The other day I stumbled upon a biography of Mark Kermode in a 3rd party website that described him as one of those film critics that hates films. Unfortunately I didn’t instantly bookmark this link, and now searching for Kermode+Hate points only at his new book Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics. This description of him caused cognitive dissonance in me, because one of the reasons I stick with the Kermode and Mayo Film Review podcast is because I always get the feeling that both of them genuinely love films.
The same day, some friends declined an invitation to watch Pacific Rim with a group because they were afraid that there would be “haters” present, whose critiques would spoil their fun. I’ve got to own up here to having made some critiques of Pacific Rim beyond the post linked above. And, perhaps more importantly, there’s definitely a devilish voice prompting me to critique harder in the face of uncompromising adoration – I’d have half as many things to say about Pacific Rim if certain folks’ ardour hadn’t been quite so fervent.
The reason I think critics are perceived as hating films despite the care and attention they lavish on them, is because people instinctively want to love a work of art with their whole being. The ideal love of Art ™ is a total one, where imperfections are totally obviated. Finding a flaw is a betrayal of such perfect love. And what’s the benefit to finding flaws? Why not relax in that semi-divine state of perfect bliss? There is no universally compelling answer – certainly I’ve never found a way of expressing my dissatisfaction that convinced a Lover ™. But I think that dovetails with the function of criticism, which is not to tell you what to think, but help you understand what I think. Criticism of any kind is inherently based on an emotional response to a work – it’s why critics can savage writing like Dan Brown’s as terrible without taking the big-picture view that a hundred times more people will read The Davinci Code voluntarily than will ever read Ulysses. They just didn’t like it. I didn’t like it myself.
The reason that I engage in critical thought about art isn’t because I hate it. No critic hates their media of choice, no matter how brutal they may be about any given work, or every given work. In fact, a lot of the time when I love a work, I want to become critical about it, because I want to enjoy it again. I remember with crystal clarity the day that I first watched The Maltese Falcon. You never forget your first love, no matter how many times you experience love afterwards – I knew from the first 10 minutes that it was perfect. There’s no real way of telling how many times I’ve watched it since, at least once a year for the past 17 years, most years more often. Here’s a startling admission to go with that statement of adoration: I’m still not sure I entirely understand it despite writing a masters thesis on Hammett. Reading Hammett in conjunction with literary criticism over the lifetime of his works helped me to enjoy The Maltese Falcon in a way I previously hadn’t. The imperfections I hadn’t noticed became opportunities to explore the underlying tensions in the work, and highlighted the careful construction of the central ambiguity: does Spade love O’Shaughnessy?
No work, however, has had more reversals in my estimation than True Lies. I watched it with a group of friends when it first came out, and I loved it. It had everything that a 15 year old boy could want: action, bad-ass dialogue, spies, and hot women. It was just a pity, about the screen time they wasted on the Bill Paxton sub-plot: why does Helen Tasker need to be having an affair to be snatched? I hadn’t heard of “Fridging” at the time. I think it was Richard Dagger who pointed out that I’d actually watched the film incorrectly: the spy stuff is scaffolding to support the re-ignition of the Tasker’s love-life. I watched it again a little while later, and it was like watching a completely different film, a better film. The fusion of human emotion and action is difficult to make well, and it’s hard not to recognise the problems in crap like Mr & Mrs Smith once you’ve got True Lies in mind.
But, that’s not the end of the story either – because of Vic Johns, who pointed out that I was still watching it incorrectly: the premise of the central relationships of the film is that healthy relationships are based on submission. Harry only becomes interested in Helen when she strays, and Helen becomes sexually desirable again when playing the part of a whore. Juno Skinner appears feisty, but there is a screen-power imbalance between her psychotic sexuality and Salim Abu Aziz’s fanaticism: she is his slave. Finally, most pervasively, while Harry describes his relationship with Gibson as “a perfect team”, in truth, Gibson is little more than a servant that enables his master’s adventures. “Team” indeed?
It was another friend, Ellie, who was able to put that analysis into context for me. True Lies derives from a genre where women are almost literally disposable. In Octopussy, Bond is making love to one woman when he’s interrupted. He pushes Girl 1 into the closet, telling her she’ll have to wait her turn, then makes love to Girl 2. We only have to look at the fates of Severine and Moneypenny in Skyfall to see that the franchise is more-or-less unrepentant. In True Lies, there is a sexual undercurrent in Harry’s encounters with Juno Skinner, but I think it’s clear that Juno’s primary value to her organization is not sex appeal, but her knowledge of antiquities, ruthlessness and smuggling contacts. She uses the imagery of an affair with Harry to hurt Helen, sensing a vulnerability; we could, for example, think about the taunts of Alan Rickman’s sheriff in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as functionally equivalent. Lastly, Helen’s induction-by-fire into the world of espionage is expressed as a male sexual fantasy, but the real situation has already been explained by Bill Paxton: it’s about about creating a story. The fiction explains to us that power comes from being able to control that fantasy – Helen isn’t dressed sexily, she modifies her outfit to make it sexy. When each of her fantasies comes to an end, she retains control and self-possession, compared to Simon, who completely falls apart.
Does that completely obviate the problems with the straight male gaze, with the lack of female representation inside the Omega Sector, and other gender-politically questionable things? Not entirely. Recently films like Salt, Haywire, and Hanna have shown strong female characters in a way inconceivable in the mid 1990s. True Lies is not perfect, but by successively interrogating its structure, symbolism, characters and place in its genre, I have been able to enjoy it several times now by watching with different emphases. Criticism, even essentially negative critical engagement like Vic’s, has helped me to understand the work better, and enjoy it more.
I don’t think that necessarily all criticism ends happily, or nearly happily. It is possible to destroy enjoyment of a work by looking too closely at it, and seeing the problems. I think I’d have enjoyed the Star Trek reboots quite a lot more if I weren’t prone to pulling on the loose threads of the narrative. It was a movie that needed a 100% popcorn/rollercoaster approach to viewing, and I just couldn’t turn my brain off sufficiently to enjoy the pretty visual spectacles. I kept for The Book of Eli to develop depth and answer some of the questions that, to me, loomed large. When it didn’t answer those questions, I got frustrated, and the more I looked at it, the less it seemed to mean. My contention is that we don’t have to settle for sub-par or shallow art, and if a work can’t stand looking at it closely, we perhaps shouldn’t accept it. There are plenty of really amazing art works out there, so settling, rather than striving, seems to sacrifice the opportunity to enjoy works that can stand a bit of close scrutiny many times over.
So, my advice: be a hater. You’ll enjoy everything a lot more.