Sunday, March 20, 2016

On the Eye of the Beholder

As I was thinking about the Oscars these past couple months, it lead me down the rabbit hole of nostalgia. It's a subject that should be on the minds of many since it impossible to escape the glaring light of it in today's popular culture. (If having to wrap my brain around the words "Fuller House" means I get hours of undiluted David Lynch next year, maybe it's worth it?) But as I scratched my head over how the Oscars appeared to be scratching a nostalgic itch with Spotlight, it lead me to wondering how much our favorite movies of the past influence our tastes today.

For the vast majority of us, Hollywood played some sort of role in shaping the way we look at movies and what constitutes our likes and dislikes. These are the movies we are most exposed to at a young age before more exotic fare might be piped in from the open-minded sources we encounter as we grow up. And our high school and college years are so formative that I challenge you to show me a film fanatic who watched a new movie after they turned 30 and determine that to be their favorite film of all time. Such choices are made during the impressionable years of one's late teens and twenties, a prime nostalgia time.

Everybody knows first impressions are important. You could even break down some of your favorite movies simply by the impact and impression they made on you when you first watched them. A lot of this has to do with timing. Nowadays, the shock and awe of touchstone movies like Bonnie and Clyde or Pink Flamingoes can greatly depend on when someone sees them during their own filmic upbringing. It's sad but inevitable to see them lose some of their initial impact and for folks to require some Film 101 style contextualization if they don't catch them at just the right time.

This happens with some of the best and most cherished movies, since the ones that have the most impact and leave the biggest impressions are the ones that get carbon copied for years afterwards, diluting the very elements that made it special to begin with. Like many people my age, seeing Pulp Fiction at a theater in 1994 as an18 year-old was like freebasing uncut cinema - which is to say: it left quite an impression. 20 years later, my biased eyes think it still holds up but I have little doubt someone watching it for the first time today will get the same kick.

Now, I know sentimentality and nostalgia aren't exactly the same thing, but I have long carried the movie Flirting around as a sentimental favorite of mine. Like most of my favorite movies, Flirting happened to get watched at just the right time and, perhaps by no coincidence, the movie itself is steeped in nostalgia. I saw it on TV when I was 16 or 17 and it hit me as one of the most honest depictions of teenage awkwardness I'd ever seen. It made me wonder why there weren't more movies like this - a feeling I took with me to film school and still hold on to today.

These are the kinds of movies that add up to define us, our tastes and our reactions to the movies we see today - the movies that drove us to keep digging and wanting to see more. And no two people, even if they are the same age and received the same education and had similar life experiences are going to end up with the same taste in movies. Which means neither person is going to be any more right or wrong when it comes to appreciating what a movie has to offer.

I feel lucky that I was able to get an early exposure to a wide variety of films growing up and that my parents were pretty early adopters of the VCR. Most parents would probably wag their finger at letting a 13 year old kid watch a mix that included lots of David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, John Landis and repeat viewings of Evil Dead 2. My childhood and adolescence wasn't the best, but I do have some rose-colored nostalgia for sitting around with the family, watching The French Connection or Raising Arizona. For all of the various issues my parents had, and perhaps passed on to me, at least I got an all-inclusive love for movies out of the bargain.

As I inch ever closer to 40 years of age, I really do get the feeling that most of what defines my tastes in movies is pretty well cemented. They're not completely done evolving but I no longer have the omnivorous desires I once had and my patience for bad movies - be they ironically bad, so-bad-they're-good or simply dispassionate, boringly bad - is shrinking more and more every year. It used to be that I would watch multiple movies per day, but nowadays I average about three over the course of a week.

And this is where good film criticism comes in. I understand someone in their 20s who holds little regard for some pretentious, high falutin critic's opinion. Godspeed, since that person should go right ahead and devour anything they're inclined to regardless of what some critic says, that's what your 20s are for and bad movies go a long way to educate and help hone tastes and perspective. But that kind of stamina rarely lasts. Chances are, 20 years down the road that person is going to check in with the handful of critics they've come to rely on in order to decide what movies they're going to invest their time in.

