A little more than a week ago, Ted Giola wrote a piece, “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting”, that would have pissed me off quite a bit if I cared enough about the topic. Which is OK, Giola wanted to piss people off, and to the extent I write about music, I was one of his targets. After reading through some “leading music periodicals”, Gioia complained that “I didn’t read a single discussion of song structure, harmony, or arrangement techniques.” His thesis? “Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.” I agree that much popular music criticism avoids discussing technique. But I don’t buy the suggested binary argument that music criticism that avoids technique is necessarily “lifestyle reporting”. I’d argue that the roots of rock criticism came from humanities majors, who were more interested in lyrics and cultural context than they were in technique. Yes, this was largely because they didn’t have the technical knowledge necessary for useful discussion of techniques. They went with what they knew. But Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train isn’t a book about lifestyles. Marcus has noted that he doesn’t have the theoretical chops to write about music technique, but that doesn’t stop him from writing about music as it connects with things he does know, and that doesn’t fall into the category of “lifestyle reporting”.
Now, the fine critic Matt Zoller Seitz has followed up Giola with his own extension of the theory, “Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking”. “[I]n criticism of every kind there is appallingly little careful consideration of form. I see a lot of writing that describes what a piece of art is about, not so much about how it is about it.” He concludes:
You owe it to your readers to write about form. You owe it to yourself to write about form. You owe it to the filmmakers to write about form.
Films and TV shows are made by filmmakers.
Write about the filmmaking.
My position on this matter is informed in large part by you-know-who. A few years ago, Jim Emerson totally shred (h/t to Giola) Pauline Kael’s approach to film criticism:
Kael couldn't and wouldn't engage with "technique" because she didn't have the knowledge or the vocabulary or the taste for it. Her approach to movies and criticism was focused on her gut reaction -- the way she thought audiences and readers should respond. (This is why she said she didn't like to see movies more than once -- she prized remaining true to her first impressions above all else.)
That last sentence might get at where I part company from Seitz and Emerson. There are plenty of movies I watch over and over. I do that because I like them. And there is the occasional movie that draws out such a negative response from me that I eventually go back to it, to see if I was just in the wrong place the first time I saw it. But the kinds of movies that reward the extra attention Seitz is after … the ones where the form is of such depth that the films require multiple viewings in order to extract all of the value … well, if my “gut reaction” to a movie is positive, I’m happy to return, looking for formal elements that illuminate my gut. To use an example Emerson brings up, a favorite of mine (and of Kael), one reason I get more out of each viewing of The Rules of the Game is that his use of deep focus ensures there is always something to see in the frame that you might have missed before. In that case, an examination of form leads to a deeper understanding of a film I already love.
But then there’s Wes Anderson, about whom Seitz has written extensively. I have seen almost every movie he directed. Once. I see many similarities between those films … you could say he has an identifiable style, that he is an “artist”. But I don’t much like them … I don’t have a negative gut reaction, just a been-there-done-that reaction. And I suppose I’d get more out of his films if I watched them over and over, looking in depth at the “filmmaking”, because I “owe it” to Anderson. But honestly, there are thousands of movies I haven’t yet seen, many of which I’m willing to bet I’d like more than a second viewing of Moonrise Kingdom. I honestly don’t think I “owe” anything to Wes Anderson. Which is why I watched Gilda this week, rather than checking out Fantastic Mr. Fox for a second time.