This month finds Antagony & Ecstasy celebrating its five-year anniversary. Which I’m taking as an opportunity to do some housekeeping; in this case, making something that every blog ought to have, and that’s make an “About” page. Or rather, the “About” page’s snooty cousin, the Statement of Principles.
When I started writing in August, 2005, as discussed a little while back, it was a little snip of nothing; and it hardly made any sense to have anything like a codified guide to the guidelines by which this author would function. Moreover, the transition from a rambling collection of notions to a film review site happened gradually enough that I never really thought to go back and put together such a guide. But it seems like a reasonably useful thing to have: in order for my reviews to have any value, it’s necessary that the reader understand what biases I bring to the table and the like; what I think about film as an art form, in essence. Longtime readers have doubtlessly pieced together much of what follows, but it can’t hurt to have it in one place.
The Nature of Antagony & Ecstasy
This is a film review weblog. It is different than a filmblog generally, in that it only infrequently engages in the discussion of culture “surrounding” cinema but not “within” cinema; as a rule (though not a binding rule), there are not to be found topics pertaining to film production, cinephilia (including the appreciation of specific individuals, as actors or directors), or secondary issues inspired by film, unless those topics are brought up in specific relation to a film being reviewed.
Reviews vs. Criticism
The distinction between reviewing and critiquing a film is a subtle, but easily understood one. A “review” is an evaluative description of a film’s content, aiming to suggest whether it’s worth watching or not. Criticism is not concerned with the merits of a film, but seeks to analyse how it functions; describing that the effect of a film comes about as a result of X or Y, but not claiming that the effect is worthwhile or not. Reviewing is shallow and nasty-minded; it is significantly easier than criticism, but much less valuable. Because the blogger of Antagony & Ecstasy is generally lazy, this blog traffics almost entirely in reviewing, although at times formal criticism is brought in to shore up the integrity of those reviews.
We live in a perpetual era of the Death of the Film Critic. Going back at least 50 years, you can readily find evidence that serious critics are always about to be knocked on their ass, that these hotshot kids are ruining everything, et cetera ad nauseam, emphasis on the “nausea”. I flatter myself that it’s not simply because I’m part of that sprawling mess that is the Film Blogosphere that I hold internet criticism in esteem; though it is true that most online writing is dreadful and worse than useless (I am convinced that I become irrevocably stupider every time I accidentally take a long look at an IMDb message board), the best of the best bloggers and other online film writers have a freedom of subject, voice, and format that cannot and has never been matched. The sheer volume of film writing on the internet ensures that some of it must be truly wonderful; 90% of everything is shit, they say, and 90% of a whole hell of a lot of film chatter is a whole hell of a lot of shit. But 10% of a whole hell of a lot of film chatter, by extension, is still a rich and varied and marvelously illuminating 10%
I have not, though, begun to touch the question, Why criticism? For that is the other part of the years-long Death of the Film Critic. Why, oh why, should anyone bother to write analyses of movies, when Transformers: Your Pyramid A Splode can be hated by critics and reviewers with an intensity and unanimity that borders on the dogmatic, but still breeze past $400 million domestically, and be received by the population at large with something akin to undemanding enjoyment? Firstly, because not all movies are Transformers. And even if they were, it is true what food critic Anton Ego says in the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille: “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read”. Is it ever!
The joy of being bitchy aside, criticism at its best is not about telling people what to think, which seems to be the misconception inherent in the argument, “if critics don’t agree with regular people, the critics are just out of touch and stupid and useless”. At the risk of sounding tautological, criticism is the art of thinking critically; thinking at all, that is. The best review or analysis is not necessarily the one that you agree with on the most points; it is the one that presents a work of art in a new light, provoking new ways of thinking about what it is and why it does or doesn’t work. It is about taking an object you thought you understood, and saying, “Yes, but what if we twist it just a little bit this way…” It is, when all is going perfectly, about challenging the direct way of appreciating (or failing to appreciate) a movie, and finding new and productive avenues of thought.
No work of art is above, or beneath, thoughtful consideration. Properly applied, a great work of criticism can cause anyone to have a profound and meaningful intellectual reaction to anything. Even Transformers.
What Is Art?
There is no more loaded question in criticism. “Art”, the word, is often held to have a value judgment attached to it; that which is “artistic” is typically contrasted with that which is “commercial”; “artists” are those who have a Statement to make. Bollocks, but well-intentioned bollocks.
The question pops up rather often in certain spheres, as to whether video games are “art”? I find this perplexing, and I sometimes wonder about asking – “Do video games come out of the ground, like crabgrass? Did primitive man stumble upon them, extruding naturally out of cracks in granite walls? No. Then they are manufactured – they are created by human means? Yes. Then in what way are they not art?” For my tendency is to take the word “art” at its face value: that which is created through artifice. I understand that this is probably reductive and even useless, in a certain degree.
