Saturday, December 26, 2009

"One of Those Navel Gazers": On Critical Objectivity

In response to a recent review I wrote of Police, Adjective for Slant Magazine, a film for which I had a good deal of admiration, but ultimately found to be unsuccessful, I received, via my editor, the following e-mail from a disapproving reader:

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.


David said...

Andrew, just to nitpick: I think the basic assumption that Inglourious Basterds is a revenge narrative is critics'–not Tarantino's. In the fact, the film opens with two rhyming chapters to introduce the two sides (Nazis and Basterds) to make the point (stylistically) that they're opposites culturally and methodically, but exactly the same underneath (Waltz's line that cats chase mice because that's what they do is echoed by Pitt in the next scene that they hate Nazis because they do). Tarantino's been explicit about this in interviews. In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, he specifies that every character in the film is equally vicious and out for blood for the sake of fun with the exception of the Nazis in the bar, who are (according to him) the only innocents in the film.

The film hardly plays fantasy: after the two opening chapters in which we see things going exactly as the heroes wish, they are relative to each other's machinations for the rest of the film.

The assumption that the Jews are good and the Nazis evil is, really, one Tarantino is doing everything he can to challenge. If there's a point, it's that there's no moral war.

andrew schenker said...


You make some good points about Basterds, but when you say the assumption that it's a revenge narrative is critics' - not Tarantino's, do you mean Tarantino the filmmaker (i.e. how he expresses himself through his movie) or Tarantino as he explains himself in interviews? I'm more than a little wary of taking a filmmaker's reading of his film as definitive and I think that it's not critic's "assumptions" so much that label the film a revenge fantasy as their own legitimate readings of the text (or at least parts of it).

Still, the actual film is no doubt more complicated than all that, even if I have always and continue to find Tarantino's pop allusiveness and treatment of violence to be incredibly off-putting. Yes, it's true that everyone (Nazi and Jew alike) is equally vicious, but that hardly seems a more interesting or useful attitude. Either way, there's little doubt that we're expected to take enjoyment from the scenes of Pitt and co. brutally doing their thing. Granted, I've only seen Basterds once, but I don't think my attitude toward this one is likely to change appreciably.

David said...

"Either way, there's little doubt that we're expected to take enjoyment from the scenes of Pitt and co. brutally doing their thing."

Absolutely, but just as much as we're supposed to take enjoyment of Landa doing his thing in part 1. Actually, Landa's is the much more indelible: methodical, painstaking, musical, and slowly in crescendo to a moment of horror. The Americans have no pretenses of form and shoot when they like–it's like the difference between a bullfight and a boxing match.

A second viewing was needed for me to realize how much chapters I and II are carefully structured mirrored inversions of each other as Tarantino formally attempts to mimic the attitudes of his characters (thus chapter I is a single style slowly developed and chapter II is a melting pot of clashing pastiches that build off each other, as when an opera song builds to a climax that comes as the music cuts and the men hoot and holler).

I mean Tarantino the filmmaker, though Tarantino the interviewee corroborated my own feelings. Equally vicious wouldn't be any more interesting than equally pious, but the film's fascination for me is how Tarantino makes the viewer (very far from Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction) both complicit in and horrified at the motives of all sides as something far beyond nationalistic interest and closer to a basic view of human nature.

Which is why it's appropriate his take on the war is deliberately expressionistic and non-representational; it has as much relation to WWII as a Picasso does to an actual human being.

David said...

Just to add: the difference between Landa and Ray is purely a difference of form. Part of what's amazing is how little either cares about the cause they're ostensibly fighting for–Nazis or America (or even Jews)–and are in it purely for the sake of fighting. Only Shoshanna is given reason (more personal than political) and she becomes an immensely more complicated character for it.

The main problem with the notion of a Jewish revenge fantasy, for me, is that nothing of the sort occurs. The Basterds prove to be inept and pointless and willfully dumb, and Ray's great sense of victory in the final scene comes with the knowledge that a) the war was about to end anyway, b) he had nothing to do with his enemy's death, c) he's been a pawn all along until this final moment, and d) he's in the middle of a forest in the middle of nowhere as if convinced he's won the war.

Ricky Blue said...

You're thoughts on Tarantino warm my heart but I feel like there is a real kind of beauty about Triumph of the Will. I mean, it's kind of beautiful the way a horror film can be beautiful and it's a really fascinating historical document. I always feel like people try to take this kind of event from the past and make it into something abstract or hypothetical. I think there's something so powerful about the truth in the film and even though it's revolting, chilling, and horrifying, I think it's an important document and that there's some beauty there. I mean, I suppose it comes down to defining beauty and maybe I'm mistaking hideous majesty for beauty... I'll have to give it more thought.