A Few Words On Criticism
- Pauline Bistlestop
In all of my years as a film critic, I have never been so dismayed by a critic’s utter disregard of the niceties of good film criticism as I have by F.W. Dudley’s review of Death of An Artist. Throwing all caution to the winds, Dudley has embarked upon what he calls a reinvention of criticism, but which, in my humble estimation, can only be described as lunacy of the most pitiful kind.
F.W. Dudley has forgotten that a critic worth the paper he scribbles on must have the temerity to write not what he knows but what he thinks he knows. After all, if we critics don’t value our opinions, can we honestly expect our readers to value them?
Mr. Dudley makes a number of ill-founded proposals, none of which would reinvent criticism without first profaning the sacred charge of the critic. Mr. Dudley would have us believe that critics’ opinions are valueless unless designed to enlighten a reader about what to expect from a given film. But as any honest critic will tell you, criticism is all opinion. A good critic should be adept at saying everything and telling you nothing, skilled at clothing himself in the uniform of expertise without having earned the privilege.
Dudley even claims that the critic, as a mere observer of film, has nothing whatsoever to teach about film. But denying a critic the opportunity to teach how films ought to be made would be tantamount to denying an art critic the chance to teach how to paint. Such criticism requires the objectivity of someone who has not once set foot on a production set. The critic’s opinion is reliable for being made from the vantage point of detachment. A filmmaker could never speak with such unforgiving objectivity about the artistry of filmmaking, much as true art criticism requires the objectivity of one who has never stood, paintbrush in hand, before an empty canvas. I would be making films myself if I weren’t so committed to the unequaled art of film criticism.
But let us begin by examining Mr. Dudley’s proposals. He asserts that a film critic should devote more of her time to critiquing film and spend less of her time vaunting her aptitude as a writer. With a graciousness and subtlety I can’t ordinarily credit him with, Mr. Dudley offers up my name (to the fickle hounds of public opinion who wag their tails for whomever master wields his pen with the most glib self-assurance) as an example of a critic who flagrantly violates what he proclaims to be the “golden rule.” And he describes the golden rule as follows: “write more of the film and less of oneself.” As if to suggest that I might write an article to satisfy a personal vendetta than for love of film, or that my criticism comes tinged not with compassion and understanding but with the standpoint of my peculiar biases.
But what if a critic should find herself more interesting than an embarrassment of a film like Death of An Artist? And if making a film a target of my mirth should showcase my considerable talent for writing then so be it. Am I to be faulted because the people I meet at the theater are more fit subjects of my literary endeavors than the film proper? But I’m faulted for laughing at good intentions gone awry. But if a film provokes laughter even when tears are sought, then I shall laugh and do so with reckless abandon, despite the best intentions of the filmmakers involved. If my objectivity offends, then, by all means, read Dudley’s mealymouthed pieces in the Pulse of America. But, should Dudley have his way, what price wit? For if it weren’t for shoddy filmmaking, there would be no pundits. Sure, Dudley might fault me for exercising my wit at the expense of film, but then I’ll have to fault deficient filmmaking as the cause of my mirth.
Now this brings me to Dudley’s second proposal: “don’t allow a bias to interfere with your objectivity.” He insists that critics often conceal the real motives behind blasting a film, and that critics will say one thing but never say what they really mean. For example, I might describe Death of An Artist as the most pretentious and baffling exhibition of faux-art imaginable, when, in actuality, I might merely be trashing the film because of my frustration with being unable to make heads or tails of it or because it made me feel ignorant. According to Dudley, my motives for panning a film might not be quite as honorable as I would have you, my faithful readers, believe.
Dudley contends that critics are often dishonest about the pretexts used for disparaging another man’s sweat and toil. And they do this to protect themselves. A film which leads us to question our own righteousness is hardly a pleasant prospect for anyone. But to reveal this as the reason for our loathing would render the critic laughable; and so the critic must scramble for the slightest and most negligible of blemishes and magnify it until the film can be justifiably described as irretrievably flawed. And were a film to make a laughingstock of a character friends might mistake for you, you’d naturally hate the film. But would you tell your friends that you hated the film because it made you feel stupid, laughable and false? No, you’d tell them that the film was stupid, laughable, and unrealistic. What Dudley forgets is that all opinions are based on some pretext or other; and that it would be impossible to share an opinion which isn’t formed from an indeterminate array of biases. I’m nothing without my prejudices.
Dudley adds that a critic will almost never concede ignorance, nor any weakness for that matter. After all, we critics must induce our readers to believe, without reservation, in our infallible expertise. A critic’s prodigious foresight naturally precludes the possibility of error. But Dudley regrets that a critic’s vanity can inhibit her from retracting a damning review. Naturally, Dudley uses the female possessive to refer to me, as if I alone could embody everything that could be wrong with film criticism today. He targets an opinionated female critic (and we all know who that might be) by asserting that this mystery critic, much like other critics, will never admit to being wrong, nor will she admit that her reviews are as much about personal taste as they are about anything remotely objective.
