Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


June 8, 2016


How to Argue About Movies

@vitogulla offers some tips on proper critical etiquette. 

Recently, I went to see Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice with a couple contributors to the Ugly Club, and though I left the theater recognizing that the film had its fair share of flaws, I, overall, enjoyed the experience, finding it to be a solid film because of its ability to convey its themes and use of mise-en-scene, even if the movie had two third acts and pointlessly inserted Wonder Woman into the mix. One of my fellow viewers, however, did not feel the same, saying, at one point during the film, “Fuck Zack Snyder.” Afterward, I explained why I liked it and asked my interlocutor what was so bad about it. (As the podcast’s resident contrarian, I enjoy a good argument.) But to my surprise, he failed to provide any support for his claim: Nothing came to mind. And as I became more combative, more vehement in my questioning, he fell back on his position, saying, it was just a bad movie. 

This, I think, is indicative of what I’ve been saying for some time: People tend to view art without a careful, considerate eye. This is not to say that my friend was stupid, but that he was not thinking while watching the film. Instead, he relied on feeling, instinct, gut reaction. These are good places to start for any critic, but they can only get us so far. If the goal of criticism is, as Matthew Arnold put it famously in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” to obey “an instinct prompting it to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world…and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other considerations whatever,” then our feelings are not good enough. I can’t quantify my sadness when Han Solo is frozen in carbonite or my happiness when Luke blows up the Death Star. Therefore, then on what grounds do we base our criticism?

The obvious place to start is what we provide to validate our claims: “It had good character development,” “it had bad cinematography,” “it was too long.” These start the conversation off alright but only lead us to further questions. What is “good” character development? What is “bad” cinematography? What is “too long”? Can a movie be no more than two hours in order to be good? These assessments typically breakdown at a certain point as each side resorts to tautology, avoiding the very underpinnings of what makes good good and what makes bad bad.   

Of course, one of the thorniest problems when discussing any art is defining the terms of the debate, and film criticism is no different. We all recognize that art appreciation is inherently subjective. Your friend may not like this movie while you adore it; on the other hand, you may think that film is the worst picture ever made while your friend believes it’s not too bad. What it comes down to, however, is the ability to communicate those points effectively. 

Fortunately, we can quickly eliminate some things which are obviously not criticism. As I already mentioned, your feelings about a film mean very little. They cannot be observed by another. It is something that is literally unknowable outside the person who has experienced them. John Crowe Ransom, in his essay “Criticism Inc.,” calls these “personal registrations” and states that “[t]he first law to be prescribed to criticism, if we may assume such authority, is that it shall be objective, shall cite the nature of the object rather than its effects upon the subject.” And of course, we can also eliminate synopsis or summary, which seems to be every high school English student’s favorite method of “insight” and “analysis.” This is not criticism as it confuses judgement with a replication of the content therein. 

Now we can start.              

While this may be a little reductionist, and likely offensive to some of my colleagues in academia, I think most schools of criticism can be categorized by three different philosophies of aesthetics. The first of these is the formalist approach. 

When you look at a film, what do you notice? Are you paying careful attention to the framing and composition of a shot? Do you notice subtle uses of editing? Are you listening to the dialogue? Did you notice a motif in the score? Are you focused on the plot? All of these things are inextricably valuable as they cannot be separated from one another and construct the greater unity of the text itself. When you notice these things, you’re engaging in a formalist approach to criticism. You’re thinking about how these disparate elements create and convey meaning. This is what allows you to ground your argument on something tangible. 

Take a look at this still from Citizen Kane

Here, we can milk out some of its intentions. Look at the composition. You’ll notice that Kane’s mother is the closest to the frame, making her the largest. Based on the context of the scene, we can infer that her placement is not random but purposeful. Her size is relative to her importance and her control of little Kane’s life as she signs him away. Notice how she is dressed: not a hair out of place, her clothes stiffly pressed as is the man beside her. But then look at her husband on the other side of the frame. He’s unkempt, disheveled, and relegated to the background. She isn’t even looking at him as she speaks, denoting his complete lack of control and frustration. And then, in the very back, through the window, we see Kane playing in the snow, which reminds us of the snow globe he drops in the film’s introductory scene. Kane has no say in the matter, left out in the cold. 

