the style versus content smackdown - part 4

It’s becoming clear by now that, to a large extent, Emerson and Gelderblom are trying to set fire to straw men. But to sum up they key issues undermining their case for equating content with style:

Literalism vs symbolism: the thing about symbols is that the condition of their possibility is simultaneously the condition of their impossibility. For something to serve as a symbol, it has to be, in some way, totally detached from the thing it symbolizes; it wouldn’t be a symbol otherwise, if it is even possible to conceive of a fixed, necessary symbol. The absence of meaning, nothingness, is thus always a possibility, which leaves open the possibility of new meanings, new symbols, etc, but can also remain without meaning. Gelderblom suggests that people who see style in substance are more liable to “hit” upon overlooked levels of meaning, but the mistake is that the meaning is not something to be hit upon (remember that quote by Jameson?). Meaning is something that is created and created anew. As such, meaning isn’t some static that can be overlooked, but a dynamic process that is ever-changing.

The Missing Links: It’s not simply that “style” and “content” are different words, but that in ordinary, everyday language we make a distinction between the two all the time. In an informal poll among people I know, no one agreed that style and content are the same. By itself, this doesn’t necessarily prove much except that if we don’t equivocate style and content in everyday terms, why should do so in formal film criticism? Gelderblom’s complaint – that arguing that style comes at the cost of substance assumes that style “by itself is incapable of prompting any thought” – actually misses the point, just as it misses a key concept: information. Of course style is by itself capable of prompting thought. It is even capable of serving a communicative function, as is content. In other words, just as content is informative, so is style. However, the information in style and the information in content are not necessarily identical. To use an example. I could say, “It’s raining today.” (Content) But tone of voice (style) can influence how the fact that it’s raining today is interpreted; it can even question the truth of that “fact.” Hence, “It’s raining today?” Or “It’s raining today!”

So with all due respect to Godard’s sensible definition, perhaps we need to view style not as a property of content, but as vessel for content. In other words, style is the medium of content. This brings me to another key concept lacking in Gelderblom and Emerson’s discussions on style: dialectic. Without implying that style and content are opposed to one another, we could informally say that they’re the thesis and antithesis that come together in synthesis to make a film. When it’s a good synthesis, we have a good film (irrespective of whether the filmmaker starts with style or content). When it’s not, we have a bad film. If there is no distinction between style and content, then the basis for saying that is inferior to rests on shaky foundations. After all, perhaps dismissing Lara Croft: Tomb Raider arises out of a failure to appreciate what the film’s formal qualities are telling. It’s ironic that the very thing Gelderblom argues for ultimatly has the effect he believes arises out of distinguishing between style and substance.

To illustrate, consider a great scene from No Country for Old Men (minor spoilers!). Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) sits in his hotel room, tensely waiting to find out what Chigurgh (Bardem) will do. He calls down to the reception, but without the camera leaving Moss’ face and telephone-holding hand, we can hear the phone ring endlessly in the lobby. We then get a shot of the cat licking spilled milk. The implication, of course, is clear: Chigurgh killed the desk clerk.

What makes the scene so wonderful is how the Coen Brothers set up the scene in terms of shots and the like as well as the choices they make in what to reveal and what to conceal. There is palpable tension and terror. Yet they could just as easily have shown Chigurgh walking into the hotel and killing the desk clerk. The overall information we learn – that Chigurgh killed the desk clerk and has no compulsion about killing anyone who might be in his way – remains the same regardless of how that information is conveyed. It just so happens that the Coens chose – masterfully – to be sly rather than explicit. The moral of the story, then, is however much style and content work as a seamless, unified whole when we experience a film, analytic distinctions between the two are unavoidable and perhaps even desirable when trying to figure out what makes a movie tick.

For the most dramatic example of how and content are distinguished, we actually have to look no further than the fact that there some questions that references to a film’s formal qualities won’t answer. Example:

Did the character perform action X with a motive that is both believable and consistent with other character information provided by the film?

Does it make sense for event C to occur given events A and B?

Are the characters well-developed or merely stereotypes?

And so on. In this vein, we come full circle to what launched this series of posts. To question the ethics of what and how a film represents a particular subject, to discuss cultural context as Jonathan Rosenbaum did; all these and more are perfectly legitimate questions, as is respecting a film for its formal qualities but rejecting the quality of its meaning/information (or vice versa). A film isn’t merely collection of isolated scenes; it is a gestalt of cinematic elements. In my view, No Country for Old Men is an example of the former. It has outstanding performances and some truly excellent scenes, but doesn’t gel as a gestalt. Even if I thought otherwise, I’d still think Emerson is off-base with his film theory and critique of Rosenbaum.



the style versus content smackdown - part 3

I’ll leave Emerson aside for a moment and bring in Gelderblom, who is mighty irritated with critics who offer “platitudes” like “The film’s technical bravura can’t make up for its sluggish plot” and “If you like gee-whiz visual pyrotechnics above a decent story, this one’s for you.”

