“In the meantime, it may be that his present series of pictures – The Kid, The Pilgrim and The Gold Rush – with their gags and their overtones of tragedy, their adventures half-absurd, half-realistic, their mythical hero, now a figure of poetry, now a type out of the comic strips, represents the height of Chaplin’s achievement. He could scarcely, in any field, surpass the best moments of these pictures. The opening of The Gold Rush is such a moment. Charlie is a lone adventurer, straggling along after a party of prospectors among the frozen hills: he twirls his cane a little to keep his spirits up. On his way through a narrow mountain pass, a bear emerges and follows him. Any ordinary movie comedian, given the opportunity of using a bear, would, of course, have had it chasing him about for as long as he could work up gags for it. But Charlie does not know that the bear is there: he keeps on, twirling his cane. Presently the beast withdraws, and only then does Charlie think he hears something: he turns around, but there is nothing there. And he sets off again, still fearless, toward the dreadful ordeals that await him.”
- Edmund Wilson, 1924 (excerpted in American Movie Critics)
[Evaluation is] practically worthless for a critic. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not: the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies. – Manny Farber, Film Comment v. 13, n. 3, May-June 1977, pp. 36-45; 54-60
When I first started getting seriously into film as a teenager, the thought of talking about film without an element of evaluation would’ve been unthinkable for me. How could I show any level of discernment or critical acumen without rendering judgement on what I was watching? In college, I took a film criticism class that suggested a set of three basic questions to ask of any work: What is this film doing? How well is it doing it? And is it worth doing? At the time, I favored question 2 – how well a film did what it did was certainly the most important thing to cover, because that’s what told you whether it was good or not. Whether it’s worth doing? Eh, leave that to the ideological critics. What is it doing? That’s a preliminary question, meant only to provide a baseline of understanding before you can go evaluate the heck out of the thing.
My thinking has changed rather radically over the past few years, and at this point in my life, I find that evaluative criticism holds less and less interest for me. I stepped back from actively reviewing films a couple of years ago, except for festivals and the infrequent press screening where I felt compelled to submit reviews. I’ve never been a big fan of reviews, to be honest – I don’t read them unless I’ve seen the movie, and if I have seen the movie, I’d prefer to read more in-depth criticism. This is a long-standing preference, and I just finally got to wondering why was I spending time writing in a form I didn’t like to read.
This all came to a head and I started theorizing my way through my current position on evaluation back in January, when Matt Brown posted about the film Time After Time on his Tumblr blog, and one comment he made stood out to me.
Quibbles about a movie being “good” or not I can live with. (I really can. If you haven’t deduced anything else from the last year’s worth of Watched entries, clearly, you should have deduced that. “Good” is such a trivial element of whether or not I’m interested in a film.) Time After Time is still something I am relentlessly happy to have in my life.
This is a point-counter-point set of articles. I rarely disagree with David Bordwell, as he’s one of my academic heroes and most of the time I’m just sitting at the feet of his blog essays in awe, but this one struck even me as a bit overextended, and it didn’t take long for me to find Max’s response, which articulates many of the same things I was thinking but hadn’t quite put into words. Bordwell is right to point out that a lot of zeitgeist claims are lazy and poorly supported, but saying that certain movies don’t speak particularly well to certain cultural moments (a thing we can see even more clearly in retrospect) is rather strange.
Critics seem to assume that if a film is successful at the box office, it must reflect the audience’s inner life. Yet the sheer fact of a movie’s popularity doesn’t prove that these attitudes are out there. Just because Spider-Man (2002) was a huge success doesn’t mean that it offers us access to America’s national mood or hidden anxieties. People spend time with a piece of mass art for many reasons: to kill an idle hour, to meet with friends, to find out what all the fuss is about. After the encounter, consumers often dislike the art work to some degree, or they remain indifferent to it. Since people must buy the movie ticket before they experience the movie, there can’t be a simple correlation between mass sales and mass mood.
That said, some of Bordwell’s arguments against using films as a lens into the cultural zeitgeist are, frankly, bizarre. Bordwell is correct when he writes that there’s no way that even a film striving to capture a nation’s attitude about a subject can capture all of the attitudes about it, but the best reply to that would be, “…and?” Of course Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” doesn’t reflect everyone’s thoughts about consumerist culture, but Bordwell’s argument that a film trying to tap into the zeitgeist is “really the Zeitgeist as [a filmmaker] understands it” reduces that Romero is tapping into one widely-held attitude about consumerism. The same goes for Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies in the 80s: the jingoistic attitude might not fall in line with the dissenters to Reagan’s foreign policy, but you’d be hard-pressed to say that they didn’t capture something that a great deal of Americans thoughts about the treatment of veterans, the idea that Vietnam could have been won, and that the Middle East was the territory of freedom fighters against the hard oppression of the Soviets (an attitude that would shift in the next decade). Multiple perspectives don’t negate the possibility that art can capture a widespread attitude, and “national psyche” doesn’t mean “homogenous psyche.”
This is simply a lovely tribute from Kirk Douglas to Lauren Bacall.
It’s hard to lose a friend, especially one with whom you have shared your dreams and your journey. In the case of Betty Bacall, I also lost my lucky charm — the girl who believed in me enough to talk Hal Wallis into giving me a Hollywood career. That was my first lesson in helping others without looking for thanks. I will continue to think about her whenever I put it into practice.
If you’re into gaming and on social media at all, you’ve probably heard of Anita Sarkeesian’s Women vs. Tropes in Video Games series, if only for the huge swath of angry gamers it leaves in its wake. See, Sarkeesian dares to suggest that a vast majority of video games, beloved and otherwise, are quite, shall we say, problematic in the way they treat women, and she uses example after example from game after game – Mario to Watch Dogs and everything in between. While for many people this seems pretty obvious, and even more so once she’s drawn our eyes to it, it enrages a certain segment of gamers who like their games as they are. I won’t go into the entire controversy, because it’s been raging since Sarkeesian’s kickstarter several years ago. This is a great rundown of it and why it’s so toxic (language warning).
Anyway, the latest iteration of the Women vs. Tropes in Video Games series came out yesterday, and it’s one of the best (and most difficult to watch) of the series. It’s part 2 of a miniseries on Women as Background Decoration, which basically looks at the way women are often treated as disposable in action games – there merely to be attacked, beaten, raped, and killed, and often depicted in a sexualized manner. It’s important to note, as always, that Sarkeesian enjoys gaming herself, often including the games she uses as negative examples in her videos. I personally am a huge fan of Red Dead Redemption, which gets called out numerous times in the segment. The point is not that these negative elements necessarily mean it’s a bad game, but just how pervasive these storytelling elements are in gaming, to the point that they pop up when there’s literally no reason for them to be there. This is a difficult episode to watch, and it carries a serious trigger warning for violence against women.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, this is the first one, which focuses on the storytelling trope of the Damsel in Distress. They’re all worth watching.
Note: I don’t moderate comments for disagreement or discussion, but I will be deleting comments with hate speech or slurs.