Uncritical Critics & The Death of Political Film Criticism

dark knight lucius fox

Batman’s panaudiocon (The Dark Knight, 2008).

At Interrogating the Reel, Ian Goodrum asked a question that I’ve also thought about for a long time: “What the fuck happened to film criticism?”

“Now, I suppose that really should read ‘What the fuck happened to English-language, mainstream film criticism?’ since that specific category of film scholarship is all a significant portion of the population reads, but the incredulity remains. What the fuck happened? Because it seems like since Pauline Kael stopped writing, there haven’t been any political indictments of the kind she rained down on the most deserving of cinematic atrocities. Where’s the critical courage?”

If there was ever a time when film criticism made space to interrogate the politics of a film text, that time is long gone. For Goodrum, as well as me, the denaturing of film criticism was best represented in the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty. There was a debate over the film’s textual support of monstrous, authoritarian tactics like torture and extrajudicial killing—but the film’s supporters were almost all film critics, and its detractors were journalists. “Even in the reviews that bring up the movie’s politics, this minor quibble is dismissed as insignificant in the face of what the critic considers to be a monumental achievement in filmmaking.”

The dynamic repeated itself most recently with the release of the genocide documentary Watchers of the Sky. The film posits liberal imperialist Samantha Power as a great human rights hero, and film reviewers have regurgitated this whitewash uncritically. Only journalists have done the work of reporting on Power’s role as “Obama’s atrocity enabler,” as Max Blumenthal put it. The critic/journalist split reflects the fact that film criticism has abandoned its most-needed critical faculties. “Mainstream criticism,” according to playwright John Steppling, “isn’t really criticism, it’s reviewing.”

Humanitarian hero Samantha Power takes time off from defending the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to explain that the US's war against ISIS aims for regime change in Syria.

Humanitarian hero Samantha Power takes time off from defending the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to explain that the US’s war against ISIS aims for regime change in Syria.

The reason why I love film and the art of criticism is because film matters. Film is a tool of unparalleled power for imparting messages, and unpacking those messages is a worthwhile pursuit. “From geopolitics to lifestyle through politics and history, Hollywood movies have become the key global delivery system of US culture, thanks to the nature and strength of its narrative and medium,” according to Al Jazeera. President Obama said that “entertainment is part of our American diplomacy.” It seems like the only people who don’t see the political dimensions of the multi-billion dollar beast sometimes called “the culture industry” are contemporary establishment film critics.

If political film criticism is dead, Charles Bramesco at The Dissolve has written a piece that would merit mention in the postmortem. I can hardly imagine an essay that better encapsulates the perception of politics as a facile, substance-free set of signals, coupled with a total lack of knowledge of recent history, and undergirded by a latent disdain for criticism with the courage to say something challenging. The Dissolve has several great, thoughtful writers, and obviously Bramesco is merely representative of malignant trends, rather than the cause. However, the piece, titled “The slippery politics of The Incredibles and other superheroes,” advocates for all the politically ignorant, historically illiterate, and anti-intellectual threads that have fed into the death of political film analysis.

To close out a week on Brad Bird’s 2005 film The Incredibles, Bramesco discusses the “curious” observations that many film critics made about the film’s seemingly Ayn Rand-inspired ethos. Bramesco declares that this reading is curious, but then enumerates all the evidence in the film and ultimately concedes that “it isn’t difficult to see where they were coming from,” because “The Incredibles offers up a roundly solid foundation for an Objectivist reading to hold water.” In the very first sentence, Bramesco describes the act of reading a film politically with a weaselly adjective, before repeatedly conceding that the reading is supported by evidence. Not a great start, but a sign of things to come.

However, despite the exhaustively documented argument made by these critics, Bramesco has found a silver bullet that renders all these readings baseless. “Except that Brad Bird isn’t an Objectivist. He’s an avowed centrist, stating in multiple interviews that any Rand-sympathizing ideology in the film was completely incidental.”

60 years after the heralded “Death of the Author,” it’s a little weird to declare a filmmaker’s “centrist” intent with godlike certainty, as though that’s a definitive statement about the text. It doesn’t take Roland Barthes to see that films, maybe more than any other art forms, are collaborative efforts, and countless creators go into making them. Rick Altman proposes that films be read as “events,” legible as a structure with culture and history influencing the product. It doesn’t take Chomsky and Herman, either, to see that a film with a 9-figure budget fronted by a giant corporation during an extraordinarily reactionary time will reflect of the dominant culture that created it.

