Towards a New Theory of Film Criticism, Part One

“Sightseeing becomes sinful, when it renders a man prone to the vices of lust and cruelty on account of things one sees represented.”
– St. Thomas Aquinas

“The Greeks well knew what our cineastes have since discovered – that the portrayal of sex and violence is the natural object of fantasy, and slides of its own accord from realism to realisation.  Hence it disrupts the work of the imagination, which engages our sympathies, but not our real desires … Coleridge described the posture of the reader (and therefore of the spectator in the theatre) as a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.  He should have written a ‘willing suspension of belief’: all pleasure and emotion depend on knowing that the action on stage is unreal.  And the spectators enter this unreality by an act of will, not in search of surrogates for their own desires, but in order to explore a world that is not their own.”
– Roger Scruton

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For two weeks in a row in February of 2015, the top grossing film in the box office was Fifty Shades of Grey, which ultimately grossed $166 million in the United States and $571 million worldwide.  In February of 2017, the sequel Fifty Shades Darker was the top grossing film of Valentine’s Day week.  A third film, Fifty Shades Freed is anticipated to place top of the box office again when it is released on February 9, 2018.  Thus, we have this problem of a series of top grossing films that romanticize a woman literally submitting herself to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.  Even if she’s submitting to it with the hope that she can eventually change the perpetrator (as many a documented victim of domestic abuse has testified to), that doesn’t change the fact that she is being degraded – and the film itself is glamorizing her degradation.  Fifty Shades of Grey may be an extreme example of unhealthy entertainment, but it is deemed culturally acceptable by a majority of theater film goers.

Perhaps it takes the herd-like popularity of films like Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels to wake us up to the fact that our entertainment is not always so healthy.  Despite its enormous financial success, it may be a hopeful sign that a significant number of honest thinking people have reacted by asking some searching questions.  When do we realize that glamorizing violence might be problematic?  Why does adding the titillation of sex suddenly make physical abuse culturally acceptable?  Does the mere fact that a woman consents to being physically abused make the physical abuse tolerable?  Why is it ok to watch this?  When is “pretend” no longer not real?  What does viewing a film that romanticizes physical and sexual violence do to the sensibilities and morals of the viewer?  These questions, and many like them, have finally been asked, but questioning the improper ways in which our entertainment may shape how we live, think, and feel is the kind of questioning that most of us have not spent time wrestling with.  If we did – we might find some truths about art and cinema that could change our culture.  Unrestrained and limitless appetite to be entertained can cause great damage.  With the technological resources that the entertainment industry now possesses, it is time for us to limit this damage.

If this essay were written in a different age, we would not feel the intrusiveness of the very idea of applying morality to something normally considered to be as innocent as watching a film.  Moral judgment is an exercise that has been abused so often that it is now understandably good manners to be skeptical of it, and there is bound to be increased skepticism at the idea of applying it to something like one’s own personal tastes in entertainment.

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A Personal Note

This is Part One of a longer essay that will be posted at Underlying Assumptions in multiple parts.  The purpose of this essay is (1) to advocate for a more nuanced, challenging, and thought-provoking kind of film criticism, and (2) to explore the deeper aspects that are behind what we choose to watch, read, listen to, or otherwise entertain ourselves, and why.

Please understand that as the author of this essay, I do not have a high opinion of myself as being any sort of moral teacher or upright example in this regard.  All ethical criticisms relating to film viewing in this essay are (a) criticisms that I have lifted from sources far more interesting, wiser, and intelligent than anything I could come up with on my own, and (b) condemn me and my own undisciplined viewing habits just as much as anyone else’s.

I write all this as one who feels a temperamental aversion to the moral high horse, so it was with some dismay that I watched as the chains of reasoning in this essay have wound their course.  As I wrote, one proposition followed the next, and I did not intend to end up in each the places that this essay takes us.  Perhaps a few readers will be able to help me to avoid some uncomfortable conclusions here.  Bending logical chains of reasoning to one’s own will is apparently a strength of those skilled with a certain rhetorical agility.  This is an agility which I do not myself possess, and I am still reeling a little at some of the conclusions that writing this essay seemed to advance ineluctably towards.

