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…

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