I don’t normally like to focus on the politics or content of movies, because frankly I believe movies should be above all that crap, that film criticism and film appreciation should solely concern the depiction or methodology of their content. This is a movie-blog, first and foremost, and as such the majority of my soapbox rants are on behalf of cinema itself, not the pop culture baggage that accompanies it.
However, I cannot hold my tongue any longer. It is on the issue of film politics and social studies that I must comment and explain in detail. Anyone who does not wish to be offended by politically incorrect ranting better get out right now. You have been warned… you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…
As I noted before in my commentary on genre-snobbery in movie-criticism, film style supersedes film content and films must be judged on their own terms if we consider ourselves to be true, objective lovers of cinema. Using a particular movie as a case-study for a sociological analysis, for instance, in which complete disregard of the study of cinematic craft is acknowledged from the start is one thing; but posing as an objective reviewer of film only to slam (or praise) a project based on how well its political dialogue meshes with one’s own personal viewpoints is the height of hubris and deceptive criticism.
It is not criticism at all, as a matter of fact. Stating hyperbolic assessments of movie content as fact is at best twisting a would-be work of art into a crude mouthpiece for one’s own opinions, and at worst it’s outright lying. Film criticism, appreciation, and analysis should, in theory, be objective or as close to objective as every cinephile can muster. Using films as personal soapboxes is in fact close-minded subjectivity. It is an all too common practice that I find repulsive.
There are two main kinds of politicized film banter: Those that use the political and social content of a film (irrespective of its overall quality or portrayal of said content) as an arbitrary bonus when “reviewing” said film, or the use of a film’s material to criticize or malign that project. I refer to the former as politically correct (PC) crutches and the latter as politically correct potshots. The former entails the movie’s reputation, by the strength of one or many reviews, is artificially bolstered or supported by these “crutches” of inappropriate praise, which have nothing to do with the film’s actual craft or style but rather the subjective approval of certain self-righteous individuals. The latter is of course the opposite — films that (objectively good or bad) are unfairly lambasted for not depicting the type of socipolitical viewpoint that is in line with a particular critic.
Once again, it is important to stress that neither analyses are actual film reviews, or are legitimate analyses of any kind. Using the arbitrary content of a picture to either heckle or holler a particular viewpoint is skewed misjudgment in the extreme, a knee-jerk reaction that has no place in film theory or criticism. Also worth repeating are the exceptions when films are used outside of cinephilia and film studies for research in other disciplines, be they sociology, biology, art history, political science, or what have you. Using film culture and content for references outside the craft of filmmaking is fine, so long as the author makes explicit disclaimers that his or her particular analysis is disregarding the actual craft of a specific film, that he or she is analyzing it for non-film study related purposes, and any comments they do make to the methodology or style of a particular film is their own subjective opinion — not an attempt at thoughtful, objective analysis on the film’s own terms.
EXAMPLES OF PC CRUTCHES:
Most instances of PC crutches are leftwing “critics” arming themselves with mediocre to bad films that otherwise would be of little significance were it not for those films’ “revolutionary” or “groundbreaking” progressive content. On the other hand, occasionally conservatives will find some mindless, faux-patriotic, pro-military jargon to which they can jerk off. Some of my favorites include…
- The Fast and the Furious: Race Wars! — While it’d be a stretch to say these films are objectively terrible movies, they’re at best lazily written, cartoony guilty pleasures that have somehow corralled the dimwitted masses and mainstream critics to laud them as racially diverse gems pushing the envelope for a rainbow-colored Hollywood blockbuster. Someone like Michelle Rodriguez gets praised endlessly for being both Hispanic and possessing a vagina as a star in an action franchise, all the while her character is monotone, bland, and would be routinely ignored as such if she was pasty and had a penis. Don’t worry about stuff like character development, practical effects, or one-liners that aren’t cringe-inducing groaners — just make sure your movie has an Asian in it named “Han Seoul-Oh.” Oh, and these movies are directed by Asian filmmakers! Double bonus!
- Tyler Perry’s Tyler Perry — Perry’s filmmography has long used the pitch of racial diversity and African-American POV narratives as clumsy guises to hide the fact that his movies are exploitative trash. His eye-rolling cliches, lame jokes, and pointless cross-dressing are little different than the worst Happy Madison production — save for the shade of skin tone, of course.
- Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig’s Girl Power(!) — Much in the vein how Perry uses Afrocentricity as a commercial crutch, McCarthy and Feig have long leaned on the whole feminine empowerment/body-image facade to convince professional critics into believing their films are funny. Once again, drain forty pounds from the star or switch the genders of much of the cast, and nobody would be making any fuss about these films, least of all positive ones.
