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2006.03.17

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Michael

A great post, Filmbrain, and I really like the way you parcel out both the various strands of criticism and the experience of the film. I have yet to see L'Enfer (really hoping it gets distributed out my way), but I have a few thoughts about the issue of objective and subjective criticism. Personally, I'm not all too keen on the notion that critics and criticism eventually fall in to only two camps, partly because criticism itself is amorphous and changing and larger than that, partly because there are some critical minds who combine a variety of strands of thought. I think of Sontag, for example, who could write with what might be called "intellectual objectivity" in analyzing the form of a film, but use her formalism to disclose the affective and emotional experience of a film. Also, I sometimes think that we tend, somewhat erroneously, to see more detached, intellectual, or analytical approaches to cinema to be "objective", while we see emotional approaches as "subjective."

But I wonder if there's another way to look at this. An emotional reaction doesn't necessarily have to be subjective. If a film is well made, its form, narrative, etc. ellicit specific emotions; not everyone will feel these emotions, but that doesn't entirely mean that the film's emotional content is subjective. Films, like novels, are often made with the intent of inducing certain responses (at least when they are made well), of exploring specific emotional terrain, of developing meaning through an emotional or visceral experience.

Having said that, there's another issue here as well, which I think your post brings up: the purely subjective, emotional response that doesn't have much to do the the film itself, its form, or its visuals, but with our own personal reaction to it, whatever its faults or merits (meaning, a personal emotional response not necessarily found in the film's structure). For me, it's an open question if critics have to own up to this, if they have to admit how they feel personally while analyzing the film as a work of art. I'm not sure -- perhaps the two are separate -- but it does raise questions for me about how we write about film.

la_depressionada

i thought that critical theory had long ago disposed of the notion that sentient beings -- if indeed one can view film critics as sentient beings -- were capable of objectivity.

in law school, where we were fond of discussing these kinds of things when it came to legal opinions (and in fact i took a whole semester's course on how to make legal opinions sound 'objective'), the judges who want to sound more authoritative invariable speak in a more 'clinical' voice. however, i have always thought it was the less clinical voice -- i'm thinking holmes and cardozo here -- who ultimately have the most authority.

this analysis, of course, probably differs in film where the voice is tends generally to be more subjective/less clinically detached -- in that case more power is probably conveyed in the attempt at objective analysis. (in both cases it's the power of the contextual surprise i guess).

you should write more of these smartie entries. i like 'em.

la_depressionada

and of course you know, guy's who's critical faculties are overcome by emotion are hot (and the reverse is true with girls). contextual surprise again at work.

Flickhead

I look forward to seeing L'enfer.

Your remarks in the last paragraph could work into a feature article of its own.

Rarely do I toss superlatives around anymore when talking about films or filmmakers. Some time ago I revisited films that I'd thought were superb ten or twenty years earlier, only to find that they'd aged to a state of mediocrity.

Or were they mediocre all along and I'd been too swept up on a pink cloud, believing them to be more than they truly were?

I believe that most films can stand up to only one viewing; after that, the threads begin to show. And if there's a fault in the weaving, it's going to stand out like a sore thumb.

Naturally, there are many films that improve or grow more attractive or complex over time and in additional viewings. Just recently I watched Rohmer's Chloe in the Afternoon for the first time in six or seven years to find it better than ever before...and I've seen that film at least five times.

But there are also the personal situations that you mention. Vincent Price's House of Wax is one of the most depressing films I can think of -- because it triggers thoughts of my parents' divorce. Wertmuller's Swept Away prompts memories of the first woman I fell in love with -- we saw it together several times when it first came out. The eroticism and emotional pull of that film works far different for me than others, because so much is based in the feelings I had for her at that time.

And since that woman has passed away, Swept Away is now bittersweet, nostalgic, and tinged with a sadness that Wertmuller never intended. I could never expect anyone to feel the same way.

Changes in taste are common. One of my Netflix friends now gives one or two stars to movies he thought were excellent when first released. I try not to rub it in, but it's hard. Especially with movies he once called "classic" (Irreversible and, heaven help us, Brian DePalma's Femme Fatale, to name just two) that are now on his shit list.

Michael

>>"But there are also the personal situations that you mention. Vincent Price's House of Wax is one of the most depressing films I can think of -- because it triggers thoughts of my parents' divorce. Wertmuller's Swept Away prompts memories of the first woman I fell in love with -- we saw it together several times when it first came out. The eroticism and emotional pull of that film works far different for me than others, because so much is based in the feelings I had for her at that time."

