THANKS TO ‘BIRDMAN’ I’M QUESTIONING IF CRITICISM CAN BE ART?

birdman

Let me take a minute to skip the obvious “Of course it is” comment. Because it is. Or to be more clear it can be. Especially when criticism is what fuels art, as Birdman is. Birdman, as a film, is running on the fumes from many films and artists being criticized of things they have no right to be criticized of.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director and one of the four people who wrote the film sits atop his lofty heights to piss down over the rest of us schlubs that paid our [insert your local cinema’s ticket price] to watch flashing lights amuse us for 90 minutes or more. He says to us that we’re what’s wrong with art and not that art itself.

To quote from the film:

birdman (2) - CUTR“I haven’t read a  word of it or even seen a preview. But after the opening tomorrow I’m going to turn in the worst review anybody has ever read, and I’m going to close your play.Would you like to know why? Because I hate you and everyone you represent; entitlted, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed and unprepared to even attempt real art.
Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography. Measuring your worth in weekends. Well this is the theatre and you don’t get to pretend that you can write, direct and act in your own propaganda piece without coming through me first.” – Tabitha (played by Lindsay Duncan)

“What has to happen in a person’s life for them to become a critic anyway? What are you writing? Another review? Is it any good? Is it? Is it bad? Did you even see this? Let me read it. … Let’s read you. Callous. Callous’ a label. Lackluster. That’s just a label. Margin.. Maginal, are you kidding me? Sounds like you need penicilin to clear that up. That’s a label too. These are just all labels. You just label everything. It’s so fucking lazy. You’re a lazy fucker. You’re a laz… You know what this is [picks up flower]?. Do you even know what that is? You don’t. You know why? Because you can’t see this thing if you don’t know how to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge…. There’s nothing in here about technique. There’s nothing in here about structure. Nothing here about intention. It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions backed up by even crappier comparisons. You write a couple of paragraphs. And you know what? None of this cost you fuckign anything. You risk nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I’m a fucking actor. This play cost me everything.” – Riggan (played by Michael Keaton)

“You’re no actor you’re a celebrity. Let’s be clear on that. I’m going to kill your play.” – Tabitha (played by Lindsay Duncan)

The movie takes care at placing critics in the hot seat. While the film has a few more people to take to task I think I want to keep focus on the idea of critics and they’re relation to art. For the last year — and I’m certain if I was old enough to know better I’d say ever since 1900 or whatnot — I’ve been reading online film columnists (aka critics) discussing the death of cinema and how movies are just the worst. Yet we rush out to the cineplex no matter what’s out. Partially because we semi-worship the world of cinema and for a select few it’s their job.

Finding Value

So with ‘Birdman’ hating on critics I wonder; can criticism be called art? Well the very nature of art is that it must be allowed to exist with no other real intention or purpose other than that. While movies are a very financially run industry, it doesn’t preclude the existence of them. It’s a mere side effect of the world we live in where the people who spend their time making them must eat to survive and therefore need cash for that. But then again, with that thinking I’m basically getting rid of money all together from the economic system we base our whole lives around. But let me isolate this to movies alone for the sake of the argument at hand. What is the purpose of criticism? It’s to inform for the most part. It takes the guise of understanding art in a way of informing the collective. Us. When your local critic discusses the art of Godard or the mixtapes of Tarantino he’s trying, at his core, to inform you of what’s happening. This is either to: (a) sell you on the fact that a piece of art is worth your time and mental process; and/or (b) enrich the discussion you’re having about that very piece of art. In the same way that philosophers are attempting to inform the way you perceive the world; critics are attempting to inform the way you perceive art.

Philosophy art Art Criticism have a lot in common. That being that they talk in complete theoretical terms and in ways that can barely ever disproved. I can’t recall ever hearing anyone call philosophy art, but regardless of that those ideas carry some very hefty values as they are passed from person to person in every conversation. I feel that more and more about art criticism as I read an article, process it, and then try to implement it into my own thoughts on a work of art, whether it be that specific piece or another one down the line. Is this not the same concept of art itself. The way in which it can affect our thoughts and feelings about not just life but art itself?

Reading Value

To take it step further I’d like to provide two possible examples of my own readings of criticism that take on the same effect as the art itself in some regard:

“This is especially bad news because (INSERT NAME) and Chicken Burrito Lady want to get married, but they must get consent from her father (Leslie Nielsen), who happens to be King of Navy.” – Evan Saathoff (as Sam Strange) from Sam Strange Remembers Battleship

Battleship-Movie

From time to time Evan Saathoff, writer are Badass Digest, moonlights as a fictional Hollywood producer who remembers the makings of some of the biggest movies. In my mind a guy mocking the grandness of the blockbuster. It’s character added flavour to bona fide criticism. In the above quote he’s discussing the Peter Berg film Battleship, which I think I like to give a lot more credit than the rest of the world. It’s what I like to call a perfect write up about a film that could redefine the way the reader views the film. Instead of seeing another overly expensive rip off based on a non-entity they can see all the things that shows Hollywood for what it really is.

