When I read film reviews, I operate under the assumption that the critic I'm reading knows more about the general subject of cinema than I do. It's how things should be and even when I've seen the movie in question and think I've caught a slip-up on the reviewer's part it doesn't change my assumption. E.g. in here I pointed out that I didn't think a certain naked sunbathing neighbor was as drop-of-a-hat available as David Denby insisted. Yet my sureness about the scale of knowledge of movies that D.D. possesses remains unchanged. This is how reputations (D.D.'s, The New Yorker's) work and it makes my reading life easier.
So I'm not phased by little discrepancies that run contrary to my assumption simply because of that assumption. Trusting your critic is important. But there is a way to abuse my relative ignorance. By pointing it out. Like a jerk.
Isn't that hypocritical? Accepting that I know less but then becoming angry when someone who knows more articulates the same exact sentiment? How can I increase my knowledge--which I might want to do if I'm going to be such a big baby about it--if I can't stand to witness an authority flexing her brain?
Well, no, it's not hypocritical. I'm only asking that the authority be a bit gentler about flaunting the old grey matter. This negotiation--of trying to show some of your voluminous knowledge for my benefit while not intimidating me into frustration by the very same display--is, I think, the core struggle of teaching. In the terms of this blog it is the struggle to score well in both DIDACTICISM and AUTHOR EMPATHY.
Recently I read a piece that negotiates this exchange sooo fucking well. R. Emmet Sweeney's article for IFC.com, "The Most Subversive Performances of 2009," may actually have tightrope walked my personal limit for how smart an author can show himself to be without costing me an ounce of reading pleasure.
The craziest part, for me, is the beginning: he quotes and summarizes a 1966 essay by some likewise genius movie critic. "EW! GROSS!" was the reaction I expected from my sensibility until I realized how compelled I was by the idea Sweeney has presented. (I'm a big proponent of keeping quotes from decades-old peer reviewed articles trapped in the ghetto of academic writing, you see.)
It's in delivering on the promise of an idea from 1966 that Sweeney really whirls. Here is a section you might expect in an a very good film review:
That is a description that piques my interest in a movie that I would have maybe seen for free before reading it, maybe. With some brief appraisals of the movie beforehand, Sweeney has done the expected job of recommendation well. But, continuing, he elevates his description to match his pronounced goal:Hall oozes his way on-screen with an ingratiating tenor that drawls out corporate double-talk with an ease and smirk that makes everything he says sound like a dirty joke.
It's a methodical breakdown in language with just the right amount of precision. When Sweeney says "the key to his performance, THOUGH," (emphasis via me) he is passively pointing out that THOUGH he just delivered a totally satisfying explanation of Hall's acting he is going to go further. He'll present a sample of what he saw with his professional's eye in the most direct way possible with no critical jargon--just great writing.The key to his performance, though, is the whiplash-inducing quality of his movements. He continually starts in a relaxed position, echoing the molasses-slow speed of his voice, until he lands on a point of emphasis, when he curls up his lip or wields his hands like a pen knife, slashing the air like he's slicing open a patient. These pinprick movements pay off in an astonishing fashion in the final sequence,
Now I would actually pay to see "Gamer." But that's only a side effect of Sweeney's purpose, which is way cooler. More importantly, he rewarded an individual performance with a righteous description of why it is so good. That he helps his reader understand what that quality actually consisted of has the potential to actually further the cause of rewarding good acting by educating people on what that might look like.
And then he does it again with another actor, four more times. This is smart writing with a purpose, and both those combine for a 10 in DIDACTICISM, something unachievable if Sweeney didn't level with the audience he was writing to (i.e. empathize from that authorial place).
As a counterexample, check out this article, which effectively disregards AUTHOR EMPATHY in favor of DIDACTICISM. Even though I initially came to White's review in search of a things to tell my friends regarding why I so disliked "District 9," I know that if I brought up his points in conversation, especially if I used his tone, I would end up punched in the face. (NB: I read this awesome NY Magazine article about White and want to reiterate that it is the hypothetical ME who would be slugged for using his "District 9" argument, NOT HIM.)
All I'm saying is that if I was a betting man and if DIDACTICISM and AUTHOR EMPATHY could be converted into physical weapons and if fights involving such weapons could be arranged and if R. Emmet Sweeney and Armand White could be persuaded into such a bout...well then, I'd put my money on R. Emmet knowing that the odds would bring it back to me tenfold. Hype is a known killer--but White has a true reputation, not hype. Unfortunately, dissing your audience's intelligence can be just as lethal.