And that's the crux of it, and of Filmbrain's post. It's so interesting how films can speak to our own lives. I'm particularly susceptible to films that deal with memory and loss, largely because of my own personal experiences. This is why I liked The Sixth Sense, despite my intellectual problems with it. All those souls walking around because they need someone to rectify their deaths. I was floored for days. My mind told me the film structually and visually was only okay, but my heart told me something else.

Filmbrain's post certainly raises a question for me -- whether or not criticism should take account of such deeply personal responses -- but I do know that films have that sort of compelling personal power, and that accounts of that power can sometimes be preferable to the customary ways of writing about film.

Peter Nellhaus

I usually admit to subjectivity. The problem with this discussion is that, if I am reading this argument correctly, that one uses the same set of criteria for all films. I'm not sure if anyone does whether it's Sarris, Kael, or Bazin. More than being objective or subjective, does any critic approach all films equally? I understand being partisan and passionate about a specific film, but at the risk of sounding like a sap, I also think it is more constructive to "agree to disagree" and move on.

Filmbrain

Peter --

I never meant to imply that, sorry if it appeared that way. I do believe there are films that we respond to in a purely emotional way -- for whatever reason -- but that clearly isn't always the case.

Tuwa

This is a very thoughtful and impressive post; I like it quite a lot.

I think part of the trouble is that films are such personal affairs, with some that hit us at just the right time and get a free pass as a result, and others that are not what we need or want right then and get lambasted, maybe unfairly.

In a sense maybe it's the problem of art itself. Maybe there's not much sense comparing Scary Movie to The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, since the aims and methods (and, presumably, intended audiences) are so different; that sort of realization, explicit or not, might be what leads to the urge towards objectivity. Reviewers and critics must realize on some level that theirs is just one opinion out of billions, and that a large group of people will find $foo perfectly delightful. But I wonder if admission of subjective failure isn't more honest, or if it would seem to be a shirking of some perceived responsibility. I doubt very much that anyone approaches films objectively, although I know that some critics make an effort to give all films a fair shake. Sometimes it results in a sort of deadened tone--focus on technique, delivery, editing, etc. with little mention of visceral impact--sort of a middling praise which telegraphs that the film is competent but didn't affect the critic/reviewer much.

HarryTuttle

On Tanovic's L'Enfer, I would agree with you (and acquarello) regarding the dramatic structure, which is, at least interesting, as you describe it (childhood trauma repercussions). However the execution (except for the beautiful photography as you point out) and performances weren't at all admirable, from my own "subjectivity".
If its ambition could have been worthwhile to examine the implications of untold guilt, wrongdoings and bad influences on the emotional construction of children, the actual execution of the film is a lot of clichéd scenes. A trio of utterly failed women and a zombie mother is hardly a subtle way to make a point. The script looks fairly melodramatic indeed, so Piesiewicz is probably the one to blame for this. Yet Kieslowski mastered in melodrama.
And I thought the acting direction was so plain, if not failing.
We could develop the arguments if you so wish.

Don't pay attention to the comments on AlloCiné... it's a mainstream venue for the mass and the forums are jokes. (one reason why I have to post in english)
This assumption you quote is especially unfair! France (audience and production) is very welcoming, and critics love it to rub a great foreign director in the face of our lazy local industry... (Haneke? Suleiman? Tsai? Hong? Dardennes?)

Ok we disagree on L'Enfer, but the fact you include your questioning of subjectivity in this review seemingly dissenting with a general consensus proves your honesty and your scepticism. Although the majority of the press panning it does not make you wrong.
I try not to pay attention as much to the verdict of the critic, whereas I'm careful about how the statements are supported and how the range of subjectivity is aknowledged.

Filmbrain

Tuwa -- I'm really chewing on the idea of "perceived responsibility". I guess that raises the bigger question on the role of the film critic, or, to complicate things even further, the film blogger.

As for critics who feign a more objective approach, I don't believe it is in the interest of giving films a fair shake, as you say. Is it that showing a more subjective response is a sign of weakness? Why is it that a positive review from some critics barely reads as such?

Filmbrain

Harry --

Given the film's subject matter, I don't believe the inclusion of "a trio of utterly failed women" makes it unsubtle. This is exactly what and whom the film is about, and one of the few in recent memory to follow this idea through. Have you seen This Charming Girl? Would you say the same thing about the lead character in that film? Other directors have given us more abstract renderings on these themes (Bergman comes to mind), but sometimes it's nice to see something that successfully (and without unnecessary manipulation) goes for the gut rather than the mind.

