sopranos f-word update, a&e edition
pre-birthday lunch/brunch

an incoherent attempt at an anti-manifesto of criticism

I have a theory … it’s not new, I’m sure it’s not original although I can’t say where I’ve heard it, exactly … it’s a stretch to call it a theory, even.

The basic point, one I have made before, regards the arguments we make in favor of or against a particular book or movie or song or painting or whatever. Most people, I suspect, would say that we can give reasons for our opinions, and that those reasons are what give our opinions strength. It’s what I tell my students: whenever you make a point, be sure to support it with concrete evidence. A standard argument would go something like this: The movie Spartacus is good because of A, B, and C. In this case, it would appear that A, B, and C lead to one conclusion and one conclusion only, that Spartacus is a good movie, and the critic’s job is to enumerate A, B, and C in an effective fashion.

My theory, though, is that the opposite is what really occurs. Rather than A, B, and C leading us to the one and only conclusion, we first decide on a basic level whether or not we like Spartacus. Having made that decision, we concoct A, B, and C to make it seem as if there is something inherent in Spartacus that makes it good, when the truth is, we just happen to like Spartacus and thus we gather together A, B, and C in support of our taste preferences. Under the first “system,” there is general agreement as to whether or not the work in question is good, because we all understand that A, B, and C are signs of quality, and the work in question shows those signs. Under my “theory,” when our taste preferences match those of another group, we as a group can bestow a label of quality on the work.

I know this is taking a lot of time, and I know I’m not saying anything new here. It’s just that I’ve been obsessing about it more than usual of late, and I’m trying to work out why I feel the way I do, and what the implications are for my position. Specifically, what is the job of a critic, if all any of us are doing is making arguments in favor of our taste preferences?

First, if you read enough of a critic, you get a sense of their taste preferences, and you begin to assess whether or not you’ll like something based on what the critic says and how often your taste preferences match. But that tells you nothing about any possible inherent value in the text, it just tells you who you do or don’t agree with. If you are the critic, then, you might write that Spartacus is a good movie, but the unspoken assumption is not that Spartacus is good but that you like Spartacus, which is not the same thing.

So what is the job of a critic, then? For everyone has an opinion, everyone has taste preferences, and if our taste preferences are all legitimate, if we flatten all notions of levels of quality, then the only thing separating the critic from anyone else is that the critic calls themselves a critic.

But obviously, I don’t think critics are as meaningless as all of this suggests, or I wouldn’t read them so religiously, and I wouldn’t spend so much time writing and talking about my own critical analyses.

I have no idea where this leads me … I do know that, now that I am writing this down, it is much less coherent than it seemed in my brain when I thought it up. I can tell you where my brain thought this leads me. A critic is welcome to their taste preferences, and to the extent they are artful about conveying those preferences, they will be more or less readable. But if we are to learn anything from a critic beyond whether or not our taste preferences converge, the critic must offer something more than A, B, and C.

The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is that a critic can demonstrate the connections they see between the particular work and other things outside the work. I could say “the reason I like Spartacus is partly because I think it compares favorably to other, similar movies.” I could then discuss those other movies, giving the reader the opportunity to understand some of the context under which Spartacus exists. This would be valuable, I think, and it would be an area where a critic might even have something to offer beyond the average person’s taste preferences. The average person would only know that they liked or disliked something … a critic might be able to help that person understand the context which leads them to like or dislike, not by “proving” the validity of taste preferences, but by making connections … Spartacus is an epic of a particular historical time period, most movies that fit that description focus more on action than on philosophy, most other similar movies feature poor acting with lame, dubbed dialogue, while Spartacus is relatively literate … in all of this, I am still making value judgments, of course, but I am also attempting to place Spartacus in context, so that, whether or not you agree with me that Spartacus is a good movie, you will learn something about Spartacus that you didn’t know before.

If this is the case, then the best critic is one who can convey the most context, using the most elegant/efficient writing. The more movies you’ve seen, the more context you’ll have to explain the next movie you see. The more you know about things outside of movies … politics, philosophy, science, history, art, whatever … the more context you’ll have. The best critic won’t be the one with the most clearly honed notions about quality, but will instead be the one who most effectively places the text in context, in order to illuminate the reader.

