Let’s Talk About Criticism

ebert

My thoughts have been in a curious place lately. I’ve had a number of heated discussions with various internet denizens of late, all of them centered around my thoughts about the nature of art and my critical method. My stance on both of these things differs quite wildly from the norm, and it causes some clash with people who have equally entrenched but opposing views. So I’ve lately been reevaluating my critical method, and though I believe I have come to the same conclusion that I did the first time, the journey of thinking it through has been quite enlightening. Today, I want to share with you my new thoughts, entreat your opinion and criticisms of my stated method, and then talk about my method going forward.

In my experience with both formally writing and posting criticism as well as colloquially discussing it in person with friends and family, I’ve encountered three types of reactions to my criticism. The first is the one I much prefer to the rest: it is the reaction of many of you constant readers who tell me frequently that you enjoy reading my thoughts. This reaction always makes me smile and warms the hell out of my heart. When I first started this blog, it was primarily to vent about a movie that had frustrated me. I didn’t care if anyone read it, I was writing it for me. But when so many of you told me that you enjoy reading my thoughts, well, that changed. I write this now as much for you as for myself. Apparently my ramblings are entertaining (perhaps even enlightening or insightful? I can dream!), and I don’t want to let you down. I constantly try to improve my critical eye and think about art in new ways simply because I want to continue entertaining you. But even more so I love this reaction because the people who tend to give this reaction fully understand what I’m doing here. They never really comment on my opinion, but rather say that they enjoy reading it regardless of what it is. There’s civil disagreement here, and that’s fantastic. There’s a mutual understanding that these works of art that I discuss are works of art that can be interpreted in different ways and thought of very differently, but that all interpretations are worthy of respect and consideration. That’s the nature of criticism and when people so clearly understand that it makes me very happy.

The second reaction is a troubling one. These are the reactions where a person will tell me their opinion, which will frequently contrast with my own, but then make an additionally comment to the effect of “but I’m not really a film person so I can’t really say much about it”. This reaction troubles me deeply, but we will get to the reasons for that later. The third reaction is my least favorite reaction. These are the people that tell me that I am wrong. This reaction is not my least favorite because they’re telling me I’m wrong – because I’ll be one of the first to admit I can be wrong quite often – but rather because there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the intent behind my criticism. Both of these reactions concern me, but to fully articulate why there are a few concepts I need to outline first.

What Is Art And Is It Valuable

I’m sure many many readers of this blog are former classmates of mine from high school. Those of you who are will probably recognize this section header as a topic of discussion in the infamous Theory of Knowledge class mandated by the IB curriculum we all endured together. Despite the relative tedium of that class’ requirements, it is responsible for radically changing my thoughts on the very nature of art and what value there exists in art.

In my recent review of The Last of Us, I placed a quote from Andrei Tarkovsky at the top of the post. The quote, for reference, is:

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across thoughts, to propagate ideas, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.

I thought about this quote for a very long time, because I had initially disagreed with it. It certainly sounds rather morbid – experiencing art as preparation for death? – but as I contemplated it more and more I began to see Tarkovsky’s point more clearly, and found myself unable to argue with it. The point of art, by Tarkovsky’s reasoning, is not a cerebral one. Communicating ideas can be far more effectively done outside the realm of art. This is why we write essays in school and not poetry or music. Instead, the point of art is chiefly an emotional one. To “plough and harrow [the] soul” is an emotional experience. Though it suggests negative emotions through the connotations of the terms plough and harrow, all emotions contribute to the stated goal of “rendering [the soul] capable of turning to good.” Art’s purpose is to put the audience through an emotional experience, that they might grow from it and become better people.

In short: the purpose of art is to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience.

This statement is the absolute governor of my opinions. Any value that I place in a work of art has solely to do with the emotional reaction derived from it. The emotional reaction can be positive – a work can make me rapturously happy and be a great work of art – or negative – a work can make me precipitously sad and still be a great work of art – but it has to be strong. Every single word I have ever written about a work of art has been in an attempt to describe the emotional reaction I derived from that work of art.

Now, there is a clear potential issue with defining the value in a work of art by the strength of the emotional reaction it elicits: emotions are inherently subjective and dependent on the human experiencing them. I say “potential issue” because I don’t believe this is an issue in any sense of the word. The real issue at hand is that some people have difficulty coming to terms with the implication of this definition of artistic value: there is no intrinsic value in art, only subjective value.

Without a human to experience the art and react to it emotionally, it has no value. But since that reaction can vary in type, strength, and sometimes even presence (I have seen people completely stoic after experiencing some works of art and it frankly frightens me), the value of art will vary from person to person. And that’s okay.

One final note: the key part of this definition is the reaction part. It’s not enough to simply watch it and be emotional; there has to be a reaction involved. A mental process of considering aspects of the art – even if subconscious – that creates an emotional reaction. It is this process of reaction that allows us to grow from the emotional experiences. Art can do many, many things if you engage with it and react to it. Simply being emotional isn’t enough; there needs to be a sort of unspoken emotional dialogue here. That’s what contributes to the growth of the soul.

So, recap: the value of art is defined by the strength of the emotional reaction it elicits, which implies that the value of art is inherently subjective. Still with me? Fantastic. Time to move on to…

The Ways We Engage With Art

The passing of the man pictured at the top of this article was a horrible loss for the world. Roger Ebert had been my favorite critic for as long as I could remember, having the deepest love for the cinema of anyone I have ever seen and displaying a remarkable proficiency and respect for the craft. His passing deeply affected me.

But life must go on, and the art of cinema will live on as well. In the time since his death, I have read very few critics, trying to find a new one whose thoughts I appreciated even remotely as much as I did Ebert’s. Over the past few weeks I have been reading the writing of internet critic Film Crit Hulk. Film Crit Hulk has a bit of a gimmicky writing style – all caps and in Hulk speak – but once you get past that, his insights are invaluable.

Not long ago, in the aftermath of the infamous Red Wedding on Game of Thrones, Hulk posted an essay about the ways that we engage with art, outlining four principal methods that most people fall into. The full essay is outstanding and I highly encourage everybody to give it a read. But, as it is a Hulk-sized essay, I will briefly outline the four ways that he delves into with great depth here in this post.

The first way that people engage with art is with childlike wonder, as Hulk puts it. They are strung along by art, experiencing the emotions the art enforces as-is. Moments of elation for the characters make them happy, but moments of sadness make them equally sad. Because of this, most people who engage with art on this first level gravitate toward happier, comedic films rather than sad, scary, or intense films. Positive emotions versus negative ones. Now don’t misinterpret me here; I am not saying that this way of engaging with art is bad, or immature, or wrong. It is simply not optimal. As we discussed above, the value of art is in the strength of the reaction, not the type. Negative reactions, if strong, are just as valuable, and shutting oneself apart from those is not the best way to engage with art. If I had to describe this way in a single word, I would use Hulk’s term: “indulgent.”

The second way that people engage with art is, after having moved beyond the childlike wonder stage, by attempting to recapture it. They can process emotions beyond the simple indulgence of the first way, but they tend to value those indulgent experiences. Hulk rather unfavorably compares this group to drug addicts: chasing that first emotional high to diminishing returns. For this group, the emotion of the moment is paramount, and recapturing the emotional experiences had back in stage one is their ultimate goal.

