that the readers enlarge the scope of the discussion by sharing their own heated opinions about films that aren't on this list." Then he counters it with, "In other words, free-for-all. Everybody in the pool..." followed by the rest of the quote you highlighted at the top of your post. Huh? Free-for-all? After you described what you'd prefer to hear?

Assuming one could dispute his thesis, how can one disagree with his criticism of ALL ABOUT EVE, for example, when MZS undercuts his own opinion on the film with, "Don't misunderstand: I adore this movie. I've probably watched it 20 times..."? Or call him out on THE GODFATHER when he accuses the movie of "cheating" by oversimplifying one's identification with the gangsters, then MZS oversimplifies himself with this observation, "why is killing a conniving brother some kind of cosmic final straw, and a clearly greater sin than, say, ordering the execution of your sister's husband?" (for the record, it's because said sister's husband killed his older brother and next in line to the throne)?

I must point out that I'm a big fan of MZS, especially his writings on De Palma, Malick, and Mann. But I found this particular piece quite irksome.

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ Tony: Well, if you can't disagree with his criticism, that's good, right? As he repeatedly says, his point is not "These are bad movies", it's "These are major problems in great movies." I think it's great to see someone willing to talk about great movies without treating their every flaw as a virtue, and I find it risible that all these thick-skinned types are so appalled that he dares call out classics for having flaws.

Or if that's not what's bugging you… what is? 'Cause that sure sounds like Glenn's, and everyone else's problem.

Personally, I think he's dead-on about Pulp Fiction (a movie that got less interesting with each viewing), The Godfather (beautiful, moving, magisterial, but morally autistic), Gone With The Wind (classic Hollywood, in both its virtues and its faults), Silence of the Lambs (arty trappings draped around an East Village Other-level piece of Charlie Manson worship)---hell, most of 'em. Doesn't make them bad movies. Makes 'em movies that deserve to be treated as movies, not holy texts, perfect in their every detail.

@ Glenn: I kinda do think it invalidates Bangs' point, beautifully-stated though it is. Bangs is saying that your contemptuous indifference to my object of reverence is a sign of your emotional deadness. Now either you believe that, in which case your/Bangs' contempt for lots of people's objects of reverence is a sign etc. Or you think Bangs is wrong about the significance of indifference to another's object etc. Or you think that your/Bangs' objects of reverence are way, way, way better than everyone else's o.o.r. , to which: Feh. It's self-important posing, dramatically, beautifully, movingly stated. Which is an apt description of much criticism, I suppose, but that doesn't mean I gotta pretend it's true.

Glenn Kenny

@ Fuzzy: Well, since I was all of 17 and living in Lake Hopatcong when Elvis died, I can't really say that Bangs' portrayal of certain, erm, "rock snob" attitudes prior to Elvis' passing wasn't at least partially accurate. In any event, my favorite riposte to Bangs in this respect was, of course, Robert Christgau's subsequent review of "Metallic K.O.:" "Ignorami consider this dim live tape Prime Ig cos 'you can actually hear the bottles flying.' Also cos Ig utters the words 'cunt, pricks, buttfuckers' (trying to run this world sez Ig, who'd never dream of such a thing himself). And let us not forget 'Hebrew' (rhymes with 'Rich Bitch'). Great 'documentary' but sometimes I really dig Joni Mitchell. C+"

That Fuzzy Bastard

Oh sure---when Elvis died, there were plenty writing him off, plenty defending him, and the back-and-forth continues to this day ("was a hero to most" and all). What bugs me isn't the defense of Elvis, it's the moist-eyed insistence that anyone who fails to show proper reverence to Elvis is dead inside. That's the defensiveness that seems to extend to the objects of MZS's awfully gentle criticisms.

Glenn Kenny

@ Fuzzy: Well, what motivated me to juxtapose the Bangs quote with MZS's wasn't so much the notion of sticking up for objects of reverence as much as it was the observation about solipsism ruling the day. I don't feel unduly reverent about any of the films cited in MZS's piece. I've been aware that "Gone With The Wind" is flat-out racist, not even "racially insensitive," since I was able to understand spoken English. Tarantino's fake-blithe tossing-about of the word "nigger" in "Pulp Fiction" is, at the very least, meretricious. These things aren't at issue. It's what's to be done with them that's the question, at least for me. But what's this got to do with what I've been talking about? Okay, try this: As for "Silence of the Lambs," it's here, for me, that the "soundboard of the self" meets the correct moral objection, and the two decide they don't like each other very much—it's precisely BECAUSE Lecter is cutely valorized in Demme's film in a way that the character WAS NOT in "Manhunter" that's a key to the popular success of "Silence." A near record number of Oscars and hundreds of millions in box office can't be "wrong," can they? If they can, then you're parsing, whether you say you are or not.

