Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Tao of Film: Pure Cinema and the Christian Aesthetic Part 3

If you've never heard of Armond White read this:

http://www.slashfilm.com/2010/07/20/armond-white-i-do-think-it-is-fair-to-say-that-roger-ebert-destroyed-film-criticism/

Armond White, as nutty as he may seem, actually brings up some very good points. I don't think he makes very good criticisms very often but in the above linked interview he made a few interesting points about film Criticism.

1) Film Criticism, filmmaking, and their relation to maturity and age
2) The effect of the internet and television on film criticism
3) What film criticism actually is
4) Credentials or credibility in film criticism

I found these points to be very interesting, especially since I felt as though I personally could benefit from listening to him. Usually I write off Mr. White because he seems so ridiculous. But the guy is smart. His annual Better Than lists often have moments of brilliance in them and he really does have good credentials when it comes to Film Criticism. I want to deal with each of these points briefly and then go on to how it deals with the Tao of Film.

In point 1 White stated that he believes age plays a major factor in our ability to make and criticize film. Apparently in the past he has said that no one should be able to make films before they're forty. Now he gives a more modest proposal. No one should be able to do film criticism before they are thirty. If that’s true I've got five years to go before I really should be doing anything like the stuff I try to do on this blog.

I actually think the point is correct. Maturity plays an important factor in everything we do, but we can't learn without doing. I think Aristotle said something like that. So this blog is in many ways an experiment for me. I want to learn how to understand and criticize film. I have called myself a film critic and I guess that’s true in the sense that I do critique film. Whether I am any good at it or not is another question. I think if I keep at it I will become good or better than I am. I will continue to read more about cinema, watch more movies, interact with more people, gain personal experience, and an increased knowledge base from which to draw. I started this blog out of a very pretentious idea. I wanted to come up with a better top ten list of greatest films than Roger Ebert. Which to my satisfaction I did, because unlike him I used criteria and philosophy to formulate my list rather than simply my opinions. Of course my opinions shaped my criteria and reasoning but I feel that the list itself is more defensible than Ebert's because of its more solid basis. But even since coming up with that list I have already revised it, multiple times, I just haven't made those revisions public yet. One such revision is Citizen Kane. I had initially excluded it because I felt it was overrated. But what I realized was that it fit my criteria perfectly, better than some of the other films I had selected. So unless I revise my criteria Kane must go on the list.

Maturity is partly being able to simply put things in perspective, and that perspective is usually about ourselves.

So while I disagree with White about the exact age I think he's probably right. Age and maturity are important. I don't really have either; this blog should help me to get there. As a Christian and an aspiring philosopher/theologian the same is true. Maturity and humility go hand and hand with any kind of serious growth that we make as humans. But particularly intellectual and existential endeavors.

In point 2 White makes the case that the internet has really finally killed film criticism (something which has been lamented by every generation of film critics in some way or another). Obviously he doesn't mean that film critics don't exist anymore just that now anybody can start up a blog and start acting like a film critic. That’s exactly what I did. I actually think he's right about this too. It takes restraint to act like an intellectual when there is accountability such as a University of Peer reviewed journals. But it takes even more restraint when you are accountable to no one. And most people on the internet don't think restraint is involved at all. That’s the whole point: letting yourself out, no apologies, to the whole world.

He believes that Roger Ebert really killed film criticism when he started his television back when Siskel was still with us. The show was pretty easy on most films and mostly existed to simply make film criticism more public. It was a pretty easy going show for the most part. Ebert and Siskel were pretty easy on most films and ultimately just said whether or not they liked the film or thought it was entertaining. That really isn't film criticism. It’s just having a conversation on TV between two guys who know more about film than their viewers.

But regardless similar things were said about books when they first became a "thing" centuries ago. Supposedly anybody could write a book and then their ideas would be respected and spread throughout the world regardless of their credentials. But what we found was that bad books written by idiots generally weren't as influential. It’s actually gotten worse today because there is such a massive amount of literature written by so many different people with varying credentials.

But generally speaking the good books seem to last. And on the internet the good blogs seem to do better than the bad blogs. People really don't generally listen to everything they read. Well at least not all people. So I think the internet has just complicated the issue. Of course White thinks that the issue really is that people in general feel as though they don't need to listen to Film Critics. That everybody can be a film critic and nobody is really an expert. But this problem isn't just confined to film or the internet. This is a general attitude that comes essentially from bad understandings of the Reformation. The gradual privatization of belief has led people to believe that they can have whatever beliefs they want. By virtue of the fact that this or that opinion of this or that movie is my opinion means it’s a valuable opinion, because its mine and not yours. And you can't criticize my opinion because opinions can't be wrong.

But here we find that there is a real distinction between a reviewer and a film critic. Most people can't intelligently discuss everything. There are a few who can understand multiple fields of knowledge but many of us have to pick and choose what we will be in the know about. I have chosen Film, Philosophy, Theology, and to a lesser extent sports (really just American Football). On one of those topics I am very good. Get me talking about make up or farm machinery and I won't know anything. So the reviewer performs a public service giving a semi informed opinion so that people either will be encouraged or hindered from seeing a particular film. It’s not really an academic pursuit. Most of the time Armond White is hard to understand anyway. He makes references to all sorts of things in his reviews, from politics to history to other obscure films.

But now we've gotten into number 3. What is Film Criticism? It is taking Film seriously. It is being hard on movies. It is attempting to understand and explain film. Film Criticism is much different from film reviewing although many of the same things happen in both places. To review a film is basically to perform a public function or economic service. It is to be a kind of watchdog over Hollywood for the people. Armond White claims that this also isn't going on, but that the film "reviewers" are really just super fans that are in league with Hollywood.

But Film Criticism is to seriously and intellectually evaluate cinema. This is much harder than simply saying I liked it. It takes time, effort, talent, and intelligence. Which leads us to number 4. Credibility. You really can't just jump off the street and start a blog and expect people to listen to you. I don't expect people to listen to me. But to seriously understand cinema requires theoretical and critical skills. It requires exegetical and historical knowledge. It’s much more than simply saying I love Casablanca. Allot of Scholarship has been done about that film, as is true of most great movies.

But if we take Movies seriously, as art and a cultural force, we won't shrink away from this daunting task. We should accept White's challenge and make Film Criticism better than it has been. We need to really study cinema.

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