Monday, March 19, 2007

300 and the Disconnect Between Critics and Viewers

Peter Bart, over at Variety, wrote a column last Thursday about how so far this has been a year where there is a large disconnect between what critics opinions of a movie are and what the viewing audience's opinion is. He bases what the audience's opinion is based on the financial success of a particular film rather than on some kind of random survey data. I imagine that his method is as accurate as a good survey would be, people do vote with their dollars. This is particularly true if a given film is successful for more than one week, which implies that word of mouth was positive rather than negative. Bart has noticed that the audience reactions to Ghost Rider, 300, Wild Hogs, and Norbit are very much out of synch with the reactions of critics.

Ben Fritz, at the same magazine, also writes about the critical reaction to 300 and focuses on how the critics often compare 300 to a video game. Fritz argues that the critics use of this comparison is "both artistically demeaning and substantively wrong." Fritz doesn't, and he likely should in a future article, articulate how the opposite is more often true. Videogames are becoming more like films, a statement that is both artistically complimentary and substantively correct. One need only watch a few of the interstitial sequences in Marvel Ultimate Alliance to discern that the Marvel video game is attempting to create an entertaining narrative while also allowing the player to beat hell out of Dr. Doom and the Masters of Evil.

Which brings me back to the Bart article. Bart asks a couple of key questions in his editorial criticizing the critics. His central, and most important question, is whether "critics make a passing attempt to tune in to pop culture?" Bart begs the question, but he doesn't directly answer it. His editorial is more a discussion starter than an answer, though one could guess his answer might be a caveat laden "Yes...but..."

I would have liked to see Bart take a brave stand on this issue, which I don't believe is limited to this year's box office or critics. I think that it has been a problem for quite some time. I have often in conversation asked my friends, "Do you think that (insert favorite hated critic here) would like That Touch of Mink or Ben Hur if it came out today?" I usually get one of two reactions to this question. Sometimes my interlocutor agrees with me that the critic would hate both of these films, and might add that they would also dislike M because it ends advocating the execution of a child molester by "extra legal" means. Other times, the response might be that the person had never thought about that particular question. It often seems to me that critics are so fond of the French New Wave that they have rejected the idea that movies can be entertaining, they must have meaning!

With Bart not providing an answer to the question, one can be thankful that sci-fi writer extraordinaire Neal Stephenson decided to weigh in on the disconnect between critics and audience in yesterday's New York Times. His point was that the critics who negatively review the film won't even give the film a serious review, possibly because the subject matter is rooted in geekdom (at least in the case of 300). He also brings up some of the criticisms that have been thrown at the movie and dismisses them by saying, "such criticisms aren't really worth arguing with, because they are not serious in the first place -- and that is their whole point. Many critics dislike 300 so intensely that they refused to do it the honor of criticizing it as if it were a real movie." I agree. I also believe that any critic who feels this way is also practicing a bit of onanism. They are writing to read just how creatively they can mock a movie, and their only real audience is themselves. They "know" that audiences, lowest common denominator brutes that we are, will like the movie regardless of their review. So they decide to write witty and scathing responses so they can read just how well they can mock a movie. This is about as morally edifying as some critics have said they thought 300 was.

Stephenson provides a couple of key quotes from critics he finds to be particularly good examples of this type of criticism, but one in particular stood out to me.

300 is not sufficiently ironic. It takes themes (duty, loyalty, sacrifice, the preservation of Western civilization against enormous odds) too seriously to, well, be taken seriously.


As I have already pointed out
, in quoting Victor Davis Hanson, "If critics think that 300 reduces and simplifies the meaning of Thermopylae into freedom versus tyranny, they should reread carefully ancient accounts and then blame Herodotus, Plutarch, and Diodorus — who long ago boasted that Greek freedom was on trial against Persian autocracy, free men in superior fashion dying for their liberty, their enslaved enemies being whipped to enslave others." But such critics deserve more than an appeal to History as a response, as these critics exhibit one of the greatest flaws I believe a critic can have. These critics lack a love of virtue and in aesthetics this is almost unforgivable, at least in aesthetics as traditionally understood (Schiller, Kant, Hegel) and not in criticism how it is currently taught (Gramsci, Krakauer, Baudrillard). Before you flame me, it should be noted that I very much like Simulacra and Simulation and the Mirror of Production and think Benjamin's analysis in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is wonderfully insightful given YouTube etc. My point isn't that aesthetic critical discussions oughtn't include observations by the Frankfurt School and Post-Structuralists, rather that critics should also be aware of earlier aesthetic studies and their links to how aesthetics represent/affect virtue.

