Department of Theatre and Film
Spring 2011 Forum Essays
Critiquing the Critics
by Abigail Van Vlerah
While reading Greg Taylor’s Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism, it becomes apparent that we need to understand the role and background of the film critic. Taylor’s work looks at film criticism from a particular period—specifically from the work of Manny Farber and Parker Tyler through Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. In essence, he explains that these critics took a “low-brow” art form and turned it into high culture. As such, the film critic played an important role in leading the way toward the elevation of film as an art form. Because film continues to be a malleable art form, though, it is necessary to continue criticizing not only film, but also film criticism.
Taylor’s discussion gives rise to issues surrounding early film critics. In the first part of his book, we see Taylor offering descriptions of film critics who, at times, seem like they do not enjoy film at all. As a cultist, Farber disdained most forms of art for profit. He did not limit this disdain to movies, but also took offense with the works of Jackson Pollock and other artists who he felt were turning art into a business. While Farber’s view may seem tinged with jealousy, it is also apparent from Taylor’s analysis that Farber truly believed that he was elevating the status of movies by applying his mark to them through his reviews. But why Farber? Was his appointment a conscious choice to sell subscriptions to the publication for which he served as film critic? Perhaps inserting an oppositional figure boosted readership by creating controversy. Unlike other movie critics who “could simply assess Hollywood films for entertainment value,” Farber sought to change the intrinsic and artistic value of movies. What becomes evident through looking at Farber historically is that he made film criticism into a discerning field through the perception that by engaging in his form of elite criticism, we (and American movies) become better.
What this form of elitism does in turn is assume that we want our films to take on the role of “vanguard” art. Critically important to this discussion is the question raised by Taylor. He asks “does the film critic evaluate or analyze? Today we associate the former with journalism, the latter with highbrow or academic writing. Yet if academics must start with at least an implicit value judgment . . . so journalistic reviewers must also analyze” (31). Taylor may be attempting to blur the line between academics and journalists, but this juxtaposition of film studies and journalism shows film scholars’ desire to set themselves apart from mainstream consumers of film. This calls attention to the need for discussion about the role of film critics. Perhaps historically film critics made more of an impact on movie going audiences, but with today’s marketing strategies, it seems like film trailers and rating systems have a greater impact on the success of any film. If we are looking at film for entertainment value, like the general public, then critics like Manny Farber and Parker Tyler seem obsolete. The purpose they seem to serve, at least according to Taylor, is the further niche-making of film as a form of high art.
This highbrow-lowbrow binary seems unnecessary. Films will continue to be produced and enjoyed regardless of their quality. We can continue to see film simultaneously as entertainment, as a product to be sold, and as a form of art. The integration of camp and cult criticism further accentuates this point. But given the history of this binary, we should continue to critique the critics in order to understand on which side of the debate they find themselves. What is important is not who does the criticism or how they criticize, but rather the context in which they write.
Reassessing Cult and Camp Criticism
by Tiffany Knoell
As someone who worked as a media critic before entering higher education, I found myself both chuckling and cringing at the discussion of the patron saints of cult and camp criticism, Manny Farber and Parker Tyler in Artists in the Audience. Taylor devotes chapter three to Manny Farber and he is a sour pill to swallow. The quoted letter at the beginning of the chapter summarizes the larger community’s relationship with Farber and it sets the stage quite plainly for a critic who was adversarial at almost every turn. He disdained the taint of consumerism and middlebrow culture and viewed cult gestures as an assault on mainstream culture (32). Where some critics, (such as most journalists) would provide pragmatic recommendations, Farber recast the role to suit his own designs (31).
According to Taylor, “…film cultism emerged in the postwar climate as a means of valiantly expressing difference within an expanding culture of sameness” (33), but in his descriptions of Farber’s approach the quest to express difference seems very close to pure obstinacy. This obstinacy seems to have eventually driven Farber from the critic’s chair – depriving studios of what Taylor describes as “an irritable, nonpaying customer” – as the movie industry and their audiences evolved and Farber found his domain on the margins of culture invaded (47). The image of Farber forlorn is reminiscent of Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style and its discussion about the reclamation of subcultures and their eventual absorption into the mainstream. The transformation of the edgy into commodities was the very idea that Farber loathed and it is little surprise that his parting shots about the middlebrow consumer was that they were “commodified zombies” (48).
However, as much as I disliked the curmudgeonly tendencies of Manny Farber, I can understand the aims of cult criticism and the fostering of connoisseurship. These ideas are both closely tied to tastemaking, which continues to be a hotly debated issue in the present moment. With the tensions between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow tastes coinciding with class tensions, the discussion of cult criticism should remain in the academic and public eyes for some time to come.