Part of Gelderblom’s irritation stems from how the accusation of style over substance is lobbed in a cavalier fashion against both “eye-popping Hollywood extravaganzas like The Mummy Returns, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Bad Boys II, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Catwoman”and “offbeat fare like Lola Rennt, The Limey, Fight Club, In The Mood For Love, Elephant and Oldboy.” It’s interesting in-and-of-itself that Gelderblom recognizes categories of film quality, a recognition that clearly puts offbeat fare on a higher pedestal than Hollywood extravaganzas. He seems to be saying that it’s okay to indulge the style over substance argument for mainstream Hollywood films, but how dare critics use that same argument against this clearly superior offbeat stuff? According to Gelderblom, using the same argument against both “types” of film is to put directors like Steven Soderbergh and Michael Bay on the same even playing field – that’s begging the question, of course, from a critical standpoint. And a good example of the snootiness that mars this crusade against so-called lazy critics.

But to go on. Gelderblom is particularly displeased by the notion of style over substance – Emerson’s separation of style from the work itself: "…to claim that a medium’s formalist qualities are only skin-deep…is to confuse aesthetics with cosmetics and to ridicule the meaning of form altogether.” Again, this seems to be a rather unfair characterization of contemporary film criticism, in that even the platitudes Gelderblom bandies are about a particular film’s failure to have substantial formalist qualities. In other words, to say that film is emphasizing style over substance is to say that the director of a particular film has not made good use of film’s formalist qualities. This is a very different thing from saying that the formal qualities of film as a medium are skin-deep by definition, which I doubt any critic really believes.

And still critics choose to splice the unity of style and content over and over again. A real pity, because Godard’s formulation carries style beyond the mere serviceable and offers a way of acknowledging form as the outward manifestation of content. This criterion - style as the shape of substance - may sound pretentious, but those who examine films accordingly are likely to hit upon levels of meaning overlooked by others.

Gelderblom goes on to posit two more degrees of style-driven cinema: style as substance (“movies are, quite literally, about their style”) and substance in style (using “form to evoke and flesh out an inherent message”). He prefers these degrees to style over substance because “The word “over” suggests that style prevails at the cost of substance--as if style by itself is incapable of prompting any thought.”

Of course, I have a problem with that…I’ll get to it in my next post. (I’m deliberately keeping these posts short.)

Stay tuned...


the style versus content smackdown - part 2

Emerson’s beef with film critics hinges on a literalism whose result is that

film criticism itself is automatically made superfluous. A bullet is a bullet, a killer is a killer, a zombie is a zombie, a gangster movie is about gangsterism, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, and don't even ask about the cigar. Lift and separate "content" from the movie and, once you've removed the context, what more needs to be said? In Keith Uhlich's eloquent words, such an approach exemplifies "the dubious product of American literalism, of an inability to grapple with a film's numerous layers of experience, falling back on easy prejudices and dichotomies as a way of stopping discussion and disagreement cold.

Ignoring the irony of Uhlich’s statement on stopping discussion and disagreement cold, which is the logical conclusion of Emerson’s restrictions on what constitutes valid film criticism, the argument is that there’s more to a film than what you see. That is, a film has a symbolic quality. His quoting of Richard T. Jameson sums up his position quite well:

"Content" is not content; "the meaning" is not a concrete certitude cunningly buried so that one may have the pleasure of a civilized, mental version of hide-and-seek, strip-mining through "the story" to get to "the themes." "The meaning" is only one more piece of material, as deformable by the operation of the artistic sensibility as the sea is by the pull of the moon's gravity. Content is what happens from moment to moment, and then in the suspended moment that is one's life within the aesthetic life-system the artist has created. And content is at the beck of style.

Emerson (through Jameson) is entirely correct about the nature of a film’s meaning, in that “meaning” is not built into a movie. It is not an objective, intrinsic property, but a fluid, subjective, malleable quality. But what does it mean to say that content is at the beck of style?

In agreeing with a commenter, Peet Gelderblom, whose essay The Shape of Substance I’ll get to in my next post, Emerson says:

That's a simple concept (an obvious one, I'd think) but many persist in seeing "syle" as a kind of mortar that can be slathered on with a trowel in between "bricks" of "content." To pretend you can separate the style from a work of art is like pretending you can separate an apple into its color, its shape, its texture, its smell and its taste, and line those things up for examination, side by side. It's metaphysically absurd, man.