However, while it’s an extraordinarily stupid point, it’s an extraordinarily common and inadvertently illuminating one. In a piece on the racial politics of The Help and Django Unchained, political professor Adolph Reed explains that “Maggie Gyllenhaal and director Daniel Barnz defended themselves against complaints about their complicity in the hideously anti-union propaganda film Won’t Back Down by adducing their identities as progressives. Gyllenhaal insisted that the movie couldn’t be anti-union because ‘There’s no world in which I would ever, EVER make an anti-union movie. My parents are left of Trotsky.’ Barnz took a similar tack: ‘I’m a liberal Democrat, very pro-union, a member of two unions. I marched with my union a couple of years ago when we were on strike.’ And Kathryn Bigelow similarly has countered criticism that her Zero Dark Thirty justifies torture and American militarism more broadly by invoking her identity as ‘a lifelong pacifist.’ Being a progressive is now more a matter of how one thinks about oneself than what one stands for or does in the world.”

This replacement of substantive beliefs with meaningless personal signifiers—essentially, personal branding—is the result of neoliberalism, a.k.a. globalization or “capitalism with the gloves off and back on the offensive,” according to Professor Reed. His piece is a far-reaching examination of the malignant influence that neoliberalism has had on all aspects of society, particularly film culture. Neoliberalism is the project to roll-back not just the welfare state, but the very idea of social bonds and a common good for the benefit of the elites. It differs from classical liberalism in that the neoliberal state uses the its power to break up social connections and turn everyone into a customer in the “free market.” Margaret Thatcher’s admonition that “there’s no such thing as society” speaks to the neoliberal dream of individuals totally separated from each other, robbed of solidarity. “Economics are the method,” Thatcher explained in 1981, “the object is to change the soul.” Naturally, Thatcher is a hero to Rand’s adherents—The Objective Standard published an obituary for Thatcher that called her a “Warrior for Liberty.”

Obama administration appointments Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan are two of the most prominent figures in the privatization of schools.

Obama administration appointments Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan are two of the most prominent figures in the privatization of schools. Centrism!

Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism are a useful bogeyman for progressives, but this privatizing, atomizing, “everyone for themselves” ethos is fully bipartisan. It’s been manifested in both the “Reagan revolution” and the “Third Way” Democratic Party politics of Clinton and Obama. It’s evident in the corporatization of universities, the consolidation of media companies, and the push to defund public schools in favor of private institutions. The fact that these institutions shape our very understanding of the world isn’t incidental—neoliberalism has targeted the very sources from which people traditionally learn critical thinking. As organizations formerly devoted to the public good become purely profit-driven, it’s had an insidious effect on our culture at large. Steppling explains that “Over the last forty years the cultural landscape has changed dramatically. Media consolidation is one factor, and the continuing ascension of marketing and PR. The world that has been constructed by mass culture is far more intractable, it is more homogenized, more white, more pro military and more pro Imperialist as well.”

Film culture has followed suit. With films themselves, there’s been a tendency towards works masking their ideology through base emotional appeals while eschewing overtly political trappings. Many superhero films are like this, with their appeals to mythic status, and Manohla Dargis identified this trend in the spate of apolitical historical epics that flooded theatres in the early 2000s. “There’s little doubt, either, that these future films will be as stripped of politics and historical fact…and instead will find meaning in appealing to seemingly timeless ideals and stirring scenes of love, valor and compassion.”

As for the artists and creators making ideologically insidious work, neoliberalism has successfully divorced actual political beliefs from an identity that one wears like any other store-bought trinket. “Over time, the idea that a ‘left’ is defined by commitment to a vision of social transformation and substantive program for realizing it has receded from cultural memory,” Reed explains. “Being on the left has become instead a posture, an identity, utterly disconnected from any specific practical commitments.” According to Reed, “Gyllenhaal, Barnz, and Bigelow exemplify the power of [neoliberal] ideology”: Ostensible progressives working for very unprogressive ends because political signals have replaced substance. Consequently, when someone point out that a film’s full of right-wing tropes, the fact that the artist is a self-avowed liberal is essentially worthless.