At the same time, Oscar Wilde and Parker Tyler might have been excellent conversation partners, given the opportunity to meet across time and compare notes about the use of culture’s raw materials for the crafting of something new. Taylor describes the camp approach as encouraging “the critic to ‘complete’ the work creatively, actively reworking and augmenting its material into a new aesthetic form” and I think that both Wilde and Tyler would extend that mandate to audiences as well (51). Between cult criticism and camp, I think that the idea of the “homemade challenge” to mainstream media has been taken to heart far more by audiences who use music, movies, literature, and television to comprise individualized “grab bags” of materials (51, 53). Tyler once said “What material is not good enough for creative transmutation?” and Wilde seemingly answered when he suggested that “anything will serve [the] purpose” (58). It would be interesting to hear Tyler’s response to the current environment where pastiche and mashups are commonplace and anything is considered fair game. I suspect he might be involved in remolding the cultural clay into something new in this way as well.
Cult and Camp Criticism as a Dadaist Project
by Alexander Champlin
Reading Greg Taylor’s discussion of Manny Farber and Parker Tyler as avant-garde in their production of artistic expression via criticism of mainstream Hollywood, I cannot help but be reminded of Marcel Duchamp. I wonder why, if Taylor suggests that Farber’s and Tyler’s critiques were such a break from American Surrealism, Duchamp, one of art history’s most famous Surrealists and later Dadaists, is almost left out of the discussion. Taylor writes, “In appropriating popular culture for their own purposes, vanguard critics could actually use the functionalism, accessibility, and sameness of mass-produced popular culture to their own benefit, hurling aesthetically rich craft artifacts back in the abstract expressionists’ faces” (Taylor 20). This description of Faber’s and Tyler’s contribution sounds very much like Duchamp’s motivation for his Readymades, which Duchamp had already introduced by the time Farber and Tyler began working as critics in the 1930s and 1940s.
The idea behind Dadaism and the Readymade was a critique of aestheticism associated with traditional art. What Duchamp did was take ordinary objects—a toilet, a bottle rack, a snow shovel, a bicycle wheel, etc.—and without any serious modification present them as art. The suggestion was that highbrow aestheticism was arbitrary. In this sense, for Farber or Tyler to appropriate popular cinema in their artistic projects by re-positioning film as an artistic object in order to challenge the aestheticism of expressionism is a kind of Dadaist project.
Accordingly, their cult/camp approaches to cinema may seem revolutionary from a film criticism perspective; however, for avant-garde art it seems like this approach would not have had as much significance. Indeed, it appears to owe a great deal to the artistic project of Dadaism which emerged several decades earlier, and which is marked by much more exemplary entries. Furthermore, if it is the case that this mode of critique proved to be a significant deviation from traditional film criticism (as opposed to artistic expression), this aspect of Farber’s and Tyler’s contribution to film criticism seems to demand further examination.
Taylor does a great deal of work indicating the connection between cult and camp readings of film and the artistic movements that they responded to; however, at least in the first portion of the text, the weight of their contribution to film studies is less emphasized. Taylor begins with the useful example of MST3K (Mystery Science Theater 3000) as a popular work of film criticism or spectatorship informed by Farber’s and Tyler’s critiques, but it is not clear how we get from these artistic appropriations of film (in the service of a discourse between highbrow and middlebrow artists) and the popular form of reception and critique referenced by MST3K. That is, although Farber and Tyler may have been exercising their taste in movies as a challenge to highbrow taste, they were still primarily involved in a discourse among the artistic elite. As Taylor acknowledges, Farber and Tyler were appropriating mainstream (read: lowbrow) cultural product for the sake of a highbrow engagement, presumably excluding all others including the original, general audiences of the films. The question this raises is: how do these highbrow artistic discourses become significant as popular modes of reading film and is it fair to exclude the general film consumer from the history of this pattern of spectatorship until years later?
Who’s the True Queen of Star Wars?: Fan Hierarchies and the Objectives of Film Criticism
by Megan Thomassen
In Artists in the Audience, Greg Taylor raises some very interesting questions about film criticism namely: What is the point of film criticism and what are the most useful ways to do it? He also asks “Does the film critic evaluate or analyze?” (31). Taylor notes that we usually associate evaluation of films with journalism and analysis of films with academic writing. He points out, though, that journalists must do some analysis and that scholars must make some value judgments.
