How Criticism Works (When it Does)

There's a certain kind of basketball fan who gets enraged at free throw shooting. They complain every time a player goes to the line and misses one, erupting with denunciation: "It's the easiest shot on the court! You should make it every time!" This is understandable. It does seem like the easiest shot on the court. Stand at the line, the rim ten feet high and fifteen feet away, take your time, and shoot the ball. And if you're not great at it, then practice more!

The mistake this fan makes is a simple one: they misunderstand the difficulty of what's happening. This is not to say that every player in the NBA or WNBA currently shoots the highest percentage they are capable of shooting, and there are certainly players whose free throw percentage increases with long hours of effort. But professional basketball players are not lazy, or spoiled, or dumb; they operate in an environment in which they have to maximize their abilities, find every edge they can, or someone else will take their place.

This is as close as one can get to a true meritocracy, in a society that prides itself on them in the abstract and provides them in vanishingly small quantities in reality. Which is to say that pro players are the best at their sport in the world, and they have enormous incentive, both psychological and financial, to maintain that position. Because of this, the truth is that free throw percentages are where they are – north of 90% for the very best shooters, and somewhere around 75% for the average player (several percentage points higher for women) – because that is an exact representation of the difficulty of the task at hand.

I think of this often when people write about movies. Hollywood is not a meritocracy, and there are many reasons why it produces terrible movies – laziness, incompetence, and bad choices among them. But making a good movie is a terribly hard thing to do. As with pro players shooting free throws, the middling quality of many films is a result of this difficulty.

This is equally true of film criticism. It's tough to write cogently about art. But, unlike basketball and movies, film criticism doesn't get as much critical attention as it should, despite the fact that we are inundated with it every day, from pull quotes in trailers – "A thrill ride!" – to newspaper or magazine reviews, social media posts, and of course essays like the one you're reading.

Given that, I thought I'd take a moment to put down some ideas on the tasks of criticism, its perils, and what makes for better and worse writing on film.

Share

In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco reviews a biography of Stanley Kubrick, written by David Mikics. At one point, discussing the scene in 2001 in which the astronaut jogs through the circular space station, Delbanco writes:

…Poole jogs round and round the centrifuge past hibernation chambers that look like alabaster coffins, shadow-boxing to the plangent (Mikics’s perfect word) adagio from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayane—a piece that teases the promise of resolution but delivers none. The whole hypnotic scene—aural and visual—was a metaphor for the boundedness of human life, for the inconceivable distance humanity had traveled while going nowhere.

Delbanco is a fine writer, and a well-respected academic, but whenever someone writing critically makes a claim like the one that ends the quote, that this scene is "a metaphor for the boundedness of human life, for the inconceivable distance humanity had traveled while going nowhere" one should always ask a simple question:

Is that really what it is?

Brian Tallerico, writing on Promising Young Woman (which is, broadly, about a woman trying to deal with the fallout of sexual assault) at RogerEbert.com, argues:

“Promising Young Woman” is a tonal roller coaster, but that’s part of the point. Trauma often makes for swings of mood and decision making, and [the filmmakers] never forget that Cassie is a traumatized person, taking out her pain on the patriarchal system that enabled it.

Later, he supplements the idea:

We often see trauma and overriding grief on film as clean, neat character traits, but I think the tonal whiplash of “PYW” captures something about the inconsistency of these issues better than most movies even try to do.

For my money, Tallerico is not in Delbanco's league as either a thinker or a writer (although he's about as wildly successful as a critic can be, publishing all over the place and serving as the President of the Chicago Film Critic's Association) but the question remains the same:

Is that really what's happening?

Critics have three main tasks. The first thing they have to do is watch the movie as closely as they can, thinking and feeling their way through the specifics of what’s happening with whatever means and references are at their disposal. For some, this means using an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, for others it means accessing knowledge in other areas (Delbanco's field of expertise, for example, is classic American literature), and for some it simply means relying on a pure love of cinema. The ultimate goal is for the critic to use any and all of these things to make themselves as receptive as possible to the film, soaking up as many details as they can of plot and character and thematics and filmmaking technique.

After this, critics begin their second task: to attempt to first understand and then articulate how what's happening on the screen affects them. What are their reactions to it, and why? What does it make them think of? How does it make them feel? Their goal here is usually (although not always) to do this with an eye to the way in which their reactions are generalizable. That is, they are most often trying to communicate to their audience how the film works in general – for other people, perhaps for all viewers – but the only evidence they have is how it affects them. So they first have to try to understand their reaction, and then think through how it might (or might not) represent other people's reactions.

Having done this, they can now move on to the third step, which is the delineation of whatever larger idea they want to share. Sometimes this is just about the quality of the film under review: is it good or bad, and why? Sometimes it’s a more complicated idea, like Delbanco's notion of the metaphor in 2001, or Tallerico's claims about the representation of trauma. But whatever grand or humble idea the critic would like to articulate, they can only get to it by first imbibing the specifics of the film, and then tracing the effects of those specifics on themselves as the audience.

This is a difficult process, and one replete with pitfalls. Perhaps the most glaring danger is the love of the fancy phrase.

We're all familiar with this tendency, and it's one all writers fall prey to: sometimes a string of words is just so pleasing that we’re fatally seduced by it, and cannot help using it regardless of whether it says something true about the film, or even really says what we want it to say. It sounds so great in our minds, so inescapably right, that we throw it down with an unthinking, beatific smile on our face and move on to our next brilliant point. This is an unavoidable danger in all writing, about art or otherwise, and it’s usually only later – sometimes much later, after publication – that we realize we’ve succumbed to it.

