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Mistakes in Criticism

©Anthony Birch, Ph.D.

[In progress... minor revisions 11/11/2012]

Comments? Contact me.

1. THE AUTEUR THEORY. An idea popularized some decades ago by French intellectuals -- basically, the idea that the meanings of films can be derived from their original intent, and this intent is controlled and manifested by the director of the film. The most often cited example is Hitchcock, who transformed "B" pictures into great works of art reflecting his own view of the universe. A more recent example: Tim Burton turned Pee Wee's Big Adventure into something quite a bit more than a mindless kid's movie. Hollywood and the general public continue to believe the auteur theory. Directors who do a surprising job with mediocre material (e.g., as Dennis Hopper did with Easy Rider) are often rewarded with more ambitious projects. The director's reputation is sometimes a factor in getting the public to see films that might otherwise be ignored (e.g., Steven Soderbergh's remake of Oceans 11 or Ang Lee's Hulk).

The problem with the Auteur Theory is that it simplistic. While it is undeniable that the great directors leave an indelible stamp on their pictures, their input is only one of many factors that contribute to a great film. (See Aristotle's list of elements in drama, elsewhere on these pages.) Most frequently overlooked is an obvious factor: the script. While the industry, and most film critics, have recognized the role of directors, screen writers have been virtually ignored. The Screenwriters Guild went on strike over the issue. The strike (1999 or 2000?) lasted until the industry finally gave in to demands for increased public recognition of writers' creative role in the production of films. During the strike, a member of the guild appeared on the TODAY SHOW. He said that we are in a culture that celebrates actors in stories rather than the creators of stories -- and he implied (quite correctly) that there is something fundamentally wrong with this.

Directors do not (in their role as merely directors) create the basic narrative. Their role is more akin to that of a musician who plays and interprets a composition. By "basic narrative," I mean the linguistic narrative. Defenders of the auteur theory might argue that film is essentially a visual narrative, and since the director controls the visual interpretation of the script, the director becomes the "author" of the finished product by default. First of all, any visual interpretation, while it can embellish (or even be at odds with) the series of events depicted does not itself constitute a new and independent narrative. The script, not the images associated with it, contains the essentials of the moral life posited by the characters. In my view (again, just following Aristotle), the structure of the plot, and the moral choices of the characters in the plot comprise the most important messages of a film. Second, as I (and many other philosophers) have argued elsewhere, the concept of a purely visual narrative simply does not hold water. Images have no meaning in an of themselves. They are given the potential for meaning by a narrative or story structure. Unless the director also writes the script, there is only a limited sense in which he is the auteur of the story.

One can respond, I think, to my comments above as follows. This is not the auteur theory at all. What we mean by the auteur theory is that the director transforms a written script into a visual language and creates a new level of meaning over and above the original narrative. And this is what is both interesting and creative about the role of the director in a film.

A response to this objection: True, a director can do these things. And in some cases the role of the director, and the new levels of meaning introduced, are the most important element of the film. The works of many of the great directors (Ford, Welles, Hitchcock, etc.) usually cited as auteurs demonstrate this. But is it true in every case? Is this the only factor we need to look at? Do we need to get inside the director's mind rather than the writer's mind to understand a film? My objection to the auteur theory is not that directors cannot or do not introduce new levels of meaning, but that (1) this theory cannot serve as the only tool for criticism; (2) the fundamental moral meaning of a film derives from its script; and (3) the messages delivered by films are not essentially visual -- rather, the messages delivered are due to a complex of factors (again, see Aristotle's list of elements in drama) over which the director exerts only limited control.

2. THE THEORY THEORY. This is the idea that some specific perspective, generally one founded on some scientific, cultural, religious, sociological, moral, or intellectual ideology, is required for the correct criticism of all cultural manifestations expressed through the arts. The auteur theory (above) is similar in that it demands a certain perspective, but the theory theories are grander in scale. They are derivative of some total theory -- one that purports to encompass virtually every aspect of social and political life. Examples include Marxist theory, radical Feminism, or any of the myriad other similarly inspired approaches. All these share a common thread: they posit that all cultural events, especially the productions of popular media for mass culture, are essentially a form of conspiracy to control the shape of human development in according to a some (evil) master plan, and it is the duty of the critic to expose this plan in order that cultural enlightenment will be brought about (according to the critics own vision of the good).

