A recent podcast from the makers of /film called, oddly enough, /filmcast (you can pronounce the “slash”) gets into the varied opinions and passions around the movie INCEPTION (which I recommend you run right out and see even if you hate it — it’s fascinating filmmaking, even with its faults). Critics David Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley are joined by New York Press film critic and professional curmudgeon Armond White, who argues that INCEPTION was a horrible, shallow, inadequate piece of crap by a filmmaker who shows none of the talent that someone like Michael Bay showed in TRANSFORMERS 2.
I’m not here to argue with his point of view, or anyone’s for that matter. Though White would strongly disagree, I believe that (at its best) film watching is a visceral experience as much as an intellectual one and, as such, can lead to great divergence of opinions. There is no absolute right and wrong if a film is really working.
White went to Columbia University’s School of the Arts, receiving his MFA there. This gives him the cudgel that he uses to slap around a mesmerized and overly polite Chen. In fact, he tells all three of these Internet film critics, that he feels that Web film criticism is mostly uninformed and shallow, and that everyone who calls him or herself a film critic should be trained in the profession. “Professional film critics,” such as himself, it seems, cannot be questioned by people who haven’t been to film school and taken courses where they sit with a Moviola (I’ll deal with this comment in a little bit) so they can examine films frame-by-frame. According to Wikipedia, White calls himself a “pedigreed film scholar,” without much definition of what he means by that broad statement (that statement can be found in a short, not particularly interesting, piece on him in Macleans, a more interesting and substantial read is a New York Magazine piece on him).
Now, I’m not here to support or bash White — plenty of much better writers, who are much more familiar with his work, have taken their shots already. But two comments that he made on /filmcast, as he argued against INCEPTION’s value as a film, strike me as immediately calling into question White’s qualifications, MFA and his “pedigree” claims aside (aside from the obvious one I mentioned above — that he still thinks that the Moviola is a viable tool to examine films frame-by-frame. Where has he been for a decade?).
Here is my prejudice — right up front. Years ago, I found one critic (Art Murphy, in Daily Variety) who understood filmmaking, film history and film story well enough to actually tell me things that I didn’t know about films that I had worked on. I learned about filmmaking and storytelling from his comments. I pretty much haven’t found another one since. Note, I am not saying that a film critic needs to know all of those things to provide value, but it certainly raises the odds. Otherwise, they’re film reviewers — giving their opinions, for better or worse.
There are certainly those out there who will, quite correctly, tell me that it isn’t necessary to know how to make a film in order to critique it. But I usually find that critics who don’t know much about filmmaking fail to understand the art of how films are shaped. And they make idiotic mistakes, usually with the same degree of self-confidence that they bring to all of their statements. (Both White and the guys on /filmcast tend to fall into the school of criticism that if you say something with enough conviction, then it must be true. Sort of like I just did.)
First, early in the podcast, White states that INCEPTION’s director, Christopher Nolan, doesn’t understand film because he is not a visualist. White is entitled to his opinions, but he goes on to say that filmmaking is a primarily a visual work of art. “You don’t need sound, but you have to know what you’re doing with the images. And from the word ‘cinema’ you have to be able to handle or execute kinetics. And those are the basics.”
This point of view is so amazingly short-sighted and ignorant that it staggers my imagination. It seems to come from the mind of someone who has never observed intimately just how sound and music affect audiences. The fact is that the word “cinema” doesn’t come from the English word “kinetics,” it comes from the Greek word “kinema” (which means “movement”) and “kinein” (which means “to move”). Nowhere does it say “visual movement.” As anyone who has ever been in a darkened room can attest, movement comes from sound as well as visuals. In fact, some of the most emotional moments in my life have come from listening, as well as watching.
To dismiss sound and music, as White very easily does, shows an ignorance of how filmmakers all over the world are today using the tools that filmmaking gives us and puts him firmly in a camp with very few other visitors (a place that I’m sure he really likes). My observation is that critics who come from a non-filmmaking background much more easily make these mistakes than those who have actually participated in the filmmaking process. Ask any editor — it’s one thing to sit at your “Moviola” inching forward, frame-by-frame (assuming you can find an editor who works on a Moviola today). That is certainly one of the things that we need to do as we shape our films. But to truly appreciate how an actor’s performance affects us, or how a camera dolly can move us, or to hear what an actor is saying with inflection, or what a change in sound is doing to us, you need to run that puppy at 24 frames per second (or 25, if you’re in Europe) and really experience it.
This is one reason why, at USC, we make sure that the Critical Studies students take a filmmaking/production class as part of their curriculum. Many of them take more than one. I think it makes them better and smarter film critics and teachers.
Another real honker is when White tries to convince the three tongue-tied slash-film critics that everything on a movie can be laid at the foot of the director. One of them, I believe it was Quigley, falls right into that trap, claiming that many films are taken away from the director so that White’s point must be wrong. But that is giving White his point on a silver platter. The real point, as one of them does say, is that there are a lot of names listed on a film’s credits and, while the director is generally in charge of them all (and responsible for communicating the tone and style of the film to each of them), each of them contributes a staggering amount of their own personal vision to the film, in a way which deeply affects an audience.
I actually don’t really see the point of claiming that the director is the ultimate arbiter of a film. Often a director is not even the first person on a film — preceded by the writer and a producer. I certainly understand how someone without a vision can create a holy mess because their creative team isn’t working together. But I don’t really understand what is so precious about attributing the complete vision of a film to one person. Look at the difference in Sam Mendes work before and after Conrad Hall’s death. One can also claim that Vittorio Storaro’s effect on Bernardo Bertolucci’s work was crucial to the successes that both of them had.
As White himself says, in an attempt to dodge a point made by the slash-casters, you’re not in the room with the director so you can’t really say who did what (this was in regards to Steven Spielberg’s effect on Michael Bay’s work on both TRANSFORMERS films). But he never connects that with the reality that most of the really good ideas, with really good directors, are shaped by collaborations, rather than just by a strong single vision.
And that is a mistake that non-filmmakers often make. White excoriates critics who pray at the altar of megabuck Hollywood films. Yet he prays an altar as well — that of the single-vision filmmaker. And that is just as shortsighted.