Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Critique of Criticism - Part I

From around the age of two, I have always wondered why critics hate the movies I love. While my views have tempered a bit with age, there are still several points on which I feel I can criticize the critics. For starters, why do critics hate CGI? There are a couple of reasons I can think of. First, almost all critics are conservative. There are a number of movies which weren’t particularly liked by the critics of their era; but time and a pair of history-tinted spectacles have ensured that today’s critic has an entirely different view. Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’, which received average reviews when it was first released, is hailed as a science fiction classic today. I wonder if critics hated the first colour movies, or even the first ‘talkies’. CGI and animation are relatively new to the party, and despite any artistic bonuses they might offer, will inevitably take some time to be digested.

You might hear some critics argue that special effects detract from the emotional experience of a movie by taking time away from the actual actors. The part about taking time away from the actors is true (only if the movie has any live actors), but the argument about emotions is debatable. I would argue that most critics are looking for ‘personal’ human emotions over something generic like awe or wonder. The reason I say this is that most of the time, special effects convey awe in a way nothing else can. Imagine there's an apocalyptic movie in which you have an asteroid crashing into the Earth. There are two ways you can show something like this. The ‘personal’ way would be to show the lead actor/actress with his/her hands over his/her mouth watching as the big, yellow fireball in the sky gets steadily larger. The ‘impersonal’ way would be to use heavy special effects to convey the sense of worldwide destruction that such a catastrophic impact can produce. It’s inarguable which one the critics will like. My point is simply that there are people out there who prefer the second option; people who don’t mind feeling awed and humbled by sheer scale; people who don’t mind impersonal views of disasters that are, by definition, impersonal. The average movie-goer can of course pick a side and stick to it, but critics can’t and shouldn’t.

(continued in part II)

A Critique of Criticism - Part II

Here’s what Roger Ebert has to say about the noble art of criticism.

'When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to Mystic River, you're asking if it's any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two.'

That’s absolutely perfect. That’s exactly what you expect critics to do. Is it hard? Very, very much so. People have entire genres of films they despise, and critics are people too (I think). However, it is their job to be objective, and if they cannot do it, genre-based reviews (like in music) may be the best option. You might often hear a critic call a movie ‘brainless’. Invariably, such a statement will be followed by a disparaging remark about popcorn. This kind of criticism is so clichéd that it makes my head spin; and the ironic thing is that it’s usually directed against (supposedly) clichéd movies. What is a brainless movie? If you make a thorough study of all the films that have been called brainless by critics, you will most likely come to the following conclusions.

  1. Most action movies are brainless.
  2. Most big budget movies are brainless.
  3. Most horror movies are brainless.
  4. Most romantic comedies are brainless.
  5. Most commercially successful movies are brainless.

The obvious conclusion you can draw from these observations is that audiences are brainless. Let’s ignore the veracity of that statement itself, and concentrate on the observations that led to it. Why do critics dislike action movies? That’s an easy one. Critics want ‘real’ cinema while most audiences are escapist. I’ve often heard my mother wonder why she should go to the theatre to watch movies like ‘Jail’ (the Hindi film) when she only wants a break from her problems in real life. I think most critics do understand this point. It is just the fact that they are incorrigibly elitist that prevents them from ever praising a ‘properly’ escapist film without qualifying the praise with the ‘popcorn’ jibe. Most of the vitriol poured on popular movies (by the later critics of course) smacks of elitism. Here I cannot help but be reminded of Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’. One of my school friends, on a whim, had picked up this ordinary looking book, when it was still a relative unknown. I borrowed it from him soon enough, and the first thing that hit me when I opened the book was a deluge of rave reviews. Most books manage to dig up one or two positive reviews and plaster it prominently on the front page, but any experienced bibliophile can tell the difference between a critically acclaimed book and a not so critically acclaimed one (the ubiquitous ‘bestseller’ tag notwithstanding). This belonged to the first category; the fact that the first few pages were adorned with dozens of glowing reviews was an excellent hint. A good number of years later, when the movie adaptation was being made, I was surprised to see that many critics had gone back to review the book and suddenly found it very poor. Among the usual criticism of the ‘plot’, the ‘dialogue’ and the ‘characterization’, I found some rare gems about the egregious grammar and Dan Brown’s simple mind.