In other words, contrary to my best efforts, this has turned into a rather polemical essay.  Yet it is polemical only in the sense that the thinking and reading that I have found so insightful and fascinating has worked its way into practical applications that my more careless self found disagreeable and attempted to resist.  Thus, by inviting you to read this, I am inviting you to join me in some debates and questions that have been knocking about in my head for quite some time now.  I’ll admit that I have found this knocking about to be enjoyable if not comfortable.  Sometimes challenging ourselves and our own assumptions is a fine and refreshing thing.  I hope that the reader will be able to catch a little of the excitement that I felt in the discovery.  Unique things can happen when old neglected insights are hunted down and then applied to our own present twenty-first century daily lives of entertainment consumption.

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1.  Introduction:

Most of us do not think about our entertainment most of the time.  That is, really think.  Paradoxically, this general thoughtlessness, of which the author is as guilty as anyone, is not balanced by the fact that many of us also take our entertainment much too seriously.  Even though most entertainment requires merely that we sit down on the couch and then stare for hours at an electronic screen, we take it too seriously because most of us actually take pride in our discriminating taste in electronic screen watching.  This is how we allow the mass entertainment we consume to form our own “unique” and “personal” identities.

Some academics who specialize in psychology or sociology would use the term “self-concept” here.  While their pop psychology imitators also seem to enjoy parroting that term, I have yet to see it defined so as to have any actual meaning.  Moreover, if one’s “self-concept” was formed by each item of entertainment that one consumed, then one would have more “self-concepts” than one would have days in a lifetime.  The resulting language games would only end in a subjective jumble of changing meanings that could confuse Wittgenstein, let alone inspire the “power construct” conspiracy theory paranoia of Lyotard interpreting Wittgenstein.  Even the idea of a composite and evolving “self-concept” implies a rationality and coherence that it is false to imply.  For our purposes, it is enough to remember that Hollywood’s corporate advertising is interested in convincing us all to purchase movie tickets for their products and they often use appeals to individual rebellion, libertinism, and uniqueness in doing so.  This begs the question: how is refusing to conform to a “social norm” nonconformist if we act like lemmings in practicing the nonconformity encouraged by corporate advertisements?

We think of our tastes in film or TV shows as somehow proof of our own discernment and individual personality, or as evidence of our general good-natured and fun-loving spirits.  Worse, we even prides ourselves with assurances of our own insight, wisdom and ability not to be fooled as we laugh at the parody or irony that we are instructed to laugh at.  We think these things about our own personal tastes even though the makers of entertainment specifically design and advertise their products in order to make us think these things.  They want us to feel like our identities depend upon what we watch.  They want our thought-lives to be shaped by the entertainment media which we consume.  And, if there is one single industry that has wildly succeeded at convincing the consumer that his identity depends upon his own “unique” consumer choices, then it is the entertainment industry.

Almost every mainstream film released by Hollywood today is released with intense advertising designed to convince consumers that, in order to be “with it;” in order to be daring, fun, and culturally informed; in order to be able to know what’s important; they just have to see the film.  It is rather embarrassing how easily we buy into this packaged, mass-marketed, corporately defined idea of what it means to be “culturally informed.”  Any time that you think “she’s the sort of person who watches The Office” or “he’s the sort of person who watches Lost” or “I’m the sort of person who watches Game of Thrones,” you are fitting the corporate producer’s Platonic ideal of a consumer – a consumer who defines himself by the aggregate sum of his mass entertainment consumption choices.

I’m not revealing anything here that the reader did not already know.  We all know that the entertainment industry is manipulative.  And they know that we know that it’s manipulative.  So then, as David Foster Wallace kept trying to warn us, they now design their advertising to appeal to our own sense that we are clever enough to see through manipulative media.  This is why we have increasingly self-consciously ironic advertising and entertainment that copies and parodies itself.  We now have forms of entertainment which congratulate us for being so perceptive and impervious to manipulation, that appeals to how clever the viewer senses that he really is deep inside, and that then convinces the viewer to make his next consumer choices based on how intelligent and understanding of irony he really knows he is.  After which the viewer makes his next consumer “choice,” watches the same film that everyone else watches, and feels the same entertainment induced thrills that everyone else feels.  But at least the viewer can take solace in knowing that the sensational thrills he paid to see in the theater were given to him by filmmakers who now understand that the viewer sees through what they were really doing the whole time, just making sensational thrills in order to sell a product to him.

But in this nonstop cycle of mass entertainment consumption, of seeking thrills and sensations, I do not find that film viewers and critics have any intelligible moral framework by which view the endless seeking of thrills and sensations.  For instance, those who claim that pornography does not appear in mainstream films are kidding themselves.  The fact is that we live in a modern culture where John Stuart Mill’s “do no harm” principle goes to the root of our relativized notions of morality.  Consequently, those who unquestioningly accept our pop culture morality will have sudden difficulty with the old idea that there could be something wrong with pornography in the first place.  Compound this development with our hyper-individualized sense that one man’s pornography can be another man’s art, and attempting to place “mere entertainment” within the moral sphere may seem an impossible proposition.

Admittedly, the situation is not helped by those conservatives who do insist on moral standards in entertainment, but who then either cannot apply them in any practical way (remember Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s merely assertive “I know it when I see it”), or exercise an overly literal frame of mind that defines immorality by specific literal content without any context.  Thus, for today’s Savonarolas, nudity or any depiction of sexual imagery is, in and of itself, immoral – an inexorable logic that, taken to its conclusions, would destroy everything from the sculptures of Phidias of Athens to Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel to the nudes painted by Renoir and Degas.

But neither the extreme libertine nor the Puritanical frame of mind is necessary or useful.  Both extremes, within liberal and conservative thought, actually share something in common together and that is a willful ignorance of an old and time tested philosophical, even theological, tradition.  This is the tradition of Aesthetics.  Moreover, a basic reading of Aesthetics will quickly divest the reader of any unseemly quibbling over the supposed inability to define something like pornography.  While it is not something that can be defined with the precision of the empirical method, only those with a reductionist worldview would insist upon limiting philosophy within the confines of empirical definition alone.  Aesthetics traditionally intersects with both metaphysics and the moral sphere, and therefore there are limits that preclude exploitation and dehumanization.

That the human imagination and the Arts exist within the moral sphere is not to be doubted.  Of course, there have always been doubters (from historical characters like Caligula, Rousseau, and de Sade, to their more recent counterparts, Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt and, perhaps most ludicrously at the moment, E.L. James).  But their seriousness and intellectual honesty is not even pretended, and their selfishness, intemperance, and mercenary money-making interests are openly flaunted.  No, the current, perhaps “postmodern” problem, is that the moral sphere’s relation to Arts and entertainment is far more likely to be either ignored or politicized.

I do not mean that condemnations and accusations of moral debauchery in entertainment are not common, and, to be quite honest, rather tired.  The moral condemnations against Hollywood’s adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey were numerous, and were leveled from both sides of the political ideological spectrum.  But, as the Box Office returns of the 2015 and 2017 February weeks demonstrated, there was something lacking in them.  The shrillness and emptiness of the denouncements against these films somehow rang hollow upon ears and sensibilities that were apparently already desensitized.  As far as corporate Hollywood’s financial motivations are concerned, the great success and popularity of the film will have rendered the moral denouncements against it to be irrelevant for any practical intents and purposes.

