"How To Write About Film"
I was 13 or 14 when I saw the Thomas Carter film, Swing Kids, with my mother and dad in our basement. It held me in its thrall, sick with the narrative, but buoyed by aesthetic pleasure. I sort of floated up the stairs of my family's house, falling with adolescent drama, into an armchair. My mother approached me, laid-back, unserious, and unassuming as she most often is, and asked me, "What'd you think of the movie?"
The question, to my teenaged heart, was anathema; it was crude and unfeeling. Almost until my mid-twenties, there was a certain cutting-of-the-umbilical-cord feeling about the moment I parted with a film, a book, a television show, a piece of music or dance, a work of art, or, I should say, that work parted with me. Like the baby content with being rocked slowly for months after birth, I felt that by refusing to declare an end to the visceral pleasures that come with experiencing art, I could imagine a seamless resolution into daily life.
You know that moment when you emerge from the theater after a matinee and find yourself in a world of brash daylight, dusty air, and cars growling; worst of all, you find yourself surrounded by real people in motion, making sounds. That moment to me was, and sometimes still is, one of deepest melancholy.
When my mother asked me, only moments after the credits rolled, what I thought of Swing Kids, I snapped at her: "Don't ever ask me that again! Not when it's just finished!" And I was truly angry, not just being a petulant brat. I was angry because the confrontation of a work, the intellectual engagement was emotionally painful; at that point, I had to differentiate myself from the work, and I had to admit, to some extent, that the work existed apart from me, was working on me. I had to admit that my experience of the film had as much to do with me as it did the work. In short, I had to reveal myself. Which, particularly for a teenager, can be a disgusting process.
Even simply admitting your likes and dislikes (and the extent to which you like or dislike the things), as I mention in my post On Lists, Winners, and Favorites from the other day, can be naked.
The vulnerability of the critic is not something that we find disgusting exclusively in our own critical selves. Some critics are like the girl who brings up her suicide attempt at a cocktail party. She curtails everyone else's ability to engage with her conversation. It has become uncomfortably personal. And still other critics are the small talkers, allowing discussion of the weather or the traffic to last far longer than the requisite two minutes, making it itself the conversation, rather than the preamble to a more interesting one. Worse yet, is the critic who's like a brilliant conversationalist the first three times you get together, but, by the fourth, you know each anecdote's neat conclusion and each sarcastic comment before it happens.
Which brings me to Clive James's piece in the NYT Sunday Book Review, called How To Write About Film.
Fairly early on in the review, James writes:
In our appreciation of the arts, does a theory give us more to think about, or less? To me, the answer looks like less, but it could be that I just don't like it when a critic's hulking voice gets in the way of the projector beam and tries to convince me that what I am looking at makes its real sense only as part of a bigger pattern of thought, that pattern being available from the critic's mind at the price of decoding his prose.
To be fervently pro-theory or anti-theory: both seem stilted and, frankly, moronic. Theory can, when wielded correctly, give us more to think about. One way that theory can work is to take the critic's frame of mind and translate it into something that (when the critic is not a fanatic polemicist) seem less vulgarly personal. To situate a work within a particular theoretical framework can even allow the reader to rethink the art work in question without necessarily changing they way they feel about it, which, given the real visceral experience of art, can be important to getting people to think about art at all. Theory can set up an impersonal whipping-post.
What's fascinating is that James seems to see theory as the intrusion of the critic, rather than as a manner by which the critic's intrusion is actually 1. mediated or 2. costumed or 3. justified.
These days it seems that most intelligent people don't feel the need to adhere strictly to any particular theory. You use theory to understand the works themselves now, rather than applying your chosen theory with exactitude to each and every situation. To decide then that theory is an ineffective manner of analyzing art seems kind of silly, as the critic's choice of theory is very much about the work itself.
Good criticism engages work beyond the classically "personal" and expands a work out into the larger world of art, theory, and culture. Bad criticism takes the first part last, but doesn't ignore theory altogether, even if it doesn't call theory "theory". While telling the reader that you're using a Marxist analysis may work against a piece of critical writing, simply using that analysis may enrich the bits of the work that didn't necessarily stick with the critic as readily.
Sometimes theory is the only way to start the process of differentiation I discuss above. From that point, one can make rational some, and yes only some, of the aesthetic impact of a work of art.
In other words, God I hate prescriptive formulas for what makes stuff good. Especially when these prescriptions appear in the New York Times.
Edited to add: it is both exciting and humbling when to blog about something and then find it done much better elsewhere. Definitely check out Jane Dark.