June 3, 2011

In defence of criticism: The case of The Hangover 2

Culture is only true when implicitly critical, and the mind which forgets this revenges itself in the critics it breeds. Criticism is an indispensable element of culture.
-Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno


In his recent column, filmmaker Matthew Toffolo makes a point of attacking film criticism because, as he puts it so eloquently, 'Most critics really don't get it.' As I read his uninspired and unconvincing argument against critics in the wake of the critical response to the summer blockbuster The Hangover 2, I felt compelled to respond to his weak arguments and, at the same time, respond to the numerous casual filmgoers who never seem to understand the critic's purpose and perspective.

Chiefly, a film critic is not a filmgoer. There is a massive difference between the casual frame of mind of Joe-Six-Pack, heading to the movies to 'forget his troubles' and the film critic whose job is to analyze the aesthetic importance and historical significance of a work. 'Criticism is an indispensable element of culture', as Adorno points out, because its job is to put new works in context, never forgetting influential oeuvres that came before, always placing new work within a specific artistic movement, making connections between the present and the past, defining and deconstructing as he progresses through. Criticism's purpose is never to mint popular successes in a desperate bid for wide acceptance.

If you're asking yourself why are critics' tastes so far removed from popular tastes, you're asking yourself the wrong question. Let me put the critic's development in focus as a way to explain his demanding craft: ideally, the film critic has studied film, art theory or art history, or any combination of those; during these studies, said critic has dabbled himself in the process of creating an artwork, getting a feel for the dedication and passion needed to bring an idea to fruition; but also, the critic has seen, studied and experienced a body of work in his field, from a bevy of creators, works which purely entertain sure, but also some that are taxing, frustrating, intellectual, strange and meaningful, to use only these adjectives for now.

Depending on his alma mater (and the professors available there at any given time), his studies were guided towards specific subjects, like New York University's emphasis on iconoclastic American directors and the independent film scene, Columbia University closeness to the Hollywood mainstream or (my own) Concordia University's emphasis on art films, he will have developed a unique intuition, a special blend of his own tastes and the impact of his school's corpus. For example, my tastes have always been influenced by Hollywood movies, but I've also, from an early age, been attracted to skewed films, unique visions from iconoclastic directors. My studies, I can say, have only exacerbated these penchants, leading me to look for them in Hollywood fare yes, but also in national cinemas.

Now, the importance of studying art theory and history should be self-evident. Not only is film a specific media, leading a critic to compare films with each other, drawing from more than 100 years of World cinema and an innumerable number of films with varied subjective importance, but a film is also artwork, leading to varied comparisons with other arts like happenings in visual arts or schools of thought in literature and even video games and the Internet. With such a daunting repository of influences, the critic's analysis of an oeuvre is only noteworthy when it brings forth some form of understanding, whether of the auteur or artist's vision or of the critic's philosophical perspective. In that, film criticism is like remix art, taking an existing work of art as a starting point to discover meaning and purpose. With that outlook, it's more logical to wonder why critics' tastes should be close to popular tastes. 

Which brings us to The Hangover 2. What is its aesthetic value and historical significance? How does it hold under the scrutiny of comparisons with a corpus of films, within the same genre or not? Aesthetically, it brings nothing new to the global discussion: it holds no hidden truth, no reflections on the meaning of life on this earth; it never dares to examine the bitter-sweetness of existence; it shies away from the inner complexity and turmoil of character; it borrows effects from documentary filmmaking, like the time-lapse photography or its use of pictures without retaining the soul and purpose of these methods; it visually equates Bangkok with chaos (dark, dirty and gritty), a biased Western point of view; it recycles the first movie's story structure, to the point of incongruity, while sinking deeper in crudeness and malevolence.


Historically, comparing the movie to powerful comedic films like Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, Chaplin's Modern Times, Bunuel's Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie or de Andrade's Macunaima, The Hangovers are never critical of anything, choosing rather to cater to the public's expectations. But, comedy has always used its easy acceptance to foster social change, not only in cinema but in other artforms: Moliere used his farces to ridicule the habits of French nobility; in ancient Greece, the genre was used in theater to criticize local politics. The Hangover 2 uses its platform to study binge and excess that neither feels genuine nor of artistic merit.



Although I know this will probably not change popular mentalities about critics, I hope some will understand that the critic's job is not to vindicate mainstream films. The reality is that the majority of the public is conditioned to go see Hollywood films because they are programmed to consume goods, to seek happiness in consumption instead of pursuing meaning, whether they are accepted by critics or not. This is one of the reasons why I recently decided to limit the amount of movies I review for my blog to concentrate on noteworthy films (in my case, Asian and Third-World films) and ignore the majority of popular entertainment, and I encourage all critics to do the same. The theory, one that Mr. Toffolo seems to share, that a movie should be a distraction is ludicrous. A movie is art; it should challenge and disturb, stir and excite, elate and impress. I don't go to see films to forget my life; I love my life! I go to the movies to understand why we're here, what's our purpose. Any film that doesn't live up to this universal truth is inconsequential. A critic's purpose is then to decipher meaning, burrowing to the truth of art and bringing it to light.