Nietzsche gave this kind of study a bad name, but that is because he turned the arguments on their head much like Marx did with Hegel. Of course, one should never forget the power of irony in philosophy, but that is another discussion.

These high art vs. vulgar art critics, a very Adorno-esque dichotomy, disdain both pious depictions of morality and the base comedy of films like The Wedding Crashers. Nevermind that Aristophanes has a multi-page discussion of farts and fart jokes in his play The Clouds. One word...Thunder. Just think about it. I hear that in Ancient Phrygia they used the word Phartos to describe Thunder. Most people turn off when I mention Aristophanes in a conversation, and my knowledge of his plays is much shallower than Fritz's (cinerati Fritz not Variety Fritz). Most people think I am making a high art vs. vulgar art distinction and trying to talk down to them when I am doing just the opposite. I am trying to demonstrate how even "high art" has abundant fart jokes. Don't even get me started on Shakespeare.

Back to the virtue discussion and whether 300 should be ironic. One of the classical virtues is that of thumos a kind of spritedness which combines patriotism and courage. It is the virtue that is central to the Spartan society. In fact, Spartan society might be said to value thumos over almost any other part of virtue as we understand it. Spiritedness is a powerful force in people, we like to take pride in our society and we value those who fight to defend it. That is thumos in a nutshell and that is what 300 is about. The film doesn't spend time showing us the ways that Sparta was unjust, and they were in many ways, because then the film -- and comic -- would be about Sparta. This film isn't about Sparta, it is about thumos.

Those critics who fear that the film is fascistic because of its overemphasis of thumos do have a point, but not as large a point as they believe. If the film were merely about thumos it would be true, but the films is also about freedom, equality under the law, and the need for just rulers. There is a reason that Plato devoted two dialogues toward critiquing Spartan culture. Both his Republic and The Laws present critiques of societies based solely on thumos. The "republic" of the Republic everyone tells you Plato thought was the "Just" society (though they forget to tell you how easily Plato has this society decay)? That could easily be read as a description of Sparta. And one of the key interlocutors in The Laws is a great Spartan who comes to understand that thumos and courage are only a part of Justice, the Stranger argues that Wisdom is the central component of Justice. These are not talked about in the film, but those would be the discussions to have if you wanted to criticize the film.

Instead a critic talked about how the film wasn't sufficiently ironic, as if the virtues the film advances ought not be taken seriously at all. Or that if you want them to be taken seriously you must use them ironically. This is the mentality that Roger Scruton argues against in his book on Modern Culture when he writes,

"modern producers, embarrassed by dramas that make a mockery of their way of life, decide in their turn to make a mockery of the dramas. Of course, even today, musicians and singers, responding as they must to the urgency and sincerity of the music, do their best to produce the sounds...intended. But the action is invariably caricatured, wrapped in inverted commas, and reduced to the dimensions of a television sitcom. Sarcasm and satire run riot on the stage, not because they have anything to prove or say in the shadow of this unsurpassably noble music, but because nobility has become intolerable. The producer tries to distract the audience from [the] message, and to mock every heroic gesture, lest the point of the drama should finally come home."


This is how critics are reacting to Miller's 300, they have disdain for its open admiration of nobility. That disdain must naturally result in mockery. Ironically, I have argued that Frank Miller himself helped contribute to the crisis in modern comics where the hero is eternally deconstructed when the "constructed" hero is so badly needed.

What do we need more in a world where our choices are so often gray, than a hero who has a clear and consistent morality?
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