Film Criticism 101: Why You Should Recycle the Promo Packet
To be sure, there are many distinct methods of film criticism that might be employed with equal, and mutually exclusive, success. There are purely empirical critiques, there are essays that draw from the writer’s personal convictions and travails, there are academic dissections of scholarly concepts such as theme, form, content, etc. And then there are, yes, theses that derive their conclusions entirely from juxtaposing a work of art with its influences. A large part of composing consistently winning prose on movies is knowing when to utilize each of these rhetorical techniques and others in order to “say” something new or interesting — not only necessarily about the work in question, but about what the work might signify in a greater socio-political, moral, and/or aesthetic context.
All of which is basically to say that film criticism is not a cookie cutter art, and the practitioners who have attempted to work from “formulas” (Dwight McDonald comes to mind) typically wind up unwinding their very narrow-mindedness by finding a masterpiece that in no way fits the pre-designed rubric, or a bomb that by all counts should have been a massive achievement. Indeed, criticism often involves whittling down square pegs to fit round holes; negating certain elements of a plot and creatively coaxing out subtexts in order to align the film with an idea or an assessment. Such notions often exist only in the mind of the critic (we’re all fantasists, let’s be honest) and need not be universally recognizable so long as — and this is the crux, the cardinal objective to ring a day-glo yellow rosy ’round — the product (the review) is both readable and sensible. In other words, critics can do whatever they want so long as they produce legitimate art in the process (though the value of that art might be very well endlessly debated or up for interpretation as “art”).
Which leads us to our main lesson today. A film by Argentine Carlos Sorin entitled “The Window” is now making the domestic art-house rounds. Your humble blogger reviewed a screener of this film for the esteemed Slant Magazine and found it a most rare, most gentle opus. He awarded the film with 3.5 out of 4 stars and loaded his write-up with copious examples of what might be called interpretative zeal, in the hopes that others might seek out “The Window” and understand Latin American cinema as something more than what the director of “Hellboy” does in his spare time.
But what I didn’t do (I’m dropping the third person shtick because, hey, I’m not The Siren), readers, was read the promotional packet that accompanied the dvd of the film. So imagine my shock when reviews of “The Window” began pouring in to Rotten Tomatoes and IFC, and nearly every single one noted a connection to Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” (a Swedish classic I admit I’m less than enamored with). Furthermore, fathom my surprise that most reviews noted the film’s undeniable opulence but claimed that it fell short due to what seems to be a perceived dearth of existential sophistication. Some have even accused Sorin of insidiously espousing nihilism (the cad!) — if this is true, then my arrhythmic Atheist heart must have been subconsciously recognizing this and beating in time to the images. Indeed, if this is the case then “The Window” may be one of the ultimate examples of “numinous” cinema for anti-transcendentalists.
I have no issue with individuals disliking the movie. In fact, many reviews have been positive — including an excellent write-up by Aaron Hillis in the Village Voice. What I find most unprofessional and indeed rather puerile is the manner in which Sorin’s proclaimed Bergmanic influence is being used as a veritable yardstick against which “The Window” must be judged. Despite having similar subject matter (well, they’re both about a senescent scholar surveying his life), the two films are quite disjunct in tone, aural/visual effect, and — near as I can tell — aesthetic objective. But of course this hardly matters, since SorÃn has damned himself with his unfortunate Director’s Statement.
The once magisterial Andrew Sarris even goes so far as to quote the Director’s Statement in his review. He then writes:
“Unfortunately, Mr. Sorin’s protagonist is much closer to the end, and much more infirm than Mr. Bergman’s. Whereas the old man in The Window is almost completely bedridden and attached to an IV, the old man in Wild Strawberries still drives everywhere at the wheel of his own car. Also, the Sjostrom character has a much more active dream life than Mr. Larreta’s character. And, of course, there is much more talk of God in Mr. Bergman’s world than in Mr. Sorin’s…. Still, The Window is not without a certain visual spell that makes it a first-rate artistic achievement. So see it, but be sure to order a DVD of Wild Strawberries, if only to confirm why The Window has struck me as something of a disappointment despite its undeniably greater realism than Wild Strawberries.”