Little observations such as these serve as the evidence we can use to support our claims of whether a film is bad or good. If you want to make a grand assessment of the quality of a movie, you have base it on little details such as these. In fact, any other form of criticism more or less starts here, what literary scholars call, a close reading. We use a plethora of little examples to defend our overall judgement. Essentially, a film is a series of choices—performance choices, blocking choices, framing choices, editing choices, audio choices, narrative choices, et cetera—and those choices should exist in service of the text’s overall purpose. And by purpose, I do not mean the simplistic suggestion that it exists to entertain us: I mean that the film has an idea, a message, a philosophy it wants to examine and express. In the case of Citizen Kane, we could also discuss its disjointed, fragmented structure, its use of lighting, the ideas it expresses through dialogue, et cetera. All of these a ripe for investigation. And only after close examination of these elements, can you declare its quality one way or the other.     

Of course, the formalist approach is not without its blindspots as it often ignores other aspects of a film in service of pure aesthetics, but regardless of your criteria, you have to start here.       

The next approach to consider is moral/ethical criticism. This, as I’ve mentioned before, can only be undertaken after you’ve decided on the film’s meaning. Here what makes a film worth watching is its moral/ethical implications. This is a decidedly old way of approaching a text, one which often relies on concepts like “poetic justice” and is typical of the religious right. Furthermore, this can be difficult topic to broach when the moral/ethical philosophy isn’t clear cut. Though it may prove useful when talking about something that is literally advocating for racism like Birth of a Nation.     
Lastly, there is what I’ll erroneously classify as cultural studies, in which I’d include African-American criticism, feminist criticism, Marxist criticism, and a whole host of others, and its probably the type of criticism you encounter on Twitter or Tumblr on a daily basis, typically accompanied by the word “problematic.” (By the way, stop using “problematic” to describe works of art.) This avenue is shares some similarities with the moral/ethical schools but not nearly as narrow-minded. Again, this requires that first step of unpacking the meaning of the text before moving forward. Here, you investigate the biases of a text and how it expresses them. This typically requires you to consider how the film promotes racism, sexism, xenophobia, et cetera. Fortunately, when it’s obvious, it’s pretty damn obvious:  

Of course, it still requires us to examine what’s in the frame. The image above is from Birth of a Nation and takes place in the South Carolina legislature. Notice how the black characters—who are state legislators!—are portrayed. One has his shoes off; another is eating chicken. This is not “professional” behavior expected of our elected officials. Not to mention, these are white actors in blackface. And in fact, all of the black characters of the film fall into very particular categories: rapists, fools, backstabbers, or loyal servants. There isn’t a single black character who isn’t a negative stereotype. It should go without saying that this film goes out of its way to express its hatred of black Americans. Unfortunately, in most cases, there is a lot more uncertainty when it comes to meaning.

When you encounter this kind of criticism on the social media panopticon, rarely will you find much in the way of support for these kinds of claims. Most times, people only point to something highly debatable or extraneous, and assume that it is self-evident, unworthy of the close reading required to support such an argument. (Keep in mind that these opinions are usually voiced by people for whom film history or critical theory were not a part of their education.) This, needless to say, is as useless as flatly stating that a film is “good” without some kind of justification. And a quick word of caution for those who chose to go down this road, this approach regularly serves to validate the critic’s biases. This isn’t to say that cultural studies is without its merits—it does have them—but if it is based on “depriving the subject…of its role as originator, and of analyzing the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse,” as Foucault puts forth in “What is an Author?,” then the grounds of the debate shift from the text to culture and brings up a myriad of difficult philosophical questions about the nature of the self, its place in society, and the functions of power—none which really make for a particularly useful discussion about a specific movie or movies in general.    

You’ll notice I didn’t include likable characters or representation or anything of the sort (concepts that I hope to explore in greater detail another time). Nor did I mention the auteur. All of these things are impositions. They are, as far as the conversation on quality and value is concerned, irrelevant. What you wanted doesn’t count for anything. It’s not your movie. (And it doesn’t matter what the director wanted either.) It should go without saying—or maybe it shouldn’t depending on what type of English teacher you had—that meaning is not fixed. It cannot be deciphered. There are no right answers when discussing a film or any art form for that matter. What matters is that if you’re going to tell me that a movie is good or bad, you had better have some reasons to back it up, because “I liked it” isn’t an argument, and it’s certainly not evidence.         

Vito Gulla is a regular contributor to the Ugly Club Podcast. He holds an MFA from Wilkes University in creative writing and teaches English at Delaware County Community College and Lincoln University. You can find his fiction on the web in Pithead Chapel, Mulberry Fork Review, and The Big Click and follow him on Twitter @vitogulla


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