A practical guide to the critical application of group-unthink

Via More Than 95 Theses, we have yet another example of group-unthink at the expense of all those poor sods from the past who had the temerity to express opinions that went against the consensus formed by the tide of history.  In The Atlantic, Jason Bailey shines a spotlight on “12 Great Movies the Critics Got Dead Wrong.”  The pretext for this fluff/hit piece is Roger Ebert’s one-star pan of The Raid, which has generally gotten very positive notices.  Bailey writes:

“Then again, as much as we love Mr. Ebert, this isn’t the first time he got a great movie dead wrong. His one-star pan of Blue Velvet is still a head-scratcher; ditto the single star he awarded Wet Hot American Summer.”

Indeed.  Because think of the generations of future cinephiles who will be shaking their heads over the boobs who didn’t crown Wet Hot American Summer an an insta-classic back in 2001.

Bailey’s article is kind of awful for a couple of reasons.  For one, it’s just another excuse for a photo gallery, forcing readers to click a button twelve times in order to see what the hell made it onto the list in the first place, as opposed to simply writing a list and putting it up so people can read through it uninterrupted.  But I won’t blame Bailey himself for this.  Instead, I’ll take issue with two aspects of the article — the first being the format.

Each film is accompanied by pull quotes from contemporary reviews written at the time of the film’s release.  The quotes probably average about 50 words.  The problem with this is that the nutshell of this entire piece is that it’s about “a dozen classic movies, and the scribes who blew the call on them.”  By quoting only tiny snippets of these reviews — often from critics of substantial standing, such as Pauline Kael or Manny Farber — the very format denies each critic the courtesy of context.  Quoting snippets is, of course, standard practice; I did it myself in this very post.  The assumption a reader is supposed to make is that each quote is a fair representation of the whole.  Several of the citations do provide links to the full review, but the others do not.  Besides the fact that casual readers of this article don’t have easy access to the original works that don’t have convenient hyperlinks, and therefore probably won’t track down the microfiche at their local libraries, there is the matter of the nature of film criticism itself.  A review often contains nuances and qualifications that a single, out-of-context quote does not do justice.  Consider Richard Hatch’s review of All About Eve (a personal favorite; the film that is, not the review) that appeared in The New Republic in 1950.  Here is the full text:

Once a year, Hollywood relaxes the lollypop diet on which it sustains a large but jaded public, and serves up one dish of acidulous sophistication. Or to be more precise, about once a year Joseph Mankiewicz at Twentieth Century-Fox does this under the indulgent eye of Darryl F. Zanuck. The last chef’s special was Letter to Three Wives; the new one is All About Eve[the bitchiest fabrication since Mrs. Luce’s The Women.

It is not true, as you may have heard, that All About Eve is a great picture and proof that Hollywood has grown up overnight. Its highly polished, often witty surface hides an unenterprising plot and some preposterous human behavior.] What makes the picture seem so good (what makes it eminently worth seeing) is the satirical touches in its detail and the performance of Bette Davis.

The bracketed section appears in Bailey’s article.  When I hear that someone got something “dead wrong,” I get the impression that they got nothing right whatsoever; that they, as Bailey says, totally “blew the call.”  When I read what Hatch actually wrote in its entirety, I note that he ultimately recommends seeing the film, grudgingly acknowledging the merits that, all things considered, are the primary reasons that it has stood the test of time.  I don’t agree with Hatch’s viewpoint, but certainly would not say that he “blew the call.”

That’s the other thing that bothers me about articles like this.  Bailey takes for granted that the critics are “dead wrong,” as if dissent from the mainstream consensus is grounds enough for dismissal.  He doesn’t bother to rebut these critics with even a cursory apologia on behalf of the “classics;” he offers these excerpts as self-evident in their call-blowing dead-wrongness.  That’s why I call it an example of group-unthink.  Bailey takes for granted that anyone reading this article will readily acknowledge that what these critics said is simply wrong — a self-satisfied pat on the back that might be a reassuring token of club membership for those firmly ensconced in the majority.  For anyone else… well, they’ve already been told they’re dead wrong, so what more is there to say?

Essentially, this article amounts to a ringleader waving his arms above his head to gather all the other schoolchildren on the playground around him so that when he points at the weirdo kid and squeals, “Hey, everyone — look at that loser!” they can all laugh together.  It’s condescending.  If you already share Bailey’s viewpoint, he doesn’t give you the credit that you’d tolerate or encourage a fruitful discussion borne of disagreement; if you do not share Bailey’s viewpoint, you’re one of the idiots siding with the nincompoops of antiquity.

