As a change of pace, and just to see what it feels like, I’m going to agree with Jazz on this, or with what I think Jazz is getting at, although I might take it in a slightly different direction than he does.
First though I guess I should explain what I meant in the quoted post since that is what inspired this thread in the first place. Since I’m already breaking with common practice by agreeing with Jazz, I might as well cop to Matt being right about the choice of the word “protect” in the sentence. I could almost swear I wrote preserve in order to use something of its associative resonance that might bring to mind other preservationist activities such as an animal preserve where the notion isn’t to freeze in place or to favor the old over the new, but to simply keep alive, to prevent something from disappearing. In this case what my suggestion was intended to reference wasn’t that critics have some duty to protect film as a physical object or to even try to rally people to the support of “endangered”, rare, or otherwise lesser known movies, though both things are certainly fine objectives, I was simply trying to suggest that the critics duty is to preserve knowledge.
Roughly speaking I would suggest that the critic’s job can be broken down into something like three areas where each corresponds to different set of skills needed to do their job well, but where each also informs the others and taken together they constitute the value of their output.
The first area of importance is knowledge; this provides the background for engagement with a movie.
The second area of importance is perception; this is how the critic engages with the movie.
And the third area is translation; this is how the critic converts his experience of the movie into discourse.
Of course these are just headings intended to represent different aspects of the process of engaging with a film and as such they sort of represent a past, present and future in the process and with that in mind can have more precise terms but into the categories or between them to explain the different things which may play a part in each. For example, I think of intuition or gut reaction as knowledge informing perception as what a person knows before attending to a film will have an impact on what they get while watching it.
A body of knowledge is constituted by everything the critic knows or has experienced which they bring into the film. This not only includes more obvious and directly useful information like understanding the formal aspects of filmmaking and film conventions, the wider context in which the film was made and the body of scholarship surrounding the work, but also the what the critic knows about the wider world and, importantly, themselves.
Perception is recognizing and responding to what is being presented, which is something we all do, but the critic’s job is to see what we may not both in the small, as in details which a less attentive viewer may overlook, and the large as in seeing the larger picture when others may get caught up in details. It is recognizing the formal qualities, the content, and how the one may shape the other as well as speak of things not seen directly.
Translation then is in bringing knowledge and perception together and making a coherent response to the work and then, potentially, communicating that response to others. The act of shaping one’s response into a different mode of discourse while trying to still hold to something of the full experience of the work is the measure of the critics success or value, but it is a totaling of the sums of all three areas.
What spurred my initial complaint was how Tomassini neglected to bring these three areas together in any meaningful way, in fact, I would suggest that he was eliding his responsibilities almost entirely in favor of a seeking favor or creating a desired perspective rather than engaging with the works or larger questions surrounding them in a meaningful way. He failed in his responsibility as a critic to use his knowledge to look to the differences in form and content of the works mentioned, and he tied his perception to an assessment of taste or final judgement based on personal impression or experience. None of this is the hallmark of a good critic, just the standard repertoire of a run of the mill reviewer caught in the eternal now of like/don’t like.
This is why I largely agree with Jazz on what a good critic should be doing, even if I can’t endorse his regard for the idea of there being some sort of intersubjective “answer” available as a measure of a film’s value. While a critic can’t nor shouldn’t entirely avoid judging or speaking in terms like “great”, those sorts of tabulatory assessments are of limited use at best and have little to say about the value of a critical assessment. Criticism, in my opinion, is about enlightening, not judging even as I recognize the two things cannot be wholly separated.
One of the things I don’t understand about Jazz’s position is that enlightenment, of the sort he appears to seek, isn’t an intersubjective position writ any larger than two, it is a subjective one where one person communicates an understanding of a film to another who then “feels” it in a new way. Suggesting this is intersubjective is to simply substitute the argument for the film and say it now stands in for the thing itself and “we” can agree on that if not the film itself. Any explication of a film only “works” if it is translated into an experience of the film itself, that is to say it is “felt” and held to be “real”. It is, at best, difficult to hold both one’s experience of a film and a contradictory viewpoint of it as both being true at the same time, that is to say it is hard to think a movie is both good and bad simultaneously. If a response to a movie is negative, then believing what one didn’t like is actually good requires a denial of one’s own experience in favor of that of another. To suggest what one liked is really bad raises the stakes even higher as it is no longer simply an issue of what one might have missed, but that one is being taken in somehow. This is, I think, one of the main reasons for those fanboy eruptions of anger over dismissals of movies they love. Taking the focus away from the value judgment and putting it on the other, and I would argue more important, areas of a critic’s purpose can help remove the schism.
One of the most fraught areas of appreciation is in the “reading” of a film or in the assertion of some sort of “meaning” to it, not just in the sort of judgment sense I was mentioning, but in any way of saying, ideologically for example, this is what a film “is”. Art is elusive, it doesn’t provide one path through itself, that’s what makes it art. A critic may suggest a reading, and from that one may make some value judgments, but the end reading itself isn’t of primary importance, it is the way they mark their trail that is of most use as it might help to show a different path through the underbrush which can be helpful even if one doesn’t follow it to the end of the trail.