- Act of Jingoism — Arguably the purest example of military-worshiping/SUPPORT OUR TROOPS(!) conservative-pandering, Act of Valor (2012) rested its entire premise and marketing campaign on its depictions of real Navy SEALs portraying fake characters in a made-up story. It came complete with cringeworthy exposition, a bland story, and mediocre action scenes. But hey, those guys went to SEAL-training, and that’s all that matters. Plus the villain was Russian and Muslim! Double bonus!
EXAMPLES OF PC POTSHOTS:
Like PC crutches, PC potshots are overwhelmingly supported by leftwingers as opposed to conservative old fogies. We are, after all, discussing “political correctness.” Then again, in this age of ailing, aging conservatives, there’s plenty of misogynistic, racist banter to go around for the truly desperate.
- American Sniping Expectations — What’s so fascinating about American Sniper’s (2014) reception is how brilliantly it displayed the hopeless subjectivity of the entire American political spectrum. Conservatives from the Deep South and Midwest poured into theatres and made AS one of the highest grossing R-rated films of all time, lauding its depictions of a supposed American hero shooting Muslims with the word “American” in its title. Progressives skewered the movie as historical-revisionist propaganda akin to the faux-Nazi film, “Nation’s Pride” from Inglourious Basterds (2009), trashing its depictions of a supposed American hero shooting Muslims with the word “American” in its title.
- Age of Oldtron: The Betrayal of Joss Whedon — Avengers 2 was a disappointment to say the least, but one of the biggest eye-rollers was how its writer and director, Joss Whedon, was royally roasted on Twitter for casting Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in a “sexist”relationship with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Because, you know, when a woman is romantically involved with a man, especially on film, then that demeans and erases any shred of personal merit from her character. Also, people were roasting JOSS fucking WHEDON of all people for being sexist — Joss Whedon! The guy who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and personally called out a completely context-free clip of Jurassic World (2015), by deciding to label it sexist for no reason at all. Which leads me to my next example…
- Jurassic Stereotypes — Whedon, along with a plethora of other morons, started lambasting JW before it even released in theatres simply on the basis of a small clip where Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt meet (and flirt) for the first time. I suppose it recalled the “super-misogynistic” dynamic between Princess Leia and Han Solo back in Star Wars (1977), where the latter plays a smarmy, cocksure womanizer, and the former plays an uptight bitch. Again, what’s the problem?
- Star Wars: The Racists Awaken — Some of you may have noticed in the wake of the final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), the #BoycottStarWars surfacing several thousand times in protest of this latest film being “anti-white.” What the fuck is wrong with you people?!
- Star Trek Into Sexist — While the original Star Trek (2009) reboot was a universally well received blockbuster and one of J. J. Abrams’ most enjoyable films, the sequel garnered a rather amusing response from a single shot of actress Alice Eve undressing, with the galactic ladies’ man, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) “accidentally” sneaking a peak. Have you no shame, Lindelof?!?! As a nice counterexample, The Fast and the Furious franchise features plenty of “empowering booty.”
- Star Trek Into Racist — But we’re not done! Aside from the “horrific” treatment of Eve’s character, the famed Khan Noonien Singh from the original Star Trek series was even more horrifically whitewashed by Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting. Now let’s stop and really think about this for a second: Imagine in today’s 2010’s society, if a cast of primarily Caucasian characters (Spock counts) were fighting against a ruthless, sociopathic war criminal played by a darker-skinned South Asian actor, whose character name just happened to be Khan…
- Slumporn Millionaire — OK, so the 2008 Best Picture-winner is apparently either (a) racist (b) imperialistic, or (c) a cliche-ridden collection of stereotyped slum-porn, because it was a British production directed by a white filmmaker (Danny Boyle) and claims that slums and poor people exist in India. OK.
- Zero Dark Security Compromise — To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure how to make hide nor hair of this one. On the one hand, liberals thought Kathryn Bigelow glamorized torture by implying it was critical to our locating and killing Osama bin Laden (even though that’s not what happened). On there other hand, conservatives hammered the film for making America look bad because it portrayed the CIA committing widespread, despicable acts of torture — which is what happened.
- Mad Misogyny: Furious Masculinity — One of the wonderful things about George Miller’s phenom Mad Max sequel was how it told such an emotional tale and a worthy message in such a visual, actions-speaking-louder-than-words kind of way. However, much of the fun of its progressive message and a great deal of the film’s pre-release hype was ruined by assholes complaining about vagina-people (namely Charlize Theron) taking over a supposed “traditional” man’s action film. I don’t what’s more pathetic, the fact that Vagina Monologue’s creator Eve Ensler serving as a consultant for the film’s female cast got certain males all up in a bundle, or that many of these asshole “critics” admitted to never actually seeing a Mad Max film before. What kind of a man are you?
There are few things more irritating to me in film culture than people using movies as their mouthpiece through which they can scream their sociopolitical angst. Even though plenty of articles out there discussing film content over style do so without asserting their opinion as objective analyses, few bother to enunciate the separation of personal opinion and political agreement from objective cinematic review, and fewer still articulate the importance of film style over content.
As I stated in my reaction to the public announcement of this year’s (2015’s) Oscar-nominations, art does not exist to address social injustices. It shouldn’t, because then we get stuck with cringe-worthy, heavy-handed, sleep-inducing projects like 42 (2013), The Kids are Alright (2010), and The Newsroom (2012-2014). If people examine those projects or other preachy endeavors like them with an objective eye, free from their own personal background, there isn’t much artistic merit to mine out of their images. While I agree from a purely social awareness-mindset it’d be nice to see more diversity in American cinema or cinema worldwide for that matter, at the end of the day, I stand by my statement that affirmative action belongs in higher education, not the arts.
I hate to break it to people on both ends of the political spectrum, but a film’s worth is not dependent on whether it agrees with your personal views. Even if you hate the argument a particular film may be making, you can’t blame the film itself or label it as an inferior artistic piece simply for not regurgitating your own beliefs back at you. By that same logic, nor can you laud a movie and label it superior simply for reflecting those beliefs! Individual interpretations of a movie’s thematic content are fine, but ignoring the manner in which a film delivers its message and judging it solely on its thematic existence is not fair to the art of filmmaking at all.
Moreover, social media and journalists crying bloody murder over the lack of African-American or female superheroes in film or the admittedly humorous deficit of movies that fail to have two female characters talk with each other about things that aren’t men… I have a nagging feeling that you have way more pressing social issues toward which you could be channeling that rage. You’re investing in cosmetic solutions to deeply rooted problems.
I understand that, as a straight white guy in a capitalist society, I possess no shred of empathy nor any knowledge of human suffering, prejudice, or victimization whatsoever, but quite frankly all this consistent, never-ending bullshit with people trying to force their politics onto movies pisses me off! It’s one of the primary reasons I’m not pursuing a career in film in any capacity. I myself rant a lot on this site (in case you haven’t noticed), but most of that ranting is in support of art for art’s sake. You barely see that philosophy in film academia anymore and even less in film criticism, and I think that is deeply disturbing.
When I complain about something like, say, Avatar (2009), and its heavy-handed structure, I don’t slam the film for glorifying hippies or environmentalism — hell, I’m pro-environmentalism and agree with its stance on Western foreign policy. However, I largely can’t stand the film because its characters are reduced to caricatures, its dialogue is hamfisted and preachy, and a 1/3 of the film is visually boring. Do you see what I’m saying? I agree with the film’s politics, its literal content, but I roll my eyes at the portrayal of those politics because the film’s style is altogether rather manipulative. I find much of the story far too cheap and convenient.
Conversely, I’m certain I disagree with Clint Eastwood on most political issues, I don’t relate at all to the real-life or fictional movie-Chris Kyle, nor do I agree with the American Iraqi campaign — and yet, I liked American Sniper quite a bit because its style was interesting to me. I liked the action, I was impressed by its thoughtful analysis of PTSD, and I appreciated its rather unbiased portrayal of Kyle’s conservative, close-minded persona.
Even though I agreed with Avatar’s politics, I disliked its style, so I gave it a bad review. Even though I disagree with Eastwood’s, Kyle’s, and most of American Sniper’s audience’s stance on the subject matter, I was impressed by its craft, so I gave it a positive review. I reviewed these films on the basis of whether they succeeded or failed as films, first.
That’s what I try to do with every review. While one can argue that it is impossible to explicitly define each and every film’s quality relative to another, or even a film’s objective quality relative to itself, I wholeheartedly believe certain movie-reviews are superior to others. If you dislike something like Slumdog Millionaire and your only reasons for disliking it are that it paints a bad portrait of India, then you don’t understand how to evaluate a film. If you love Act of Valor solely for the fact that its lead cast are active-duty Navy SEALs off-screen, then you don’t care about the movie itself. If you love Boyhood (2014) simply because of its production history rather than what actually unfolds on-screen, then you allow the outside world to cloud and contaminate your own opinion of that piece. If you hate everything Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise do simply because the former is homophobic and think Scientology is ridiculous, then you can’t separate art from the artist. If you spend the majority of your “film critiques” arguing that certain people should get roles over others because of their racial background or sexual identity, or how certain films are better than others because they boast more cast-members of color, or that a movie’s screenplay is superior because it portrays this particular political group as bad and another political organization as good… then stop claiming you love movies, because you don’t.
A passing interest? Sure. A shallow infatuation? Maybe. A knack for using pop culture icons as your personal soapboxes? Most definitely. A true love for film, true cinephilia? Hell, no!
If you are so close-minded and lack such restraint that you judge a film based on how much it agrees or disagrees with your view of the world, than your review of that film, your understanding of cinema, is inferior.
To quote Oscar Wilde:
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things. The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.”