Sunday, May 31, 2015

Films, critics, and the politics of preference

There was a time when critics wrote about their preferred subject to the point. That was when works of art were assessed on their merits and not merely according to their authors. Time passes and things change. We now live at a time when the line between author and work has blurred. Reviews very often recount the plot of the work being assessed. The author is then measured on the basis of the critic's preferences, and only then is his work judged (depending on the critic's subjective biases for or against the author). Unfortunately, this is very much the case here.

One can't expect much of commercial films made here. This we know. In that sense they are symptomatic of a trend that began with the privatisation of our cinema. To mistake trend with author and attack him straight off isn't professional, however. That is not analysis. That is vendetta. All too often however, the line between author and work blurs. In that case, where must one put in analysis and where must one talk about director and hold him responsible? For that matter, how should he be held responsible?

This is why I didn't know whether to agree or disagree with a critic who in a recent review lambasted a popular film made and released here. At the outset I must say that I am not a fan of the film in question. It does not measure up-to its director's potential. The problem I have is not with the director, however, but with the fact that as a work of art the film fails on account of cheap laughs, unnecessary dialogues, and a plot-line that could have been shortened for effect.

The review didn't help. It lambasted the film. It pointed out error. It didn't offer remedy but instead went on a tirade against director. The film in other words was judged on its director's merits. The criterion used to judge it was as valid as assessing Neruda's poetry in terms of the critic's (dis)agreement with his politics. The article wasn't an indictment on the object d'art. It was an attack on the creator.

To extrapolate from flawed premises and single out directors isn't fair. This is what some reviewers do, however. To the extent that the film in question invites scathing criticism owing to what is referred to as a koop-mundook (frog in the well) mentality, I agree that the director must be held accountable. But not always.

This review helps put perspective on the underside of criticism. We all have heard of instances where critics have been arm-twisted to lavish praise. We also have heard of instances where critics base their analyses on the author's political colours. I don't know about literature and theatre in this sense but my guess is that the same can be said of those spheres as well, whatever the language.

In this context it would make sense to look back. There once were critics who evaluated a film, book, or play based on what it tried to do. The basic rule for any good review was that it ought to measure how a work succeeded on this count. Regi Siriwardena's reviews of Ediriweera Sarachchandra's plays are valid even today, for instance, not because he scripted his views on Sarachchandra's politics into them but because they were measured on how well they stuck to their vision. That is why he praised Sinhabahu but later criticised Vessantara.

Not everyone can be a Regi Siriwardena. That's natural. But that this should mean that critics need to do away with any line between author and work is ridiculous. Siriwardena was not, for example, a sympathiser of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. He did not however factor this in his criticism of Vessantara. Not that he didn't leave politics out altogether, as his criticism of Nanda Malini's "Chandra Madulu Yata" reveals. Nor does this mean that critics shouldn't have any biases at all. I can't quote Siriwardena here but I'll bring up another name. Pauline Kael.

Kael was not prophetic. Some of her reviews are dated. Some of the films she lambasted (harshly, I should add) have since been redeemed. Her take on certain directors was itself subject to critique, and this arguably stunted her career. But it is also this that gained her readership and won her a following which continues to date. Her books were all bestsellers and so were her reviews, framed as they were by a personal style that put her at the other end of, say, Andrew Sarris. She wasn't afraid of losing readership on account of her opinion. Even if her take on certain directors lost credence when they were later vindicated.

She was certainly no Regi Siriwardena. Siriwardena's prose was more reflective, more open to debate, and less polemical. She was different. She proved that opinion didn't always translate into poor commentary. You could hold and were entitled to opinion, never mind whether or not people agreed with you. Sample her reviews of Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, and 2001: A Space Odyssey to see how she let in bias when writing.

But this didn't take away effect. It didn't jar. Why?

Because she spoke from the heart. True, she was less objective than Siriwardena, but her analyses were spot on and maintained free rein. Unlike certain critics she also didn't mistake trend with director, as seen in her review of A Clockwork Orange ("Stanley Strangelove"). She understood that films followed patterns. Directors shaped films, yes, but there were also factors outside their control. It was (partly) on this basis that she argued that films weren't always products of their directors (as she put it in her essay "Raising Kane").

This we should know. And learn. Works of art cannot and will not be vindicated unless critics acknowledge that as much as politics shapes them it cannot be the end-all and be-all of critique. They must also factor out any biases against or in favour of their authors. Films and books invite assessment. They depend on certain factors which the critic must acknowledge. Why confuse work with creator all the time?

The point is that films and critics don't always go side-by-side. There are reviews that champion and those that lambast. That's natural. What is not natural, however, is the tendency to blur the line between author and creation and then judging the latter purely on the former's merits. Siriwardena didn't do that. Nor did Kael. Makes sense to follow them.