The third way is more cerebral. Moving beyond stage two, people begin to engage with art in such a way that they place the emotional experience being had into context. In more simple terms, people at stage three take the emotional experience the art gives them, and they react to it. They understand that art is about “plough[ing] and harrow[ing] the soul”, and that positive emotion isn’t the ultimate goal at work. They think about and apply the emotional experience granted by the works of art in order to grow, and in doing so become masters of the dialogue that art has with the mind and soul. Hulk gives the example of horror fans cheering on moments where the killer ensnares a victim. This is not a good thing – somebody is about to die! But these fans have a keen understanding and awareness of the dialogue that the art is having with them, and they cheer it on because they’re enjoying the experience of understanding. It’s a bit difficult to convey, so let’s try a personal example.

breakthebatI went to see The Dark Knight Rises with a group at friends at midnight. I love Batman and have been an avid Batman reader for quite a while now, so I have a very extensive knowledge and understanding of Batman history. There is a scene in the film where Bane, the film’s villain, lifts Batman into the air and breaks his back by slamming Batman’s spinal cord into his knee. It’s a direct reference to the iconic image from the Knightfall story arc, referred to as “breaking the bat.” When this happened, I clapped. I was ecstatic. This is a piece of iconic Batman history, and Christopher Nolan was using that to have an unspoken dialogue with me, the consumer. But my friend sitting next to me did not clap. He gasped in horror, and then acted appalled that I was clapping. In that moment, he wasn’t having the dialogue with the film. He was solely in the emotional moment. He was the horror fan who screams rather than claps. This is the difference between engaging on the third level and on the second level (note: set aside notions of verticality here. The third level is not inherently “better” or “superior” to the second level. More on that in a moment). According to Hulk, most film critics operate on this level.

But there is a fourth level. This fourth level is not one that can be achieved through the mere consumption of art, because it involves a deep understanding of the craft of making that art. A person engaging on the fourth level can see in great detail all of the ways that the work of art creates their experience. In the case of film, which I can talk about more easily than most media, they understand why a cinematographer used this shot in this situation, why the lighting is the way it is, why the editor cut at this point, and they comprehend immediately how the film is actively constructed to create the reaction they are having. The dialogue exposed at the third level is taken to its fullest and most complete level. They’re comprehending how the work is creating the experience, and then contextualizing and using that experience to grow.

So what do these four levels have to do with this article? Because the goal of my criticism is tied directly to this idea. Hulk provided a wonderful framework to easily illustrate it, but from day one my criticism – particularly my film criticism – has been about guiding people to be fourth-level consumers of art.

As a caveat: I am not on that fourth-level myself. I am quite solidly in the third-level. But I am practicing my craft, going to film school to learn in a formal setting, and constantly consuming more and more. I have every intention of one day being on that fourth-level. Though I can occasionally flit into the fourth level for an insight or two, as I watch films my engagement is solidly on the third level.

But I want to drag you, constant reader, kicking and screaming along with me. I want to, through my criticism, help you grow as a consumer of art and not restrict yourself to simple emotion. I want you to engage with the art on as deep a level as possible, and I write what I do in an active effort to nurture that. I hope that when you read my reviews you’ll think about them and, if you see something you hadn’t thought of, then think about those sorts of things as you see later films and perhaps gain new insights into how you engage with art.

I’m going to learn the craft of filmmaking and make it to that fourth level of engagement, and I only want to bring you along for the ride.

Back To Reactions: Why Two and Three Trouble Me

Okay so now we’ve got a value definition for art as well as my purpose for writing this blog and why I critique art (specifically films since that’s something I can reach the fourth level with). Let’s get back to what I opened this post with: reactions to this blog. The first reaction remains awesome because it means that my purpose is working. I’m dragging you guys along with me as I climb the ways of engagement and we’re all becoming better consumers of art in the process. Awesome. The second and third remain troubling, but now we have the necessary background to discuss why I find those things troubling.

The third reaction, in which I am called out as “wrong”, troubles me because it seems to ignore the subjectivity of the dialogue between myself and the art. That dialogue is always going to be unique to the consumer because they bring their own history and preconceptions along with them. So to be called “wrong” for outlining my experience with that dialogue is just not true. I can’t be wrong when outlining my thoughts anymore than the person telling me that I am wrong can be wrong when expressing their own thoughts. We each had different experiences and have different thoughts. That’s okay, and in fact that’s awesome – now we can have a discussion about the differences in our experiences and learn and grow from it, perhaps engaging on a higher level with the art.

