I have a regular series on this blog I call “what i watched last week”. It’s a summary of the movies I viewed, and the title seems pretty innocuous. But a critic named Matt Zoller Seitz has me questioning that title. I’ve been reading this fine critic for a long time, long enough that I don’t remember where he was at the beginning. He was a TV critic then, and he worked alongside Alan Sepinwall at The Newark Star-Ledger. There was a blog, The House Next Door, and he wrote for Salon … I forget the chronology. Somewhere along the way he shifted his emphasis to film. He is currently the editor-in-chief at rogerebert.com. I find his work fascinating, although we don’t always like the same things, as is evidenced by his first book, a study of Wes Anderson. What Seitz is very good at, the thing that makes me wonder about my claim of “watching” movies, is analysis of visual elements in film. He has made many “video essays” that helpfully show by example the points he is making.
In a blog post from March titled “Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking”, Seitz threw up a challenge to his fellow critics: “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.” Earlier, he writes, “We critics of film and TV have a duty to help viewers understand how form and content interact, and how content is expressed through form. The film or TV critic who refuses to write about form in any serious way abdicates that duty, and abets visual illiteracy.”
Seitz is very convincing, and I know I have tried to see things differently than I used to since reading his piece. And while I’m not doing a very good job of it, I’ve also tried to heed this: “If you only have ten sentences to play with, set aside one sentence to make an observation about some aspect of the filmmaking. Otherwise you're not contributing to visual literacy. You're not helping.”
The problem in my case (and I know this sounds like a justification for laziness) is that I tend to visual illiteracy, and I’m not sure how much progress I’m going to make on that front. I understand when Seitz or others draw attention to visuals, and while I’m a sucker for narrative and acting, I do understand form in areas like editing. But …
For a couple of days, there was a Facebook meme, one of those instant IQ tests, and everyone on my feed seemed to take it at once. I was bored, I gave in, I took the test. I was rolling along, getting the right answer for all of the logic problems that filled the beginning of the test (“Which word doesn’t fit? Coffee is to cup, what cake is to … What is half of a quarter of 400?”). But then came the visual problems. “Which shape completes the pattern? Which shape does not fit the others? Select the picture that best fits the white space.” Happily, the test returned to logic problems: “Complete the series: 1-2-4-7-11-16-22-?”
They don’t tell you what you got right and what you got wrong … they just give you an IQ number. I think it’s a scam … I just got a 120 when all I was doing was choosing answers at random so I could gather some of the problems listed above. But when I first took it, I’m pretty sure I got all of them right except for the visual problems, which I only got right if I guessed correctly. And this reminded me of when a friend was in grad school on his way to becoming a psychologist, and he gave me an IQ test. The results were remarkably like the Facebook meme … when my friend handed in his work, his professor looked at my test and said that I’d been dropped on my head as a kid, because I was super smart in everything except the visual questions, where I was dumber than a chimpanzee. (The parts of the brain that affect those kinds of questions are on opposite sides, so if you get dropped, one side takes the blow, then the brain bounces to the other side for a second blow.) I don’t know if any of this is true, or if the science has advanced so far that this is all considered nonsense. But as a description of how I see the world, it felt accurate then and it feels accurate now.
Which is a long-winded way of explaining why visual analysis is so hard for me. I try watching movies or TV shows while keeping Seitz’s thoughts in mind, but 1) I find myself concentrating so hard on the visual elements that I lose track of what is going on in the narrative, and 2) I rarely find anything because my brain doesn’t see it.
Is this all a rationalization on my part? Could be. I know that I’d like to contribute to visual literacy. But I don’t think that’s going to be happening any time soon.
The Knick is a new Cinemax series where every episode is directed by Steven Soderbergh. I like what I’ve seen of his work, especially The Limey and Out of Sight. I am intrigued by this new series in part because I like the idea of a respected person taking on the entire season. And Soderbergh is the perfect subject for “writing about the filmmaking” … besides directing, he is also the cinematographer and editor for his films, using pseudonyms for both of those credits. Seitz, who in addition to everything else is a great follow on Twitter, had a lot to tweet about The Knick and Soderbergh:
Soderbergh's direction on THE KNICK is old-school excellent. Always functional but also efficient in a way that you don't register at first. I love the idea of Soderbergh, his own camera operator, in there with the actors, weaving around and among them, performing with them. Was commiserating with
@stevensantos tonight about the breakdown of blocking/graphic intelligence among modern filmmakers. Very few have that feel for how to build a sequence so it ends in a place where a cut produces a laugh or a gasp. Soderbergh gets it, though. My stepdad once told me of the time he watched Jackson Pollock circa 1959 create a giant drip-canvas on a dock at Chelsea Pier. I think I understand the awe in his voice now when I appreciate Soderbergh's direction of THE KNICK. Intuitive, bold, playful. If I had to list the year's best shows right now it'd be between HANNIBAL and THE KNICK, purely for the aesthetic excitement both create. I feel like I'm watching a great musician just fucking COOK, you know? Like, "How does he do that? How is it humanly possible?"
Well, I’ve seen the pilot for The Knick, and outside of an early scene where the drabness of 1900 New York City changed when the camera went indoors and the entire screen seemed to be lit “properly”, I can’t say I noticed much in the way of visual elements. I wish I felt the “aesthetic excitement” Seitz mentions … I believe it exists. But if I had used this post to give a review of The Knick, I’d talk about Clive Owen, and the horribly ugly scenes in the operating room (probably quite accurate regarding 1900 medicine, but holy moly), I’d talk about how the pilot sets up the narrative for the remainder of the season, I’d note that I’m glad they managed to work an African-American character into a key role, even as it felt artificial. I’d say I look forward to the rest of the season. I’d mention that it is already renewed for Season Two. I would note all of those things.
But if I wrote one paragraph or a dozen, I’m not sure I’d do a better job of introducing The Knick than Matt Zoller Seitz did in a few twitter posts.