And while artists aren’t interested in answering questions about political substance, too many reviewers are uninterested in asking them. The counterpart of substance-free artists and films is substance-free reviewers and critics.

Even Bramesco’s inane declamation of Brad Bird’s “centrism” would’ve never passed muster with a critic of political conviction. What on Earth is “centrism?” Is it like “moderation” or “objectivity,” one of those squishy, establishment-friendly political postures that the American media endlessly touts as admirable? The Dissolve provides an object lesson in “centrism” for us in this reprehensible statement about the documentary After Tiller. According to whomever manages their social media presence, this biopic about George Tiller, an abortion doctor murdered by a right-wing terrorist, is “one-sided but nuanced.” Presumably, a more “centrist” filmmaker would’ve allocated equal time to an advocate for murdering abortion doctors, so as to achieve balance.

While the section on The Incredibles reflects the insubstantial nature of politics in the neoliberal age, the section on The Dark Knight embodies both this and the general incuriosity about politics and history that most establishment critics currently bring to their trade.

“This kind of projection doesn’t end with The Incredibles. Superhero films have long made juicy targets for people looking to inscribe political allegory to pop entertainment. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight dominated the cultural dialogue during summer 2008, and a rapt public scrutinized the film from every imaginable angle—including a New York Times editorial suggesting the film is a lofty commentary on America’s Middle East policy. Critics pondered Batman as a Bush-modeled figure, and weighed issues of liberty exchanged for safety during times of geopolitical chaos. But screenwriter David Goyer explained that he had encoded escalation as the film’s guiding theme, and proud Englishman Nolan said he didn’t have much interest in Yankee politics.” [emphasis added]

Again, Bramesco begins a paragraph about political readings with a slimy weasel word to stigmatize political criticism—the act of projection is to map something onto a blank surface. He brings up the scrutiny of Knight’s political messaging and makes a cursory feint to engage the evidence before introducing more facile, signals-based non-analysis. With the Dark Knight example, though, Bramesco actively erases much of recent history.

The idea behind Nolan’s deflection is that he could plausibly be unaware of the basic civil liberties issues stemming from the War on Terror. Strange that he never heard of it during his periodic forays to Hollywood, since he’s from an evidently off-grid cloister called England. Sarcasm aside, a film reviewer should posses the faculties to call shenanigans on obvious bullshit like this, even if they lack a cursory knowledge of politics beyond their own borders. Between 9/11 and the release of The Dark Knight, the UK sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, subjected British Muslims to police state-style surveillance, and turned its citizens into the most-monitored citizenry in the industrialized world. Even if Nolan hadn’t heard a word about the Bush presidency in the internetless UK, he didn’t have to.

As for Goyer—the idea that a theme of “escalation” somehow precludes right-wing messages in the film is imbecilic, and no critic worth a paycheck should’ve swallowed that unchecked. Bramesco buys that “politics” and “escalation” are mutually exclusive, but does “escalation” really not happen in the course of world events? What is the relationship between the Persian Gulf War, Clinton’s genocidal Iraq sanctions, and George W. Bush’s horrific attack on Iraq if not one of escalation? What is Bush’s power to indefinitely detain leading to Obama’s power to assassinate by fiat if not escalation? Moreover, what does it say about the state of film criticism that a critic can pontificate on political matters and not know about or have an opinion on these issues?

Therein lies one of the most insidious aspects of apolitical film criticism. Film is a highly political medium, and most critics don’t know how much they don’t know about politics. It is, to borrow a Rumsfeldism, an “unknown unknown,” which is a reference a lot of critics may only know from the Errol Morris movie. Plenty of people get by with half-baked politics and a general lack of knowledge about the world, but unfortunately, film critics are called upon to make political determinations for which they’re usually ill-equipped. For a radical and politically engaged reader who’s also a film fan, this also means sifting through a lot of thuddingly dumb statements. Like Dissolve editor Scott Tobias wringing some humor from the shared acronym of the National Association of Theater Owners and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, getting in a few jabs at the “ineffectual” NATO military alliance. NATO is ineffectual? That’ll be welcome news to the people of the successfully dismembered Serbia, or the chaotic hellscape formerly known as the Libyan Arab Republic.