But the person who differs with my opinion and then tells me that I am wrong troubles me further because they are ignoring what I have to say about what led me to that conclusion. Hulk – again, because I love this guy – talks about this idea of a “Tangible Details Theory” in his discussion of Man of Steel. This theory basically states that, because we interact with art quite frequently, we all have this sense that we are proficient as everybody else in that art. But that’s not the case; there are those with more experience both creating and consuming that art. Not all criticisms are created equal. The issue here is that “tangible details” – the sorts of things that most consumers will pick up on – often lead to the formation of a consensus, and the idea that “this interpretation is the only correct one!” But of course, there are many valid interpretations. Most of those valid interpretations, however, deal with intangible details, the sorts of details that are not abundantly clear to every consumer of the work. Intangible details will likely not even be clear to people with high proficiency: some people will pick up on them, others won’t. There are many layers of details that can be drawn upon to formulate an interpretation. The person who tells me I am wrong, I hate to say, will often be relying on these tangible details that have created a consensus regarding the value of the work. By telling me simply that I am wrong, they dismiss any analysis that might be contained within the formulation of my opinion, and are depriving themselves of the chance to consider the art in a way different than they had initially. This makes me sad, because I want everybody to engage with art on as high a level as possible. A critical part of getting to that point is reading the thoughts of others’, ESPECIALLY the thoughts of those who differ with your conclusion. A key part of the process is digging through to find intangible details you may have missed, and then using those newly found details to pick up on things you would have missed in future films. A person who dismisses my opinion as wrong isn’t doing these things, and isn’t growing as a consumer of art, and that troubles me.

Conversely, the people who seem to put my opinion as a film student (and hopefully professional filmmaker!) on a pedestal with a comment to the effect of “I don’t know much about film and can’t comment on it” is limiting themselves to the tangible details. This troubles me not because they’re being stubborn with an assertion that an opinion is wrong, but because they are operating on a faulty belief that they will be unable to pick up on intangible details simply because they haven’t had formal training. That’s absolutely absurd!

As I’ve said, the entire reason I write reviews is to encourage and help people engage with art on a higher level and have greater experiences. Having some greater respect for my opinion because I happen to have taken film classes and plan to do this for a living is wrong. My opinion is just as valid as yours. Instead, read my thoughts and see my reasoning. Use that and then think about those things as you watch future films. You will begin to learn, and you will be able to engage on a higher level even without formal training. My opinion is not sacred because I have experience. I have no authority. I am just a consumer of art who wants to also make art, and I want you to tell me your opinion so we can talk about them, and so that we can both grow as consumers.

Alright, this has shaped up to be a very long post. There’s a lot more I could talk about – I didn’t even touch story structure, a favorite topic of mine – but I feel this is sufficient. As one final note…

I love movies. I love books. I love comics. I love games. I love music. I love art. All these things are the pop cultural expression of wide human experience. I’ve consumed these things all my life and have been climbing very slowly the ladder of artistic engagement, and doing so has opened my eyes to some spellbinding and life-altering experiences with art. I am so overcome with love for these media that I cannot help but want to share it with the entire world. Though I may only reach a few of you, or even none of you, the idea that someone out there may come to have experiences like the ones that I have on a regular basis as a result of my criticism changing the way they think about and engage with art is enough to keep me going. That thought, that hope, that I can infect just one other person with this deep and abiding love of all things artistic?

That’s what I live for. And if I can do that for just one other person, I will die a very happy and content man.

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Criticism

  1. […] Let’s Talk About Criticism (coxinabox.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] has been a shift in my philosophy on film criticism of late. While everything I said in my longer post about film criticism a few months back remains accurate, I have shied away from the film reviews I used to post here. […]

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