And it often leads to a second danger, which is the temptation of wanting to say something important (either about a movie or about life itself) but not wanting to do the work of tying it into what's actually on the screen. It's in the combination of these things - poor writing and skipping steps – that the critic errs most gravely, because it makes the audience rightly question the critic’s single most important attribute: taste.

Share

In the same way that in basketball there's no substitute for actually being able to play the game, in criticism (and in art-making itself, incidentally) there’s no substitute for taste. This is, of course, just a word that condenses the first two steps in the critical process: "taste" in this context means first seeing something deeply and truly, and second judging that thing’s effects on the viewer. But when a critic leaps straight to a fancily-phrased idea without engaging in these first two steps, their audience – whether consciously or not – senses that something’s missing. And what's missing is the use of perception, judgment, taste.

So when Delbanco writes that the scene in 2001 of Poole jogging around and around is a "metaphor for the boundedness of human life, for the inconceivable distance humanity had traveled while going nowhere," he's asserting an idea without doing any work. And when we respond by asking whether that's really what's going on, we're questioning his taste, which is to say his ability as a critic.

What Delbanco's is after in the quote, I think, is an idea that 2001 is about something circular, in a metaphysical sense. Earlier in the piece, he references the film's opening sequence in which early hominids encounter an alien monolith which seemingly stirs in them a tiny evolutionary step. He notes that this sequence ends with a famous cut that matches a bone tossed into the air by one of the hominids with a floating space station many millennia later. As with the scene of the astronaut jogging, Delbanco wants to use these sequences to draw out an interpretation of the film as being about human progress (the exploration of space), and at the same time about the fact that we are still tied to our deep historical roots (the apes at the beginning).

This is a fine reading of the film – I'm not entirely convinced by it, but it's certainly interesting – but is the scene of Poole jogging really a metaphor for that? Delbanco gives only one small piece of evidence for why what's happening makes him feel this way (the song that's playing during the scene, which he claims"teases the promise of resolution but delivers none") before leaping into grandiosity. And the more closely we read this passage, the more questions mount.

If this scene is really a metaphor for distance and going nowhere, for example, why do the hibernation chambers look to him like alabaster coffins? Is it all a metaphor, beneath all else, for death? Perhaps the idea is that we all, like Poole, jog endlessly while death waits beside us the entire time? But one thinks of the famously strange ending to the film, in which the astronaut Bowman finds himself in an austere, placeless bedroom, or of the final shot of the film, of a fetus looking down at the earth ­­– is this really about death?

And further, is the galactic strangeness of the last third of the film really reducible to a humanity that is "going nowhere"? And doesn't the movie above all, from ape to the final gesture at expanded consciousness, seem to resist reduction, resist being put into a metaphor? That Delbanco is so willing to do so, and to do so without giving us any indication of what has spurred him to this conclusion, makes us wonder whether he's actually talking about the film at all, or simply about some grand ideas he wants to foist on us.

The issues with Tallerico's piece are far greater, and far more representative of the state of contemporary film writing. He notes that the tone of Promising Young Woman is both a "roller coaster" and something that induces or is susceptible to "whiplash." Again, this is an interesting enough observation. But aside from a plot recap, he never really explains what he means by "tone."

Put differently, he never bothers to tie his observation into what's happening on the screen. Is this "tone" a visual quality, an attempt to describe the way the film lingers sometimes on carefully composed images, and other times seems almost intentionally sloppy about what it's putting on the screen? Is it a matter of the film struggling to communicate to us its relationship to its material? Does Tallerico mean that the film sometimes feels menacing and other times irony-laden, sometimes almost faux-banal (the meet cute in the coffee shop, or the sequence in the pharmacy) and sometimes like a cheer-along morality play (as in the ending)?

With no concrete examples, it's impossible to tell. Rather than exercising his taste as a critic, he's asking us to simply nod along at his cool idea. And here we’ve reached the heart of the problem of a great deal of contemporary film criticism, which is little more than thinly disguised PR for the industry, an extension of the fanboy culture in which we live. Tallerico seems to recognize that he's identified a problem: the tone of the film (whatever he means by that) is inconsistent. But he also wants to argue that the film is important because of the idea that he wants to bring to it, or to expound on to his audience: trauma.

And so rather than putting his critical judgment or taste on display – so that we can see whether we agree with him or not – he simply jumps right to his assertion. The tone shifts are not a problem; they are instead, as if by magic, with no evidence, both intentional and salutary. Rather than read the film, he just tries to hustle us into trusting him when he says that it's good because it's "important."

But, as is always the case in any writing, one can never escape the concrete actuality of the language on the page. Once a critic begins to skip the steps of actually talking about what's on the screen so they can impress us with their ideas, they’ve created a habit that threatens to infect the entirety of their work. So, one after another, their ideas move further and further away from the film itself and into the castles created in the critic’s mind.

As an example, note that Tallerico writes in passing that we "often see trauma and overriding grief on film as clean, neat character traits." Stop for a moment, and think about this claim. Do we actually see this? Can't we all think of numerous films – perhaps the majority of them? – in which trauma and grief bring on chaos and destruction? And what would it mean for a character trait (as opposed to the character themself) not to be clean or neat, anyway? What in god's name is a messy character trait? Or a jagged one? There are many things happening in this phrase, but what’s not happening is an application of taste.

My point is not that writing is not hard. It is hard. And this is particularly true when you're writing on a deadline, as I'm sure Tallerico was. But the response to this of so many contemporary critics is either to jump straight to philosophizing, or write hollow encomiums. And it's this baselessness, this lack of willingness to actually explain to the reader what it is that they’re seeing, and how it makes them feel, and why, that turns so many people off to criticism.

Enjoy this piece? Subscribe for free to receive a new essay in your inbox every Friday!