In my experience, you'll never find a critic you will always agree with. (If you find someone you agree with 100% of the time then you might be reading this from a cult's shared computer - which is to say: you're probably highly impressionable and easily convinced.) Everyone who writes a review is going through the process of filtering a movie through a lifetime of experiences, influences, considerations and holding it up to whatever other comedy, drama, thriller, horror, or psychedelic freak-out the movie deserves comparison to. If the end result comes close to your own perspective even 50% of the time, that's a critic you might consider holding on to.

Realistically, no two people are going to see the same movie the same way. In fact, most people will bring a lot of internal and external static with them when they see a movie - and the choice of movie they make will often reflect their current disposition. Sometimes you feel like a comedy, sometimes you feel like an 8 hour Bela Tarr movie. But the lucky/unlucky professional film critic often doesn't have the benefit of picking and choosing which movie they get to review based on how rosy or bitterly nihilistic they may be feeling that day - but that's why they're professionals.

And that's why movies are magical. You can enter a movie theater, check your baggage at the box office and get caught up in someone else's story. I knew a guy at film school who, among other reasons, loved movies because he could enjoy two stress-free hours with his ex-wife and their kids. Whatever they were watching at the time probably rated a little higher in his perspective because when the lights dimmed and the movie started he could put the rest of his life on pause.

I think it's part of the professional critic's job to try and view a movie with clear eyes, separate from whatever else may be going on in their lives. I'm sure each and every one might have struggled with this at some point. But, despite what internet commenters might think, it's not part of the critic's job to remove themselves, their beliefs, personality or experiences. If a critic is a bleeding heart liberal or a stodgy conservative, that's the eyes they're seeing the movie with and that's what should be reflected in their opinion.

Maybe I'm stating some obvious points here, but everywhere you look (again, thanks/damn-you internet) people reading movie reviews are acting like they expect some dispassionate, personality-free review to simply describe the movie and tell them whether it is good or bad - like an opinion could simply be determined by a movie-watching robot that is programmed to determine craft, acting and intentions. Actually, a good review can spark epiphanies, debate, reevaluations, and, if your mind is open enough, the ability to see consider a movie through a outside perspective. This last example is what seems to get people really confused - yet, offering an honest, informed, unique and well-written perspective on a movie is exactly what good criticism is all about.

For those looking simply for thorough accounts of a movie's plot and some version of an unbiased opinion I suggest waiting for the wikipedia page to get up to snuff or sticking to IMDb. But more than that, I suggest taking a movie review for what it is - one person's opinion, not a threat to anyone's sensibilities. Hopefully a critic has the sense to clearly write why and how they came to their opinion so that hopefully, with a little thought on their part, the reader can understand where they're coming from. And again, there's a good chance it won't be the exact same place other people are coming from - but that's the nature of the beast.

I believe there is very little that is or should be considered universally accepted opinions regarding what makes a good movie. I think there's a certain level of craft we can probably agree on, and some ideas about what constitutes good acting and writing - but even these ideas aren't unassailable. All it takes is the right kind of movie to come along and people will be redefining these things once again. This is one of the many reasons I love movies, it's grown, morphed, mutated and continues to do so - and it would be really, really sad if there were some sort of universally accepted notions of what a filmmaker should or shouldn't do when they go about creating.

Anyone who is a fan of movies should understand this. The people who make movies, write about movies, or just sit around watching them in their spare time - everyone has their own sensibility, perspective and tastes. It can be a deeply personal thing because these things gets formed over a long period of time, starting when we're young. This is probably why, when we disagree about movies, we can get super emotional and defensive. It's like an personal attack on everything we stand for and all that we've been through, those very things that have created our tastes and perspective - the stuff that we hold dear, the nostalgic parts of our lives that made us who we are today.

At the risk of over extending my time on RFC this week, I want to give one more example. I can't pinpoint first time I saw Brazil, I must have been around 12 or 13, but it was one of those movies that made me feel like my mind was expanding while I was watching it. This vast, fully realized world was put in front of me and it seemed like anything could have happened by the time the movie ended. I was fully transfixed.