There are still a few of us, however, who are interested in why this is.  If one looks at any of pop culture’s commercially-produced mass-media hyped phenomena of the last two decades, thoughtful moral questioning always seems to wither as it is trampled by the juggernaut of fashion.  If many of us will act opinionated and outraged on the internet, we still evidently all act like lemmings with our wallets.  No matter what has not changed in human nature, some things have changed.  From a historical perspective, the consumerist digital age is new.  It has placed a great power in the hands of mass-media and advertising that is unprecedented.  The laws of supply and demand in the marketplace are now operating on an accelerated scale of increased speed, increased supply, and increased instant gratification.  This is further served by an enhanced technological ability of Huxleyan proportions that was only fiction less than a century ago.

I state all this only to provide the underlying context in which to ask a few questions.  Where, in an age like our own, does the tradition of Aesthetics have a place?  Should questions of aesthetics motivate the choices of the entertainment consumer?  If so, why should they?  Even the posing of these questions reveals that we have a couple larger problems.  We currently live in a world where questions of aesthetics are not thought to be of any concern to the average consumer.  Indeed, we live in a world where questions of aesthetics are not even a concern to the average popular film critic.  Within the culture where the new art form of film has arisen, traditions of art or literary criticism are commonly left unconsidered and ignored.  Resulting from this is the drabness of most film reviews that you will find in most media publications.  The common film review does two things.  First, it rehashes the plot of the film.  This is an exercise which, even if the reviewer is kind enough to leave out “spoilers,” informs the consumer of most of what he will see.  Second, it informs the reader of what the reviewer personally liked or disliked about the film.  Why are either of these parts of a film review worth reading?

What if, instead of rote plot summaries and “dear diary” expositions of the film reviewer’s own random personal feelings, film critics actually exercised their imaginations and discussed the substantive content and human value of a film?  What if, instead of instant gratification or empty sensational appeals, the consumer was encouraged to consider the human, moral, and spiritual worth of a cinematic work in deciding whether to spend time and money upon it?

The only way to accomplish this would be to intentionally cultivate an elementary understanding of what aesthetics is and how our understanding of it has changed.  Doing this will require considering some rather unpopular, old-fashioned, and currently countercultural ideas having to do with the possibility that objective standards can still apply to art, to beauty, and to feeling.

Something like beauty is, and always has been, of universal appeal to human beings.  Philosophy professor, Donald W. Crawford, writes that consciously exploring and understanding this appeal is what the word aesthetics was used to name.  The result was both a humanist and a metaphysical discipline:

“Although the term aesthetics was first used by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten in 1744 to mean ‘the science of the beautiful,’ philosophical reflections on the nature of beauty date from the earliest of classical times.  The word itself comes from the Greek root aesthetikos, ‘pertaining to sense perception.’  This link between the perceptual and the beautiful was clearly expressed in the thirteenth century by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his remarks that ‘the beautiful is that whose very apprehension pleases’ (id cujus ipsa apprehensio placet) and that ‘beautiful things are those which please when seen’ (pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent).  And even as late as the turn of the last century, aesthetics was defined as the philosophy of the beautiful.”

Now, as Umberto Eco has reminded us, the mere fact that people in past times “had theories of art and beauty might still be of little significance.  Perhaps they were no more than a frigid reworking of ideas inherited from the classical world, now converted into theological abstractions, with no application to concrete experience.”  For this entire subject to have any meaning in the common world outside of pure academic or intellectual theory, it needs to apply to the choices and decisions that we all make every day.  But, as Eco tells us, “[e]ven a short and cursory examination of the everyday aesthetic sensibility of medieval people will show that their aesthetic terminology did in fact relate to their experience.”

And there is no reason why this cannot be the same for us.  Experiencing the arts can affect and form what we do, how we live, who we are.  A great lack of experiencing the arts can also affect and form the same, particularly if that lack is filled instead by mass-media pop culture and entertainment.