But let me offer up a few words in my defense. I have never intimated that my criticism was not almost entirely the product of personal taste. It’s all opinion. I’ve never claimed otherwise; though my personal tastes are virtually irrefutable as to become objective criterion in their own right. What’s more, I would willingly admit to being wrong, but I sadly confess to rarely ever being in error. And if it should happen that I make an error of judgment, then I will be the first to express my surprise.
But then again, I will reemphasize the importance of maintaining our credibility as critics. Readers will more readily believe the unerring critic than the critic who invalidates his own opinions by repeatedly questioning them. People are taken in by excessive confidence, often believing that every ounce of confidence must be supported by an equal amount of ability and perspicacity. Because perception, after all, is nine tenths of reality. And the critic will merely render himself unreliable by being honest. A critic might think herself good for being honest, but others will pronounce her a bad critic who doesn’t possess the conviction of her beliefs. Readers scour over our reviews for informed opinions. And we owe it to our readers to appear informed and knowledgeable even if we are woefully ignorant. If critics were to admit that we could misjudge and underestimate a film, readers would cease to respect our opinions.
Dudley’s third proposal reads as follows: “don’t overlook the beauty of the forest for the unsightliness of some of the trees.” Or, in other words, don’t assume that a film has nothing to communicate about our lives because of the odd implausibility. Dudley cautioned an opinionated female critic (with a striking resemblance to me) not to trash a film for failing to make perfect sense at first glance. According to Dudley’s impaired logic, critics who dislike a film for personal reasons will merely latch onto infinitesimal faults to justify their dislike. For the unbiased Dudley, good criticism is a matter of stepping back far enough to view the film objectively, so that the ill-formed dots will eventually form a coherent whole. But when we allow a personal bias to cloud our judgment, we choose to dwell upon nothing but flawed details.
But Dudley overlooks the power of the critic, and that readers want to know whether the critic liked the film or not. Naturally, a yea or nay should be supported with evidence. But we critics, we happy few, are experts, after all; and our opinions are irrefutable for being the result of such expertise. And I’m confident enough to know that if a film doesn’t make sense the first time, it won’t work upon a second viewing. If my overall impression is an unpleasant one, then why should I be subjected to it again, on the off chance that I might change my mind? Moreover, I tend to think that small faults are often indicative of larger ones; and my faultfinding comes of my unerring instinct for spotting bad films.
Now this brings me to Dudley’s final admonition: “do not appear too arbitrary.” He implies that critics often tend to wax self-important as if their opinions were as irrefutable as divine commandments. And, in part, he would be correct to make such an assumption. Of course our opinions are irrefutable, and of course our opinions acquire an almost divine transcendence. We are film critics, after all, and we are under no obligation to pretend that our opinions are anything but arbitrary. I may appear self-important; but it is only because my opinions are important.
And Dudley has the nerve to criticize me for disregarding the significance of my opinion. I have never overlooked the significance of my opinions. I’m fully cognizant that the success of a film depends, in large part, upon a yea or a nay from me. But I’m not to be blamed for the failure of a film just because I wrote a scathing review. A poorly-conceived piece of work will never, and should never, succeed. My opinion merely rewards the meritorious and penalizes the unsound. In essence, the critic dispenses a form of celestial justice, and tips the scales in favor of or against a film. If a film succeeds despite my ill-opinion, I would consider all of my efforts in vain. If I can’t influence how people think about films, then what purpose do I serve?
Now Dudley might commend me for not taking this opportunity to lay into Death of an Artist (as I’ve already done so in a previous issue); rather, I chose to devote this space to saying a few words on behalf of all of us opinionated and preeminent film critics who are obliged to tell the rest of you how to think. And Dudley would shame us into believing that we’ve overreached the bounds of good criticism, and that we abuse our privilege and our influence. But how can we be faulted for having good taste, and knowing it? Are we to be faulted for writing our opinions as if they were objective fact and for endowing our opinions with the legitimacy of expertise? It’s our self-important arbitrariness that provides us with that legitimacy, for we will only be applauded for being firm in our convictions. And if we follow Dudley’s advice, our opinions will no longer carry much weight. For when our readers cease to look up to us, they will see us face to face, and we will cease to impress them. Dudley shall never pull me from my lofty perch and I shall continue to pronounce judgment upon all films (holding aloft the good ones and dashing the bad ones to the ground). For when people read my column, they marvel at the ease and dexterity with which I render my opinions; how can any film be as interesting as the venerable words of a film expert? Besides, readers want opinions, not film reviews.