Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The "Eye of the Beholder" is Just the Beginning

(Yes, this post is about Modern Family ... sort of.  Just go with me here for a minute first.)

I'm an addict for cultural criticism. When I walk out of a movie -- particularly one that I felt strongly about (whether positively or negatively so) -- the first thing I do is pull up Rotten Tomatoes to scan through the reviews, particularly by critics who had an opposite reaction to the film than I did.  In the case of any TV show I watch regularly, I'll almost immediately look at A.V. Club's TV Club recaps to see their reaction.  When I stumble upon a new critic who captures my attention, I find myself obsessing over digging through their back catalog to see how they felt about my most (or least) favorite movies, or albums, or whatever.

My most recent obsessions have been the "Yeah, It's That Bad" (YITB) podcast and the inimitable, intimidating, infuriating writing of Armond White.  These two particular examples could not be more different.  While the former wears its uninformed pedigree on its sleeve (for example, in Episode 46, the crew responded to the a listener's complaint -- that they gave female actors a "pass" if they couldn't act very well based solely on their looks while not holding male actors to the same standard -- by insisting that they were not "professionals" and, therefore, they had no obligation to give anything more than their personal perspective), Mr. White has been on a one-critic crusade against the "democratization" of film criticism exhibited by YITB (holding out Roger Ebert for particular disdain with his reductionist, all-too-accessible "thumbs up/thumbs down" approach to reviewing movies).  While YITB gives ample time to rambling anecdotes about how their childhood experience of seeing movies for the first time impacts their opinions on those same films today, Mr. White rejects the very notion that film criticism should have a subjective component whatsoever.  Rather, Mr. White presumes to apply a kind of "bird's eye" view, informed by his extensive (and genuinely impressive) knowledge of film, and interpreted through the lens of high-minded film theory.  Personal anecdotes are replaced by relentlessly pretentious references to such non-household-names of film history as Yasujiro Ozu, Leo McCarey and Bernardo Bertolucci.

How Else To Explain It?

Sticking with these two examples for the moment, I find them both almost equally fascinating and frustrating.  YITB's embrace of its explicitly pedestrian outlook is lighthearted and fun, but also unsatisfying in the long run since it's so self-limiting.  On the other hand, Mr. White's insistence that he takes an "objective" stance on the films he reviews is perhaps the greater sin in the end.  In his words:
“I tell it how it is and I write what a film deserves,” White said. “Liking it or disliking it is irrelevant. Understanding the intelligence and creativity is key, and too often critics dismiss films for being different.”
That is all fine and good as an aspirational statement, but at the same time, it all just seems too cute by half.  First, how can he claim with a straight-face that he pays no regard as to whether or not he "liked" the films he reviews when he's constantly making subjective statements about these films?  (What else can it possibly mean to call Transporter 3 a "thrill drive" except to suggest that he was "thrilled" by it?  That he liked the movie and expected that others would like it, too?)  Moreover, I can't possibly stomach a statement like this about Life of Pi except as the hyperbolic, subjective statement of someone blindly by the passion of  their own personal disappointment in the film:
Life of Pi is a movie for those people—and there are many—who don’t appreciate the style of visionaries such as Bernardo Bertolucci, John Boorman, Brian DePalma, Leos Carax, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Paul W.S. Anderson, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, John Moore, Olivier Megaton, Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg and Wong Kar Wai. How else to explain the unjust dismissal of Bertolucci’s magnificent 1994 Little Buddha, which combined the modern search for faith with the historical marvel of Buddha’s enlightenment?
How else to explain it?  Um, go screw yourself, Mr. White.  How's that for an explanation?  Because I'm a huge fan of Wes Anderson and Spielberg, and I liked Life of Pi just fine.

Anyways, I think the reason I find Mr. White's stance so annoying -- more annoying, even, than those who hide behind a wall of self-described ignorance -- is that whether a critic "lik[es] or dislik[es]" a film can say an awful lot about a film, particularly if the critic is self-aware enough to explore why they reacted that way.  Film theory is certainly interesting, but as one listener to the /Filmcast astutely observed in an email response to an appearance by Mr. White on the podcast:  "There isn’t one theory of criticism, there is a multitude of approaches one can take to critique a piece of work."  Delving into why any given critic adopts one approach over another adds an additional dimension to the analysis and ultimately helps me to place whatever is being critiqued in the broader cultural context.

"Don't Ask Me About My Business."

Which brings me to last week's episode of Modern Family, "Fulgencio", and an email from my mother that inspired this week's blog post.  For anyone not familiar with the show, it's an ABC sitcom currently in its fourth season, based around three interrelated nuclear families.  A major plot in last week's episode concerned the father of one of the three families (Phil) realizing that his kids weren't interested in bringing their problems to him, given that -- between the two of them -- their mother was far more adept at solving their problems.  Phil is portrayed generally as trying in vain to be "hip" in the eyes of his kids, a free-spirited, laid-back, "cool" parent.  Meanwhile, his wife Claire is played as a hard-nosed, disciplinarian parent.  While Phil assumes that his kids would more easily relate to his easy going parenting style, the kids had found that their mother's aggressive approach to life was more likely to actually get things done.

