Seems unfair…

There is a recent flap, documented by Roger Ebert, regarding movie reviews of Inception, a Christopher Nolan film. The principals are Ebert and New York Press critic Armond White. It was generally accepted as a good movie. The Internet mob took issue with the few critics who panned the film. Ebert found himself defending the right of a negative review, provided that the review brought some insight that transcended a rating. The true issue is whether the critic was simply being contrarian, seeking to drive interest in his musings. Ebert also made the point that the mob mentality online is driven less by interest in the artistic quality of a movie than by the base desire to belong to a tribe. In this case, the tribe one joins have like opinions.

The short attention span promoted by web interfaces also feeds into the need for quick verdicts. Ebert and the contrarian critic both made the point that “me too” comments are drivel. There is a need for sensible and intelligent commentary. However, Armond inflames the discussion by saying that this commentary should only be supplied by gatekeeper critics. I think that this is the absolute wrong place to draw a line.

For one, the two are talking about movie criticism. It isn’t rocket science. There is very little basis in fact; most reviews worth reading seem to involve interpretation. I read through some of Armond White’s reviews; they appeal to me because he seems to engage the film as is. Sure, his verdict seems clear, but he treats the film as something worthwhile to discuss. Even in a simple actioner, such as Angelina Jolie’s Salt, White manages to find the political stance in the film to be atrocious, nevermind the plot holes and muddled action shots. The film has Jolie killing American CIA and FBI agents, who are bumbling idiots. White is outraged that this point of view, such as it is, isn’t explored in any way aside from being the backdrop for fantastic fight sequences.

White picked the wrong fight, I think. Commentary is open to anyone with who can see and can write. The additions that a professional writer offers pertain to facts about how the movie is constructed, access to the participants, and historical perspective and context. I have my doubts about the primacy of critics to the last item: perspective can come from anyone who has made intensive study of film. No one can see every movie made. In a sense, the fact that critics must choose among films open themselves up to the possibility that a dedicated amateur may actually know more than the critic in some limited sphere. This is the nature of the beast. Movies are made to be seen, and many people have access. I am not discounting the role of critics. I am suggesting that the difference between an amateur commenter and a professional critic is a matter of degree. The professional will in general have seen more films and read more and talked to more actors and directors than an amateur. They will generally have a better idea of the evolution of technical aspects of movie making, and of the philosophies governing how shots are framed, how actors and objects are blocked, and how edits are decided.

Despite the professional’s likely possession of an immense store of experience, it still  would not surprise me to see dedicated amateurs provide professional quality insight. One might think that since I am a scientist, I may actually exclude a few favored domains from this idea that an amateur can accomplish something useful. That is not the case. The history of science is littered with serious amateurs, who nonetheless gave much care in framing testable hypotheses, designed pertinent experiments, and had made careful observations and calculations about the data. Of course, the level of precision in gathering scientific data has increased due to both the quality of equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge that requires integration. These factors limit a modern dilettante’s access to perform science.

But access to scientific literature remains, and in some cases has increased, from even 5 years ago (think of open access journals like PLoS One). There is much room for amateurs, and even scientists, to comment on fields outside of their specialty. As matter of fact, this is healthy, as it promotes awareness in the state of science as well as providing a shared basis for intellectual discourse.

What struck me as the wrong note, then, is that Armond’s dismissal of Internet commenters is that it smacks of elitism, rather than a defense of merit. Elitism assumes a position of superiority, while merit requires one to earn that privileged level. Only in form does Armond’s argument seem to defend intellectual discpurse. I would hazard that his type of discourse is the antithesis of intellectualism, calling for argument from authority and not through reason and rhetoric.

I have been a fan of the written Roger Ebert for sometime. I had always thought his written reviews conveyed a better sense of experiencing and watching the reviewed movie than his capsules on Siskel and Ebert or Roper and Ebert. Armond specifically decries this latter form of review, with simple descriptors followed by a thumbs up/thumbs down verdict. Thus, when I came across a toss-away line in Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, about how modern culture is sliding to its nadir because of a movement away from  dramatic tension and catharsis, I disagreed with him. The main issue isn’t whether Ebert is qualified or not. The issue is that, in the course of making a television version of a film criticism, the form provides constraints that, in essence, “dumb down” the review.

Ebert, and White, and Barzun, all come across as thoughtful people who are excellent writers and who are passionate about their subjects. Something is lost when these experts go in front of television cameras. As Neil Postman points out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, television isn’t bad because of a sinister TV and advertising executives. TV can be bad because the process that make compelling, watchable TV shows isn’t the same for what makes for a compelling book. Postman augments Marshall McLuhan’s statement that the “Medium is the message” by clarifying that the medium is crucial in framing how the message is conveyed. TV, and movies, generally require cuts, motion, changing camera angles. The setting needs to change frequently. Most importantly, speech cannot be in the form of lectures; they must be short phrases, captions for the attendant graphics and music. In short, this is the opposite of what occurs in textbooks or scholarly works – and even in magazine or newspaper articles.

Again, the point isn’t that TV has no redeeming value. The fact is that different media have different advantages and limitations. Such limitations would restrict even the most serious scholar who wished to elevate discourse. TV isn’t suited to intellectual discourse. How can 5 minutes of discussion, in a round table format, equal the depth in a few chapters of a history, or economic and political analyses? Thus, I found White to have picked the wrong fight. It isn’t that there are better critics than Ebert; White’s issue is, I think, with the television format.

On a final note, related to how TV changes the presentation, I will recount my conversation with a dancer. I had just met her, and since she told me she is a dancer, I asked her what she thought of shows like So You Think You Can Dance (one of my favorite shows.) Her complaint is similar to just about every afficionado who sees his subject thrown up on the screen: the television doesn’t convey the depth, the technique, and the nuances of the subject. She thought that the 3 minute dance segments did not convey the technical aspect of dance, one important component of which is that some pieces are long – stamina and attention are requirements. The voting system, by untrained audience members, skew votes to flashy choreography. Hip hop and modern dance pieces are favored (and I’ve rarely seen a true classical piece on the show.) This echoes some of the criticisms I’ve read about American Idol, political bully pulpits, and science shows. Interestingly, the New York Times had reported on how Broadway singers, directors, and producers were finding that audiences no longer applaud unless singers end with a big finish. They blamed shows like American Idol where all singers end on  a high note. Again, what plays well on television isn’t what works in theater, at a dance recital, or in a book.

The binary-Ebert is not the one I am familiar with. The Ebert I found wrote thoughtfully about film. As with White, I get the feeling that Ebert thinks that whether a film is good is besides the point. What is most interesting is whether there is some thought or emotion that the movie evoked. Ebert engages the movie as it is, veering away from measuring movies by some artificial Platonic ideal f what a movie should be.

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