There have been a number of interesting recent discussions around the web that speak to this dealing primarily with the show Game of Thrones and how one “should” respond to it. What makes them interesting is that the judgment aspect is often tied to differing ideas surrounding the purpose, meaning and/or value of entertainment versus concerns about ideology or morality and how they all play into notions of “reading” the show and final judgment over its worth. It’s a subject worth looking into for anyone familiar with the show who might want to see how non-mubites approach these concerns and in sorta dealing with these issues in a more “real time” basis as the show is still on-going and the general consensus about it is one of finding it worth addressing but problematic and therefore still under evaluation rather than wholly settled in the response.
“Now, if critics could provide this type of service, in some format, I think that would be great.”
Have you read any of the BFI Film Classic monographs, Jazz?:
Some of them do a really nice job of that sort of thing.
Anyway, I’m just gonna rephrase what other people have said and that’s that art is always a subjective experience.
But does this mean that every opinion is equally valid? And if not, how do you distinguish the valid opinions form the invalid ones?
I feel like it would be pretty annoying if critics were always saying what the meaning of a film is.
But would it be so annoying if you a film left you clueless? I wouldn’t—just the opposite: I’m frustrated that I can’t find someone to help me “get” films. And while the concept of figuring out the meaning for one’s self is nice, sometimes you don’t want to go through the effort; or sometimes you’ve given it your best shot and have come up empty. I can’t be the the only one to experience this. I remember feeling that way towards The Flight of the Red Balloon or Beau Travail. I didn’t like the films, but I was clueless about them, too. (Still am.)
Plus, there’s the fact that they don’t want to give away any spoilers, so that would make it pretty hard for any film critic to give any kind of super in-depth analysis.
That’s true, but there are ways around this. If they had the space they could make a pre-viewing section and a post-viewing one. They could write explanations on their blogs, etc.
But, I don’t really see why you don’t think that Mubi is a good place to get “meanings” of films.
I’m looking for explanations that get to the core of a film—explanations that would turn on the lightbulb who completely didn’t understand the film; explanations that would make people understand why people loved the film so much. People say whether they liked a film or not, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get specific examples of what they liked and didn’t like—but even that isn’t really common. But you rarely get discussions that would make someone say, “Oh OK, now I get what this film was about and what it was trying to do.”
This is from Ray Carney’s “He feels that symbolism is a ‘high school’ understanding of art, and that this kind of decoder ring approach is in place because it’s easier to grasp and makes those that teach feel more important and esoteric.”
I’m not really talking about decoding symbols, though. That might be included, if it’s vital. I’m not talking so much about decoding certain symbols or scenes in the film, but decoding the entire film. Some films require some interpretation to be meaningful. Weerasethakul, Denis, and Tsai, just to name a few, are filmmakers that demand the type interpretation I’m saying. A Rob Reiner film is easy to understand, for the most part. That’s not to say deeper analysis might not offer interesting insights, but it’s not so critical to appreciate the films, imo. But other films are not like that, and sometimes the viewer is skeptical the movie means anything, sometimes they need help or they’ve given up. That’s when a critic or someone who understands the film can be really helpful.
No, I haven’t. Are these in an anthology, or do you have to get them separate?
Yeah, unfortunately you have to buy them separately.
Information is out there, you just have to let it in.
Let’s replace the word ‘valid’ with ‘useful’. No opinion is ‘invalid’, but if somebody is judging a film based on just their personal reaction to it, that opinion is not useful to anybody else. Critics’ opinions are more ‘useful’ because they have seen a lot more films, and because they have some sense about the structure of films and their medium-specific language.
Jazz – I guess I feel like a lot of films are just more intangible than that. I would be very wary of any critic offering concrete interpretations of films. I think it’s just best to let a film wash over you rather than to try to decode it.
Let’s replace the word ‘valid’ with ‘useful’. No opinion is ‘invalid’,…
My English teacher friend thought The Village was a terrible film because the grammar wasn’t used consistently in the film (even though there is a pretty good explanation for this). He didn’t just not like the film—he thought it was “objectively” bad and couldn’t understand how anyone else could like it. Taking this opinion seriously is pretty difficult, imo—and that’s what I mean by “invalid.” Invalid, in this context, is tricky because it can imply that the person doesn’t have a right to feel the way they do or even have that specific opinion. That’s not what I mean. The person has every right to hate the film or even make any judgment about the quality of the film. But saying the film isn’t a good film because of the grammatical inconsistencies isn’t very compelling and hard to take seriously—hence, my use of invalid.
People give reasons like this all that time, and they’re completely valid when they refer to whether the person liked the film or not, but they’re often not a legitimate basis for a film being good or not.
I think it’s just best to let a film wash over you rather than to try to decode it.
OK but what if the film has washed over you, but you’re still utterly confused? What if you not only want to understand the film, but you want to understand why other people think so highly of it? Aren’t there movies like that for you? What do you do in that case? Personally, I’d really appreciate a critic helping me out in that case. (It’s not necessarily about “decoding” the film in terms of attributing meaning to symbols, either.)