Situationally, there's nothing new going on here -- agreed. But I felt the way the film begins to spiral in on itself, with the sisters drawn into a whirlpool that leads back to their mother, was brilliant. And I couldn't disagree with you more about the acting, but perhaps something was lost in translation. ;-)

As for AlloCine, I enjoy that (like Metacritic) they collect and link to all the major press reviews for films. The forums are a bit unruly at times, but I did find it interesting that in the case of L'Enfer the public was in sharp contrast to the critics. For the life of me, I can't understand why the critics hated it so.

HarryTuttle

Yes I saw it, This Charming Girl is a one-character study, so what happened to her and her adult trauma is singular, typical to this person.
In the case of a family study, portraying 5 failures 5 times is stacking the deck and hammering the point with a uniformized reaction to pathos (none is resilient) across the board. The simultaneity of the 3 sisters' lifetime issues within the same week, their almost identical mishandling of men, the way both parents quit... makes it a funny exagerated soap of a stereotyped disfunctional family that waited for the film to start to address their problems. Not to mention the Deus-ex-machina plot device helper (Guillaume Canet), was he the character meant to stand for the friendly cuckoo who dumps all the eggs out of the nest (hinted in the opening sequence?).
Which is another reason why the "Hell" metaphor wasn't obvious. What we have there is the curse on a whole family, while hell is supposed to be an individual judgement, and an individual punishment. Is the mother only in hell then? watching her daughter suffer... I don't know. I'd associate the film with Purgatory more intuitively.

What whirlpool? only one sister has contact with the mother and she's the one dragging the others to the mother (or the Deus-ex-machina), not a beautifully crafted narrative structure. It's a theatre play finale with everyone on stage, artificially dramatized.

I don't hold the melo against it, nor do I want a resilient sister to balance and play the "good girl" who serves to emphasize the trauma of the other. And I know Kieslowski entertains the parallel lives gimmicks, coincidences and chance (I've watched 7 of his films in the past month at a retrospective!), and he films it real well (Rouge, Bleu, Blind Chance), even when the script is excessively bad melodrama (Double Life of Veronique, White, No End).

The manipulation might not be in the direction of Tanovic, but the script and most especially the character studies are manipulative with the easiest tricks of cheap cinema, not one, all of them (suicide, child abuse, mute, paralysis, adultery, pregnancy...) It's like the dekalog rolled up in 90 minutes! without the careful moral examination.

You're right though, this melo isn't so bad to deserve this pan consensus (I hadn't realized the 1 star average! it's dreadful). And I can understand why one would like it, it's not without ups.
I don't think there are any language barrier issues with this film (the script was polish, and the director bosnian). Although if it sold out, I suspect Beart's nudity has more to do with it than Tanovic's mastery...

It's better to read a thoughful dissent (discording with my view of the film), than a pompuous agreement stating the obvious. The critical debate is not to meet with think-alike people, but to strenghen our opinions (comfort or soften) by understanding better why the detractors have good points.

Now on subjectivity I could go on for years...

Tuwa

I'm also not sure that feigned objectivity is the thing needed to give films a fair shake. It was just the only reason I could think of right then where a critic might dislike something but feel compelled not to say so.

I'm sure there are other possibilities, though they tend more towards the personal than the professional--maybe some sort of exaggerated politeness, or an overwhelming public opinion contrary to the critic's, or a friendship with or respect for a director who's just turned in some underwhelming work ... all of which are tantalizing ideas but which tend to lead away from discussing the broader professional and philosophical issues you first brought up.

I don't know what the critic's role is, or necessarily should be. For ages I've been toying with the idea of adding a tagline to my blog: "Some random schmuck with a computer."

Darren

Great post, Filmbrain. It touches on one of the main reasons that I read ten or fifteen film bloggers every day but rarely read professional critics. At this point, I trust my own judgment well enough that I don't feel the need to seek out "objective" analyses. (There are exceptions to the rule, of course.) But, especially because I live in a city without a community of cinephiles, I do crave the human element in film discussions. I'd much prefer to read about your father or Flickhead's memories of smoke-filled theaters or Girish's childhood in India. Leave the white lab coats to academia. We're talking about art here.

