Coming to terms with contrarianism

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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Do critics have a moral responsibility to go against the grain? Even the most idiosyncratic, non-conformist critics must reveal some sort of internal compass in order for readers to have faith in their judgments at all, observes Richard Porton, in re-reading many Farbers writings.

So-called critical ‘contrarianism’ is usually little more than a writer’s refusal to look over his or her shoulder to confirm the consensus of peers and the public.
The very existence of the term contrarianism as a club to bludgeon recalcitrant critics seems suspect (as does the astonishment towards dissident views it implies) and brings to mind Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s concept of ‘manufacturing consent’. If the mass media can work in collusion with the state to promote a political agenda, can’t mainstream ideology function in a similar fashion when it comes to matters of taste? It’s true that panning a widely acclaimed film is rarely ‘subversive’ per se and certain mainstream publications actually relish sporadic bursts of controversy; puncturing the status quo, however slightly, may be less a gust of fresh air than a strategy to increase circulation or, in this internet-driven era, a ruse to attract ’traffic’ to websites that require fresh doses of provocation.

The Library of America’s recently published Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber demonstrates the pleasure that can be derived from one critic’s uninhibited, frequently cantankerous voice. In fact, what is most pleasurable about the Farber volume is the realization that his invigorating crankiness might well enrage, or at least give pause to, some of his fans that are only familiar with the selective writings enshrined in the two editions of Negative Space. From a vantage point where the low-budget crime movies Farber celebrated in his essay Underground Films have achieved a certain amount of academic respectability, his praise for macho action films has lost much of its initially bracing sting. This is less Farber’s fault than the result of an inevitable process of co-optation in which yesterday’s ornery ‘contrarianism’ can easily congeal into today’s received orthodoxy.

For better or worse, the more obscure pieces in Farber on Film take on canonical targets such as Maya Deren and Michelangelo Antonioni and prove that a critic’s wrongheaded judgments can sometimes be as illuminating as his genuine insights. In a particularly damning brief piece on Deren published in 1946, Farber castigates her for a "touch… totally lacking sensuousness, humor and love", as well as a "dead eye for photography" and as great an inability "to spot a cliché as a Tin Pan Alley hack." Even though these pronouncements may seem inordinately harsh to most of us in 2010, they at least perform the salutary function of removing the whiff of the museum, as well as of course the classroom, from the contemporary enshrinement of Deren’s work and can perhaps allow us to reevaluate it in a nuanced fashion that avoids both Farber’s dismissive scorn and contemporary academics’ uncritical veneration.

Silly film
Similarly, Farber’s critique of Antonioni’s red desert (il deserto rosso, 1964) may come off as spectacularly irreverent to a generation reared to regard the Italian modernist as one of the titans of modern cinema. But Farber’s impatience with red desert is fascinating for being hostile to a now-classic film while providing an assessment of its aesthetic virtues that is much more precise than many of the analyses proffered by Antonioni’s admirers. Despite poopooing red desert as a ‘silly film’, there is much that is salient within the review’s commentary on "the director’s suavity with color, his knack for suggesting decay-apathy-strain by doing a photographic doodling with stiffness and stillness in modern landscape."

Vital to an appreciation of this commingling of valid evaluations with off-kilter jabs within the same piece is an assumption that there is a certain internal coherence to Farber’s critical practice, an unstated set of standards that usually manifest themselves as a preoccupation with compositional detail and an aversion to pretension (even though the yardstick for the latter is, as is true with any critic, extremely pliable.) This is not to deny the correct assertion (made most recently by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the online journal Moving Image Source) that Farber’s methodology is more empirical and intuitive than boringly consistent or academic.
It’s just to argue that even the most idiosyncratic, non-conformist critics must reveal some sort of internal compass in order for readers to have faith in their judgments at all. Even while acknowledging that admiration for a particular critic might have little to do with agreeing with many of his or her critical stances, there is still the need to believe that what once were called ‘arbiters of taste’, particularly so-called ‘contrarians’, are guided by standards that make their compulsion to go against the critical grain more than mere flippancy.

These ruminations raise the question of whether, as opposed to earnest contrarianism, there is a critical pose that might be termed perverse contrarianism or contrarianism for its own sake. Since we’d need the intellectual equivalent of divining rods in order to establish critics’ sincerity (a tricky word when dealing with matters of taste), a reader’s conclusion that he’s being conned by a critic is dependent on a cumulative sense, usually reached after years of reading reviews, that a writer’s critical barometer is seriously awry.

Movie fascism
Without mincing any more words, the New York-based critic Armond White (who writes for the weekly NY Press) is often accused of blurring the boundaries between principled contrarianism and empty provocation. Of course, making this case definitively is imprecise and inevitably circuitous. Although political film criticism, which at its best can’t be separated from aesthetic rigor, has an honorable pedigree, White’s tendency to lambaste certain films or filmmakers with wildly inconsistent political epithets does not inspire faith in many of his readers. For example, his pan of Corneliu Porumboiu’s police, adjective troubled me more for his cryptic, and seemingly counterintuitive, accusation that Porumboiu capitulated to "movie fascism" than the fact that he was skewering one of my favorite films of the year. Even though it would be highly disturbing if a genuinely left-wing critic fell back on insults like ‘fascist’ on a regular basis (although there are certainly instances where the word is acceptable), White’s political biases seem more neo-conservative than leftist; over the years he’s maintained, with minimum evidence, that the late, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was "self-aggrandizing" and that Michael Winterbottom’s the road to guantanamo was "anti-American," whatever that means.

Still, a complicating factor remains that, on rare occasions, White’s contrarianism seems perfectly sincere and even convincing, not bogus and contrived. The most recent example is his review of Lee Daniels’ precious: based on the novel push by sapphire — a rant that is nevertheless informed by what certainly seems like earnest outrage towards what White feels is the film’s appalling racism. Sifting through these contradictions perhaps only proves that even inept contrarians sometimes have a good day while skillful ones, like Manny Farber, are not immune to shooting themselves in the foot now and then.

Richard Porton

Richard Porton is one of Cineaste magazine’s editors. He is the author of Film and the anarchist imagination (Verso) and editor of the anthologies: Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals (Wallflower) and On anarchist cinema (Arena).