Critiquing Critique/blog is not dead yet (nor I)!

So, for a variety of reasons – all of which can be summed up as “grad school” – this blog has been on semi-hiatus, but! It is not yet abandoned, and so in the spirit of not making abandoning things, here is one last, super-meta post/rant about something near and dear to me: people being Wrong on the Internet.

(Full disclosure: this all stems from a minor quibble with the Los Angeles Times’ review of an animated movie, in which the reviewers’ reservations with Masaaki Yuasa are exactly those traits which make him Masaaki Yuasa. Yes, this solidly places me in the company of many insufferable fanboys, but you can’t critique a surrealist for being weird anymore than you can rag on the ocean for being wet.)

Reviewing is, by its nature, a fundamentally biased act. For all that we tout the ideal of unspoiled spectator, coming into a film or book untouched by knowledge of the plot twists or cultural biases, the fact is that art always exists in a context: if you’ve never watched a horror film, you can’t talk about the cliches of jump scares and final girls; if you’ve never read a Gothic novel in your life, then your take on Crimson Peak is going to necessarily be a bad one, or at the very least incomplete. At the most basic level, if you can’t read English, then I have no idea how you’re engaging with this blog post. The question, however, is how much of this background is needed for a proper appreciation of a text.

To bring this into a more coherent context: if you know nothing about sci-fi or Star Wars, do you really have the right to write about The Last Jedi? On the internet, of course, the answer is yes, but given the internet is also full of people who have written off Faulkner for “too many words,” the wisdom of trusting internet advice is pretty dicey. When it comes down to it, I’m certainly going to trust a film theorist over some guy on the street when it comes to explicating the themes of Mulholland Drive, but does that necessarily invalidate the latter’s opinion? Or do I listen to the film critic because I am necessarily more like him, someone with the sufficient privilege of time and education to appreciate quote end-quote challenging art?

And if you want to go to the extreme end of expert, though, and we necessarily enter into the messy territory of gatekeeping: if you haven’t been playing since the original NES disc, can you really appreciate Breath of the Wild? Unless you’ve read the original books and seen the first TV adaptation, how can you really talk about the reboot? Fetishization of expertise is the superfan who goes well actually, if you read the spin-off novels, then that obscure character’s non-sequitur in act three actually takes on all sorts of tragic implications…like, no. If this is a fan bonus, fine. If that extratextual revelation is central to your film’s emotional payoff, then hey, guess what? That’s what they call a bad adaptation. As Ready Player One reminds us, a compelling plot cannot be constructed out of Easter eggs—or can it?

Actually no, I’m going to say it really can’t.

This is also, fundamentally, my beef with Avengers: Infinity Wars: if I have to watch fifteen films in order to fully understand this one film, then perhaps consider making your one film less of an exercise in nerd indulgence.

And yet, at the same time, isn’t that what long-form fiction—the comic book, the movie trilogy, the multi-volume fantasy novel—implicitly also asking us to do? And we accept that as part of the contract of their storytelling, we go into them with the expectation that we have to do that grunt work before enjoying the denouement, and yes, there’s a difference between that and expecting someone to memorize all of Wookiepedia in order to appreciate a film, but where is the hard line separating the two? Is it just a question of expectation or is there some sort of fundamental difference in the type of knowledge that’s being demanded? We want adaptations and works of art to stand on their own, but given how intrinsically intertextual and shaped by history all art is, what does that mean?

Who knows? If we want to get down to it, boil this whole ramble down into a singular argument, then I suppose we have circle back to the fact that art is arbitrary and our response to it even more so, so why drag this all out for so long when we’re never going to arrive at any definitive answers. None of it matters, we’re all going to die. Et cetera.

But still. Having been on both sides of the divide, the confounded critic as well as the disgruntled fan contemptuous of outsider ignorance, it’s an important question to pose, I think. In any case, if you’re going to write about a topic—especially one that’s traditionally marginalized like animation or speculative fiction—please, please know a thing about it first. The next reviewer who expresses surprise that animation “isn’t just for kids anymore!” gets their critic license revoked. Like, please. Just don’t.  

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