Saturday, January 12, 2013

against critical shorthand

I'm sure you're aware of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a trope identified and skewered by Nathan Rabin of the AV Club. I say that because it has since sprouted like mushrooms across the Internet, popping up all over the place. I think Rabin was identifying a real phenomenon with real problems, but I also think it was applicable to a limited number of movies, and the term long ago outlived any use. Now, when I see it, it's typically employed as a kind of meaningless and mindless dismissal, a piece of vague snark relying on borrowed cleverness. When I saw someone refer to Annie Hall as a MPDG, I wanted to throw something through a window. Any term that can equate the empty shell that is Natalie Portman's character in Garden State and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall is useless.

The problem, I think, is critical shorthand-- when terms or tropes are used as a way to avoid doing the work of careful, specific criticism. Effective and fair criticism always proceeds from making as sympathetic an interpretation as possible before recounting flaws. Such an accounting can't happen if criticism is expressed in a predigested idiom, especially if its one that is explicitly mocking and reductive. Being a critic entails, to me, a lot of responsibility, a lot of integrity. And since every piece of art is unique, each deserves the respect of a unique appraisal.

I bring this up because of a discussion in Slate's annual Movie Club, the increasingly-obnoxious roundtable between movie reviewers the website runs each January. (This year, it's Dana Stevens, Stephanie Zacharek, Wesley Morris, and Keith Phipps) The reviewers, in seeking to dismiss Beasts of the Southern Wild, repeatedly refer to it as "like a graduate thesis" or similar. And let me say: this means nothing. It contains no content. It's simply a way for the reviewers to pose as superior to what they're discussing. It's a perfect example of the preference for saying something that sounds clever rather than something revealing or insightful. What does that actually mean, "like a graduate thesis"? I have some idea, but some idea is not enough. It is the business of writers to express themselves, to make their intention plain, to fill in those gaps. Ezra Pound said that writers should go in fear of abstraction. You can take that advice, but you can also take it as an admonishment. This is what I mean by critical shorthand, when a critique becomes a mere device.

I believe, very strongly, in the power and value of film criticism, including negative criticism. That's true when movies make arguments that are wrong, or when they insult or condescend to their audience. It's also true when negative criticism helps to make us understand movies in a deeper way. I wanted very much to love Super Eight, and I didn't, and I struggled to understand why. Between the two of them, Devin Faraci and Film Crit Hulk of Badass Digest explained to me why I didn't like that movie more, and that has helped me appreciate movies I do love in a deeper way. It's not a question of severity, but a question of rigor, of critical integrity. As someone who thinks that art has a moral purpose and should be taken seriously in every sense, I have no problem at all with harsh criticism. What I have a problem with is lazy criticism, cheap criticism.

Look, I'm not going to pretend neutrality here: I think Beasts is a beautiful movie, wonderfully alive, wise, and unafraid. And what it's unafraid of is exactly the dismissal of critics like these. American movie criticism is, to my mind, deeply unhealthy, and that unhealthiness stems from a profoundly defensive stance, a deep fear on the part of critics that they are somehow being tricked, that they are being hoodwinked. I saw the movie at a special screening at Wesleyan, and while I loved it, I said to myself, "this is a movie that will certainly provoke a backlash." And that backlash has come because the movie actually tries something different, something that takes risk. Critics are endlessly knowing about Oscar bait, but terrible naive about critic bait, about how they themselves are manipulable. Manohla Dargis once wrote about the safest way to ensure critical respect:
American cinema is in the grip of a kind of moribund academicism, which helps explain why a fastidiously polished film like “No Country for Old Men” can receive such gushing praise from critics. “Southland Tales” isn’t as smooth and tightly tuned as “No Country,” a film I admire with few reservations. Even so, I would rather watch a young filmmaker like Mr. Kelly reach beyond the obvious, push past his and the audience’s comfort zones, than follow the example of the Coens and elegantly art-direct yet one more murder for your viewing pleasure and mine. Certainly “Southland Tales” has more ideas, visual and intellectual, in a single scene than most American independent films have in their entirety, though that perhaps goes without saying.
That was written more than five years ago, and it remains discouragingly true today. Filmmakers can combine minimalist direction with remorseless sociopaths and abstract scores and endless "artistic" violence, and receive plaudit after plaudit. But true credit belongs to people who stretch not just the easily-parodied dictates of the Oscars but the more subtle myopia of the critical community. It's hard to imagine a movie that better represents the opposite of what Dargis complained about than Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is wild and teeming and loud and passionate. What makes it all so much worse is that Beasts is what critics say they want: something vivid, something daring, something new. If that's what graduate theses are made of, give me many more.


Jack Crow said...

I didn't get to see Beasts at the theater. I redboxed it shortly after the turn of the new year.

I fell immediately in love with the film, which is not something I write or say about much of anything.

It was, to use another word rarely in my lexicon, gorgeous.

Bart said...

I liked the lake.

Freddie said...

Hmm, I may have to rescue the lake then. Not sure if I can integrate it into this new template though. I'm still playing around.

Josh said...

Are you arguing that a movie that was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and received 86% positive critical reviews (per RT) is the opposite of the type of movie appreciated by most critics?

I don't disagree with you about the vapidity of most film criticism. I do think however, there is a lot of value in unserious criticism, that treats film as it is usually experienced (silly entertainment), not as serious-minded art.