Schenker's review is one of those naval gazers where the reviewers own attitudes toward the subject and disagreement with the film makers point of view causes him to wander way off the review reservation. Please remind Schenker a review is not about his agreement or disagreement with the directors philosophy, but to simply communicate the philosophy as well as the quality of the film making and acting.
Setting aside the writer’s obvious grammatical and syntactical infelicities and his vague notion of what constitutes a filmmaker’s “philosophy”, the response raises an interesting set of questions. Now whether or not my objections to Corneliu Porumboiu’s film were based on issues I had with his personal worldview is one that any reader can judge for himself by clicking on the link at the top of the page. (Personally, I think I objected more to the filmmaker’s methods, finding the way in which he shoehorned in a linguistic discussion at the movie's climax – despite the obvious precedents – far too academic). But is it in fact possible, or even desirable, for a critic to take issue with a film’s attitude toward its subject matter? Or must he try to remain as detached as possible and praise good work even if he disagrees with its fundamental premises?
First of all, I think we have to say that it’s useless to assume a stance of critical objectivity, since reviewers (like everyone) can only view work through their own specific worldview, colored as it is by their unique biases. But even if such objectivity were possible, would it not be harmful for a critic to overlook the assumptions (political, social, cultural) put forth by a potentially damaging piece of work? To use only the most obvious example, debate has long centered on the movies of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker who fashioned such works of pro-Hitler propaganda as Triumph of the Will. Can we separate Riefenstahl’s technical achievement from its nefarious politics? Many would say yes, including, most famously, a young Susan Sontag who wrote, specifically referencing Riefenstahl’s films, “we can, in good conscience cherish works of art which, considered in terms of ‘content’ are morally objectionable to us”. But Sontag came to re-think her approach, rejecting the separation of form and content that made her previous assertion possible and realizing that it’s useless to speak of “grace” and “sensuousness” in films that exist to assert fascistic control both aesthetically and through their subject matter. But it was perhaps the late, lamented Robin Wood, a tireless champion of films progressive in their treatment of social and sexual politics, who put it best:
The alleged beauty of Triumph of the Will is a fascist beauty, centered on dehumanization, mechanization, the drive to domination, militarism. If one does not succumb to the fascist lure, one can only find the film uniformly boring and repellent.
But surely everyone can agree that the Nazis were evil. What do we do about less extreme examples, films that either espouse a political view different from that of the reviewer (but one acceptable to mainstream discourse) or whose general way of looking at the world the critic finds difficult to accept? This is a particularly sticky issue, but one that can best be resolved by setting aside notions of strict objectivity. As a critic, I can only write about a film from my own unique perspective (as anyone who sees a film can only form an opinion on the work based on their own biases, whether they like to admit it or not) and if a movie espouses a conservative political position or a juvenile cynicism about the world, I am probably unlikely to accept it.
Fortunately, in my experience, a conservative worldview often leads to an aesthetically conservative piece of work which means that films partaking of such questionable stances are less likely to be of interest. But what about a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, a fiendishly clever director with a strong visual sense whose films trade in an adolescent understanding of life and rarely engage with any kind of world outside that of popular culture. Even when drawing on a period setting as Tarantino does in Inglourious Basterds, he simply uses the historical background as a means of putting forth his vile revenge fantasy. Yes, he may cleverly assert the power of movies to bring about a form of wish fulfillment, but this alternate history posited by Tarantino is little more than a reverse (and perverse) re-write of the Second World War in which Jews perpetrate the filmmaker’s trademark cynically humorous violence and Hitler burns to a crisp in a French cinema. So given my obvious distaste for Inglourious Basterds’ basic assumptions, if I were to review the film (I have not done so), should the gist of my review be that Tarantino cleverly achieves his ends and that the camerawork and acting are great? Hardly. It’s not so easy to tear apart form and content. Tarantino’s stylish flair is placed in service of a point of view I find repellent. His own filmmaking prowess (form) serves strictly to illustrate his film’s essential content (the positive power of film to change the course of history, i.e. exact bloody retribution). So how could any review I write of the film not address its fundamental worldview and discuss its form in those same terms. It couldn’t, but then again, what do I know? I’m just a navel gazer.