Wednesday, January 10, 2018

a riff on "The Reviewer's Fallacy" at Slate, about how and why critics may praise a film that goes over like a lead balloon with audiences

Orwell and Hardwick present the “gross” overpraise as calculated; I think it usually is not. As a friend of mine suggests, critics fall prey to a sort of hermeneutic Stockholm syndrome. They experience so much bad work that they get inured to it. They are so thankful for originality, or for a creator’s having good or arguably interesting intentions, or for technical proficiency, or for a something that’s crap but not crap in quite the usual way, that they give these things undue credit. You see this in reactions to Coen brothers films, whose inside-baseball intricacies and references and sometimes distended cynicism set some critics’ hearts aflutter. [emphasis added] Inside Llewyn Davis got 93 from the critics and 74 from the public on Rotten Tomatoes. For the brothers’ latest offering, Hail, Caesar!, the ratio is 85 to 44. (I loved the film. Go figure.)
A sign that the Reviewer’s Fallacy is in effect is copious attention to acting and cinematography (in a movie) or the quality of sentences (in a novel). Manohla Dargis’s blurb for A Quiet Passion says it’s “exquisitely directed … with delicacy and transporting camera movements”; A.O. Scott’s says it has “poetic compression and musical grace.” There’s of course nothing wrong with those things, but for most potential consumers they’re not very high on the wish list. And what’s above them? The answer wildly differs for different people (a big reason why it’s so hard to be a good critic), but in our own way we’re all seeking what the Latin poet Horace termed “delight.” In books, films, and TV, that often comes down to a story to which we gratefully suspend our disbelief and that carries us along like a well-tuned sports car. In pop music, the distinction is between words (easy to write about and find merit in) and music (the straw that really stirs the drink). When a reviewer goes on about a brilliant performance, or cleverly transgressive lyrics, I think of Paul Reiser’s bit about a friend who shows him a picture of his extraordinarily ugly baby. Reiser finds there is nothing he can say except, “Nice wallet!”
Here’s the heart of the problem: The set of critics’ and audiences’ interests do not perfectly overlap but rather form a Venn diagram. In the audience circle, the pressing question is, “Should I spend some number of the dollars I have to my name and the hours I have left on Earth on this thing?” Critics get in for free and by definition have to read or watch or listen to whatever’s next up. So their circle is filled with relativistic questions about craft and originality and wallet quality and the often unhelpfully general “Is it good?” (Some of them even have an idea of what they mean by “good”; the rest are winging it.)


To this end I find the reviewers and film critics who frustrate me are those who refuse to spoil the entire film.  My own approach to film criticism is that if you're not spoiling most of the important, salient features of the narrative and characters you're not even really doing your job as a film critic.  If you've written about a movie in an effective way you should be able to convey something to a reader that allows him or her to decide whether or not they will ever bother to watch what you're writing about, or to write in such a way that he or she finds some benefit or interest in reading about a film that they in fact never intend to see

At the risk of giving examples from my own work, if someone were to read a few of the essays from Batman: The Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire, the reader doesn't have to have seen a single episode of Batman; the animated series.  It would help if a reader has seen the episodes, of course, just as it might help a reader of those essays to have some familiarity with G. K. Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn, Roy Baumeister, C. S. Lewis, Adolf Schlatter, the Bible, and a few other things.  Knowing about all those writings will, I think, make reading the essays more fruitful.  But even if you don't know any of those authors I hoe that taking their work and referencing it in relationship to the character of Batman as depicted in the classic animated show will be interesting reading whether you watch the show or not.  Now I would submit as a matter of personal conviction and taste that the essays are much, much more fun if you have seen the cartoon and/or also read the authors.  But the signal aim of criticism as a literary art form is, to me, that you convey information about art and artists and literature in such a way that whether your reader has ever been exposed to any of that stuff or not, but especially if not, he or she can in some way benefit from what you wrote.  You wrote about the subject or artwork ina way that conveys crucial information that the reader did not previously have by which to assess wehther or not to give what you're writing about a shot. 

Richard Taruskin's polemical point, one among many, is that in the last fifty years a disturbingly large gap has come to exist between the academic canon and the repertoire canon in concert music.  Academics might say you should know Babbitt and Carter while audiences pay for Shostakovich.  The gap between the expectations of the highbrow and middlebrow and the lowbrow has expanded.  Or you can say the gap between the highbrow over against the middlebrow and lowbrow has expanded and what this can mean, pertinent to Yagoda's writing, is that critics almost by definition have the role of a highbrow even if they're constantly writing about lowbrow art.  The entry fee by way of accumulated knowledge gets bigger and bigger. 

What criticism can do, if a critic is doing his or her job, is give a reader a window into something he or she is not sure is worth the time or trouble but that she or he would like, in some way, to understand.  Critics may not always appreciate, at least the critics who criticize films and television or what-have-you for a living, that in a fundamental way the point of their writing is to convey something about the art so that the on-the-fence person can decide to not bother.  That sounds terrible to put it that way but your job in writing criticism, speaking strictly as an amateur, is to give people a reason to read first and foremost, not necessarily to go watch the movie or the film or listen to the music.  Yes, yes, the reader won't fully appreciate what you've written about without going to expose themselves to whatever you're writing about and that's usually going to be true.  But if the art of literary criticism is going to be anything other than parasitically dependent on the things consumed about which reviewers and critics write their pieces we need more than that.  A review just tells you whether the reviewer liked the movie enough to say whether or not you, too, should go see it.  criticism does something else, it uses the art in question as a pretext or, perhaps a better way of putting this, a portal or gateway through which to explore ideas that, ideally ,are in some way actually in the work under examination.

But that's hardly to say that merely because an author can explore how the concept of the bound will might relate to Batman villains is hardly to say that any such writing is making a "theological" point or attributing theological content to Batman cartoons ... but that's probably some other topic for some other time. 

I like the phrase that describes film reviewers as having a kind of Stockholm syndrome.  It kind of reminds me of an observation I've had about how film critics and reviewers in general may simply be consuming too much and that if they consumed less they'd be less apt to feel like this or that art is "dying". 

What can happen ... and this is also probably grist for an altogether different post, is that film reviewers and professional critics often end up at loggerheads with audience reception because the halo effect has a negative as well as a positive mode.  Plenty of film critics who hate the very idea of watching superhero films might be all for Call Me By Your Name, even if the script for a coming out story or a discovering-your-sexuality narrative can have so many overlaps with a superhero story as to render the alleged differences mere formalities.  Bryan Singer's work would seem like a case in point but ... again .. probably a post for some other occasion.  A negative halo effect is the negative counterpart to a critical overpraise of this or that film.  You might find that Get Out was a fun genre romp that maybe didn't feel as profound as critics said it was, but it's been dubbed the most important 2017 film by a few people.  Some are upset that it got considered as a comedy, as if comedies aren't capable of plumbing the most profound and vulnerable aspects of the human condition ... . 

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