And that’s the other thing that niggles at me.  It’s relatively easy to sit here in the 21st century and identify the films that have successfully negotiated the turbulence of pop culture history and emerged as iconic in one form or another.  It’s a lot harder to render a considered judgment by deadline on a film you’ve just seen, as if the vagaries of time are something you should or can account for.  Laughing at the “backwardness” of the past is something we all do, yet there’s a certain amount of insolence involved in it; especially if when you’re not actually bothering to make a case that those who came before us were wrong.  Mocking a cave man for trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together when we have the benefit of central heating isn’t acknowledging with mordant humor how far we’ve come: it’s getting high on our own vapors.  And when you couple that smugness with the assumption that everyone who’s anyone is in accord, what you have is elitism cloaked in the guise of populism.

Nobody has a crystal ball.  Nobody — not even an accomplished critic — reads a silver screen like a tarot deck and adjusts his own view to match the one he suspects his distant progeny might likely have.  Besides being impossible, that’s just stupid and irresponsible.  Even if these critics are “dead wrong,” at least they expressed their convictions, knowing full well that history could render those expressions inert.  To mock them for formulating an honest response without bothering to generate one of one’s own is the mirror opposite of what those critics did; it’s answering the courage of their convictions with the cowardice of mob mentality. ☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

2 responses to “A practical guide to the critical application of group-unthink

  • David

    Bravo for explaining just why this attitude displayed by Bailey is so illogical and harmful. I took a few minutes to read his “article” just to make sure I wasn’t judging him out of context. No, you’re right: he doesn’t really say anything more than what you’ve quoted, nothing of substance. He seems to think that quoting a bad review of a movie he adores is enough to condemn that reviewer. What he fails to see is that even in those out-of-context quotes, the reviewers are making some good points.

    For instance, the silent classic Metropolis. I admire it and enjoy it for its special effects and grand vision. But Mordaunt Hall speaks some truth: It’s not a movie to be judged by its plot, for its plot is painfully simplistic and melodramatic, when it’s not being bizarre. The pacing drags, and at the end I didn’t feel emotionally moved or anything like that. It’s more a technical marvel than a storytelling marvel. But I still found it enjoyable and fascinating from that perspective, and the fable-like structure of the story does allow for some intellectual content to be derived from it.

    Or The Graduate. I haven’t seen it myself, but it seems that Bailey is far too confident in its status as an uncontested classic. Much of what I read about the movie these days seems to downgrade the movie in retrospect. Ebert’s original review was negative, saying how unlikable the whole thing is, and I’ve read many recent reviewers echo his thoughts, saying it hasn’t aged well. So perhaps Bailey shouldn’t assume everyone agrees with his making it a Great Movie.

    And Richard Jameson, the reviewer quoted as disliking Apocalypse Now, even makes a point of how he tried to give the movie the best chance it could to please him, and he withheld judgment until seeing it again, in case he missed its quality the first time. You can’t just brush his opinion aside; he clearly gave me the movie much thought and a second chance, so his opinion deserves respect and consideration, even if someone disagrees.

    Of course, I’ve noticed myself taking Bailey’s attitude whenever I hear a movie I love be unliked by critics. I love Tarsem Singh’s The Fall for the story as well as the visuals, but I’ve heard many critics disparage the story as boring, too melodramatic, or disposable. There’s a temptation to just write off those critics. But I shouldn’t. I may think they are wrong, and I have my reasons for thinking so, but I can’t just write off people for having a different opinion of a movie than my own.

    What I can do is write my own review in hopes of winning readers to my side. +)

    • mjschneider

      Yep. I think that taking the time to construct one’s thoughts critically, as part of a larger discourse (even if one’s own contributions are marginal) is the mostly correct response. I’m like you, though. There are some critics I tend to dismiss, and there are even some that I think are flatly wrong. I don’t spend much time regularly reading and responding to people that I believe to be generally wrong — or at least so far removed from any common basis with my own perspective that two-thirds of the work of digesting what they have to say will entail re-arranging my mental state to such an extent that I can feign empathy with their worldview. This often comes down as much to temperament as it does to philosophy or politics.

      Put another way, I think there’s a time and place simply to acknowledge that you can’t engage critically with everyone with whom you disagree, but that’s completely different from celebrating or reveling in the act of dismissal, which is what I think Bailey does. He takes so much for granted, insulting both his readers (even those that agree) and his opposition, that his entire project is both worthless and offensive. One thing I didn’t dwell on in my post is the fact that I do like or at least respect all of the films he mentions. Metropolis in particular is one of my very favorites of all time. Yet it sort of angers me when people assume (especially those who are ostensibly *on my side*) that anyone who dissents from them is an idiot. I’m sure that there are many idiots who don’t like Metropolis. But there are also a lot of people like you who have valid criticisms of the film. In a nutshell, that’s the problem with Bailey — and it’s a hugely widespread problem.

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