Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ken Turan, Roger Ebert and the incredible shrinking teamster

I've come to like twitter. I have little confidence in its long-term survival, but I like it. And hence I sometimes read the stuff of the people I follow, and sometimes I go along with the links they post and happen upon finding myself in an interesting article. And so it happened with Roger Ebert's twitter feed, and so I must thank him for this link to this article.

The article is While high school literary magazines are a bit removed from national film criticism, this essay brings to mind my days as an editor for the Ivy. For the first 2-3 years I was there, we followed a rule of whiting out the name of whatever piece we were reviewing. But then one year, perhaps we were just lazy, perhaps we were too smug in assuming of course we knew what was good, despite any personal feelings, perhaps we were just too informal and inattentive, but for some reason we stopped whiting out the names. The odd thing was we didn't end up favoring our friends much (maybe a few cases), mostly though we became more dismissive of people who weren't our friends.

But actually, thinking upon it more, it wasn't really a matter of who was our friends. It was more the case that we were dismissive of people didn't have an artistic reputation. I suppose the real reason not to review friends in our case was not so much that we might champion our friends, as that we became confident that we knew the scene and knew who deserved to be featured from it.

Film reviewers don't really have the option of whiting out the name. While no reviewing friends helps, just knowing who made what, affects the criticism, but on the other hand, deep analytical criticism often focuses on the filmmaker more than the film at hand, and sometimes part of the experience of the film rests in its context, including the context of who the filmmaker is. Most importantly though, film reviewers review famous things and even if they try to avoid it, they will inevitably hear from everyone who is in anything.

But perhaps the solution is thus, and this is an approach I try to practice when looking at films. Treat the film makers as abstractions, as phenomena, not as real human beings. Of course, you can analyze them as examples of human beings making films, but treat them as if they were not real, as if they were a legend, or better yet, a story unfolding in front of you. Indeed treat the entire film scene and history like that. I could go as far to say life... but I won't. Here's the reason I won't, life is something to be engaged in, to revel in, now analysis is part of that process of revelling, but it requires a particular focus to analyze something.

By focus I mean, you cannot analyze something and include everything that ever touched it in the analysis. Because, you as the observer are also touched by it and maybe you can appreciate that on an instinctual level, and maybe you can summarize it, but can you capture the whole of your experience with the object of your analysis? Say a film for example, can you really capture every aspect of how you viewed it, especially since how you experienced the film is intertwined with who you are and what your life has been, can you capture it all?

But if you start talking about the film as something real, something visceral, there's a subtext to it all, where you say "This is how I viewed it as me". And what does that give to anyone else who reads it? Since you cannot communicate the entirety of yourself, but your writing is soaked in the particularities of your experience, you leave the reader befuddled.

That is not to say do not make the writing personal, but rather make it personal in a particular way. Confine the personalness, to this or that aspect of your life. And try to detach the rest of your life from the writing. Now that's an impossible goal, but you try, and you might find your writing becomes more than just words but actual communication.

To get back to what I was saying about film criticism. The film critic cannot explain all of who he is in a citical essay, and if he views the film a real work that has lives and history and everything attached to it, then all his feelings about lives and history and everything, and really everything, becomes the subject of the essay. Usually that ends up at best a beautiful mess, and at worse an ugly one. So a degree of focus must be made, the film becomes an abstraction, and indeed the writer becomes an abstraction to himself, so that this particular aspect of the film and the writer's experience with the film can be detached and put on paper. And that is an impossible task but it's made harder when your personal ties to the film are dear ones. And yet...

Is it possible to communicate without that filtering, by just pouring everything out there? I'd say probably not. But perhaps if you're lucky, talented, or the medium suits you perfectly, you get the miraculous situation where pouring out everything is filtered just by the where, when, and how of your art, and thus despite the uniquely personal chaos of your thoughts, something to a greater or lesser extent universal comes out, or at least something shared by a few people.

The article that prompted all of this, is about a film review by LA Times film cricket Kenneth Turan where he breaks his own rule and reviews his friend's work. And does it create the beautiful mess that I implied would come?

No, but that's because the article by Kenneth Turan is not really about the film (it does contain maybe 3 or 4 paragraphs giving a brief ho-hum recommendation which sounds generally like a famous person recommending a friend's film with a touch of earnestness), rather it's about Kenneth Turan and the writing process. And here Mr. Turan does seem to abstract himself to a degree carving out a moment in his life, his writing of his review, and in reviewing himself, if not the film in question, he makes a fine essay.

So take it to your head, take it to your heart and remember Rand rocks. Goodnight Folks!

And God Bless.

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