Dan Coyle

All I have to say about this piece is, District 9 isn't as visually assured as Avatar, but it's a much better written film, and that is what counts.

Tony Dayoub

@Fuzzy. There are no sacred cows in cinema. Speaking strictly for myself, I'm actually in agreement wit MZS's take on DISTRICT 9, GWTW, PULP FICTION, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and though the GODFATHER films rank pretty high for me, I see much of the flaws he points out.

My issue is with the way MZS presents it. There's little room left to discuss beyond the narrow margins of what he would "prefer" to hear. If he just wants to get people to throw their own suggestions into the ring why not just poll them? Why call for a "free-for-all" after dissuading anyone from disagreeing with his piece?

That Fuzzy Bastard

Not only can they be wrong, they usually are! I very much agree that the cuddly serial killer of SILENCE is key to the movie's popularity, and that it's depressing and obscene that such is the case (don't get me started on the ugly evasiveness of DEXTER...). I'm perfectly willing to say that other people's objects of reverence are dreadful. What I don't like is the implication that *your* object of reverence are crap, *my* objects of reverence are the only way to insure mankind's emotional survival.

Obviously, there's a difference between "this revered classic is not perfect because x, y, and z" and "this so-called classic sux cuz it's boring and only elitists think otherwise." That distinction is the difference between good criticism and forum-troll slop. But it's pretty clear which side of that MZS is on, so what's the problem?

Matt Zoller Seitz

Hi, everybody.

Tony: I steered the commentary that way because the readership takes its cues directly from what's written in the intro. I have found that you don't explicitly tell readers that the point of the piece is, and where you would like the discussion to go, you get a repetitious, off-putting thread devoted almost exclusively to re-hashing the same nine movies, or worse, somebody threadjacking the comments section into irrelevant areas. As you'll see from the comments, I got what I hoped to get.

And as for saying I've seen "All About Eve" 20 times even though I have always had problems with Anne Baxter's performance, that's a statement of fact and another attempt to head off misunderstandings. If I hadn't clearly stated my love for the film, the result would have been 10 or 15 comments asking me why hate "All About Eve." Calling it a classic in the first sentence is not enough. Trust me on this.

As far as oversimplifying Carlo's death, yes, you're right, that could have been more clearly and fairly worded. But I think the larger point still stands: "The Godfather" films construct a universe that mostly validates the Corleones' moral code rather than challenging it.

That Fuzzy Bastard's observation about needing to be able to talk about classic or beloved films without treating every flaw as a virtue cuts to the heart of why I wrote that piece. It may sound strange in a venue like this one, but a lot of people need to be reassured of that.

On a more general note, Salon is a publication that is greatly interested in some kinds of pieces and not at all interested in others. If you read me in a variety of different outlets, you know that I have many areas of interest and pursue many different strategies as a critic, from writing reactive, off-the-cuff stuff (which Salon happens to like) to focusing on more formally-oriented topics (like the pieces I did recently for IFC.com about the criticism of Bordwell and Thompson and the contrast between the visual grammar of analog- and digital-era special effects) to dissecting the styles of certain films and directors in multi-part video essays. Different publications have different audiences and different needs. That's a reality that I have to face as a freelancer, and I've decided to see it as a challenge, and try to find out the degree to which I can subvert expectations.

The Salon slide show pieces are basically expanded versions of the 5 for the Day entries I used to write at The House Next Door. In both venues the purpose was the same: to spark a freewheeling discussion. They were loose, bloggy, notebook types of pieces, very conversational. Salon thrives on those sorts of pieces, and it's no huge shock that they want me to write them, to the exclusion of other pieces I used to do at the House or the old New York Press, such as 3000-word exegeses of the films of Takamine Go or Robert Drew. The bigger the venue, the more likely you are to see writing that focuses on personal reactions to movies everyone is familiar with. (I recently wrote a piece for ReverseShot analyzing Terrence Malick's use of sound in "The New World" and his other movies. Of all the pieces I've written in the last year, it's probably my favorite. It combines every mode I like to work in: analytical, technical, literary, and confessional. Few people read that piece. And it got just one comment, from none other than Tony Dayoub!)

