Friday, July 01, 2011

An appreciation of Simon Abrams' "What is a Bad Movie?"

An introductory piece in a new series called Simon Says is called "What is a Bad Movie," but it's really not about badness; really, it's more about criticism showing us how movies are good:

"That’s what criticism should strive for: making films like Zardoz, or a vastly more mainstream but still eccentric superhero film like Green Lantern, look good—and in general make films whose faults and/or merits might otherwise be inaccessible more accessible."

I massively appreciate and sympathize with this piece, and want to riff off it a little bit. I'm a constant reader of various types of criticism... popular reviewers like Ebert and Edelstein, critic/reviewers like Jim Emerson and Pauline Kael, and writers with a committed scholarly ethic like David Bordwell (and many others whose names I forget, because I only read a single essay from them). Also, I read various blogs and forums, populated as they are by a Frankenstein patchwork of amateur opinions and analyses.

Some of this criticism is transcendentally good, and some of it is totally parasitic. The difference, I find -- the continuum upon which this merit can be evaluated -- is how much the reviewer engaged with the film they're commenting upon. Indeed, this is the greatest strength of scholarly writing and pop criticism... judgements aside, you really have to attempt to understand a film before you can offer any kind of interpretation or analysis. And the most recognizable common feature of bad amateur criticism -- stupid forum comments, incessant complaints from nay-sayers -- is that you can always sense that the commentor never gave the film a chance, never really opened themselves up to it.

There are certain code-words that indicate whether a person engaged with a film or not. "Pretentious" is a big one, usually used by people who were faced with an opaque or challenging movie and simply weren't interested in going there. "Pointless" is another one. "Boring" is perhaps the most universal -- it can be used in conjunction with both "pretentious," and as its opposite... many high-brow fanboys will refuse to engage with any big-budget summer action movie, justifying themselves by saying, "See, I'm the type of person who finds THAT stuff boring."

This schema favors the descriptive over the prescriptive, and the prescriptive over the proscriptive. It recommends complete surrender to a film as the best possible response, and patience as the second-best (i.e. in the case of films that don't hook you). It's a method that discourages cynicism, and has no regard for dismissiveness or contempt.

To be sure, I pretty much never hate a film. I think hatred is something that only makes sense as an instinctive response to a threat or an enemy -- an automatic, defensive way of reacting to something whose interests seem to conflict with your own. Why would I ever hate an aesthetic object? What has a movie ever done to hurt me?

That said, I don't think criticism has to be exclusively positive. Nay, the most salient and scathing condemnation is the type that first engages with the film, and then discovers its contradictions, flaws, and weaknesses. There are all sorts of films that reinforce negative stereotypes, or act as destructive propaganga, and these require active engagement and critical acuity to be recognized and deconstructed. Troy Duffy's Boondock Saints is probably the most egregious example of subconscious propaganda, a manifesto of postmodern sexism, ranking right up there with Triumph of the Will in terms of films-with-agendas. To a lesser degree, there are also hidden messages in Avatar and X-Men: First Class, the subliminal, insidious expressions of the filmmakers' (and audiences') subconscious minds.

But even with these movies -- even the most egregious -- the critic needs to step into the movie to understand its orientation. Some of the darkest films, the most dependent on stereotypes and negative energy, may actually turn out to be critiques of these ideas, rather than unreserved expressions of them. The difference between something like Hostel and something like Funny Games is subtle, and to engage with it, you need to really engage with the films. Yes, both of them.

Have I said this before? I feel like I have, because I think it, constantly. Every time I read a piece like Dan Kois's Cultural Vegetables essay, or Ebert's blustering, and subsequent further-consideration, over Thor, I think about this. I think about how important it is, for the sake of the medium, and for the sake of our own psyches, to invest in these films, to become as involved with these hypothetical, fantastic, mythological worlds, as we did with our own invented make-believe landscapes when we were children. Criticism, like all consumption, and all its corollary activities, should be about having a strict filter, especially if it's merely an enforcement of one's own tastes and habits -- it should be about being a sponge, a proud cultural processor, desperate to find meaning, even in things otherwise disregarded.