And, in a different degree, wholly useful. If all things are “art”, then all things can be subjected to “artistic criticism”. This is important. Too often, serious and intellectually probing people look at art on the fringes of respectability – my first thought is of those poor, orphaned slasher films from the 1980s – and by saying, “this is not art”, thereby obviate themselves of any duty to consider those forms as anything but junk. I find this, if not reprehensibly irresponsible, at least damned lazy. To take up the example of slasher films: they remain an incredibly important element of culture for a generation of moviegoers. Though I may adore Hiroshima mon amour and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles with abandon, I understand it to be stating a matter of simple fact that more people in the world have seen Friday the 13th than will ever even hear of Alain Resnais or Chantal Akerman. Clearly, this does not mean that Friday the 13th is more “valuable” than Jeanne Dielman, though I am certain that people exist who, upon seeing both films, would judge it so. But, given the great many people who have seen Friday the 13th, where is the intellectual dignity in saying, “it’s crap”, and being done with it? Anything that has become an iconic part of popular culture is therefore inherently worthy of exploration if not automatic respect. It may indeed be the case that a close, rigorous study of Friday the 13th will in fact agree with the serious critic’s disregard: “upon careful study and close reading of every shot and narrative beat, we have concluded that it’s crap”. Yet by conducting that close reading, it’s possible that, even in the act of designating the film crap, we may find that it tells us something important about the culture and era which made it so successful and iconic. If we simply throw it out with the bathwater, on the grounds that it isn’t “artistic”, we also throw out the possibility of ever finding out.
What Does Art Do?
“All art is quite useless” Oscar Wilde famously averred in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, and while it is impossible to tell to what degree he was being sincere, and to what degree he was making a point, he was dead right. If we pull back to a far enough remove, art has no purpose: it contributes in no material way to the function of human beings, which is to live long enough to create other human beings (the religiously-inclined might argue that the purpose of human beings is to pay homage to the Divine, in which case some art, though hardly all of it, does have a use). Pulling back even further, human beings have no purpose: the universe would keep purring along quite sufficiently without any organic life in it at all, as indeed it did for billions of years.
Thankfully, we do not live our lives according to an unyielding sense of utility. We are thinking, feeling creatures, aware of not only our own emotions and thoughts, but the emotions and thoughts of other human beings, and this perhaps makes us unique among animals on this planet.
We are imbued with an aesthetic sense, finding beauty in things that would exist whether we were there to find them beautiful or not; a sunset’s colors are a matter of physics, not design, and yet who among us denies that no human designer could improve upon them? Yet our aesthetic sense is not content to find things beautiful in nature, and drives us to create things of our own – to find ways of expressing ideas and concepts, embellished by our skill. The knowledge that one must eat is is utilitarian; telling another person, “eat this” is utilitarian in its own way as well (as all language, unembellished, is utilitarian). To have dinner at a candlelit restaurant in Paris, late in the evening; that is art.
The temptation to poetry is maddeningly difficult to avoid in describing art (clearly). “Art is what ennobles the soul”, “Art holds a mirror to humanity”, and so on. These are beautiful and incomplete ways of describing art. I tend towards the most broadly function definition of “art” myself; broad to a degree where it’s obvious to the point of uselessness. But it is the one that has served me well for quite some time now, and I think it’s worth sharing:
The purpose of art is to provoke an emotional or intellectual response in the individual receiving it.
I have separated that out for emphasis, which serves perhaps only to make it seem a great deal more feeble and self-evident. But there you have it. Art provokes a response. “Triggers” may have been a less loaded word than “provokes”, but I suspect it’s also less precise. A Jackson Pollock painting certainly provokes, but I cannot with a straight face say it “triggers”, as though it’s the stimulus inside a Skinner box.
All art, whether a French movie about the miserable life of 19th Century communists, a Dane Cook comedy, a sonata, a Cubist painting, or a deck of playing cards with nude pictures, provokes a response – not the same response in all individuals, and not necessarily the response that the artist or artists intended. But always a response of some kind, for even boredom and indifference are a type of response.
At its noblest, art does not merely provoke a response, tearing across the human psyche like a whirlwind, going this way and that; it provokes a particular intellectual or emotional state that the viewer/reader/listener was not in the moment before. It creates a way of feeling or a way of thinking that the audience was not engaged in; ideally, it creates a feeling or thought that the audience could not access without the art to provide a frame for that experience.
The essence of art, then, is to be transportive. By nature, we can experience only what is possible, emotionally and intellectually, within the relative limited sphere of our own experience. Through art, we can experience (though only by proxy) anything which can be conceived of by human ingenuity.
Part 2 will be concerned with the nature of the cinema, and this blog’s theoretical framework for film analysis
Part 3 will describe in general terms what is considered “good” and “worthwhile” filmmaking by this blogger, with a particular eye towards his formalist bent, as well as explaining the exact way that Antagony & Ecstasy’s rating system functions