Such theories, in so far as they are applied to criticism of the arts, suffer from several flaws. First, like the auteur theory, they are simplistic. Theory-driven critics tend to lament the fact that popular media simply supports the prejudices of the status quo. It is, of course, true that the productions of mass media reflect the norms of the culture. But it is, in a sense, trivially true. What should we expect from popular media? Surely not anything that essentially calls into question all the presuppositions an prejudices that are built into the culture in which it exists! Cultures, and the popular media that run through them, generally seek some sort of stability; they do not try to commit intellectual suicide by trivializing or renouncing the values that they hold sacred.

Second, the theory-driven critic tends to become a soldier in a cultural war rather than a critic of the arts. Theory-driven critics are right to point out that evil cultures produce popular entertainment to support their value systems. After all, Nazi Germany produced films to support its agenda. This, however, is not the point of criticism of the arts. We can distinguish between propaganda and cultural artifacts (artistic productions) that exemplify both cultural and universal truths. The theory-driven critic tends to regard all popular media as propaganda -- and he tends to pit his own vision of what reality should be against that propaganda.

Third, criticism driven by grand theories tends to develop its own "principles" of criticism, based on its own version of what would be best, according to the utopian vision of the critic. For example: "this image does not support the liberation of workers," "this image retains the aura of a male-dominated society," and so on. Eventually, these principles become so flexible that they evaporate into an empty repetition of formulas. Examples: Freudian psychoanalytic principles as an explanation of every form of human behavior; feminist principles as an explanation for every moment depicted in every film.

When "complete" critical theories are applied, they tend to subvert an authentic search for the good, the true, and the universal that may be embodied in the productions of popular media.

3. THE NO THEORY THEORY. The fall-back position from the theory theory is to take a diametrically opposed view. The "no theory" advocates say that finding the "correct" theory of criticism is not the problem. They assert there can be no "correct" theory because the concepts which underlie theory construction are flawed or outdated. The no theory advocates question (1)any type of universal theory of interpretation, (2) the idea that there are specific, original, or authoritative meanings to be uncovered by criticism, and even (3) the concept of truth itself. According to this line of reasoning, the idea that films (among the many other human productions that can be interpreted) actually have a meaning is false. A version of the no theory theory is reflected in an interesting article by Jo Smith. She states: "There is no lack or absence in a filmic encounter, no hidden meaning to be unearthed, no abstract body of knowledge to reach for to re-insert a meaning."

The no theory theory is inherent in Postmodernism, which asserts that we should acknowledge the "death of the author" because readers (or spectators), conditioned as they are by pre-existing meta-narratives that define their social, political and intellectual horizons, clearly contribute just as much in the production of meaning as the reputed "source" of meaning, the author. Postmodernism capitalizes on the contemporary fear of "totalizing influences," that is, of meta-narratives that control our thinking. I believe this view, while it has the benefit of making us conscious of our preconceptions, simply ignores the structure of the creative process in contemporary story writing, which follows well-known principles. One may question those principles, of course -- but that is hardly the main job that needs to be done when one when one is intellectually engaged in appreciating a film. One does not need to question the rules of sonnet making when one reads and interprets a sonnet. The no theory theorists, are, perhaps, more in the right than the auteur theorists in recognizing that except in very rare cases there is no single author of a film, and they are right to caution us against over-reliance on conventional methods of interpretation. But by attempting to abolish truth and meaning they leave little in the way of possibilities for critical response other than a form of free-association with images and text. Furthermore, there seems to be a confusion in the no theory theory between having many levels of meaning an no meaning at all. To say that a sonnet has many meanings is not to say that it has no meaning, nor is it to exclude the possibility that some meanings gleaned through interpretation are better than others. Finally, the postmodern approach, in my view, is a kind of defeatism. It implies that we should give up searching for truths about the human dilemma that are expressed through art -- or, worse, it implies that we should substitute our own "truth" for that of the artist's. For additional arguments against the postmodern or no theory approach in the arts, see A. D. Coleman's article on Cindy Sherman.