"Fulgencio" comes to a head when Phil, finding that his non-aggressive attempts to solve his kids' problems with their fellow classmates and bosses (as well as his own dispute with a flower shop whose balloons obscured his billboard) all backfired on him, switches gears and directs his son to quietly extract the kind of hard-nosed vengeance on his "enemies" that his wife was known to employ.  The final scenes explicitly invoke a famous scene from The Godfather, which is kind of a SPOILER, so if you're still planning on seeing the episode, don't watch the next clip ...

While I'm a moderate fan of the show, I thought this episode was better than most.  In particular, the homage to The Godfather did more than merely reference pop culture, a la Family Guy; it also shed further insight into Phil's character.  Phil's defining personality trait is his pathetic attempts to be the "cool dad", which typically means pretending to be the sort of "man child" that appears all over popular TV shows and movies of the day.  Yet, underneath that facade, Phil's actually a highly competent father and a hardworking breadwinner with a steady job.  He simply dreads the thought that all that maturity means he can no longer be considered "cool" -- particularly in the eyes of his children.  Consequently, when he drops the "cool" act in this episode, he simply replaces it with another act.  Sending his son on a rampage was one thing, but the act doesn't end there as we see in the final shot of the episode, which is another direct homage to The Godfather.  Indeed, even when Phil grabs the pants from his wife and takes charge in the most aggressive way possible, he still has to be the "cool dad" in his own way.  He's play-acting at adulthood rather than embracing it fully.

Whether or not you buy that interpretation, the fact is that I found the episode to be clever while essentially lighthearted.  It wasn't something I expected to be the topic of a family email chain the next day (given that we've never discussed the show before), but sure enough, I found an email from my mom with the simple headline "Modern Family" in my Inbox asking for our opinion on the episode.  I replied that I liked the episode without giving it much further thought, and my mom responded with a detailed analysis about how the episode was "too creepy" and "left [her] sad and cold."  Aside from the violence -- on display in the form of Phil's son shooting balloons with a BB gun and ripping the head off a toy Zebra -- my mom wrapped up her analysis with this observation:

[T]he worst part was the direction the Dunphy family is heading toward.  I did not like that Clare is being portrayed as such an 'evil' type person, and that the kids were searching for pay back to anyone who mistreats them.  And, that they were dealing with Phil the way that all sitcoms used to deal with the dad figure....like he's a big oaf who no one respects, and has a wife who rules over him. 
That last line really struck me, because it turned what might otherwise have been dueling opinions on whether or not the violence in the episode was "over the top" into something else.  It tied the analysis back to my mom's personal experiences and connected her reaction to this episode with the impact previous shows had had on her.  I stopped to reflect on what other sitcoms my mom had in mind, and how those memories of "big oaf [fathers] who no one respects" with their shrill wives "rul[ing] over them" formed the lens through which she viewed this episode.  (As it happens, this has actually been a topic often debated online.)

In turn, I thought about the sitcoms that were popular during my childhood and the kinds of parents in those shows -- say, Steve Keaton or Cliff Huxtable, both stern but gentle father figures whose wives were their equals, working outside the house as well and splitting the parenting duties mutually between them.  The 90s eventually replaced the Keatons and the Huxtables with a darker, if also more honest and relatable (in a blue collar-way), vision of the family seen in Roseanne and The Simpsons. That gritty take on the American family would ultimately curdle into absurd caricature, as shown in the late seasons of The Simpsons, and even more so in Family Guy, in which the father is actually, clinically retarded and the wife is essentially her husband's mother.  While there is some overlap with what my mom described, there were also some competing images of competent, "father knows best" types, against which Phil Dunphy is refreshingly flawed by comparison.

None of this really has anything to do with "Fulgencio" or what the writers were trying to say with the Godfather homage.  Yet, it says a lot about how the two of us reacted to this episode and what we took away from it.  My mom saw the episode as a slide back into some very crass gender stereotypes, the kind in which neither gender comes out looking good but the women ultimately suffer more as the killjoys.  When I stopped to think about it, I reached the conclusion for myself that Phil Dunphy was actually quite a leap forward from the borderline (or in some cases "actually") retarded father figures on so many shows today.  There's no "correct" interpretation in that respect, but then "correct" isn't the point.

I have a feeling that Mr. White would find the whole conversation ridiculous, dependent on uninformed, subjective interpretations that overlook how Modern Family succeeds or fails to evoke the strong cinematic themes of the immigrant experience in 1940s America ... or whatever.   It's not that I don't find that kind of analysis interesting, but by subtracting his own background and subjective interpretation from his writings, Mr. White denies us the opportunity to contextualize his observations and to learn more about him at the same time we learn more about whatever he's reviewing.

By contrast, I leave the email exchange with my mom eager to continue discussing what this episode said to her in light of the context of her own life, and how her past experiences contrast with mine and inform her viewing experience.  It seems that too many people consider subjectivity to be a kind of dodge ... as if saying "well, that's just my opinion" should end the discussion when two people have differing interpretations, when really the discussion is just getting good.

No comments: