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…

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