August 26, 2014

ZAHOS | A Belated Introduction

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By ZACHARY ZAHOS

I find myself in the sixth semester of writing this column, otherwise known as the sixth semester where no one knows what I’m getting at, least of all myself. I’m not one for introductions, which explains why, back in January 2012, I inaugurated this biweekly soapbox not with a “Hello” or an overview of my ideas and interests but with a piece on the divine and cinema’s attempts to depict Him/Her/It. I was proud of its title: “Oh, God.” So intellect, much serious. Wow.

I have since learned that growing up demands a bit of dumbing down. Just because I announce, “Today, I write about GOD!” or “The Kardashians and Facebook are killing America!” (my second column) does not make me a smart or challenging or worldly writer. It just makes me David Brooks — you know, smug.

It’s good to lighten up. As far as movies go, that means I temper expectations equally when seeing a holier-than-thou, Oscar-ready biopic about, say, a rodeo AIDS activist or Transformers 4. Both movies simplify, condescend and manipulate; the difference is that most critics will buy into the former, likely because of its Important subject matter, while stringing together a selection of groan-worthy puns aimed at the latter. Call a spade a spade, but if you have a raging vendetta against Michael Bay, try to think of the last time you disagreed with the Tomatometer.

Independent, self-aware, specific critical thought: That’s what I am getting at here. The enviably levelheaded film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz issued a rallying cry earlier this year with the piece, “Please, Critics, Write About The Filmmaking.” In it, he took a swipe at many of his colleagues for ignoring formal analysis in their writing; blog posts and newspaper reviews alike tend to devote more time to plot summary, box office talk or else cherry-picked sociopolitical tirades against a movie or television episode than careful attention to what makes a movie a movie (camera angles, editing patterns, mise-en-scène). It’s not that you should ignore plot, business and politics; indeed, the most valuable, responsible critics (to name just a few: Seitz, Nick Pinkerton, Tasha Robinson, Mike D’Angelo) intersect them all in vital, nuanced writing that is never just about a movie.

The best critical writing is useful, in some way. It should be entertaining, humble and even poetic, but the word I keep coming back to is “useful.” I know no greater compliment than when a friend or total stranger tells me they learned something from reading a piece of mine. I thought I was just spitting opinions here; how am I teaching anyone anything? Well, when you tether those mercurial value judgments to some notes on style, historical context and life’s Big Questions, your useless opinions begin to take on some weight — so long as you come across with humor and honesty, more human than textbook.

This is all a roundabout way to say that, for my time remaining here, I have a plan for this column. With this entry as an introduction of sorts, I plan to turn this mess of pop culture digressions and Liam Neeson appreciations into a focused, ongoing series about the act and nature of criticism. Some working titles for future columns include “How to Read a Movie,” “In Praise of the Mixed Review” and “The Wrong Way to Like Movies.” Pretty pompous headlines, I’ll admit, but one needs to appeal to the click-bait gods somehow these days. I hope to open up about the way I see things and, in the process, find the words for some personal, maybe even rigorous system of aesthetic and moral judgment. It goes without saying that I’ve yet to pin down this system myself.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about shortcomings of my writing that have thrived in this column space, among them hyperbole, preciousness and even weird bouts of anger. I aspire, now, to sanity. I’ll dig into questions that irk all art obsessives (Marrying formalist criticism with appreciation for a film’s emotional effect is a current thorn in my side) but keep in mind that, in the end, we’re all in this game of opinions together. I respect dissent and I hope you can respect those contrarian streaks of mine, too. I know that I know nothing, etc., though I hope in due time you’d be inclined to disagree.

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