Obviously there are structural reasons for film critics to be divorced from the political aspect of their work. There’s no financial incentive for a publication to include radical or even politically well-versed critics at a publication. However, just as neoliberalism privatized universities before it came for the grammar schools, it’s not enough that film critics should leave the status quo unquestioned. According to Bramesco, political readings aren’t just wrong but actively dangerous. As a representative for the death of film criticism, Bramesco’s piece is perfect because it’s not only clueless, but actively hostile to the act of criticism itself:

“The danger is clear and present: Politicized ‘decodings’ of pop culture don’t leave enough room for diversity of opinion. When a viewer does a bit of research after watching The Incredibles and lands on the Objectivist theory, that squeezes out half a dozen other critiques. [The film is] a loving deconstruction of the big-budget superhero movies it emulates…Brad’s final act underlines a message that life’s gravest danger is not being true to yourself…Returning to superheroics is a reclamation of the familial mojo. That’s why they’re called ‘readings’ instead of ‘solutions.’”

Political readings of a film are, like the alternate takes Bramesco offers, just readings. Just because an interpretation is political doesn’t mean that it’s making a claim to be the only interpretation. A political interpretation doesn’t preclude other readings—they’re not “projections,” byzantine Dan Brown-esque “decodings,” or purporting to be definitive “solutions.” The fact that Bramesco can add additional ideas about The Incredibles’ message, which co-exist happily alongside the Objectivist reading, proves that a political reading is just one of many.

"On the one hand, his racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism are well documented. Except that he says he's a chill guy, so we gotta believe him."

“On the one hand, his racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism are well documented. Except that he says he’s a chill guy, so we gotta believe him.”

With his theories about what readings are permissible, though, Bramesco has inverted reality. It’s his neoliberal ideas, not those of the politically engaged critic, that are dangerous to analysis. Bramesco has argued that a film’s actual content is irrelevant, regardless of how much evidence is marshaled. When it comes to making political determinations, you can only read as much as a filmmaker explicitly says they intended. If they’re self-described centrists or English, you can only see political attributes that map onto these limited (and largely meaningless) identities. Believing that someone’s declaration about their intent is more substantive than an impressively documented argument is restrictive, reductive, power-serving nonsense. It’s as absurd as arguing that no one can accuse Gary Oldman and Mel Gibson of anti-Semitic beliefs on account of their public apologies.

Still, why does a politicized reading crowd out all other theories but any number of apolitical readings can exist in harmony? The obvious difference is that the political reading actually has the guts to say something—it threatens to provoke controversy, it makes value judgments, it has that “critical courage” that Goodrum was looking for. The other readings, about rediscovering a lost passion or staying true to yourself, are anodyne sentimental pap. They don’t invite any sort of discord, or render a judgment beyond basic power-of-positive-thinking pop psychology. These acceptable readings are harmless, which is why you can find them echoed in Disney films, The Secret, and pick-up artistry alike.

Bramesco’s call to actively reject substantive analysis is a natural outcome of the tendencies that’ve neutered film culture. Reed calls this the “mass-market film industry’s imperative of infantilization,” a push to make every aspect of culture harmless to the status quo, like it’s been focus-grouped into maximum palatability for the mass market. This part of the neoliberal project is to take away our ability to imagine a better, more equitable world, to reconfigure freedom as the autonomy to choose Coke or Pepsi. “The deeper message of these films, insofar as they deny the integrity of the past, is that there is no thinkable alternative to the ideological order under which we live. This message is reproduced throughout the mass entertainment industry; it shapes the normative reality even of the fantasy worlds that masquerade as escapism.” Having us think in terms of fuzzy consumer slogans like “life’s greatest danger is not being true to yourself,” rather than politics and history, is emblematic of the neoliberal debasement of critical thought.

That paragraph ends with a sentence that would be disheartening to hear from a first-year film student, and utterly astonishing to hear from a paid film writer. “Art,” Bramesco declares, “will never hand down rulings on who is right or wrong.” If one of my Intro to Film Studies students had said this, I would’ve been legitimately crestfallen, then treated my section to a brief exegesis on the basic function of narrative. However, it wasn’t a recent high school grad who said this, but a film critic, an ostensible expert employed by the highly profitable Pitchfork media outfit.