4. CONFUSING STORY CONTEXT WITH THEME. The story context of Forrest Gump is "a slow-witted man makes his way in the world." The theme of the film, on the other hand, is a profound metaphysical issue: do we live in a world guided by chance or does God's grace influence or control certain events? Do we live in an uncaring, mechanical universe, or is there something more complicated involved? The theme is introduced at the beginning of the film as a feather floats through the air (obeying chance and the laws of physics) and finally lands (by chance?) near the hero. Many people, even professional critics, mistake what is immediately presented (the action, setting, or context) for the theme or message of the film. Some critics, for example, objected to Forrest Gump as "a celebration of stupidity." Such criticisms clearly miss the point. We can make the distinction another way: at one level in any narrative, there is a story line or setting; at another, there is what the author is writing about at the deepest level - his theme. The setting of The Iliad is the Trojan War, but the poem is not about the Trojan war per se. The poet uses the context of the war to address his themes: the consequences of uncontrolled anger, the folly of human pride and jealousy, and the involvement of the gods in human affairs. Similarly, Dirty Harry is the story of a cop who steps outside the law in order to track down a psychopathic killer, but one of the themes concerns justice in general: can we trust our system (or God) to bring people to justice? Now, one may argue that the vehicle chosen by an author is inappropriate to the theme. Hence, some people may think that both The Iliad and Dirty Harry seem more like celebrations of violence than serious treatments of important themes. But this is a different sort of aesthetic judgment, and it cannot take place until we have at least first attempted to differentiate story context from theme.

5. "POLITICAL" THINKING. A professor at Columbia University once informed the class that Rising Sun was a racist, politically-motivated film. The professor had not seen the film, nor had any members of the class. This fact stopped no one from passing judgment. The entire class agreed the film was racist. There should be, the professor went on to say, a review panel that would check the "messages" of any film before it was released. This "classroom moment" should have been televised: it might have later been enshrined as a defining moment for political correctness. Plainly this brand of PC revealed itself as the worst sort absolutism, with a strong attraction for people interested in obtaining moral and intellectual domination through mind control and social engineering.

This warped political consciousness is the foundation of the one of the most pervasive styles of criticism in the United States. Examples abound: "this film carries the wrong message for contemporary women," " this film depicts black Americans in a negative light," "this film glorifies violence," and so on. Indeed, for some, how a film depicts blacks, women, or gays is the essential litmus test of the "quality" of a film. In any given case, such critical comments may, in fact, have some merit, but if that is the end of the analysis, then it is a mistake. One must first do justice to the essential questions relevant to the analysis of narratives:

1. What is the nature of the human character development (regardless of race or gender) that takes place in the film?

2. What is the nature of the conflict between good and evil?

3. Was the protagonist correctly motivated?

4. What did the protagonist learn as a result of his struggle?

5. What happens in the subplot? (As far as the message of the film goes, this may be more important than the plot.)

6. What universal themes are at issue?

These, among others, are questions essential to answer before one can begin to interpret the political messages that may be contained in a film.

6. EMOTIONALISM."I liked it." "It made me laugh." It made me cry." These and other similar reports on how a movie made us feel are sometimes mistaken for criticism. But reporting one's emotions is not the same sort of activity as reflectively judging the overall quality of an artistic production. Critical, reflective, activity is always at one remove from emotional involvement. Of course, how an artistic production makes us feel is an essential part of criticism, but it must be part of other considerations. It is perfectly possible, for instance, to accept that a film has profound emotional impact (because, for instance, of powerful imagery or the sentimental nature of the story), but judge that the film is not, overall, a good film (because of lack of nuance, poor acting, predicable story, etc.). On the other hand, a film might lack emotional impact, but still be a very good film in most other respects. Confusing these issues is, perhaps, a less common mistake than others.

7. ELITISM. There is, for some people, a temptation to believe that whatever the hoi poli enjoy and endorse should not be enjoyed or endorsed by a "certain class" of people. So, for example, some people judge European films as invariably better than American films -- simply because (so they believe) such films are not produced for a mass market, but are specifically intended for intellectuals. This attitude overlooks several important features of popular media, and of American films in particular. Many (if not most) great works of art have always been, and continue to be, produced with the intent of creating popular (as opposed to "class targeted") art. In particular, the narrative arts are usually intended to be appreciated on many levels, by every "class"(Shakespeare, anyone?). While European "art" films that make it to this country often appear (on the surface) to be more intellectually sophisticated, it is not true, as a rule, that popular American films are always less sophisticated (and therefore for a lower "class"). The apparent differences in sophistication between American and European art films is often more a matter of how the films present their themes. The intellectual issues addressed in the themes of American films are usually covered over by more tangible elements that tend to increase audience involvement, such exciting plots, grand spectacles, or convincing demonstrations of the techniques of method acting. For those who wish to make the effort of analyzing the deeper layers of meaning present in many American films, there is plenty of material to satisfy the intellectual. The Auteur theorists, to their credit, accepted this truth and developed many techniques for the appropriate analysis of American films.