On a more general note, I stand by the passage that Glenn highlighted with distaste and disapproval. The "sounding board for the self" comment was my way of telling readers, "I don't care who you are or how much you know or don't know about movies, you're welcome to join in here." And the fact is, most people DO talk about movies that way, and I believe it is not an illegitimate or uninteresting or bad way to talk about movies. In fact it happens to be the gateway to other, more detailed, more complex forms of appreciation. The viewer cannot become conversant in the more granular forms of appreciation without first passing through that portal.

Glenn Kenny

That Fuzzy Person notes that "it's pretty clear which side" of the "good criticism and forum-troll slop" divide that Matt Zoller Seitz is on, and then asks "What's the problem?" And there's the rub. Is there in fact any kind of problem, or am I just stirring shit up for the sake of it, because I'm crazy, or an asshole? (And just to be clear—boy, I'm looking like I'm never gonna be getting tired of the "just to be clear" qualification—I'm not accusing anybody here of calling me crazy, or an asshole.)

I think there is, still, although I like to think I'd be the last person to set up any kind of exclusionary bylines concerning who ought to be allowed to "weigh in" about movies in an internet forum. I remember an interview in Creem magazine (or was it Crawdaddy?) with Ian Anderson in the very early '70s which he bemoaned the musical ignorance of the average rock fan and suggested —jokingly—that punters be required to whistle a twelve-bar blues before being allowed admittance to a performance. I thought that was dumb and, as they say, elitist, even when I was a kid. (I used to have this rather naive belief that in the free arena of opinion exchange, the best idea best expressed would have to win, which didn't turn out well, but that's another story.) And of course critical thought and subjectivity are inextricably linked, and anyone who says they're not is rather willfully lying. That said, beyond the direct experience there can, and should, be some kind of genuine detachment at least attempted; thought ought to do double the work that feeling did during the experience being put up for discussion. This is why the phrase "soundboard for the self" rubbed me so severely the wrong way; when I'm participating in, or consuming, criticism, how someone feels about something is pretty low on the list of potential material. I'm not so much interested in what you feel as what, and how, you think. And if you glibly announce, for instance, that a work we'll call for the purposes of this exercise "MAX" is a stuffy European relic that's ripe for parody, without betraying the slightest hint of awareness that "MAX" is in fact kind of a parody to begin with, then no, I'm not going to respect either your conclusion or your process. Too often the springboard of the self dives straight into a pool of ignorance, which is then privileged with the protest, "Well, that's MY opinion, anyway, and who are you to say it's wrong?"

To go back to "Gone With The Wind:" I don't disagree with any of Matt's objections to it, e.g., that "[t]here's something sick about the film's nostalgic depiction of a time and place that was, for an entire group of human beings, a kind of earthbound hell." My question then is: "So what?" And that sounds obscenely glib, I know, but bear with me. I'm interested in the questions of how we deal with a work of popular entertainment/art that is in fact so sick at its core.

This brings up a whole host of questions relating to the idea of objective morality versus what makes you uncomfortable or what you feel is wrong. Questions concerning the moral responsibility, if any, of art and the artist. Questions of whether the racism that's inherent in "Gone With The Wind" is in fact prescriptive, and likely to influence the actions of people in our own time. Is it still, in fact, permissible to enjoy the damn thing? And, if so, how can it be enjoyed? How far does aesthetic bliss go to vitiate its sins? (I think of Terry Teachout's rather ridiculous "nothing to see here, folks!" dismissal of Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" and how, among other things, it completely flummoxed the dozen or so people left on this earth who find portions of the film still genuinely moving and stirring, despite the frequent appalling racism that permeates the picture.) Can I just watch "Gone With The Wind" for William Cameron Menzies' production design, and ignore its objectionable human aspect altogether? And if so, what kind of human does that make me? And so on, and so on. These are the kinds of issues David Foster Wallace used to refer to as vexed, but to me they're the most crucial ones. And they're ones in which feelings don't cut it.

