On criticism: EVEN THE HULK CAN BE PRETENTIOUS

I don’t read a lot of film criticism. Robin Wood inspired me to become one of the first out gay critics in Indianapolis — I don’t know but I may have been the first — and, like a real fanboy, I’ve followed Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s work for years, and often check in to find out what Roger Ebert thinks about this or that — not because I like his writing but because I trust his humanity. I sometimes read Manohla Dargis and, more often, Jim Emerson and David Bordwell for their intelligence and breadth of knowledge. When I could afford and had access to The Nation, I read Stuart Klawans, too. I loathe Salon’s film criticism and for the most part, Slate’s and Slant’s, too.  Most of the bloggy variety either leaves me cold, makes me roll my eyes or pisses me off.

So much of it is dishonest, either press releases masquerading as criticism, or ideological posturing masquerading as analysis. So much of it is pretentious, verbose, cinephiliac preening. Very little of it is clear.

And some of it, like the post I’ll briefly critique below, is a muddled mess, combining aspects of all of the above.

FILM CRIT HULK SMASH is someone writing about movies and television via a gimmick. He’s the Hulk. AND SO HE WRITES IN ALL CAPS. He knows a thing or two about film or so he thinks. For someone obsessed with type, readability and yeah, film, this post is excruciatingly difficult to read.

He’s writing to defend Girls, a television show I really like, as well. But he does it so awfully. So very awfully.

Rather than veer off into name-dropping Stephen Soderbergh for no apparent reason or misreading Stanley Kubrick (Kubrick is not cold and I have no idea what “cold framing” even means.) HULK should have just done what he claims to want to do in the post’s title or in the first few paragraphs — confront the adolescent sexism and lazy criticism of posts like these. And despite the length of the post, I could never really figure out why HULK thought that Girls is remarkable.

For one thing, he uses the word, semiotics, as if everyone reading knows what he means being supercool and educated blog-reading cinephiles, and as if he’s employing semiotics in the post itself. He’s not. He simply types the word and vaguely suggests that using semiotics would be a good approach to understanding Kubrick, and I guess that has something to do with thinking Girls is remarkable. This is, by definition, pretentious.

Film semiotics was a briefly fashionable tool initially employed by critic Christian Metz in the 70s and based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories of semiology. Metz also borrowed from both Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Semiotics is taught in film school as history, and students are often encouraged to write criticism using the various tools they study. Usually, when they graduate, they’ll find it makes sense to put those tools away. I did.

(For my senior thesis, I analyzed Stand By Me using, almost exclusively, Kaja Silverman’s The Subject of Semiotics, but also Stephen King’s original novella. It was fun but I never wrote like that again. As I got older and the world changed, I realized that what once seemed subtextual in 1986 ends up looking pretty fucking obvious in 2013.)

As someone who plowed through The Imaginary Signifier, for fun, and was assigned Film Language in film school, the best thing I can say about semiotics as a critical tool is that it can be fun, just as many pattern-recognition games can be fun. But it’s by no means an unproblematic way of understanding film, or any individual film. The idea that film is a language is itself a contentious idea and not a settled question. The worst thing I can say about using semiotics, then, other than to quip that semiotics is the Nehru collar of film criticism, is that it can’t do anything more useful than what a reasonable intelligent high school student can do when confronted with, say, Death playing chess on the beach. Now, I hate obvious metaphors (and hate The Seventh Seal) and believe the imposition of such rigid interpretations of visual elements in film is a really good way to shut down discussion, not to mention enjoyment, of a film. It’s certainly the last thing one should do when watching 2001 or Eyes Wide Shut.

HULK does just that by interpreting a shot in Lena Dunham’s feature film, Tiny Furniture. He says that the alarm clock in the final shot means “THE COUNTDOWN TO THE CLOSE OF ADOLESCENCE” and further, “WHAT ELSE COULD THE PURPOSE BE?” If Dunham is really making such a literal point then she’s a far less interesting film-maker than I thought she was.