I think Emerson is being quite unfair to critics by assuming that because they discuss one aspect of the film over another, they are metaphysically separating style from a work of art. More importantly, though, I think he’s wrong to assert that style can’t be separated from other aspects of a film – at least from an analytical standpoint. I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at with the apple, in that comparing a taste with a colour doesn’t make that much sense. But you can certainly compare the colour of an apple with the colour of an orange and achieve a meaningful comparison without having to consider texture or taste.

Emerson’s point, ultimately, is that “style over substance” arguments fundamentally neglect the essence of film as art, a point developed by Gelderblom in the aforementioned essay.

Stay tuned…


the style versus content smackdown - part 1

It’s well established my now that critics who DON’T fall to their knees and worship the new Coen Brothers movie, No Country for Old Men, are in the minority. (This minority includes me, and you can read my review here.) Naturally, this leads to some rather feisty discussions…and, I think, unintentional snobbery on the part of the film’s defenders. Jim Emerson (editor of rogerebert.com and a film blogger) in particular, seems to have taken issue with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s critical view of the film in the Chicago Reader.

I’m not going to dissect the discussion around Rosenbaum’s critique per se, except to point out that Emerson and Rosenbaum engage in rather different kinds of film criticism. Rosenbaum addresses the cultural significance of the film. He specifically wonders how films like No Country for Old Men offer us a “convenient cop-out” where “we can allow dog collars to be used even while we hypocritically shake our heads at the sadness of it all.” In response, Emerson quibbles that Rosenbaum misunderstands, among other things, the movie’s genre – it’s not a psycho killer movie, as Rosenbaum believes, but “a noirish crime thriller and a western and a detective story.” (Personally, I’d agree it’s a nourish crime thriller, but if it’s a western detective story, then it’s not a very good one based on standards of either genre.) More importantly, the foundation of Emerson’s film criticism specifically engages the film’s craft, although I suspect Emerson would dislike referring to his discussion of the film in that way. In other words, Emerson is focused on how the film functions as a film whereas Rosenbaum muses about what the film means in the context of today’s culture.

It’s worth quoting Emerson, who in turn quotes from something he wrote after seeing the film at the Toronto Film Festival, to get an idea of what drives Emerson’s critique:

"No Country for Old Men" is one of those movies I think provides a critical litmus test. You can quibble about it all you like, but if you don't get the artistry at work then, I submit, you don't get what movies are. Critics can disapprove of the unsettling shifts in tone in the Coens' work, or their presumed attitude toward the characters, or their use of violence and humor -- but those complaints are petty and irrelevant in the context of the movies themselves: the way, for example, an ominous black shadow creeps across a field toward the observer ("No Country" has a credit for "Weather Wrangler"); or a phone call from a hotel room that you can hear ringing in the earpiece and at the front desk, where you're pretty sure something bad has happened but you don't need to see it; or the offhand reveal of one major character's fate from the POV of another just entering the scene; or... I could go on and on. To ignore such things in order to focus on something else says more about the critic's values than it does about the movies. It's like complaining that Bresson's actors don't emote enough, or that Ozu keeps his camera too low.

This is, in many way, a rather remarkable and flabbergasting statement. First is the frankly condescending assertion that “if you don't get the artistry at work then…you don't get what movies are.” Holy condescension, Batman! Even more amazing is how Emerson dismisses criticisms about the use of violence, or tonal shifts, or whatever, as “petty and irrelevant” in comparison to how scenes and shots are set up. Interestingly, he does back-pedal in comments with his readers. Responding to someone taking him to task, he writes:

…I do not advocate "ignoring" anything, but rather NOT to ignore the broader picture of a film -- not to reduce a multi-layered experience to a one-dimensional literal concept. I don't think noticing tonal shifts is petty or irrelevant in and of itself. But noticing (while crucial) is only the first step in criticism. The next would be to give an example and explore, for example: Why does the tone shift in this way? What is the effect? What is the context? Go ahead and argue that something doesn't work, but cite an example from the film.

But while Emerson is right to point out that what critics choose to discuss about a film (and what they leave out) says more about their values then the film, it seems to me that his views on film criticism are rather guilty of confusing technique, style, and content. At the very least, it’s a bit obvious to say that a discussion of the film should start with the film, but I don’t think it’s necessary to use a shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene analysis, in order to successfully (that is reasonably) critique the film. I can only assume that Emerson quoted himself to suggest that Rosenbaum’s criticism of the film is based solely on ideology rather than anything contained within the film.

In order to accept this, however, one has to buy into Emerson’s equivocation of style and content. In order to explore that equivocation, however, it’ll be necessary to take a look at some of his other blog posts…which means another blog posting of my own as this one is long enough.

Stay tuned…