These observations bring to mind questions about the creation of hierarchies of film viewers. In his analysis of both Farber and Tyler, Taylor notes that they are not interested in creating a level playing field where every viewer can be an excellent analyst or critic, but that they were interested in being the premiere tastemakers through their own particular and esoteric brand of criticism, which “used culture as raw material” (58). This resonates with scholarship on cult movies and their fans, where hierarchies within fan communities are often a focus of analysis.
It seems from Taylor’s book that even when people are trying to escape the homogenizing effects of the mass media or middlebrow art, they are still reproducing the same structures and hierarchies in their supposedly deviant or resistant communities. I can remember when I was in middle school one of my best friends and I had arguments over who was the true “Queen of Star Wars,” based on who knew more trivia, who had seen the films the most times, etc. Conversely, as an adult film scholar I have been teasingly called bourgeois because I generally do not enjoy watching overly campy or cult movies, such as Ninja Cheerleaders (David Presley, 2008) or The Room (Tommy Wiseau, 2003). So, from Farber and Tyler to twenty-first century academics, the pattern seems to be similar—wanting to be the elite, or at least considered better, or higher, based on one’s taste in media consumption.
As I mentioned earlier, Taylor notes that academics make value judgments when choosing which materials to study. I have certainly judged peers on this in the past, thinking: “About 200 people in the whole world have seen this film, why are you studying it?” And, at the other extreme, I have felt a sort of unspoken snobbery at times because I like to study action films, which some people view as non-artistic Hollywood junk. It gets back to the bigger question, why do film criticism at all? What are our goals? What is the desired outcome of our work?
As a final, rather random aside, I have to mention that Taylor’s book kept reminding me of Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, which in many ways is also about taste-making and conformity in aesthetics. In the novel, the character Ellsworth Toohey is a New York intellectual who is constantly self-effacing, but who weasels his way into the elite groups of critics for every aesthetic undertaking—poetry, architecture, painting, etc.—and turns them all into his lapdogs. That is not what Farber and Tyler were trying to do, obviously, but while reading Taylor’s study of their impact on film criticism, I just keep getting the image of them, holed up in their NYC studio apartments, waging wars of words with other critics.
by Wonda Baugh
In Artists in the Audience, Greg Taylor discusses the critic’s role in filmmaking. Influenced by Roland Barthes’ From Work to Text, Taylor claims that viewers and critics actually create the movie as they are watching it. He uses Mystery Science Theater 3000 as an example of critics creating new art out of old by speaking back to the text, mocking the “bad” movies featured on the show through sarcasm and inter-textual references, so that the show’s commentary on the featured films becomes its own popular culture product. In other words, Mystery Science Theater 3000 takes art and repurposes it. This is very much the way many people view movies in their own homes. It is also a decidedly different view of spectatorship than the notion, common to much early cinema studies scholarship, that movie viewers are passive audiences.
Pursuing this line of inquiry, Taylor argues that Oscar Wilde, much like Roland Barthes, “contends that the artist’s original intention is of little concern to a critic who properly treats the work simply as a ‘starting-point for a new creation’” (12). In this way, Wilde might be understood to anticipate film critics like Manny Farber and Parker Tyler, who believed that the audience-critic writes his/her own experiences onto the movie, and that the intentions of the moviemakers are irrelevant when it comes to interpretation. But what does this type of criticism look like in practice?
This weekend I went to see Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011). The movie’s plot was simple: a lonely house-pet lizard ends up in the desert where he acts tough enough to become the sheriff. The residents of the desert believe that he can help them restore their dying ghost town by finding out where their water is going. The villain mayor has duped the majority of the town into selling their land and is stealing all of the water to create Las Vegas, a symbol of progress. Even while I was inside the theater watching the movie, I could not turn my critique off. The hero of the story was male and from the city (or at least a suburb); he was a stranger who saved-the-town. This works on so many levels to reinforce U.S. foreign policy, imperialism, and the oppression of the global south while it upholds the dominant hierarchy. Certainly there was a moral to the story about capitalism, greed, community and friendship . . . but tired tropes ruined the movie for me.
