Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Alfred North Whitehead once said: "Our knowledge of the particular facts of the world around us is gained from our sensations. We see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and feel hot and cold, and push, and rub, and ache, and tingle. These are just our own personal sensations: my toothache cannot be your toothache, and my sight cannot be your sight." What mathematics does, Whitehead explained, is create a public world that's the same for everybody. Mathematics imagines a world "as one connected set of things which underlies all the perceptions of all people. There is not one world of things for my sensations and another for yours, but one world in which we both exist."

Can film criticism, or any kind of criticism for that matter, discover a world that underlies all the perceptions of all people? And does it matter if it can or not?

Mathematics is essential to the science of bombs, and vaccines, and medicines. It makes architecture and engineering possible. That these things matter is obvious. But do things like films and what we make of them matter in the same way? And to whom do they matter?

Tom Wolfe famously pointed out that without the theories of Rosenberg and Greenberg -- Red Mountain and Green Mountain -- le monde, the little world of artists, dealers and collectors in the Fifties and Sixties, was unable to see. Until you grasped the theories, you saw something all right, but not the "real" paintings. So what? Rosenberg and Greenberg didn't even have the same theory about what they were looking at. They weren't even seeing the same things.

Physicists sometimes think of light as particles. Sometimes they think of light as waves. Neither particles nor waves by themselves explain all there is to know about light, but taken together they do. And that matters. Because the bomb blows up.

What matters about criticism is that it should be useful somehow. A modest goal for a critic might be to make something accessible to a viewer, or listener, or reader, that wouldn't be accessible to them without the critique. And my thought is we should do that without going overboard about the importance of the work we're talking about. We should talk about art the way we talk about mushrooms on our lawns, keeping our heads straight when we swim, finding our way home after a night on the town, or whether we prefer one-egg or two-egg omelettes.

The only thing I can make accessible to anyone is what I remember I saw and heard and thought when I watched a film.


Decidere said...

Well, art can be a language that connects people. It's relatively easy to write music that's appreciated across cultures, even if a mathematic description of those cultures diverges. Some noted the tiny world of Faulkner and the tiny world of Dostoevsky drew more similarities than attempts to be universal. A toothache in Mississippi approaches a toothache in St. Petersburg, whether chased away by corn whiskey or vodka. Optical illusions, tricks of emotions, suspension of disbelief... the difference with math is that in art the observer participates actively, isn't just described. One of the things I loved about Bucky Fuller was his attention to the flaws in our constructs - straight lines do not exist simply because nature is always crooked to some extent, it all depends on how closely you look. Artists start with the crooked and build up. In "The Recognitions", a forger recreating the works of Van Eyck learns the art of scarring his masters to show the toll of time and accident - to scar them artistically becomes more important than the selling price, and his immersion into this fantasy eventually brings him to stop saying "his painting" and start saying "my painting". Perhaps a few more hundred pages and he would have physically transmogrified into a Flemish painter a la Dorian Gray. But instead he's undone by space.

Quinn the Eskimo said...

Seems to me this is a long way from the days you were exploring those computerized rabbit holes.

Though I still like the idea that a film would just get a number, "39", and everyone would get what it meant.

Billy Glad said...

I think what's missing from most criticism for me is the explicit or implicit "to me" or "it seems to me" or "personally" on the connotative level.

It's one thing to say, for example, that Cassavetes get closer to his actors than most film maker's do. That's a matter of fact. You can see how often he uses close-ups, compared to other directors. But why he does it, and what it connotes or refers to is subjective. I can say how I react to the close-ups in the context of the film, but my reaction is as much a result of what I bring to the film as it is a result of what Cassavetes intended. I think the best criticism is personal. Mansky is able to place his nuns in a garden with a sundial. Without his hint, I might have put them in Huxley's The Devils of Loudun.

Quinn the Eskimo said...

I think this is at the core of much of my frustration with art criticism, with journalism, with social sciences. We were all taught at university that we should work toward removing the personal. At "objectivity." And yet, pretty much all the attempts I studied were farcical. Their attempts at objectivity or distance were really distortive, and often manipulative. Dishonest, in some deep way.