And yes, now that I've bothered to examine my prejudices in some detail, it does seem rather absurd to bring these objections to bear on an article that appears in Salon. But is it not the case that Salon, as an entity, does in fact posit itself as something of a cultural authority? So maybe it's damned if you do and damned if you don't time.

Tony Dayoub

@Matt, I see you understood what I was getting at, That Fuzzy Bastard's mischaracterizations notwithstanding. I see now that our differences regarding comments are fundamental. You like to keep them on-topic, and I prefer a forum which wanders into unforeseen territory.

Thanks for stopping by and explaining what your aims were. And thanks for addressing my criticism in the spirit in which it was offered.

Chris O.

I also find that whole host of questions fascinating, Glenn, though lately they seem to pop up with regard to the artist rather than the art (e.g. Roman Polanski, Mel Gibson, Phil Spector, which then, of course, can lead to discussing, say, Wagner or Kazan, etc.) and that can lead down a different road but, again, with similar raised questions.

Incidentally, I had no clue there was actually a nitpickers.com that asks questions like "Was CASABLANCA's Elsa racist?" for referring to Sam as "a boy". For those interested, as far as the site goes, it's "refuted".

Glenn Kenny

@ Chris O: Yes, and I find a lot of those discussions entirely backward. That is to say, while Gibson's sad behavior and tirades may support the suspicions brought up by the work, it's only really the work that ought to get our attention. The homophobia in "Braveheart" that finds it extremely peculiar coeval in the nearly homoerotic masochism elsewhere in that picture, and other Gibson films; the mythic anti-semitism of "Passion of the Christ," etc. Godard dropping the epithet "Salle juf;" really not cool, but just an unpleasant anecdote. The Brasillach stuff and the weird Spielberg obsession in "In Praise of Love," on the other hand: something else. Not something as damning as some might insist, but still something. Anyone looking to further damn Polanski based on "Ghost Writer," good luck. And so on. And THEN you get a character like Celine, whose ball of wax is even MORE complicated...oy...

Zach

First off, I also heartily agree with the Siren's comment. I also think I understand the central thrust of Glenn's critique of Seitz's piece, and agree with it, although I would say that Matt's response here goes a long way in explaining why it wasn't as in-depth as some of his other work usually is. Also, I would contend that one could still treat movies as a "sounding board of the self" and speak of them with the detachment Glenn so prizes; it merely means that part of who you are is a person interested in such critical distance when discussing, or parsing, works of art. But it is best to announce that at the outset.

On the other hand, I don't have the same aversion to hearing about how a film made a person "feel" as Glenn seems to; part of this is a long and convoluted ambivalence toward certain tendencies in criticism, and part of it is an admittedly romantic idea of the artistic experience - the idea that most primarily and fundamentally, a true work of art affects the soul (or what have you), and does so in a way that goes deeper than any considerations of morality, politics, or ideology; and in way that is ultimately ineffable. And even the smartest and most perceptive among us will never fully shake such a prejudice toward a film (or against it), no matter how detached we believe ourselves to be.

And in the spirit of "being clear" (is the internet evolving?) I should hasten to add that such a feeling doesn't invalidate the critical process at all, which is a worthy and in some ways inevitable pursuit. It just, for me, takes a bit of wind out of its sails, leavens the mixture with a certain humility.

haice

I love Paul McCartney's response when asked about those people nit-picking about The Beatles White Album and he says: "It's THE BEATLES (Fuckin')WHITE ALBUM!" CASE CLOSED. GET REAL.
Likewise I don't understand evaluating a film by discussing scenes you'd like to remove or alter as if you were a studio head giving notes years after the fact. A film is of its time and all of a piece---you like it or hate it. I've watched the first half hour of Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT a thousand times and never for a moment wished he would come back from the grave and re-shoot the orgy scenes.

The Siren

@Zach - so well put.

Glenn Kenny

Of course, Zach's thoughts make me consider all of the exceptions that rub up against what I don't want to consider my..."rules." In my own consideration of the real, or "the Real," I can't say I believe that one can ever entirely escape from, or "transcend," ideology, so I can't fully subscribe to his admittedly romantic idea. Which isn't to say that there isn't some, shall we say, impressionistic criticism or essay writing out there that I utterly love.

