oscar post mortem
tastes great, less filling

further notes on a critical manifesto

Back around the time I started doing this year's Oscar Run, I made some feeble attempts at constructing an "anti-manifesto of criticism." To simplify something that wasn't all that complicated in the first place, I argued that instead of examining a work of art and then pronouncing judgment (good, bad, indifferent), we decide, consciously or unconsciously, whether or not we like something, and then build an argument in support of our taste preference. I wondered what the role of a critic might be, assuming that a mere list of taste preferences wouldn't be very useful. I decided a critic can make connections and offer context for art works that, because of the subjective experience of the critic, will be different from the connections the reader might make, which, if the critic was a decent writer, could be more useful than just giving thumbs up or down. I also wondered if perhaps the improvements in artificial intelligence systems for predicting whether or not we will like something has resulted in the "consumer guide" aspect of criticism being more suited to the computer than to the human … that MovieLens or Netflix or Amazon could do a better job of suggesting what we might like than could a human.

I bring this up because my snarky dismissal of The Black Dahlia elicited an interesting set of comments, partly about the snark (which wasn't appreciated) but also partly because we often take it personally when someone we like takes a negative stance on something we enjoy.

And I think it matters here because the part about liking or not liking something should be irrelevant. I read a friend's extended review of The Black Dahlia and was very impressed at the detailed appreciation shown for the movie. As I said to her, I felt it was possible to both think her writing on the film was superb, and to also think the movie was bad. Because the yes/no/indifferent part doesn't matter as much as does the writing and analytical skills that bring new context, new connections to the work of art. She accomplished this, and then some … I learned a lot reading her words. I did not change my opinion that The Black Dahlia was a bad movie. But her review was far more substantial than my own brief blog post, and that's what criticism is about.

OK. According to Netflix, I have a 75% "similarity" to my sister Sue, but only a 59% similarity to my other sister Chris. All three of us are smart, all three of us are good writers, and I like to think we are all worth reading when we talk about movies. But it should be clear from the range of opinions amongst us that the one thing you wouldn't want to use us for is as a recommendation system.

I think The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 are the best movies ever made, while Part 3 was, while decent enough, a huge drop-off from the others. Chris gave all three movies 4 stars on a scale of 5. I'd be very interested in reading her thoughts on those movies. I put great trust in her ability to offer connections and context that I wouldn't have considered. On the other hand, I don't suppose I'd trust the taste preference of anyone who 1) didn't give the first two movies the highest rating, and 2) thought the third one was as good as the others.

My point is that Chris is a critic worth reading, but for recommendations for future viewings, I'd trust an A.I.-driven software recommendation system over Chris. And I don't take it personally that our taste preferences lead us to differ on the value of the three Godfather movies.

So … have I taken my manifesto any further here, or am I just wasting blog space? My point, if I have one, is that differences of opinion about the value of a work of art are mostly unimportant, and related entirely to taste preferences. The value of a critic lies in something other than their taste preferences; the best critics will inform, no matter whether or not we agree with their value judgments about the work.

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