As is always the case when I think about this stuff, it is easy to see that part of this is merely yet another apologia for Pauline Kael. Kael was often accused of lacking a coherent overall theory of movies; she was often praised for her ability to bring a vast knowledge, not only of movies but of other things, to bear on the particular movie she was discussing. And, at least for some of us, she was a great stylist. She had her opinions … lord knows she had her opinions … but what mattered was less her opinions, her taste preferences, than her ability to provide a larger context. It is that to which people like me aspire. And by her insistence on inserting herself into the story, not in the kind of obvious, self-promoting way of a Hunter S. Thompson, but in a more subtle way that regularly reminded the reader that there was a subjective perspective behind the words on the page, Kael is a fine model for the bloggers of the 21st century.

Still … outside of the pleasure we get from the good writing a critic might employ (and it is sadly the case that many critics are dull stylists), the critic would seem to be of value for everything except as a guide for consumers. If I give a movie 8 on a scale of 10, if Christgau gives an album an A– or Entertainment Weekly rates a book as a B+, that means nothing as far as helping us decide whether or not we might like that movie or album or book. Which is where the plethora of A.I.-driven recommendation systems come into play. Whether it’s Amazon telling you what products you might want to buy, or Netflix telling you what DVD you might want to rent, to Pandora or URGE or Last.fm telling you what music you might want to listen to … what all of these systems are doing is taking care of the consumer guide aspect of criticism. And doing it without most of the subjectivity with which a “real” critic is burdened. (I say “burdened” not because I don’t like subjectivity in a critic … I don’t think subjectivity can be avoided, nor do I think it should be … but I am trying to argue that the value of a critic lies somewhere beyond the expression of taste preferences.) The recommendation systems use algorithms to guess at our taste preferences. They mostly do a good job of it, which many find disturbing … we like to think our taste preferences are too idiosyncratic to be replicated by software.

So … if you want to know whether or not something might appeal to you, an artificial intelligence system can do as good a job or better than any critic. If you want to place a work of art in a larger context than that which your own limited subjective experience can provide, the artificial intelligence system would be pretty much useless. But a critic with experience, a broad range of knowledge, and a stylish pen, can be quite useful indeed, as well as pleasurable.

So when you read this blog and I say Conversations with Other Women gets a 6 on a scale of 10, ignore that rating. But when I add that the movie uses Aaron Eckhart to advantage by utilizing what I see as a barely-concealed greasiness in many of his past parts, that’s worth noting, and if you like his work in this movie, you might want to check him out in other roles … not necessarily Erin Brockovich, but certainly In the Company of Men. If you have seen Richard Linklater’s “Before” movies, you might find it useful to think of this movie in the context of those other films … whether or not you agree with my opinion about the value of the movies in question. Ignore the “6” but pay attention to the sentence that follows, where I describe the movie as an “indie cross of Before Sunset and Last Year at Marienbad.” And then, after you’ve seen Conversations with Other Women, tell us whether or not you liked it, give it a rating on a scale of 10, that will always be interesting, but more importantly, add what you can to expand our sense of the context in which the movie operates. That’s what matters in terms of the community of critics and audiences (all of us are both).

Let me give a final example, that occurred on this blog. About a year and a half ago, I wrote about the Jet Li movie Hero. I found the movie beautiful to look at, enjoyed the acting and the fight scene between Jet Li and Donnie Yen, but was also a bit troubled in ways I couldn’t quite describe. From my comments, you might have been encouraged to check out other similar films I mentioned, such as Yen’s Iron Monkey. I also described Robin’s reaction to the film, and my own reaction to her reaction … she put the light bulb over my head on a couple of things, clarified what I hadn’t understood. And then Steve Fore, who lives in Hong Kong, offered a closer look at the particular context of director Yimou Zhang and the movie Hero, comparing the movie to Zhang’s earlier work and discussing the political implications (he noted that watching Hero in HK was “frightening”). We might have all given Hero different ratings, which is interesting and makes for good discussion around the dinner table. But we also all brought different contexts, and those were not only interesting, but also illuminating in understanding the film. That is the kind of illumination I think a critic should strive to achieve, even though I so rarely accomplish it myself, given as I am to large pronouncements about this or that being the “greatest” or the “worst” thing ever.

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