Matt Zoller Seitz

I don't agree with Haice saying "a film is of its time and all of a piece--you like it or you hate it." Too black-and-white for me.

I agree with Zach's "ambivalence toward certain tendencies in criticism," chiefly the pretense that one can detach oneself completely from personal prejudice/subjective response, as if doing so somehow validates and ennobles the "parsing," Glenn's word. I love to parse. In fact my fondness of parsing is probably part of the reason I've had trouble staying at one venue for very long. Venues are generally inhospitable to the parsing instinct.

Last year I had lunch with a filmmaker who really liked what I had to say about his work, even though I was cruel to him on occasion. He took special exemption to my complaints that he was more a literary than visual artist, and said it betrayed a prejudice on my part. And he cited my Michael Mann series as proof. "He's a great visual stylist," he said, "but on his best day, he's not half the dialogue writer that I am, and you know it." Then he went on to say, "I don't understand why your video essays are so obsessed with composition, cutting and music. That's not all there is to cinema. And that doesn't speak at all to why most people love movies. For them it's about what happened and who it happened to. Most people could care less what the camera is doing as long as the images are in focus and the dialogue is audible and well-written. You sometimes tend to forget that and disappear up the cinematographer's or the editor's asshole."

I'm not sharing this anecdote as proof that one strategy, one approach, one strategy in criticism is more valuable than another. But I do think that this filmmaker could have learned a lot from Michael Mann, and that Mann could have learned a lot from the other filmmaker. And I think it speaks to the idea that there's a broad spectrum of approaches, all valuable in some way.

And I have thought about that conversation every day since, and it has affected my approach to criticism. There are a lot of people that I haven't been reaching. Why? I don't know the answer to this, but I want to reach those people. Because I am one of them, no matter how many times I do the John Madden thing and mark up compositions in a video essay to explain what "rectilinear" means.

I also think the idea of formalizing one's detachment from subjective response is a ruse and a waste of time and energy. Admit the irrational, subjective, personal response, then get into the aesthetic specifics. It doesn't have to be either/or.

And I know you're not saying it should be, Glenn. I'm just saying that because when I read what you wrote here in this comments thread, it sounds like we don't really disagree as much as we thought. It's a matter of degrees. I went much further in a particular direction that you would have in the same circumstances, and I think you interpreted it as an endorsement of how things should be done. (Do I write with implied exclamation points when I think I'm being restrained, and it pisses people off? Very possibly.) I don't know that I would have done anything differently, though, considering the venue and the intent, which was to get people riled up and push them to join in the discussion, whatever that turned out to be. Are there times when I push buttons gratuitously? Absolutely. Sometimes I regret doing it. But it's always an avenue to something subtler (or at least I intend it that way -- even if it doesn't always come across). I never want the discussion to boil down to me saying, "This movie you liked is actually shitty, and you're stupid for liking it," and the reader responding, "You're a pretentious douchebag. Blow me."

Glenn, about "Gone with the Wind" and other movies you mentioned, I don't have a lot of patience for responses along the lines of, "Well, I knew movie X or movie Y was problematic or shitty years ago," the implication being that a piece pointing this out is devoid of value. Fact is, there are enormous numbers of people out there who do have an all-or-nothing response to films that have been canonical for a long time (like "Gone With the Wind" or "Shane" or "Pulp Fiction" or "To Kill a Mockingbird") and will look at you slack-jawed and furious if you say even a mild word against them. Just because some of us got the memo a while back doesn't mean everyone else got it and has memorized it. There is value in introducing such viewers to the idea that there might be flaws in something they enjoy, that nothing is perfect, and that there might in fact be moral or political downsides to the work that they never considered. When you can introduce such doubts into the head of a person who once viewed a canonical film as an all-or-nothing, "I loved it!" experience, you as a critic have done something tremendously valuable. Assuming that everyone who watches movies has arrived at the same conclusions as cinephiles is self-defeating. It also closes critics off from the culture they're supposedly serving and validates the idea that it's all a big clubhouse that you need a secret password to enter. Again, this is about tailoring one's approach to suit a specific audience. When I do Q&A's or workshops at film festivals, I read up on the festival and ask a lot of questions of programmers to figure out the best approach. It took me a while to figure out that this was necessary. Take a too-basic approach with a sophisticated audience, or a wonky approach with meat-and-potatoes viewers, and people tune out, or walk out. I learned this the hard way and try to remember it every time I write.