Fast forward 20 years and I now look at the impression Brazil had on me as the reason why I am more lenient and forgiving when it comes to ambitiously messy films. I'll watch a movie like Southland Tales and I'll easily be able to look past the scattershot storytelling to admire the gonzo, go-for-broke ambition it took to create its bizarro, original universe. So, if I were to write about the movie, I'd make sure to add that, nope, it ain't for everyone. I'll tell the reader the kind of glasses I'm wearing, the perspective that caused me to appreciate a weird and flawed movie and that they might want to pop on this pair if they're interested in watching it.

When it comes to talking or writing about movies, no one is right or wrong. It's all in the eye of the beholder. Nobody's going to show up with an answer sheet and start handing out gold stars. The only way you can mess it up is to come to it with a bad attitude, taking aim to rain on people's parades and, generally speaking, be a dick. Whether or not someone else's perspective matches yours doesn't add or detract value from either party. If you're thoughtful about it, and you express yourself that way, then chances are you'll get respect. And that's about the best we can hope for anyway.


Padraic said...

Hey Sean,

Good stuff, I think this should serve as the mission statement for the blog (although I have to say I'm shocked that you've been thinking about the Oscars for months)!

As you might imagine, I'm not sure I agree with the general relativism of your approach towards criticism. When you write that "it would be really, really sad if there were some sort of universally accepted notions of what a filmmaker should or shouldn't do when they go about creating," I'm not sure I agree. I think that an accepted idea that a filmmaker should be honest and truthful in their intentions (and not just cashing a paycheck) should be a universal of good filmaking. If you're talking about technique, actors, plots, etc, then sure, you can do whatever you want, but I think the goal of a good critic is to see when a director (or writer or actor) is disingenuous and shallow, meaning I think good critics see beneath the sham of movies by Inarritu or (early) Haggis or (later) Malick. A critic who doesn't see why, for example, Tree of Life is a great film and To the Wonder is an embarrassment is not doing their job.

The origins of criticism come from a search for truth and understanding, and the goal of the critic I think is to explain the film (or book or song) to its creator better than the creator understands it him- or herself.

My favorite critic - though I do disagree on occasion - is A. O. Scott, precisely because he is willing to take down a film that he finds to be intellectually disingenuous and false. His review today of Batman vs. Superman is brilliant, specifically because he locates the artistic and entertainment failures of the film in the shallow cash grab of its creators. Our favorite movie historian - Mark Cousins - stakes out just such a "universal" standard for films when he champions the truly innovative over the bauble. Your lady Paulene Kael had a tremendous guiding principle in her film reviewing. Sean Burns writing on the fundamental racism of Bay movies is tremendous!

On the other hand, I think your ecumenical style leads to (sorry) the kind of empty enthusiasm of Roger Ebert, who was a great champion of film and an amazing person but whose reviews I couldn't stand for taking the pretensions of the flimakers at face value and abdicating his fundamental responsibility to question those pretentions.

What's interesting is that my perspective - that there are some kind of objective and universal truths towards which movies can (and must) be striving leads to divisiveness every bit as personal as the kind of stuff your talking about. You seem to be saying that when people criticize your movies, they're criticizing you. I see it as when people criticize movies I like, they are missing out on great truths! To me that's much worse than criticizing my personality.

I mean people who like Wolverine or Bad Grandpa or Transformers or whatever simply do not have a sense of life's meaning and I don't want to say that, say, in comparison to Tarr, that these movies are just different approaches to filmaking and that we cannot condemn the "beholder" for not recognizing that one form of filmaking (the kind driven by the fiscally conservative executives at the international corporations that own most hollywood studios) is vastly inferior to that driven by personal vision and an empathetic approach toward humanity. It is, and the critic who doesn't say that is shirking their responsibility.

