… Cont’d from pt. 1, which suggested that open-mindedness is a good thing, and that films—and lots of other things besides—should be judged on their own terms …
The responsibility for a good film experience lies with the viewer
The second critical principle is closely related to the first. Much media product is distributed on the assumption that audiences are demanding and passive and requiring that everything be done for them. A critical, educational consideration of the media runs directly counter to this truism: the fact is that much of the responsibility for a good film experience lies with the viewer. If we are to judge a work on its own merits, according to its own nature, then we must do some thinking, maybe even some studying in order to understand that nature.
There are many ways in which we can achieve this kind of thoughtful understanding. One of the most important of these methods is not practiced as often as it might be, perhaps because it runs counter to the economically competitive and ideologically divisive nature of much film discourse. The thing is, we can enter into a dialogue with a film. We can listen carefully and respond prudently. We can combine criticism with empathy. As we do so, we will find unsuspected rewards.
If a film is falling short the sympathetic viewer need not simply condemn it, or reject it, or run from it. By his simultaneously rigourous and generous attention, he can describe a difficulty, identify a cause, and continue to be entertained or informed. This is possible when one learns about the crafts of filmmaking. It is also possible when we step back from the film itself, or the money we are afraid we wasted on it, to think about context. What social or historical factors might have contributed to this unclear or unacceptable thing? How might this apparent difficulty or inadequacy become a source of deeper critical or historical insight?
In sum, a combination of generosity, curiosity, and a willingness to think things through and work things out will actually bring the viewer into the creative process. This means that the challenges, invigorations and satisfactions of art making need not be restricted to those with the money and the equipment and the means of distribution. The thoughtful spectator can be just as much, just as profitably involved.
To return to the point at which this discussion began, these principles should have some affect on our relationship to criticism, and cultural dialogue generally. We encounter firm statements of strong opinion. We may well, indeed should sometimes disagree with such judgments. Still, the inviting perspective from this present conversation, though it may differ from most consumerist, reductively evaluative criticism, is that this differing is not inherently a problem. Rather than seeking or offering definitive conclusions, spectators can engage in conversation, in helping each other to discover and consider angles or nuances that they would not have found on their own. They can proceed on the assumption, and with the conviction, that there are many valid and instructive approaches to any idea or representation. To discuss and consider these alternatives is to increase our critical vocabulary, to increase our ability to effectively understand and apply the ideas that we encounter.
The films you see and the thoughts you think
We have now discussed some valid critical principles. They are useful, but to a degree they are also somewhat generalized, or abstract. We need something concrete, some specific ways to apply all this. If these things are true, what do we do now?
We have just spoken of being sensitive to the films that we watch, of considering the intents and strategies of their creators. Effective criticism does these things, but that is not all that is to be done. The message, and the messenger that transmits it, are only a part of any communication. The other essential part of the communication equation has to do with reception, and the receiver. Before we can understand movies, we have to understand ourselves, and the ways that we absorb and process the things around us.
Most of our media experiences are recreational. For some, recreational reading is at least implicitly based on an assumption like the one about the film critics we don’t agree with. This assumption is that close study, vigourous analysis and critical thinking take all the fun and pleasure out of our reading.
This assumption is not true. It is not true of the texts that will most challenge and reward us, nor is it true of the friendly, accessible works that we most, and most easily enjoy. Resisting careful analysis contradicts the motivations behind, even the very institutions of higher learning. It also inhibits and even debases the casual conversations that we share with our friends.
Why analyze? Why not simply enjoy things, and then leave them? A comparison may provide some perspective.
Most people like to listen to music. Some, motivated by their listening pleasure, go on to try to learn to play an instrument. As they do so they encounter a daunting obstacle, quite early in the process. It’s hard! Where there used to be easy listening enjoyment, now there are new and endless varieties of notes and scales and chord progressions, time signatures and tempos, dynamics and fingering. Students find that in this process of learning recreation turns into labour and for a while, for some, the joy just goes out of the thing.
Why bother? An obvious reason, one that most anyone would grant, is that casual listening is insufficient if one is to become a practitioner. Surmounting those obstacles and internalizing those elements is the sacrifice one makes, the price one pays on her way to competence, or excellence. If during the process there seems to be a loss of former, easy pleasure, then there is consolation in the fact that all that effort will someday lead to more profound satisfactions. It’s fun to play music, and even more fun to play it well.
These things are true of more than just music. If one wants to learn a language, or a trade, or an art—if, in the present instance, one wants to learn to be a filmmaker, then one has to bear down. Expertise and excellence have many, many components, and the process of acquisition takes years.
Fair enough. Readers might be thinking that they are not interested in becoming musicians, or filmmakers, and that therefore all this does not apply. We just want to enjoy ourselves.
Here is the key, the great point of departure, the potentially empowering thing. You don’t have to be a practitioner to benefit from, or need, training. The informed, theoretical, analytical listener enjoys music more than the casual, distracted listener ever can. Knowing about design enhances our experiences with and enjoyment of our living spaces, even if we never actually fashion them ourselves. Film viewing can also be creative, and constructive. Sensitive reading can lead to heightened awareness and deepened application. Since these things are true, it behooves the reader to be just as informed as the practitioner.