Last thing about the "sounding board" line. Nowhere in the introduction did I say this was the only or the best way to write about movies, or that it should be privileged over any other approach. All I said was that in the comments thread of this particular piece, that I hoped people would talk about movies the way most people talk about movies, as sounding boards for the self. I believe I am correct in saying that this is how most people talk about movies. I also believe I am right to say that there is value in talking about movies this way, whether it leads to a more refined appreciation or not.

Glenn Kenny

Well, however this might have started, I think we can all agree that it wound up pushing the dialogue forward, which, I think, is, in Martha Stewart's phrase, a good thing. But as the disembodied dude in "Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" says, "I sleep now." A demain...

Evelyn Roak

Discussing “the science of literature”, and the distance and separation of critic and text, in “Criticism and Truth”, Roland Barthes offers a good view on the questions coming up in this thread and Matt Zoller Seitz‘s latest comments : “…this distance is not entirely a bad thing, if it allows criticism to develop precisely what is lacking in science; this one could sum up in a word: irony. Irony is nothing other than the question which language puts to language (E.R. we have to keep in mind this is about literature and criticism). ..Why should irony be forbidden to criticism? It is perhaps the only serious form of discourse which remains available to criticism so long as the status of science and language is not clearly established---which seems to be still the case today. Irony is therefore what is immediately given to the critic: not to see the truth, in Kafka’s phrase, but to be it, so that we are entitled to ask him, not to make me believe what you are saying, but even more, make me believe in your decision to say it.“

Also, I can’t help but be a jerk chiming in way too late as Glenn has referenced Godard, IN PRAISE OF LOVE, and all that jazz. I only got around to reading the Richard Brody book recently and really enjoyed returning to the discussion from some time ago on this site, which I had read at the time but had nothing to say having not read the book then, though wished it was still going on as I do now, finally, have words to add. Suffice to say the short version is my agreement and trust in the Brody reading is nonexistent. His readings of many of the films just come across as horribly off base (projecting would be another word), simplistic, oblivious, disingenuous and irritating. As the thread here focused on the anti-Semitic elements let me simply say, to pick just one of far too many examples, to find in the all too slight discussion of JLG/JLG (one of Godard’s greatest works in this writers opinion, not to mention its importance in his later work) the proof of anti-Semitism, which seemed to the sole point of Brody’s analysis, in the “image of stereo” section (pretty much the only part of the film covered, itself an absurd oversight) while never even mentioning or alluding to the texts from Lacan and Merleau-Ponty that the entire philosophical argument is based upon, and which it grows out of (I question whether Brody even read these texts which are quite helpful to someone writing an analysis of these works) is either poor scholarship or outright disingenuousness, not to mention a horrible misreading (you don‘t have to know it‘s Lacan to know that the point of the sequence is not the one side remark about Israel and Palestine ((which is misrepresented in his discussion))). This latter point is probably more important---even if you don’t know the Lacan discussion which Godard is working from the sequence is not about Israel; to pick out this one aside, and ignore the rest of the work, is just a gross misreading that is either negligent or a misrepresentation. This is merely one example of way too many, but is indicative of my response on the whole (seriously, misreadings and unfair characterizations abound ((not to mention the over reliance on autobiographical readings to the exclusion of anything else))) , in the book. Sorry for what became epic, intoxicated venting but saw the opening and slid right in.

But that first paragraph makes a relevant point to the discussion.

Kent Jones

Many years ago, I started to notice something odd. When film critics liked the movie they were writing about, everything in it was good. And when they didn't like it, everything in it was bad. Of course there were exceptions here and there, but it was largely true, and still is. Why? I suppose it's because people are invested in the idea of a masterpiece, in something in which they can invest themselves. We are looking for objects of worship with which we can identify totally and completely, so of course they have to be flawless. On top of all that, we want to agree about it all - if we love it, then everybody else must love it too. The years pass, and as the definition of what constitutes a proper object of identification shifts and the whole idea of everyone agreeing on, say, GONE WITH THE WIND becomes irrelevant, we go back and see the flaws. Or, we grow older, our own outlook changes, and so, sometimes, does our outlook on a movie or a novel, and the flaws become evident in that light. And some of us get invested in the idea of pointing out those flaws.