If my recent experience is any indication, I would guess that, two years from now when you watch L'Enfer again, you'll still be greatly moved by it and you still won't particularly care about its flaws. Because you'll be watching it again, first and foremost, to recapture something of the emotions you discovered the first time. Soon after my mother- and father-in-law died two years ago, I found myself crying in an otherwise empty theater, watching the Solaris remake. To me, that film will always be about mourning and grief, and I'm grateful for it. (Tarkovsky's is about something else entirely). Tsai's What Time Is It There? gets me for the same reason.

HarryTuttle

Michael, you've got a great point to consider for the anti-objectivity crowd:
The emotional experience of a film is largely planned and triggered by wellknown tools and tricks, that's the art of dramaturgy that can and should be scrutinized by criticism.

Flickhead, one critic is not required to be "right" all the time. In fact history proves critics are wrong most of the time. It would pretentious to "get" a film on first viewing, and refuse to reassess the first impression as time passes by. How one critic justifies his/her stance is more important than the stance itself, as films are usually rich enough to be explored from various angles, without being contradictory.
Criticism is an immediate barometer working with the shortsightedness of the present, always speculating on future trends, social cultures and emergent aesthetics.

About the meeting of a film with our personal life I shall differ. Of course cinema is made for these unexpected things to happen, but we can hardly credit the makers because it's coincidental, circonstencial. When the right string is pulled, our emotional being has a tendency to surrender any critical judgement. These testimonials above quite consciously depict the phenomenon. This is our personal bias, the bad aspect of subjectivity. That's why we have "guilty pleasure" or "impressionable-years favorite"...
I'm not saying it's bad, but in this instance anything we'll say about the film will be biased (meaning, moreso than the regular level of subjectivity that clouds any other movie), not only this but people with a different emotional history will not be able to connect and share with our specific response to this stimulus that talked to us in a very personal way.
The response is exaggerated, and the sharing is impossible. So it doesn't make valid critical material.
Even excellent writing cannot make every film "such a personal affair" to everyone of our readers. That's would be the job of making a new film, or writing our own book (to talk to OUR own audience), but not simply reviewing an existing movie that touched us.
The emotional propagation is vertical (from the movie to each viewers), not horizontal (between viewers), that's why subjectivity in reviewing is mostly sugar-coating mannerism.

Tuwa : "(...) that sort of realization, explicit or not, might be what leads to the urge towards objectivity. Reviewers and critics must realize on some level that theirs is just one opinion out of billions (...)"
All agreed! :)

Darren, the sharing of personal experiences related to films is priceless between friends, for sociability and connecting emotionally. But it's not the prime material for criticism, as it involves unrelated digressions. The point is not to say one is better than the other, but to realize their nature and function is different.
I perfectly understand why you would prefer the socialization. That's because professional criticism is useless (as Bordwell says). The fact it simply digests the Studios press-kit and gives arbitrary ratings without demonstration loses all informed film buffs who need more than partisan propaganda. Today's criticism is for the clueless impressionable audience only (which happens to be the largest majority of film-consumers anyway)

peter martin

HarryTuttle's point that "the art of dramaturgy ... can and should be scrutinized by criticism" is a good one. I look forward to being immersed in a film, but if I'm planning to write about it I try to maintain a degree of critical distance so that I can try and translate my experience for the reader.

By the definition that "it would [be] pretentious to 'get' a film on first viewing, and refuse to reassess the first impression as time passes," Pauline Kael was pretentious, as she never revisited films, according to one of her friends. I have no desire to revisit many films, simply because of the time factor. Yet it's also true that my opinion has occasionally changed after a passage of years (the most recent example being Schrader's remake of CAT PEOPLE). To me, this reinforces the idea that every review (or piece of criticism) is a greater reflection of the writer than of the work under consideration.

As to L'ENFER, I'm afraid that it put me to sleep when I saw it in the early afternoon during a long day of screenings at AFI Fest last November. Filmbrain, your post makes me want to give it another try.

HarryTuttle

I'm reading an article by Leo Charney on "Pauline Kael, James Agee and the Public Sphere of Popular Film Criticism" decrypting the populist appeal to subjectivity to conquer common people.

I have the feeling Kael contributed to "mainstreamize" the self-reflective standards of today's american criticism... even if she helped to disinhibit the basic critical awareness of the average public.

The popularisation of movie feedback is a great thing if it opens the people to the wide range of emotional strings operated in movie tricks.
But as far as serious film evaluation, a listing of emotions triggered in one viewer one time is not quite enough. Further analysis of tricks and clever ideas is necessary to go beyond a recomendation preaching the choir.

Susan

Whoa, I had no idea someone made the second movie of the trilogy, cool!

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