Monday, April 14, 2008

The Relations of Film/Cultural/Critical Affect

There's been sort of a critical scuffle over at Jason Sperb's blog in the past few days about certain opinions of There Will Be Blood. It started with Cynthia Rockwell writing over at Wild Sound that

After seeing There Will Be Blood, and thinking about it a bit, I said that Paul Thomas Anderson was the false prophet Eli Sunday and those raving about his film are Eli’s sheep. It’s certainly a gorgeous film, an epic one, a mammothly forceful and visceral one, I’ll give him that. But ultimately is anything being said? I see nothing more than was said in Citizen Kane ages ago, or Chinatown, or 2001, all of which the film heavily borrows from visually. I’ve seen it said many times that this film is doing something new, but can anyone explain to me what exactly that is? I see a film student’s orgasm of references and allusion, but little else, and ultimately an empty core.
It's not exactly a new opinion about the film. Virtually every negative review of the film I've seen has lodged the same complaints: gorgeous and visceral, but hollow and stagey. What struck Jason most about the post was the amount of vitriol sent out to fans of the film:

What frustrates me about the post in question is the utter condescension displayed towards people like me who actually think There Will Be Blood is a twisted masterpiece, and that PT is a legitimate, even thought-provoking, auteur (and I say that as someone who sees Magnolia and, to lesser extent, Boogie Nights, as at times excessive and over-the-top).
He offers up as a rebuttal a similarly familiar argument that the film's entire point is its theatrical staging of emptiness.

What I find interesting about these posts (and the many comments on them) is that it replicates something that seems to happen again and again in critical discussions of this film. Both writers seem to agree on the interpretation of the film (that the film is to some extent about how people "go on with their orgy of trying to pry some meaning out of his films," as Rockwell writes, when emptiness seems to reside at the heart of them), and yet they differ radically in terms of how they actually relate to it. My favorite example of how this dynamic works is the pair of dueling reviews of There Will Be Blood over at Slant Magazine: Ed Gonzalez calls it "another film-school-in-a-box by Paul Thomas Anderson" and Nick Schager praises how the film "immediately establish[es] a mood of dread pitched somewhere between the frightening awe felt by the apes upon discovering the monolith in 2001 and the empty malevolence of the Overlook Hotel's hallways in The Shining." Am I the only one who sees these as essentially the same comments (both about the allusive structure that defines Anderson's work), differing only in the author's tone toward the object? In fact, such a parallel persists throughout both of the reviews: every performance, every shot, every scene, every sound cue is read in exactly the same way, and yet both come away with very different feelings toward the film.

This particular blog discussion, however, is fascinating to me because it not only lays bare this constant doubling in critical opinion about the film for all to see, but because both writers seem to be aware that this is precisely what the film hinges on. In her original post, Rockwell writes,

[M]any critics who say they love this film say they are speechless, dumbfounded, don’t know what to say…implying that it’s because the film’s so powerful, but in my opinion, it’s because there’s just nothing to say. There’s nothing to be wrung from the film.

I think she may have unintentionally hit upon something crucial here, even if it is precisely what she is reacting against. This film has (as Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love seem to have done before this one) somehow managed to hit upon a curious kind of affective chord in which no justification is going to be powerful enough, ever, to convince someone who feels differently about the film. After all, many critics have offered plenty of evidence to support their claims about why the film is either wonderful or terrible, but in the end, because this evidence is always drawn from the very same pool, this is always reduced to a completely unjustified opinion supported only by the "speechless" feeling that one either loves it or hates it.

But this is about more than a single film which breaks down all of our best critical faculties. An instructive comparison would be the other critical darling of last year, No Country for Old Men, a film that shares with Anderson's the themes of emptiness and greed, gorgeous shots of wide desert vistas, and an interrogating camera that peers at its characters as if they were subjects of a nature documentary on the Discovery Channel. The Coen brothers crafted a film which inspired probably the most critical debate in years (I've linked to some of that discussion in the past), but no one seems to really write about the film with any real passion in either direction. It has its fans and its detractors, but something about the film (I would argue, irreducible to its text) seems to inspire measured, classical criticism from a variety of different vantage points (strictly formalist seem the most common, but I've read metaphysical, marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic critiques, etc.). On the contrary, something about There Will Be Blood (also irreducible to the text itself) inspires the kind of "speechless" review in which evidence to support claims (the classical mode of textual analysis) becomes superfluous, in which any critic is reduced to a singular affective response.

In this sense, while the Coens have given us an important film culturally because of the kinds of critical discourse it inspired, I think that Anderson's is an equally important film because it reminds us that such initial affective engagements in many ways form the very basis of all of our social engagements. At its very base, when an individual confronts an object or a person for the first time, the reaction that emerges from that relation is something beyond discourse, and while many scholars have attempted to examine this kind of response, such affect breaks down rational critique and obfuscates exactly the kinds of evidence that could be used to describe it. Cultural theorists such as Lawrence Grossberg, Stuart Hall, Brian Massumi, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have attempted for decades to come to grips with this affective basis which serves as the foundation for all social interaction, and therefore for all politics. These are, of course, precisely those critics who have acted as a kind of counter-tradition to that legacy of the Enlightenment that privileges rational argumentation over an initial anti-rational response.

I think the coin toss metaphor posed by No Country offers us a way of reading these two dueling critical strands (the rational discourse offered in support of the Coens, the affective love-it/hate-it intuition offered in relation to Anderson) against one another as something of a parable for how we are supposed to think and feel as critics. The coin toss represents that contingency and probability of meaninglessness that pervades the cultural objects we encounter in daily life, and yet our responses to those objects are really two sides of the same coin. Without rationalist (one could even say liberal humanist) discourses available, critics will have no vocabulary through which to speak about the encounters of the everyday, no method through which to investigate the political consequences of those interactions, and no avenues through which to stage necessary interventions into current affairs. But without that other side of the coin, that affective, anti-rationalist side (that side so often forgotten by some writers), we would have no sensibility, no empathy or sympathy through which to understand why it is we would even want to engage in such critical, rational discourses in the first place. This affect reminds us of the "human" in such liberal humanist discourses, and it lays the groundwork for the ethics of all of our human relations. In other words, critics need to have a good heaping portion of both in order to remain effective, responsible, and ethical in their work. If only we had more films like these, we wouldn't need the reminder....

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