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Joe Morgenstern Needs to Recalibrate

December 5th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Joe Morgenstern is, as he sonorously intones on his weekly podcast, “the film critic of the Wall Street Journal.” It’s not completely clear why the Wall Street Journal needs a film critic to begin with, but that’s a different issue. What I take umbrage with is Mr. Morgenstern’s negative review of the movie, “The Fountain,” directed by Darren Aronofsky. Mr. Morgenstern’s review appeared on November 24, 2006. In it, he describes the film as “a fantasy whose turgid pretensions defy the very notion of marketing.” He says the film’s tag line, “What if you could live forever,” has a “certain resonance,” because watching it “seem[ed] like eternity.” He says, “The images are often sumptuous, though occasionally ludicrous,” and claims the “music is steadfastly oppressive.”

The purpose of this note is not to defend “The Fountain,” which by no means is a perfectly iterated version of the themes it attempts to express. While I enjoyed it, if I had been producing it, I would have approached it differently, for a variety of reasons not pertinent here. I do think movies like this ought to be commended in principle, as they are few and far between. The reason why is, they make you think. As opposed to the “action”-type films Mr. Morgenstern evidently prefers, such as the new James Bond movie.

Rather, my concern is, Mr. Morgenstern misunderstands the nature, role and function of the critic, which is, to interpret the work in light of his own background, experience and ideology. I couldn’t care less if Mr. Morgenstern “liked” the movie, or not (nor is my opinion relevant, either). His personal value judgments couldn’t mean less. It would have been far more enlightening had Mr. Morgenstern attempted to explicate the movie without using pejorative terms such as “turgid,” “pretentious,” “ludicrous,” “oppressive,” etc.

For example, he could have said something like, “The plot was difficult for me to follow, because it jumped back and forth in time. Even while this might be acceptable in the conventions of the science fiction genre, I would have preferred clearer transitions and a more linear story line.” Or, “While the film was attempting to make several points about the nature of love, its over-all message was not clearly expressed.” Or, “In most instances, I didn’t think the music was appropriate to the scene, because, rather than enhancing my appreciation of the scene, it seemed to clash with it.” These are just examples, like I said, it’s not my intention to write my own review.

I think Mr. Morgenstern needs to read a book by Northrop Frye entitled The Anatomy of Criticism. In fact, it should be required reading for anyone with the hubris to consider being a critic, or commentator, on some other person’s creative or aesthetic work. Criticism, for Frye, is not about “evaluating” the work, that is, making a value judgment if it is “good” or “bad.” Value judgments are an “illusion of the history of taste,” p. 20; they either are “pedantries or tautologies, depending on whether they are taken seriously or not,” p. 27. All such a critic is doing is “to define as authentic art whatever he happens to like, and to go on to assert that what he happens not to like is, in terms of that definition, not authentic art. The argument has the great advantage of being irrefutable, as all circular arguments are, but it is shadow and not substance,” p. 26.

In truth, says Frye, “the scholar and the man of taste are connected by nothing more than a common interest,” p. 11. “If this assumption is true, the high percentage of sheer futility in all criticism should be honestly faced, for the percentage can only increase with its bulk, until criticizing becomes . . . merely an automatic method of acquiring merit, like turning a prayer wheel,” p. 11. “Hence the number of essays . . . in mythical criticism that read like bad comparative religion, in rhetorical criticism that read like bad semantics, in aesthetic criticism that read like bad metaphysics, and so on,” p. 341.

Rather, real criticism is assessing an aesthetic work on its own merits – not those imposed by the critic – and then interpreting or understanding it, in relationship to other works. In this manner, criticism “progresses toward making the whole of [film] intelligible,” p. 9 (I have substituted the word “film” for “literature,” which was Frye’s primary concern). Rather than making a value judgment about taste, good criticism exemplifies “how a man of taste uses and evaluates [film], and thus show[s] how [film] is absorbed into society,” p. 8.

As summarized by A. C. Hamilton at p. 27 of his book Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism (1990),

“. . . a literary work should be contemplated as a pattern of knowledge, an act that must be distinguished, at least initially, from any direct experience of the work, . . . [Thus] criticism begins when reading ends: no longer imaginatively subjected to a literary work, the critic tries to make sense out of it, not by going to some historical context or by commenting on the immediate experience of reading but by seeing its structure within literature and literature within culture.”

Hmmm, interesting, a book of criticism about criticism – two steps removed from the aesthetic work, itself. And then here I am talking about both – making three. Oh well, notwithstanding, as Frye puts it, “The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with,” p. 5.

Please take heed, Mr. Morgenstern, as this will tend to improve the quality of your reviews (which I, at least, will continue to read with interest).