For a lot of people Glenn and I know, total identification with certain filmmakers is rampant. 30 years ago, it was Bergman, Fellini and Kubrick. Kubrick is still very popular as an object of worship, along with Cassavetes and Godard. For some people, it's Raoul Walsh and Douglas Sirk. For others, it's Pedro Costa and Apichatpong Weerasetakhul. For others, it's movie by movie - AVATAR, the STAR WARS saga, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, THE NEW WORLD, GONE WITH THE WIND, PULP FICTION.

From a distance, it might all look to the semi-detached/interested observer like a strange ritual of balloons being inflated by one person or group and then punctured by another, over and over.

I've done plenty of my own director-worshipping and masterpiece-labeling and deflating. It's hard to resist. But works of art are always attempts - attempts at greatness, at replications of certain areas of experience, at elucidations of certain sensations or intuitions. We find ourselves swept along by a movie we love because we're looking to be swept along, but it never happens because the film in question is perfect - it's because the "flaws" become irrelevant, at least temporarily. Sometimes, certain elements that MZS pointed out about the GODFATHER films seem extremely relevant to me. The last time I looked at the films, which was recently, less so.

In short, less polemics and connoisseurship, more description - description of the film, of the changing world (or worlds) in which it exists.

Evelyn Roak

Very well said, Kent. This idea of investment and identification, and of estimation trumping elucidation, is a very important one. I think you rightly highlight the desire for the flawed object of worship. But, in the end, what is the fun of loving something absolutely faultless (and of deluding oneself in believing the object of affection to be without flaws)? This Platonic object does not exist. To long for the perfect masterpiece is to feel the need for, and create for the self, what Lacan in his analysis of courtly love calls “the inhuman partner”, or as Jay tells Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin: “You’re putting the pussy on a pedestal.”

Perhaps this also involves a positioning of the critic within the community, of greater and greater value being placed upon being the one who was there on the ground floor, the one who "got it right.” So the response must be total; the vocabulary becomes masterpiece and failure, because the purpose is perverted. Verdicts replace inspection. It is Agatha Christie and not James. M. Cain.

The problem with this kind of “pointing out the flaws” is that it perpetuates what Kent points out: the essentialist perspective. It isolates parts of a film as the proverbial sore thumb _because_ the film must be great or awful. This is not to say that one shouldn’t analyze what works and what doesn’t but that one should do so beyond the rubric of black or white judgment.

Responding to a question about the role of evaluation Manny Farber responded as such: “It’s practically worthless for a critic. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not: the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.”

Fuzzy Bastarrd

"The problem with this kind of “pointing out the flaws” is that it perpetuates what Kent points out: the essentialist perspective. It isolates parts of a film as the proverbial sore thumb _because_ the film must be great or awful."

But again, that seems to be exactly the opposite of what MZS is saying/doing. He says over and over that "these are films I love", "these are terrific films", "I've seen this movie 20 times", and so on. Isolating and noting elements that don't work in beloved films (or even better, isolating and noting moments that are great in films you don't like) is a way of breaking down that evaluative Manicheanism.

Evelyn Roak


Fuzzy - My apologies if I wasn’t clear enough. That wasn’t meant as a shot across the bow of MZS, or even directed at him, more a comment stemming from Kent’s above (where the conversation had developed to). Following the pointing out of the problematic of idealization and projecting perfection onto a movie (or book, or love object, etc) my attempt at a point was to show how often the “pointing out the flaws” that goes beyond the holding to be immaculate maintains a good/bad opposition. Yes, one should not hold a work as, as you say, “holy texts.” But often the attempt to dismantle the halo preserves the language and categories of this same judgment. The “sore thumb” was to show that the pernicious aspect is often isolated, removed from the entirety to stand out, divorced from that which doesn’t simply surround it but with which it is in a relationship. It is deemed bad (and this is not about MZS’ piece) and set apart. The attempt to move beyond the “entirely good/bad” paradigm maintains the same categorical model. To return to that Farber/Patterson interview: “Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.”

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