Speaking of Tarr, it's possible that Werkmeister is my favorite film of all time, and I think I saw that at 31 or 32, so all is not lost. The irony is, is that when you look towards film as a source of universal truth and understanding of the universal condition, you never fall victim to nostalgia. But when you locate the "magic" of flim in its ability to stroke the self-styled and unimpeachable tastes of the individual, it's no surprise that a kind of ossification of taste can set in.

Sean Erickson said...

So you wouldn't say that it's your personality, or whatever it is that made you who you are today, that makes this particular foundation of standards so important to you? You wouldn't call these personal truths?

I agree with most of what you're saying in regard to movies that are disingenuous, certainly it is the job of the critic to shine a light on such things, but I don't think any one type of movie is inherently more disingenuous than another. False and cloying movies are not beholden to any one type of movie. Yes, the innovative is always better than the bauble but I don't agree that these kinds of movies are only found in one particular place, genre or form -- again, movies would be really boring if that were the case.

For instance, someone could have made an innovative Batman v Superman movie. Bad Grandpa didn't have to be a steamingly offensive turd of a movie. But I don't think it is empty enthusiasm to suggest that a socio-political minded person could write a review of one of these movies that draws personal connections to suggest it's actually a cleverly subversive takedown of America's corporate infected political system. My point is, if that person can make their case, you can't condemn the beholder.

I'm not suggesting that if someone says, "I like Batman v Superman because it's shiny and went bang bang real loud," that it's some sort of valid criticism.

Honestly, it doesn't seem like it's a big stretch to suggest that someone like Slavoj Zizek could come to the intellectual defense of a Zack Snyder film. That's what excites me, that's the magic. And if Zizek did come to the defense of BvS, it wouldn't necessarily make A.O. Scott's opinion any less valid. There's room for all kinds.

And personally, I love when a director-for-hire sneaks in their own personality into a movie. You can look at the long glorious history of directors that started out working for people like Corman or Selznick who were primarily just interested in making a profitable movie for the least amount of money possible. This isn't a trend that has ever stopped.

More to the point, there is a wealth of independent garbage out there that I find exceedingly more offensive than anything Hollywood puts out. Stuff that is the work of a person trying to find some sense of life's meaning and is far more unwatchable than a good X-Men or Mission Impossible movie.

Again, we all have our preferences and we all have our own reasons for why we like movies. But I don't think it gets us anywhere to compare Transformers to Tarr. Transformers isn't an abhorrent franchise because it fails to live up to The Turin Horse, it fails because it doesn't live up to the qualities of a good action movie. It fails at creating suspense, fright, wonder, excitement, laughter or any sort of human emotion. These are the things that can keep any sort of genre picture from being pure bauble.

I respect Ebert's honesty in his love for film because I don't think criticism should be a purely intellectual exercise. This too, for me, makes it quite boring. I certainly didn't agree with Ebert all the time, I'm not even sure if I did the majority of the time, but he excelled at comparing apples to apples, which simply makes sense.

But perhaps most importantly, through reading Ebert, you got a sense of who he was and where he was coming from. And that's what made his reviews all the more valid, even if I didn't agree with him. He was clear about how his own politics, preferences and personality influenced his opinions and in this way it made his enthusiasm for movies far from being empty. I would like to see more unique personality from critics - the closer someone's writing gets to resembling an academic paper the more I lose interest. Intellectual takedowns are far less impressive to me than reading about someone who's engaging with the material on a personal level.

Padraic said...

Definitely agree with almost everything here, especially the part about genre movies not being by definition bad. Agreed that comparing a Tarr film to Transformers does little good (except to say that each could probably trim a few minutes off its runtime!), but I do think what you describe as the job of the critic - to expose intellectually dishonest or cynical work - is that objective thing that you think doesn't exist.

Nothing I said had anything to do with genre - I pointed out specifically that Malick is a case where good critics have sort of said "Wait, hold on, just cause it's Malick doesn't mean its good."

On the whole, I'll take flawed films like Touchy Feely or Joe - a two definite "person trying to find some sense of life's meaning" movies that are nearly unteachable - over Wolverine, but I'll certainly choose "Days of Future Past" over either one!

