2010: The Year of Prefabricated Notions - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

2010: The Year of Prefabricated Notions

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"What Jane Austen novels have you read?"
"None.  I don't read novels.  I prefer good literary criticism."
- Metropolitan, 1990 -

Andrew COMMENTARYAll the sound and fury that’s gathered over movie releases this year have illustrated one key point - internet film criticism is really starting to gain a lot of stature.  How else could it become news when someone posts an online review of an anticipated film and it somehow becomes not only a sparring match between critics, but leads to a lot of debate about the purpose of criticism today?

This sort of talk is starting to leave me sad.  Not for the folks critiquing the films, but for those who want to critique the critiques.  We’ve got folks that are critiquing those that critiqued the initial critiques, which has produced one of the finest pieces about film criticism that I’ve read in a long time.

Now we’ve got four or five levels of theoretical analysis and my approach is a pretty simple one.  What happened to  analysis of the actual film?  Most of the debates I run into seem to be interested in the “Who?” and “What?” of a film instead of the “How?” and “Why?”  All four of those questions need to be addressed to form a strong opinion, but it seems that audiences are growing more content with stopping after the first two questions.

The key difference between the two approaches is what separates folks who really thrive on film analysis, and the people that just want to bandy about the theater with a gaggle of folks embroiled in group think.  This isn’t just limited to the internet.  Recently, I was asked what the worst film of the year (so far) was, and I immediately responded with Kick-Ass.  It’s no secret that I hate the film completely, and find it strange that a lot of people have been taken in by it, but debating the film has become an exercise in frustration.

The person I was talking to almost immediately started talking about how Kick-Ass was based on a comic that was only a cult hit (that had a film deal after the first issue…but I digress) and how awesome Hit Girl looked.  I was talking with someone that had not seen the film, and was prepared to debate it’s positive/negative qualities without even experiencing the material first hand.  I don't think I'm speculating too wildly here when I say that this is a strange debate tactic.

I put a stop to that conversation fairly quickly, but this sort of talk has become the rule instead of the exception, as was highlighted a couple of months earlier with all the hullabaloo about  Toy Story 3.

I was fully prepared to love the hell out of the film.  Walking out, I found that it had an excellent final half hour, but everything before it was flat territory covered by previous films.  Then I wandered back onto the internet, where it seems like everyone with a keyboard wanted to join in on the online crucifixion of Armond White for giving it a bad review.

White’s review is not to my liking, but the profession isn’t there to criticize other people’s criticisms, but to present my own.  Once again, a vast majority of the people that were upset about his thoughts were still going into the debate having not actually seen the film in question, just upset that a number on a site went down.

That brings us to the release of Inception, which has the distinct privilege of having more words written about it in pre-release than any major studio picture in decades.  Once again, prior to it’s release, it hosted a throng of defenders ready to gather round and attack anyone that dare call the film anything other than the clear successor to Kubrick’s throne.

The film itself is a noble effort, but only succeeds for about twenty minutes of it’s run time, and the rest is concerned with a lot of pointless exposition and gun fights.  I still liked it because of the strength of imagination in those moments, but understand how people could consider the film to be less than the sum of it’s parts (and I stand by everything Danny did not like in his review).  By this point, major film critics started attacking each other because one decides to post a negative review of the film and it's a clear cut case of going against the grain just to be difficult.

Again, context and quality of argument are being completely disregarded in favor of the base opinion.  What I'm gathering from these folks is that if you didn't like the movie, you are clearly wrong because you didn't like the movie and you shouldn't tell people you didn't like the movie.  Heaven help you if someone mentions the word "bias" because your review will never escape that shadow of whatever it is that it slighted.  Like, say, comics or video games.

Now Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is being released, and the horde is amassing again to defend a film that has only (to the day of this posting) had three public screenings, all at Comic-Con.  It used to be that the comment boards of the internet were where you would find the most violent, half formed thoughts about someone's opinion.  Now that same sort of attitude is starting to leak out into casual conversation, and (as is the case with Inception) into the writings of some major film critics.

Having seen most of the major studio releases this year, I still think that How To Train Your Dragon is my favorite, but eagerly await the arrival of a film that will change my mind.  Maybe Scott Pilgrim will be that film, maybe it won't - but I won't actually know until I actually get into my car, drive on down to the theater, and plunk down the cash for a ticket to see it.

My opinions will already have their own baggage, especially since I've read and love all the books, but who's opinion doesn't?  I'm a huge Bergman fan, and if I watch a film where the protagonist also happens to have an infatuation with that wonderful Swede I'm going to notice if something is a bit off about his perception of those films ("Man, Max Von Sydow is rarely intense in these things, what a treat!").

The key is to not go into it with someone else's notion of the film in mind.  Life is formed by a series of daily expectations about what will or won't happen, and that influences what thoughts you have when you're watching a movie.  This is why I try to avoid reading any reviews of films that I have the slightest interest in seeing, or I am going to be reviewing that week, because I'm walking around with enough baggage as is.

If you're going to debate a film with anyone, at least have the courtesy of watching the blasted thing, then maybe a reasonable discussion can occur regarding the films merits.  This trend of prejudging an unseen film is one that I would like to see completely eliminated.  Don't like that someone is tearing down a film (or building it up for that matter)?  Fine, how about you watch it, craft your own set of responses to "Who?", "What?", "Why?" and "How?" then engage the film itself in debate.

To paraphrase Godard, the best way to criticize a work is to craft your own.  So let's see more of that please, I can always use more debate.

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Posted by Andrew

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