Tuesday, November 5, 2013

To watch or read? That's the question

I recently happened upon an article written by The Guardian’s new film critic Mark Kermode, whose book Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics discusses bloody bloody critical takedowns of movies. Though it’s only a minor point within the piece, I thought this quote deserved further commentary:

“For me, seeing Forrest Gump as some kind of neocon tract was a perfect example of what happens when film theory gets in the way of film-viewing; when people start reading movies rather than watching them.”

Kermode is critical of those who read too much into the film he enjoyed, who saw Forrest Gump as a “Reaganite wet dream,” who turned it into “some kind of neocon tract.” The question implicit in his response is a good one: How should film critics approach a film? Should they view it like the rest of us do, looking to be entertained or moved and so evaluate it on those terms alone, or should they be unsparingly analytical in their responses? What do we want them to do?

 I had only ever watched, never read, movies for most of my life, if only because “reading” them had never crossed my mind. And then at 19 I decided I didn’t want to spend my summer at home and most certainly did not want to return to the job I had held in high school, working at a boutique toy store that attracted a particular breed of out-of-touch and entitled clientele (nostalgic toys bought for children too young to understand the feeling is an odd and oddly enduring phenomenon.) I enrolled in a summer course on dramatic screenwriting instead. Expecting another creative writing class – readings, workshops, fear and the wary pursuit of that fear – that I assumed would be easy because it was a summer course, I was surprised by my level of engagement. The class was easy: assignments were few and far between, there were only three of us, and the professor preferred to do his job only during designated class hours, rather than grade our work outside of them. But it was also one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Watching Chinatown and Full Metal Jacket with the aid of someone who had “read” them was like studying Wuthering Heights in school – I had always liked them, but now I really liked them because I could see how cleverly they were made. In his article, Kermode references the public’s taste for witty one-liners and pithy takedowns. Such criticisms are appealing because they’re funny, but that’s just another way of saying they’re clever. Cleverness, funny or otherwise, is attractive, and by the end of my movie summer, I felt drawn to films precisely because their cleverness was a kind of revelation.

Reading movies spurred my serious interest in them, although I never let go of my capacity for passive enjoyment: crying when the score swelled, laughing at the pratfall, etc. Before I realized the name Noah Cross was a play on words, recognized the Biblical references, and knew enough about noir to recognize when its tropes were being subverted, I still enjoyed Chinatown for its twisty plot and Jack Nicholson. But then, was my first emotive reaction of a lesser make than my later cerebral appreciation? Or is an intuitive response better for being purer? Does film theory, like the strain of literary criticism that projects ideas nowhere to be found within a text onto that text, obscure or even harm the work at hand? Or does it enrich the viewing experience by revealing layers your limited understanding would have otherwise kept furled?

The head- vs.-heart dilemma is an old point of artistic contention. But I am curious as to what people expect from film critics. I came to take movies seriously by reading them; however, I now seek out reviews that take an intuitive approach. I want to know if I’m going to enjoy a movie, because why else would I shell out $13.50 to see one? Others, clearly, want to be entertained by an unequivocal and funny hatchet job. In such reviews, discussing the entertainment takes a backseat to providing the entertainment. I prefer a reviewer who isn’t so pleased with himself, but feel free to sound off – would you rather your reviewer watch or read a movie?

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