Of fucking course art hands down rulings on who is right or wrong. You don’t have to go back to Greek tragedies, the Bible, or medieval morality plays, to find art that makes absolutist moral judgments. Essentially any piece of art does that, because that is one of the fundamental purposes of art.

The last piece of pop culture I watched was an episode of the Judd Apatow-produced Fox series Undeclared, an episode called “Addicts.” In it, the protagonists try various schemes to either cheat at school or get-rich-quick, all of which fail calamitously and humble the heroes. The message is obviously that it’s wrong to try to get something through dishonest means, rather than by earning it. It’s a message that predates Aesop, because one of the reasons human beings tell stories is to teach values to order society in a certain way. Why were we raised on fairy tales in which the diligent and virtuous triumph over the lazy and wicked? If art never handed down rulings on who is right and wrong, then Disney villains would win in the end roughly half the time.

art god vs evil

Art handing down rulings on who is right and wrong, like some kinda jerk. (From left: Eduard Kasparides, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1896; F.B. Schell, Lot Flees From Sodom, 1873; Syndrome gets sucked into a jet engine, The Incredibles)

Art is actively telling us what’s right and wrong, and criticism should deconstruct those messages. A courageous critic (if such a thing ever really existed) should make determinations about the value of that message, and praise or eviscerate it accordingly. Anything less than this isn’t criticism, it’s reviewing—it’s describing the components that make a film a successful product or not.

A politically disengaged corps of critics is great news for the establishment that disseminates its values through the culture industry. Just look at the function of the adorable cluelessness at play in Bramesco’s taking Bird and Nolan at their respective words. A more political critic might identify Hollywood studios as businesses whose primary interest is profit, and for whom controversy is undesirable because it threatens the accumulation of the maximum return on investment. With a knowledge of how capitalist structures work, a reviewer would know to express more skepticism when the millionaire employee of a telecom giant tells us we’re interpreting something wrong. Hopefully it’s not yet the realm of conspiracy theorism to speculate that artists employed by that studio system have to ensure their films remain as appealing as possible. A filmmaker going on record to disavow reactionary tropes embedded in their work should be legible primarily as a business decision. If neoliberalism can get people who are paid to be critical to not recognize a business decision when they see it, then it’s done its demonic job.

Ultimately, Bramesco’s idea that art doesn’t, like, judge, man, is possibly the most ominous part of the whole rotten piece. The idea that “it’s just a movie,” and therefore not worth analyzing, is the most basic and common misunderstanding about the art form. For someone who loves film, seeing the anti-intellectual core of the neoliberal mindset is alarming. It’s indicative that not only is the art form in crisis, but it’s actively under siege.

And film criticism is an art—not only has it produced an impressive body of work and theory, but at its best it’s capable of illuminating something with real ramifications. Society tells stories to understand the world and impart meaning and values it believes are worth disseminating.

We’re a long way off from Pauline Kael calling Dirty Harry fascist, or “Hanoi” Jane Fonda posing with the North Vietnamese Army. It’s probably too much to expect Jennifer Lawrence to hang out with Hezbollah’s Nasr Brigades, but critics with the courage and political convictions to call things fascist shouldn’t be so few and far-between. With the neoliberal project aggressively rolling back social welfare and the collective good worldwide, we need it more today than we ever have.

6 thoughts on “Uncritical Critics & The Death of Political Film Criticism

  1. Great piece. And the Reed, too. Thanks for that.

    Jonathan Rosenbaum is good, just not active enough in the popular movie scene.
    Alex Cox is good, even if he’s more filmmaker/teacher than critic. There’s nice brief bit here:
    It’s not archived – go to “HOLLYWOOD PROPAGANDA” (no quotes)

    And I’m no critic, but I found The Dark Knight more ominously precient – rooted in the context of the actual year it was released:

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting, David. I haven’t read much Jonathan Rosenbaum, but I will check out more of his stuff. Cox’s writing is great, I think my introduction to his critical work was this brief piece of his from 2005 on one of my favorite filmmakers, Peter Watkins.

      Thanks for the link to your blog, too, I’ll check it out.

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