As thinking about the arts has been built and developed over time, it has grown to encompass far more in breadth and scope than just a “philosophy of the beautiful,” as Crawford explains:

“Today, however, aesthetics is conceived somewhat more broadly and tends not to concentrate exclusively on the concept of beauty, although that idea is still explored.  As a philosophical discipline, aesthetics is the attempt to understand our experiences of and the concepts we use to talk about objects that we find perceptually interesting and attractive – objects that can be valued not simply as means to other ends but in themselves or for their own sake.”

The word perceptually is important here.  In our culture today, aesthetics must be concerned with the images and objects which we perceive, and which are designed for us to perceive.  This is what makes the art form of cinema so fascinating, because it plays with how imagery can shape our thoughts and feelings.  This is also why the large majority of today’s film criticism is impoverished and seemingly willfully ignorant.  Wise and brilliant men and women have been exploring how metaphors, symbols, and beautiful imagery in literature, in painting, in pictures, and in music shape who we are.  Any film critic worth his salt, any film critic with anything interesting to say, any film critic who pretends to have insight into how films can affect the viewer, will draw upon this foundation.

Moreover, this explains the hollowness of many of the moral condemnations of popular entertainment fads.  While a religious or feminist critic may condemn a cinematic scene or a story, they most often do not engage in discussing root assumptions.  By all appearances, their denunciations are usually not based in anything other than personal or tribal ideology.  And yet, part of the tragedy of this is that, within the sphere and moral idiom of the long standing tradition of aesthetic criticism, the making and selling of obscenity or pornography can be clearly defined and coherently denounced.  Better still, the harms of objectification and dehumanization can be persuasively explained.  One of the purposes of this essay is to therefore do so.

Remember that there is nothing particularly original with my doing so.  If what this essay explores is new to the reader, then that is only because the traditions that this essay explores were wiped out of the reader’s education by those who decided, for the reader’s sake, that such things should no longer be of any practical use or value to us.  They didn’t ask us.  They simply destroyed it for us and expected us to thank them.

(Note: the progressive education reforms that decided that moral philosophy and aesthetics were nonessential and obsolete for common education are not the subject of this essay.  More books have been written on the subject than one could read if one’s entire career happened to be the studying of education reform in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries.  Among those that specifically explore how moral philosophy and aesthetics were considered “outdated” for the modern classroom, see Literature and the American College (1908) by Irving Babbitt; God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” (1951) by William F. Buckley, Jr.; Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning (1978) by Russell Kirk; The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) by Allan Bloom; Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age (2001) by Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath and Bruce S. Thornton; and Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (2001) by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath.)

For those of us who were not taught about aesthetics, self-education is our only option.  It is still possible to cultivate an improved, informed, and varied personal taste.  It is still possible to exercise educated discernment regarding with what we invest our time and leisure.

On this subject, it will serve us well to explore one single famous and influential idea from literary criticism and then apply it both to the art of cinema and to how we make our own decisions about entertainment consumption.  This idea is that there is an important distinction to be made between what is called fantasy and what is called imagination.  The advocate of making this distinction was a poet, philosopher, theologian, and cultural critic named Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

To be continued …

References to Part One:

  • Aquinas, St. Thomas.  Summa Theologica, Volume 4, Part III, First Section, Question 167, “Whether the Vice of Curiosity Is About Sensitive Knowledge?”  Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province.  Cosimo Classics.  New York, New York.  2007.  pg. 1870
  • Crawford, Donald W.  “The Questions of Aesthetics.”  Aesthetics and Arts Education.  Edited by Ralph A. Smith and Alan Simpson.  University of Illinois Press.  Chicago, Illinois.  1991.  pg. 18
  • Eco, Umberto.  The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas.  Translated by Hugh Bredin.  Harvard University Press.  Cambridge, Massachusetts.  1988.  pg. 3
  • Scruton, Roger.  An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture.  Continuum.  New York, New York.  1998. pg. 57