Clearly, not everyone who watches this movie brings my particular lens to this type of movie. I am certain that people think a talking lizard that learns to have self-confidence is a wonderful thing to share with their children. But for me, the consequences of this “low-culture” text being consumed by very young people are destructive in the long run. This movie relies on racist stereotypes of Native Americans and Mexicans (the “white” lizard is the hero). It relies on old tropes about women: they need saving. It also relies on images of disabled people as evil or old—the mayor is in a wheelchair, the one Native American walked with one crutch. For children who may have never met a person in a wheelchair, or maybe never even had a conversation with a disabled person—the notion that disabled people are deviant is unhelpful at best and insulting at worst. One day, maybe some filmmaker will use the awful images in Rango to create a montage about disability like Spike Lee did about representation of African Americans in Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000). I guess all of that is to say that I do believe that viewers and critics bring their own selves into the movies and that they cannot “turn off” or be passive; in fact I agree that audiences participate in writing movies as they view them, and at times this can be a political act, as well as a creative act.
From Cult and Camp Criticism to Acafandom
by Stephen M. Boston
The term “camp” takes on a different use (and a different meaning) as it is explored in Artists in the Audience, especially the way Parker Tyler viewed it. For Tyler, camp
facilitated creative, aesthetic discussion of popular cinema. Yet [he] took movies themselves even less seriously than Farber did—he openly regarded them as material for his own creative, psychological-mythic reverie. He was seeking only to add method to the movies’ madness. The movies themselves were aesthetically out of control, an entertaining maelstrom of meanings and sensations that could be shaped only from without and after the fact, by the properly attuned critical spectator. (Taylor 51)
In this way, Tyler’s conception of camp criticism encompassed the idea of “Hallucinating Hollywood,” essentially the practice of seeing a film behind the film. In the simplest of explanations, hallucinating Hollywood was critics/audiences taking away meaning from a film that was not directly intended, and creating new conceptions from their own readings. Thus, where camp is now commonly viewed as an aesthetic sensibility based on bad taste and ironic value, Tyler saw it as a meaning-making practice.
Manny Farber’s “termite” approach to cult criticism, on the other hand, glorifies the critic’s heightened ability to dissect films and select appropriately the aspects and qualities of a film that make it have meaning and be of high artistic value. To burrow in and dissect small pieces of film for their value was the major concept of cultism. The goal was also to explore the way films referenced other films, either as evidence of auteurship or through homage to work by other directors. Both of these approaches were very influential in film criticism. Both made a claim to being the most important. However, to effectively critique or analyze a film, one cannot stop at one approach. Indeed, there are possibilities for meshing cult and camp approaches to establish a better reading of a scene or an entire film.
For example, I recently watched the film Paul (Greg Mottola, 2011), a movie about an alien on earth that has been held captive for over forty years. Having escaped, he needs the help of two science fiction geeks to help him get to the space craft coming to rescue him while simultaneously trying to avoid recapture by the government. This film meshes cult and camp sensibilities, and seems to invite analysis through both cult and camp lenses. For one thing, bad taste and irony are at the forefront of this film. Comic Con, science fiction, comic book geeks, aliens, the government, and religion are playfully mocked and several ironic cultural references are placed throughout the film. Knowing the people and aura that surrounds Comic Con and science fiction also adds to the playfulness and “campiness” of the two main characters, with popular perceptions of fandom and geek culture used to characterize them both.
At the same time, though, using Tyler’s conception of camp criticism, it is easy to see that there is definitely a film within a film here. Paul could be read as the story of two geeky men who had nothing going for them stepping up and making meaning out of their lives. It could also be read in terms of the theme of religion versus science and the question of which is the best approach to understanding life. One could equally read this film as a story of oppression, with multiple characters trying to break away from various forms of subjugation. Or one could just view it as a funny sci-fi, action-comedy. In other words, there are ways to read another narrative behind the one presented in the film itself.
In addition, there is the cultist reading of the film. I could dissect many moments of this film and value small pieces for their aesthetic glory. However, I find it more meaningful to take the approach of appreciating the films’ references to other films because Paul is was loaded with them. Whether it was E.T. (Steven Spielberg, 1982), Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998), or the franchises started by films such as Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), and Star Trek (Robert Wise, 1979), Paul was littered with sci-fi movie references, and, for me, this made the film wonderful. It brought excitement, meaning, and hidden laughter, as well as appreciation in this sci-fi comedy.
In closing, I want to touch briefly here on acafandum within this context. A new critical approach developing out of media studies, acafandom seems to have academic value if utilized correctly. As a critical practice, it provides spaces to write, do analysis, and give commentary on television and film inside and outside of academic journals. Much like Farber’s cult criticism and Tyler’s camp criticism, it also grants academic value to writing that is not necessarily deemed “academic” work. I fear that this new space of writing may become saturated as more and more people choose to write and rant, however it does open up new possibilities for new critical practices that take cult and camp criticism in new directions.