We’ve lost our protection.
-Jean-Luc Godard on the death of Truffaut. He was speaking of Truffaut the critic.
OK but what if the film has washed over you, but you’re still utterly confused? What if you not only want to understand the film, but you want to understand why other people think so highly of it? Aren’t there movies like that for you? What do you do in that case?
Jazz is correct in asking for more specifics, especially when it relates a film that leaves one “skeptical” that it “means anything,” and while it does seem that most viewers need assistance in comprehending value, there are a variety of pathways towards “comprehending” the value of a film (rather than comprehending a film, on which I agree with Drunken Father, as this often suggest the goal of a “concrete” interpretation -which does tend to eliminate the notion that every viewer has a different experience and possible [valid] interpretation, but also
and as we’ve seen from Manny Farber or Pauline Kael that experiences, interpretations, and perhaps also meanings of films change over time)
Getting back to these pathways of interpretation, these are also in constant change to address the way in which contemporary minds approach engagement with these works. Viewing a film on 35mm silver at 16 frames per second on an eighty foot screen is not the same as viewing a compressed digital image at 24 frames per second on a 13" LCD screen. The manner in which you are able to reaches these works, as well as how the mind processes information has a large impact (and so, thus it is important to take into account what GregX is saying about perception, which is not just what is happening internally in response to aesthetics/narrative/story elements, but it’s how the brain responds to specific environments and/or kinds/types of information). What this ultimately suggests are varied and specific forms of analysis and discussion (rather than simply statements) about the possible interpretation of a work, and why it’s been interpreted the way it has due to the presentation constraints. A very recent posting within the Mubi Notebook about investigating the prospect of criticism via forms of classroom mediation as a precursor to internet interaction:
Viewing. At Press Play, Volker Pantenburg and Kevin B Lee, who’ll be talking about “Teaching Cinema on TV and the Web” at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival on April 28, present a couple of precursors. In the first (6’03"), from 1987, “Jean-Luc Godard compares the use of slow motion in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket with that of another film about Vietnam, 79 Springtimes of Ho Chi Minh by Santiago Alvarez.” The second (14’47") is a clip from Pedro Costa’s film on Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001).
What this further suggests for me is a presented challenge that Mubi can address, most active Forum users could approach an specific analysis format that can tackle these issues, rather than question the need for them. This is something that I wish occurred more on this site. While expressing the first-time experience (as mentioned by Bobby Wise) maybe valid, they are also plentiful. There should be more exacting and intricate analysis of all these concepts for more advantageous discussion and criticism -these kinds of discussion are what I’m expecting out of many of these forums, but do not see occurring. While many discussions are well intended, they digress into areas already covered within the context of film/media/linguistic theory (such as the dominant “good art/bad art” discussion) and they should advanced by diving into more analysis of specific moments in works and experiences, that can cover these issues in more detail and with more interesting and unique approach.
What I personally look for in a “critic/theorist” is a identifiable point of view as well as an approach towards exploration -both in works, but also in theoretical analysis and discussion. Olaf Moller is perhaps more exploratory in the variety of works he discovers for us, although he could approach each filmmaker (or film) differently from each other (as I do believe that each film needs a different approach) of which Robin Wood still remains quite an inspiration (followed by Alex Cox, Zizek, and perhaps Thom Anderson). Added to these are the interesting approaches that are in presentation at Oberhausen Festival -I suggest further investigation… These are concepts that are exciting to see and develop form the point of view of a maker/audience member/hobby-historicist theorist/criticism reader.
…rather than comprehending a film, on which I agree with Drunken Father, as this often suggest the goal of a “concrete” interpretation -which does tend to eliminate the notion that every viewer has a different experience and possible [valid] interpretation, but also and as we’ve seen from Manny Farber or Pauline Kael that experiences, interpretations, and perhaps also meanings of films change over time)
I don’t think a “concrete interpretation” necessarily invalidates other concrete interpretions. Besides, people have definite, concrete interpretations of films all the time. If I am utterly clueless about a film, a concrete—and coherent and compelling—interpretation is what I want! If I asked you to explain a film you really thought you understood, wouldn’t you try and offer your concerte interpretation in an effort to help me?
this is mainly a semantics issue. I was interpreting your use of “concrete” as a singular interpretation of a film’s meaning, not that a viewer/receiver can have a clearly articulated interpretation, is that your use of “concrete?”
I do feel that a “concrete” interpretation should be a concept of a film’s meaning that a viewer/receiver believes in “concretely,” in that they do not completely waiver from it at that moment. Although, I do believe it’s important to allow them to change that response over time due to reassessment within their mind, or from a repeated viewing, which for me would also nullify the concept of “concrete” reactions, as they will (and should) eventually change.
Regardless, my call is for Mubi uses to provide their interpretations through active analysis of specific moments/shots/cinematics rather than abstractions (which feel nebulous if not connected to a very specific idea/moment towards which analysis can be applied).