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On Mainstream Film Criticism

The formalist criticism of film is treated as the standard mode of “reading,” especially in terms of film reviews—the main points of concern are the images, the quality of acting, the music, and progress of the plot, and so on. There is no attempt to decipher these in terms of their meaning; rather, the point is to critique these mechanisms in terms of their effectiveness, ultimately with personal enjoyment as the criterion. This, in itself, should betray the sad emptiness of mainstream reviews, which lends itself merely as a consumerist tool, and even as the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith’s exposition of Capitalist economy in The Wealth of Nations, which, from the enjoyment of the critique, makes sure that demand rises for certain works, and thus increasing their supply, and the opposite for others. It is here that we can point to the complicity of the mainstream critic vis-à-vis the machine of ideology.

The view that the critic is against ideology, insofar as the critic must be impartial, and as evidenced, for example, by the fact that the critic has refined, cultured tastes, and therefore does not enjoy films such as those judged to be merely Hollywood spectacle (Transformers) or frivolous entertainment (Meet the Spartans) is mistaken. The critic upholds its own ideology, and is in fact partial to films it finds formally excellent (but this partiality is hidden, insofar as this sort of excellence is posited as the only form of excellence—ideology at its most basic). Their inattention to the meaning which attends to these forms, and the social structures which foster them, however, lead to indifference in terms of social commentary, political implication, moral content, and so on.

The critic will merely say  Transformers  is a bad film, neglecting further intellectual commentary which may be made. The critic is but the arbiter of quantity, not quality, as one would think: The quantity of enjoyment which may be derived from the work. The critic therefore does not go against ideology, but merely runs parallel it, with the same trajectory but from a different source—because as the critic derides  Transformers, or Meet the Spartans, or Lady in the Water, it advocates American Beauty, The King’s Speech, Black Swan, and so on, for purely formal reasons, its own ideology, which stems, of course, from the bourgeois indifference to politics, and therefore it can afford to speak of framing, and score, and characterization with reference to few else, hence the pitiful predictability of mainstream criticism in terms of which films will be favorably reviewed and which films will not, as deduced from form and theme, which, simply, must exhibit Arnoldian “high seriousness,” regardless of other factors which may lend itself to consideration.

To paraphrase the tiresome but true Brechtian cliché: Criticism is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it. One has to read this not as a prescription but a description: Criticism is always a hammer. There are no instances in which the critic, in its bourgeois inclinations, merely produces a mirror, neglecting political implication. The critic is always already politically implicated. The question now is if the critic will handle this dimension of discourse or ignore it, the latter action already an indication of the critic’s intellectual and ethical aptitude.


Brilliant writing, Cholo. Kaso feeling ko naman parang wala akong kwenta mag-review. Chos.

Also, I liked Lady in the Water.

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