(continued in part III)

A Critique of Criticism - Part III

At the risk of contradicting myself, I have to concede that there is truth to the ‘brainless’ argument, even if the actual wording itself smacks of elitism. There are many people who go to the movies and make a conscious effort not to think. However, I think that such people are being more escapist than ‘brainless’. On the other hand there exist a vast number of what I like to call ‘thoughtless sceptics’. These are the sort of people who see our hero climbing a mountain and ask, ‘That’s so not possible. I so hate this fake, brainless movie’. They might go on to wonder why a passing thunderstorm or a bored eagle doesn’t simply knock him off his precarious perch. I find this sort of criticism more stupid than anything else; most such people are not thinking it through. It’s much more exhilarating, at least for me, to try and construct a plausible scientific foundation to support such events.If everything we once thought was impossible stayed impossible, I think we’d still in our deerskin clothing wondering if using iron for making tools might be a good idea. There are people who can walk on walls, and there are people who can jump from the second floor of a building and walk away.

‘Why does the underdog always win?’ Another similar question and if possible, one asked in even more incredulous tones goes something like, ‘How does the hero always survive?’. I think it’s time to talk about that oldest of cinematic themes, the story of the survival against all odds. Is it that hard to conceive that in any natural disaster, there will be at least one survivor whose fortuitous escape may reveal a compelling tale? I have to admit that the ‘survivor’ trick is used more to thrill than convey anything ‘real’, but the argument still holds.

More often than not, thinking a film through is a personal choice. There are many ‘artsy’ films that provoke absolutely no mental debate in my head; and there are many ‘popcorn’ movies which actually do. Does this say something about the film? Not really. Let’s talk about the movie 2012, for example. I found some things in the movie very thought provoking. or example there is the plot driven ethical dilemma of ‘Who to save?’, a question which continues to remain relevant no matter how many times it is asked. Then there is Roland Emmerich (the director)’s personal favourite, the philosophy I have dubbed ‘The Great Equalizer’ - a global catastrophe that levels all differences between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ countries, the economic egalitarian’s utopia. If you've watched 'The Day After Tomorrow' you'll recall how the U.S. government is forced to request the Mexican government for help; and in 2012 itself, the tiny contingent of mostly 'First World' survivors, sets sail for Africa.

(continued in part IV)

A Critique of Criticism - Part IV

‘What do you mean critics are irrelevant? They definitely aren’t. I read every single review and do the exact opposite of what the critic suggests.’

It was quite surprising to read views like this on the Internet, considering I held such views in the not so ancient past. I do realize now that it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to reading negative reviews of movies I like, because I really do like films in general. I love science fiction and enjoy action and horror movies. If I’m feeling unusually poignant I wouldn’t mind watching an Oscar drama. At the other end of the emotional spectrum are the romantic comedies, and no I don’t hate them. I can even stand spoofs when I’m feeling really miserable. I suspect that others who profess to hold such views have similar opinions. The real issue here is the legion of critics who pride themselves on the level of acrimony they can achieve with a pen (or a keyboard). It only makes people wonder (often justifiably) if all these critics are just failed film makers themselves.

In a few situations, critics positively labour to make themselves look silly. If a movie stretches beyond the magic figure of 120 minutes; many a critic’s mind will turn to sludge. Dazed and battered, the critic will reach for his laptop and rant about the ‘complicated’ plot and the ‘excessive’ length of the film. OK, two hours being on the shorter side for the average Indian film, we might be better acclimatized, but when even the great LOTR movies cannot escape this criticism, surely something is wrong? I suspect, once again, that this is more to do with the conservative nature of the profession than anything else.

The issue of derivative works is another critical chestnut, and can be summed up as follows,

  1. All science fiction movies are Star Wars/Star Trek rip-offs.
  2. All fantasy movies are LOTR/Harry Potter rip-offs.

Accusing Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series of being derivative makes a smidgeon of sense. It is greatly influenced by the LOTR universe, but I would still argue that the world it creates is sufficiently unique to discount that argument. But calling a film like ‘The Dark is Rising’ a LOTR rip off is hilarious. There is absolutely nothing in common between the two except for the fact that they are both fantasies. Imagine calling every romantic drama ever made a ‘Gone With The Wind’ rip off. I would also argue that the imagination required to construct a detailed and internally consistent alternate universe, be it in fantasy or science fiction, constitutes a greater achievement than writing a moving tale of your own experiences. Don’t get me wrong here. Most critically acclaimed novels are excellent. They are acclaimed for a good reason: they tell great tales of human emotion. What about great tales of human imagination?

To be fair, the really good critics know their stuff, and to a large extent, have achieved a sense of objectivity. The real problem is that criticism is so easy; any twelve year old with a keyboard and a cynical worldview can do it. The hallmark of a good critic, in my opinion, is greater tolerance, and not the inverse. Before I end this rant, here’s an absolutely delightful conversation snippet that I overheard in the theatre where I watched 2012. It’s between a little girl and her little brother, with a late cameo appearance from their father, and is one reason why I did not immediately discard the ‘brainless audience’ hypothesis earlier.

