Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

MovieBob and Death of the Author

Okay so on this week's The Big Picture, MovieBob uses Ender's Game as a jumping off point for a discussion about objectivity in film criticism.

Okay that sentence requires you to have a lot of background knowledge to understand so here goes.

  1. I like watching The Big Picture, a web show where The Escapist's resident film critic, MovieBob talks about "anything he wants". Literally in the his first episode that's how he describes his show. "A show where I just get up on my soapbox and say whatever I want about whatever random nerdy thing I is on my mind on the moment." That said any random nerdy thing on his mind usually turns out to be pretty damn interesting.  
  2. Ender's Game, a recently released in theatres, is based on a book, that is often considered a classic of modern sci-fi up there with Neuromancer, but was written by a guy who is also known for his homophobic views. 
  3. Most of the buzz around the movie hasn't actually been about the movie, but rather various protest and boycott movements surrounding it.
  4. In his actual review of the MovieBob spent a good chunk of time not describing the movie itself, but trying to deal with the reality that it was impossible to only talk about the movie itself. 
  5. And that gets us up to date on my opening paragraph. 
As usual I felt that the discussion was interesting and for lack of a better word good. But I also felt that Movie Bob failed to mention two things that are sort of important when having this discussion.

  1. Objectivity in Journalism
  2. Death of the Author Theory
Let's Go

Objectivity in Journalism
Up until recently if you were reading a film review chances are you were reading it in a newspaper. Case in point,  Roger Ebert's stuff was published in the Chicago Sun-Times.  And in a way film critics saw themselves as consumer reporters telling the the public if a product in this case movies was worth their money. Movie Bob does talk about this view in describing consumer criticism, but one point I feel he failed to observe is that the concept of objectivity fell in line with the journalistic culture most of these critics found themselves in. 

I'm not going to talk about journalistic objectivity here because I already did that.  But long story short I have very complicated views on the subject. 

“So much for Objective Journalism. Don't bother to look for it here--not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”
Hunter S. Thompson

One thesis that I however will put forth that I haven't before is that journalistic objectivity was an outgrowth of post-WWI cynicism. Most of the time when I talk about it I point to the Hutchin's Commission as the codifier of journalistic objectivity. But after giving it some thought I really do think we have the lost generation to thank for that one.

Which is my transition to the artsy fartsy world of literary criticism.

The Death of the Author
So this is what made me write this post all that other stuff was just flotsam and jetsam in my head. I feel you can't talk about objectivity in film criticism without talking about the Death of the AuthorTheory. I hate the author is dead theory, but that's not my point here.

In order to have a constructive discussion on objective criticism you kind of have to talk about it. If you were taking a film or lit criticism class I would make you read "The Death of the Author", the damn essay that kicked this all off. But most of the essays I had to read in my lit classes were oddly structured and very purple.

So instead I'll give three case studies.

The Crucible

Here goes. I love The Crucible. If you pinned me down and made me name a play I like it is that one. In most English or for theatre classes there will be a long diatribe about it's context. It is an extended metaphor about McCarthyism.

End of the play speaks directly to the playwright, Arthur Miller's experiences, paralleling his later experiences when was called before congress to testify against others who had attended communist meetings.

"I speak of my own sins. I cannot judge another. I have not the tongue for it." He was convicted of contempt.

Anyway in this case the external knowledge of the author's life adds weight and meaning to the work. We the audience know he's not talking about literal witch trails, but metaphorical ones that had a real impact on he and his friends's lives.

Tolkien and the One Ring
Yeah things are going to get a little essayie around here. Alright so I am a Tolkien fan. I haven't read the Silmarillion. But the quest of the ring is emotionally powerful.

Kiss my ass Henry V.

Anyway. Tolkien would always be asked what does the one ring mean. And one day he came up with a brilliant reply.

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
J.R.R. Tolkien

Short answer the ring means whatever you want it to. I think the point Tolkien was trying to make is it is often the interpretation of a text that creates emotional resonance with the audience. And who is the author to mess with that. If a story means something to you because of an interpretation that differs than what the author intended but is reasonable and meaningful who is the author to tell you you are wrong. 

And this how I understand the Death of the Author theory. If a kid from the 60's finds meaning in the one ring being allegorical to nuclear weapons even though the text was written before the Manhattan Project (I was wrong. While, The Hobbit was published in 1937 Lord of the Rings was published in 1954 well after Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped.) why should that reading of the text be automatically discredited?

Nuclear non-proliferation treaties are a bitch.

Fahrenheit 451 is about TV
Chances are you're thinking Fahrenheit 451 is about censorship and free speech and stuff.  Ha ha ha. Nope all the book burning was actually about book burning. Sort of. Ray Bradbury felt that the picture box was dumbing down society but making it uninterested in reading.

And he got justifiably miffed  when a UCLA class lectured him about the meanings of a book he wrote. 

The Point
So in my lit classes Death of The Author was god. Any theory you posited had to be found within the text and only within the text.  So students then would go hunting for anything no matter how inconsequential to justify their reading of the text. And that made some really loopy stuff going down that I think actually hurts criticism. It does literature a disservice when you force students, the custodians of our cultural future to write nonsensical tripe in an attempt to pass.

On the other hand everything in fiction is constructed. Everything is a choice the author had to make and it is useful to question those choices and not just accept them blindly. Death of the Author shouldn't be God, but rather a tool, helping us to better understand how we as humans and writers, think, communicate, and construct arguments.

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