If our good friend and most venerable instructor Andrew finds “The Window” to be “a first-rate artistic achievement,” why in God’s name is Sorin lambasted fSorinor not having made “Wild Strawberries”? Or, rather, why is it assumed that Bergman achieved his filmic goals better than SorÃn due to an “active dream life” and “talk of God”? Sarris even admits towards the top of his odd blurb that “In one respect, and in one respect only, do I find The Window at all comparable to Wild Strawberries…” So then why is that earlier art-house staple noted as many times as the film being written up? Here’s the problem: Sarris has criticized the Director’s Statement, and not the movie — a very dubious posture indeed.
This seems to be a widespread mistake. Maria Garcia notes that “[Sorins] claim that this movie bears any resemblance to Wild Strawberries is frankly disingenuous.” And one of the film’s detractor’s — Keith Uhlich writing in New York Time Out — notes that “…the strongest passage is the old man’s defiant sojourn into the nearby fields, a sequence as evocative as any from one of Sorin’s stated, and superior, inspirations: Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.” This scene — admittedly a remarkable excerpt — has perhaps struck critics as Bergman-like due to the protagonist’s isolation, and the manner in which the director manages to hold our attention without dialog or action. Still, taking a noted inspiration for granted and affixing it as the foundation for one’s review, as Sarris has done, is akin to attempting a critical conversation with a tagline from a lobby card.
The unfortunate reality is that the state of contemporary film may be so dismal that critics are adopting the prismatic perspective of their obsolete elders in order to stay sane — there is simply precious little to “say” about the movies these days. I am reminded of the quite dusty method of literary interpretation stating that readers should first decipher what an author was attempting to achieve with a particular piece and then form an opinion on how expertly that goal was reached. I am rather distressed and discouraged to discover that the notion of authorial intent has not been entirely banished from critical discourse — it’s a 19th century romantic concept that appears remarkably silly in 21st century Bohemia.
The role of the critic, it seems to me, should not be to didactically engage artists with respect to their “goals” — after all, the best and most erudite of intentions does not make a great film (were that it were so, producers would sleep far easier). I am furthermore far more intrigued by cinema that obfuscates, rather than illuminates, its “goals,” because such a stance forces the audience to intellectually participate in the viewing. And this does not even touch upon the very alive concept of “pointless” art for art’s sake — indeed, the faintest whisper of authorial intent would likely have Oscar Wilde spouting bon mots from the grave. The role of the critic, then, is to tease out and expose some significance that he or she alone recognizes. In other words, we should approach art as independent artists who seek instructive and piquant conversation, and not as librarians who insist that the act of movie-going involves a judicious either/or. As if one must make a definitive selection between Carlos SorÃn and Ingmar Bergman before the building is locked up at 5pm.
Not that I am saying I am a perfect critic (ha!); I have, indeed, succumbed to this very same temptation. Clearly I am nothing but a nascent film buff and a fledgling writer with much homework in my midst, and I am proud, and humbled, to be even remotely following in the footsteps of a theoretical genius such as Andrew Sarris. But, if Sarris had recycled the promo material rather than taking it at face value, he might have screened “The Window” with a fresher perspective, and might have then recognized the film’s prowess in a more lucid and less diluted fashion. Where others have seen connections to Bergman, I have observed a movie with clear and rather unique ties to Latin American short fiction — Borges, Rulfo, Garcia Marquez most poignantly (and not simply for the reasons one would anticipate, ie the obvious use of magical realism). Does this make one review “better” than another? Well, I will say honestly that I am pleased to have noted influences on the film that perhaps even its maker was unaware of having interpolated, rather than snottily doting on highly irrelevant sources of inspiration that will only serve to confuse the potential audience of “The Window”.
If we want films to improve, we must ultimately lead by example. The critical cookie cutters — the promo material connections, the Andre Bazin frame-works, the most obvious points of interpretive entry — must be hurled into the flames and melted down for future smithing. We can, after all, be just as formulaic as the Hollywood box office mechanism we love to vilify.
Read more about “The Window” at IFC’s Round-up