Outside of some embarrassingly obvious "facts" - e.g. when/where a film was shot etc. - it just seems to me that anyone proposing some grand "objectivity"... is a fool. It bugs me. Like... Why are these grown-up's trying to hide? So I spent years of my life tearing the curtains down, pulling the personal aspects of their views out into the open. Histories, political theories, litcrit, cultural analysis, sociology, economics. That last one was just a horror story - con on con. A waste of time after a while, but hey - I was young.

It was really Feyerabend who drove this home for me, in "Against Method" & his other papers. Because he went straight after the hard sciences - physics and astronomy and such - and showed how the personal shaped even those worlds, which stood as our "ideal" in this regard. Once he walks you through why there's not even a fixed and agreed upon "scientific method," but that it's shaped and changed by each wave of science, and the role of rhetoric and persuasion (and generational change) in determining what "the facts" are... some clown's gonna "tell" me what a film means?

And Feyerabend was FUNNY. That was important to me. He had the lightness that anyone who's really thinking about anything has. They GET how far beyond us it is. Same thing with Nietzsche, the dude could rant, but also laugh like hell.

Swinging to Whitehead, the thing he said I've remembered most is that idea of taking something unconscious, making it conscious, adjusting it, then putting it back to sleep. Talk about film technique, for instance. Fun to see how it's done, to learn that, but then... put it back to sleep. Or political speech-making. Financial maneuverings. Sex.

Make it personal, and make no pretense about it. A critic does that, and has had an interesting life or has an interesting eye, then I'm happy to read 'em.

And best of all, if they've got a sense of humour.

Billy Glad said...

I've always felt Kael was a lot like that.

Decidere said...

It's funny, because we teach public speaking the exact opposite of papers, but which would you rather have, someone engaged and interesting, or someone detached and pedantic? Perhaps fudge the facts just for effect and footnote your fudges - the crowd won't care.

Now where's Jacob Freeze? Can that boy rant and laugh.

Tom Manoff said...

An advantage for radio reviews is simply tone. People may not always remember exactly what you said but rather how it came across emotionally. Speaking in a "duet' with the music, of course, allows for plenty of emotional pointers.

Writing criticism that both connects personally and intellectually --as if one could make a difference between these--is much harder, at least for me.

What's compelling about Billy's pieces is the way the writing and the ideas create a tone of absolute certainty. I am completely persuaded by the writing, the ideas, the insights. And here's the point, campers, it's not at all boring. It's not heady. And it's certainly not academic.

It's art.

Billy Glad said...

I'm glad you like the writing. It's important to me that the few people who read this blog find what I write useful in some way. I really do write just for the few friends and family who drop by every day.

I was going to post something about that, about why I think writing about politics and issues and such is a waste of time for a small-time blogger.

There may be bloggers or columnists who can actually make a difference on a large scale with their rants and pontifications. A blogger who only has 20 or so readers can't do anything about the big issues except blow off steam. Might as well go out in the backyard and holler or kick the cat, or get grumpy with the kid. For me, the challenge has been to put things up that might make a real difference to the few readers I have.

Tom Manoff said...

I had a long conversation yesterday with a friend at a successful record label about internet communities.
Although I speak with her, the last time I saw her was in Germany in a 12th century church --at Maria Laach-- for a rollout of a new recording from her label.

LIke all people in the music and record world the talk is about what happens next. What happens when CDs are gone because we know they are going. What about downloads. What about diminished capacity for concert touring.

She is the first person I've spoken with who understands that INternet communities are an important part of the future for Classical and Jazz.
A gathering of people, however different, with some sense of the world that holds them together.

My first good experience of such a group was at the Hive.

I've worked in radio and print for a long time. I sense that classical reviews in print are read by a handful of people. No energy comes back.

The Internet is like a very small version of radio and TV. It's the place where targeted communities will meet. I'd rather see 30 hits on a web pieces than figure out how many read a piece from the Times. Sure, I'm glad I wrote for the Times. And I want the credit. But we're coming on the time when serious writing will be on the Internet, not in print.

My first experience of such a community was