But, not content with making himself look silly in relation to the history of film criticism, THE HULK writes even sillier stuff.

For instance, he coins the phrase, THE ART OF INVERSION, or NARRATIVE INVERSION. I’d never heard of this phrase as it relates to film, at least as he’s describing it, and so I did a Google search. Apparently, Google hasn’t heard of it, either. Narrative inversion would mean, literally, changing the temporal order of the story. It does not mean what THE HULK says it means. When he mentions Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods as being an example of “narrative inversion,” what he’s describing is self-reflexiveness or self-reflexivity. Whedon directly refers to other movies and modes of story-telling within the narrative,  in a self-conscious way. Both the audience and the characters who get the references are in on the jokes. We all know it’s a movie based on other movies and aren’t we all really smart for noticing that. But this method of storytelling is bastardized Brecht. Brecht broke the fourth wall in theater as a way to point out the ideological forces at work to produce meaning in conventional narratives, duplicating dominant power structures. When Brecht did it, and when Godard, Tashlin, and Lewis did it much later, it was avant garde. When Joss Whedon does it in Cabin In The Woods, it’s clever pastiche and no longer new or radical. The television show Moonlighting, starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, for fuck’s sake, did something similar in the 80s. Whedon did it much more successfully and artfully in Once More, With Feeling, the musical episode of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy directly addresses the camera and thus the audience at one point, singing with a very strange look in her eyes, “And you can sing along.”

More importantly for this discussion, I can’t recall any episode of Girls in which there were any self-reflexive moments like that. So I have no idea what THE HULK is trying to get at. Or, are there any moments in Kubrick movies that are Brechtian? No.

I’m not going to fisk THE HULK’S entire post. I don’t have time. But it’s filled to bursting with fatuous and nonsensical assertions about film form.

Here’s my take on two of them:

All film-makers try to make you think, not just “art” films and “art” film-makers. Provoking thought is not what distinguishes an art film from some other form. For some thoughts as to what an art film is as opposed to a more mainstream film, see Bordwell. Also, a preliminary definition of an art film, offered by Jim Emerson, might be that an art film teaches you how to watch it. Maybe that’s what THE HULK means by “making you think” but that’s not how THE HULK uses the phrase. Further, there are art films, like those of the late Stan Brakhage, that try to make you feel and experience something through editing rhythms and color, or art films that call attention to their form above all else, such the films of Michael Snow. You might start thinking, or even drifting off, during the landscape films of James Benning, but I’m not sure that’s the whole point of what he does. It’s also not hard to think of an art film that makes you think all the wrong things. So “making you think” is not an absolute value in and of itself.

There is no such thing as emotional and psychological plotting.  THE HULK is confusing narrative structure and character development. Film-makers employ strategies attempting to provoke emotional responses and use the psychology of characters to encourage audiences to identify with them, to make them seem real. There’s nothing odd or unconventional about this. It’s the definition of conventional. What I think he’s getting at is that the things that happen in Girls to move the plot or evince emotions are very small — Marnie hits her head and breaks up with Aaron; Adam masturbates and Hannah yells at him in a show of dominance — but they are nevertheless, things that happen. They’re not bombs blowing up or presidents getting assassinated but they nevertheless constitute a more or less conventional way of developing both plot and character. Emotional and psychological plotting sounds like a camera moving through an empty room and finally bumping into a  character who’s crying or getting angry; end scene. That sounds experimental and it might be interesting, but that’s not what Girls is doing.

What makes Girls remarkable is not its form, but rather it’s the writing — honest, sometimes brash, fearless — and the performances — fresh and fearless, as well. I think that makes it great art. It’s not necessary to refer to Kubrick and Soderbergh to make that case, nor is it wise to write about concepts and methods which you don’t really have a handle on.

There’s nothing badass about writing about film in this way. Dumbass is more appropriate.

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