AND

“The King of Monsters was born into global culture as a reckoning, but in the ongoing aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the worst fears of Honda’s film have been confirmed, and Godzilla is less of a mythological threat than he is a daily part of our ecosystem. We’ve become a far more destructive species over the course of the last 60 years, but Godzilla’s invincibility in the face of our growing power confirms that our stewardship is a temporary charge, and not a birthright. If Honda’s film was a desperate plea for reason, Edwards’ is a plea for perspective. We used to be the villains in this story, but now we’re just in the way.” – David Erhlich of The Dissolve from Godzilla: The First Post-Human Blockbuster.

With a more traditional approach to criticism Erhlich tries his best to enlighten us on his own views of the images placed in front of him with Edward’s Godzilla. This is a film which while a big blockbuster that earned $200m in the US Domestic Box Office remains in the social sphere as an oddity. It doesn’t have the dumb vitality of a Trans4mers — I really hate the trend of placing numbers in titles like that — and it lacks the singular story impact of a Gravity; it lands somewhere in the middle and Erhlich’s opinion is just a way to walk us there hopefully. We want to go into Godzilla films in one of two mindsets, if we walk in with the ’54 original film’s mindset it’s a creature of our own design and represents our deepest fears, in the ’98 film we’re just running in true terror of this nuclear disaster with no real sense of hope. Here in Edward’s work we’re not even considered and this is where Erhich’s writing helps to calm our inability to ‘get it’.

Perspectives and Truths

I’ve previously written on the idea of not ‘getting’ a film. I’m not saying that words of Erhlich, Saathoff, or any other critic are the definitive words on art and to be considered truth. They are perspectives. And perspectives are valuable, especially when they are informed and more importantly inform you (the reader) in a way that allows you to perceive something in a new and interesting way.

Maybe what Birdman, and a few other films of 2014 (Top Five and Chef) are missing out in the world of critics are intention. Just like Riggan mentioning that Tabitha is missing intention in her review. It could also be a very personal response to a personal situation, very much like Chris Rock’s character in Top Five focussing all of his issues with critics on a singular person. This isn’t about criticism in general (which would render this article moot) but rather about that one time whomever came up with that little dialogue between Riggan and Tabitha read some mean, and possibly unfounded, words on something they put their heart into.

Assuming that isn’t that personal situation and more a general roast of critics then I feel like this is going to end up becoming the realization of Anton Ego in the 2007 films Ratatouille. In that he misinterpreted the words of a supposed legend in the world he heavily criticised. It’s not that everyone’s a critic, but that anyone can be one. With the right intentions and care we can all be critics. In that same regard not all criticisms are valid, but instead they can be. Given the right amount of care and thought anyone can produce worthwhile criticisms and make them as important observations of art that would make the most revered philosopher be pleased.

If my idea of relating film — art in general — criticism to philosophy then not only are we giving true social value to criticism but we’re pretty much analogizing art with life. That weirdly enough isn’t too far fetched as art has always been analogized with life whether it be in a sense of commentary or some sort or re-enactment. It aspires to redefine the real life most times. So why not put philosophy and art criticism in the same league then? Maybe this means that criticism isn’t art; but it still means it’s worth more than Riggan’s harsh words. Not to say that Tabitha’s a worthwhile critic as much as some actors make worthwhile art (but that may me being harsh?)

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Author: Andrew Robinson

This is my blog. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. My blog is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my blog is useless. Without my blog, I am useless. I must fire my blog true. I will. Before God I swear this creed: my blog and myself are defenders of my mind, we are the masters of our enemy, we are the saviors of my life. So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.

  • Interesting piece. I haven’t seen Birdman but have read and heard enough to have a general idea of its view on critics. I think your points about criticism’s role are extremely valid. I rarely read a review to see if it gets a rubber stamp of approval. It’s about getting more out of a film and understand it better. I have a subscription to Film Comment, and I end up setting aside many of the articles until I’ve seen the movies. The comments don’t mean nearly as much until I can recognize the context. I recognize that this view (which I know is shared by many online film fans and writers) isn’t the normal perception of critics that’s part of Birdman and much of the popular concept. It’s so tiring to hear the statement “I usually like the opposite of what critics like” from generally smart people.

    • Well the thing about it is that Birdman’s discussing on critics doesn’t stop me from liking the movie and more to the point I barely hear people discuss critics as it relates to movies anymore — maybe because I have two groups of friends, the film bloggers and the ‘regular schmoes’ who don’t really read film criticism. I for one when I started this blog I’d hold off reading reviews and listening to podcasts before I wrote a review for a movie or until I even saw it most times, especially if it’s a movie I knew going in I’d want to watch/write about. Now not so much. Sometimes I enjoy having the context to go into a movie with so I read whatever now. I’ll scroll through any of my prefered sites and read at my hearts content. I may not comment till I have something to add but I enjoy reading regardless of having seen or not seen.

      Thanks for the comment Dan.