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July 15, 2016

"How about you see the movie before you decide whether you hate us or not?"


@vitogulla on criticism's decline  



Very few television shows have been able to arrest my attention like The Wire. Of course, I was like a decade late to the party, but it didn’t matter much to me as I brought it up as a topic of conversation with anyone and everyone. One of those people was my father. I gushed over the show, talking about how much I loved it. My father, however, didn’t share my enthusiasm and said he couldn’t watch it because it made you feel bad for the drug dealers, as if that might inspire viewers to take up the vocation for themselves. This idea is, of course, not new.

Over 2000 years ago, Plato, in his Republic, casted out the poets from his utopian for their ability to corrupt young minds. In an ironic twist of fate, it was his mentor and teacher, the philosopher Socrates, who was sentenced to death in ancient Athens for the same charge. Plato’s view has, ever since, been a part of the discourse on the arts, from Augustine to the anti-theatre pamphlets of Restoration Drama to Marxist criticism and its brethren in, what Harold Bloom calls dismissively, the “School of Resentment.” Terry Eagleton, in his lecture “The Death of Criticism?,” argues that criticism has always been composed of an aesthetic and ethical investigation of texts, and as Eagleton noted back in 2010,  that ethical tradition has all but erased the analytic/rhetorical component. No where has this divide become so prominent than the current conversation surrounding Ghostbusters


"I'm tired of these poets corrupting our youths--what do you mean Socrates has to drink hemlock!?"
The movie, as Daniel Friedman has pointed out, has become a political cause in itself. To see it or not see it, to like it or not like it is now a moral position: It is no longer a question of taste but of character. This “regime of truth,” as Foucault might put it, distracts from one of criticism’s chief functions, the study and interpretation of art. In fact, the film has only just been released. All this goes to show that the text does not matter. We have politicized the art work before we have even begun to unravel the movie’s own political point of view, and any serious appreciator of the arts should find this particularly distressing.

The text and its intentions are now inconsequential, and meaning has become literally infinite. The deconstructionist inside me wants to celebrate the latter clause as a victory, but to do so would be to take away the wrong message. Any argument about a text has to be rooted in the text itself first and foremost: It requires careful study and attention--a close reading. Even deconstruction, which at once affirms a text’s intentions and undermines them, must be performed on what is there, not from without. But much more troubling is that this makes the text utterly meaningless. At least moralists of the past would have taken the time to view the text before charging it with ethical heresy. Now, sadly, there is no reason to view a film, for both sides of this debate have more or less made up their minds. Texts have become a talisman for us to place our political burdens upon, a receptacle for us to empty and refill with our intentions regardless of its own individuation. 

“Misinterpretation” has long been the thorn in the side of every author. Nietzsche, for example, had his works chopped up and rearranged by his sister after his death in support of National Socialism, even though many scholars would argue he would have felt otherwise. Both the Bible and the Quran have been subject to “misinterpretation” as well, as various individuals try to wedge more modernly acceptable views into texts that don’t have very much good to say about women or homosexuals. 


"Damnit, Elisabeth, for the last time, I don't care if all your friends are going: I don't want to go to the Nazi party."  

Of course, it would seem antithetical to at once recognize the undecidability of a text and, at the same time, conceive it as inherently meaningful. Yet I wonder if the issue must be an either/or.

And maybe what I find most upsetting about this whole thing is that this film is wholly insignificant in the grand scheme of American cinema and cinema at large. The Ghostbusters reboot may very well be good, but in all likelihood, this film does not change the game. It probably isn’t innovative or boundary-pushing. It probably won’t be remembered for its quality. Yet far more important and significant films in our history have, as far as I’m aware, never generated such an enormous conversation upon their release, not Bicycle Thieves, not Vertigo, not Seven Samurai.  I hope that revelation might give us pause since the problems we currently have aren’t going to be solved through culture as much as many a neoplatonist would have us believe. While a way out of our current political circumstances will require significant social and institutional change, it seems to me, when it comes to movies, maybe we should leave our politics at the protest and shut the fuck up, so we can hear what the movie has to say.            


Ghostbusters is in theaters on July 15th 2016.


Vito Gulla is a regular contributor to the Ugly Club Podcast and writes the column "Dissenting Opinions." 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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