On Superman vs. Batman, I think the reviews I've seen suggest that it doesn't take a Zizek to unpack the "meaning" - that it's (literally) overblown and obvious and shallow. This to me is the real danger, when superhero films try to smuggle in "ideas" - from Batman to Transformers (no big budget director puts ideas into his films more than Bay) - that are poorly thought out. Much to agree with in what you write, but the smuggling you describe to me seems the most pernicious thing a critic should root out and expose.*

*I mean maybe it could be good, but my guess is that hacks like Snyder should leave their ideas at the door, lest we get ahistorical and racist nonsense like The 300.

Sean Erickson said...

It sounds like we're pretty close to an agreement, though I will add that if a critic makes a case to expose anything about a film, ultimately it's still that one critic's opinion. Based on the strength of the case you can determine how big a grain of salt it's worth but I don't think it does any good to take it as some sort of truth. Of course some movies are going to be more obvious than others - and you might even say that these could be considered lesser movies for their lack of ambiguity or richness - or maybe time will tell that it just takes the right kind of eyes and the right amount of distance to pick up the subtleness or subversiveness. Who knows...

For instance, many people like Jodorowsky's El Topo - but I had a hard time enjoying the movie for a number of different reasons - primarily, what I perceived as an underlying misogyny. So I could write something to expose that and maybe even call the movie cynical, lord knows there's plenty of ammo there, but it's not an objective statement. Someone else has already made a convincing argument in the opposite direction.

I'm not exactly sure what case you want to make against Malick's latest work, but I do know that a strong argument will eventually be made that his new aesthetic perfectly suits these autobiographical, existential, disjointed memory plays he's putting on these days. But arguments for or against Malick's current style aren't going to result in an objective truth. No matter what it is, how we come to these opinions is by and large through our own individual experiences with life and art.

Another example that I think is suitable - Inland Empire. I would say that majority of people spoke out against the aesthetics of this movie. They were particularly upset with Lynch's choice of camera, lighting and the overall unpleasant look of the movie. (Let's not even get into the complaints about its story, structure, etc.) Obviously this isn't some sort of truth they were speaking to, we both agreed that the shitty camera and look that Lynch used perfectly suited the movie.

But even die-hard Lynch fans were upset with the guy who had previously made each of his movies lushly gorgeous to look at even when dealing with the most lurid of subject matter. Some people probably even complained to critics who gave Inland Empire positive reviews for publicly supporting Lynch's move away from his previous work as being bad for cinema.

You can agree or disagree with these things, but there is no absolute right or wrong. Again, I think it would be pretty boring if there were. Talking about things like film objectively is hardly criticism to begin with - it's simply far more compelling to explain why you respond to a certain movie the way you do.

Anyone with some basic knowledge can point out when something is badly staged or poorly framed. Insight comes when someone personally reckons with a movie and comes away with something worth sharing. If someone finds something offensive or dishonest about a movie there shouldn't be any assumption of people automatically toeing the same line. All they can do is try to convince people why they should toe that line, and that argument is going to be a whole lot stronger and more convincing if we can see that it came from a thoughtful, personal place. It's their job to guide me there. If someone is coming at me with a bunch of preconceived assumptions, they're off to a very bad start. Pretentious movies are bad enough - pretentious critics can be even more insulting.

Sean Erickson said...

If a person came up to me during the course of a day and told me they know "the truth" about something, chances are I'd do my best to get away from that person as quickly as possible. And the same goes for movies, music and any other art form. (Has anything good ever come from someone who thinks they have some novel truism?) Movies aren't posing a question that has a definite answer for some viewer to come up with. The great thing about all of this stuff is that each and every one has a unique life of its own with every viewer the moment it's finished and released. Why would anyone want to diminish that by thinking they've figured out some sort of objective angle on how these things should be viewed? That kind of thinking doesn't interest me at all. Just tell me how it made you feel - let's share thoughts, ideas, opinions and keep any notions of truth and objectivity out of it.