Young Minds in Critical Condition by Michael S. Roth at the New York Times
I actually came to this article via a rebuttal of it by Noah Berlatsky in the Atlantic. Technically it’s more about literature/philosophy than film, but Berlatsky takes it in a film critical way, and it’s certainly applicable. While reading Berlatsky’s article, which argues for always reading/watching with a critical eye, I was already thinking “you know, I have a feeling I’ll agree with the other guy instead.” So I went and read this article, and yep. While I do think pretty much nothing is above criticism in the final analysis, Roth’s point is not that we shouldn’t think about what we read (or watch, by extension). In fact, it’s that we SHOULD – that we should truly engage with it and wrestle with it rather than dismiss it or come to it LOOKING for things to be critical of, which is what Roth sees students doing (and what I see a lot of people online doing, too). In fact, you can’t be a good critical thinker if you don’t engage with the work first – it doesn’t mean, as Berlatsky seems to assume, that you have to agree with “the great writers” (his paragraph asking how you determine, and who determines, which writers are above criticism misses the point with great flair) but you do have to understand what they’re saying and where they’re coming from before you can mount a useful critique, and part of that is allowing that perhaps they have something of value after all.
Liberal learning depends on absorption in compelling work. It is a way to open ourselves to the various forms of life in which we might actively participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are, at least temporarily, overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand an experience from another’s point of view. We are not just developing techniques of problem solving; we are learning to activate potential, and often to instigate new possibilities. Yes, hard-nosed critical thinking is a useful tool, but it also may become a defense against the risky insight that absorption can offer. As students and as teachers we sometimes crave that protection; without it we risk changing who we are. We risk seeing a different way of living not as something alien, but as a possibility we might be able to explore, and even embrace.
According to Frank Capra Life is More Complicated Than Wonderful by Nathan Rabin at The Dissolve
“Capracorn” remains a lasting evaluation of Capra’s filmmaking, probably in no small part because it’s a fun word, but it’s so reductive in the light of what Capra actually does – not just in the big social problem-type films that Nathan studies astutely here, but throughout all his other films. How do you reconcile Capracorn with The Bitter Tea of General Yen, for example? But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that even in the films that ARE often labeled Capracorn, Capra has a much darker worldview than is usually assumed. Nathan uses It’s a Wonderful Life in passing, but it’s probably the darkest of them all – just about the only happy joyful part is the last ten minutes, which is of course what most people remember (okay, jumping in the pool at the school party is pretty fun). Most of the rest is full of disappointment, despair, and frustration. The Movie of the Week this column is tied to is actually Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – see the Keynote essay here and the Roundtable discussion here.
Capra has a reputation for sentimentality and corniness because his films celebrate the innocence of his populist heroes. But while Jefferson Smith, Longfellow Deeds, and “Long” John Willoughby of Meet John Doe might all be guileless, the films they anchor are darker than their reputations suggest. Capra’s filmography includes a pair of films about good men pushed to the brink of suicide by powerful forces out to destroy them (Meet John Doe and It’s A Wonderful Life), a movie about a man whose fundamental decency is widely perceived as insanity (Mr. Deeds Goes To Town), and an American classic about a common man who is nearly destroyed by the forces of political corruption conspiring against him (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington). In Capra’s films, the public needs heroes to look up to, to inspire them, to serve, in Meet John Doe’s indelible words, as “lighthouses in a foggy world.” Yet Frank Capra’s world often goes beyond foggy to become despairing.