Girl: What if it really happens?
(She is referring to the idea that the world will end in 2012, of course.)
Boy: Then we will all be dead.
(At this point, the boy says something surprisingly profound.)
Boy: We live together, and die together.
(OK, fascinating, but they are kids, remember? Nothing surprising there.)
Dad (in the next seat): It MAY happen, you know. It may happen.

There you go, it’s already got people thinking.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Kill in the name of ...?

We all agree that racism is wrong. It makes no sense to say that black people are inferior just because they don’t get freckles in summers. The commonly espoused argument against racism goes something along the lines of, ‘We are all human, and all humans are equal’. Admirably egalitarian, and something I wholeheartedly agree with. Then there’s sexism. It’s another blight that’s being slowly drained out of mainstream culture. There’s a long way to go before we can say we are completely free of these evils, but they have at least one thing in their favour. They have been recognized as social evils.

The funny thing is that there are a host of ‘attitudes’ in the world today that should be, using the same definition of discrimination that drives concern about sexism and racism, marked for eradication. Instead, many of them have no pejorative connotations at all and are often viewed synonymously with positive intangibles like ‘virtue’. The ones that are viewed unfavourably, have legions of apologists working tirelessly to change precisely that fact. Take for instance, that entity called patriotism. Yes, we have terms like ‘jingoism’ that are supposed to represent patriotism gone bad, but I wonder – Does patriotism inevitably lead to jingoism? Patriotism seems to be even more discriminatory than racism. At least racism has a certain amount of biological basis for differentiation. How can you justify wars between India and Pakistan, or the skirmishes between Pakistan and Afghanistan? Often, cyclically, patriotism ends up being both the cause and the consequence of large scale conflicts.

Arbitrary geographical boundaries that exist nowhere but in the minds of parochial men and women, partition the planet into countries, and fuel patriotism. And patriotism justifies military conflict. Military conflict has developed a culture of its own which, interestingly, revolves around the noble ideals of virtue and honour. I find this ironic, because stripped of all the obfuscation, military conflict and war are just people killing other people. Military conflict actually legitimizes murder – something which racism and sexism, at their worst, never dared to do. In fact war crimes have a strong element of racism and sexism, but cloaked in a veneer of ‘honour’ are often glossed over.

Then you have things like the caste system. It is racism, plain and simple. You don’t even have to construct allegorical arguments to reduce one to the other, like in the case of patriotism. The caste system does not quite have an aura of pure virtue like nationalistic pride, but does not have too much going against it otherwise. Here, once again, India proves itself to be a nation of apologists. Any attempts at change are viewed as an unpardonable attack on our ancient culture.

All the forms of discrimination I’ve talked about (and the countless ones I haven’t) can be reduced to the biological human need for herding. Human beings are social animals, as is often mindlessly repeated, but the implications of this simple statement are staggering. Moving one step up the herding pyramid from the caste system, you have the idea of religion itself. Isn’t that herding too? In recent times, there have been several outspoken opponents of religion, but on the whole, the worst thing that it’s believed to be is a personal quirk. However, even in today’s enlightened times, religion’s capacity to discriminate has not diminished appreciably. It has definitely become a lot more subtle, however. Christians criticize the intolerance of Islam, and point to their own religion as the solution to this. Muslims point to the Christians’ criticism and call upon fellow Muslims to band together against the ‘outsiders’. Hindus point to the bickering of both Christians and Muslims, throw in a few snippets about science in the Vedas and the Big Bang and advocate Hinduism as the most sensible of the lot.

Unless we evolve a hive mind or swarm intelligence, we probably can’t do away with herding. Religion, you have to admit, has probably been the best herding algorithm so far. It has many things going for it – it teaches many people all they know about morality and it fights existential thoughts of purposelessness through rhetoric on the Afterlife. But it’s still herding, and with the associated baggage. The only way to do away with herding, or at least push it to a higher level in the pyramid, would be to instil in all human beings a sense of global identity. This is not as impossible as it seems. Just notice how patriotism, and the need for a sense of identity in the aftermath of globalization, has brought together a collection of ideologically and linguistically disparate, fiercely independent states called India. Unfortunately, this argument requires the existence of a multi-planetary* universe, one in which the population of Earth is striving as one for attention and resources. We don’t have one at the moment. Even if we did, the same principles of jingoistic pride would push conflict to inter-planetary arenas.

Sometimes I wonder if Facebook is the only hope we have.

*- I am referring to planets where sentient civilizations have arisen, like on Earth.