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...

No comments: