A brief note on the power of journalistic criticism

Several years ago, I saw No Country for Old Men with my parents and one of my sisters. I’m predisposed to like Coen brothers movies, but I came out engaging my parents in a discussion about how Javier Bardem’s character (the one with the bowl cut and the hydraulic cattle bolt) represents the inevitability of death and the inability to eradicate fear from the world. I must have sounded like the priggish Columbia professor Woody Allen dresses down in Annie Hall. My sister was rolling her eyes though. For her, there are only two judgments one can make about a movie:

  1. I liked it.
  2. I didn’t like it.

That’s it. What’s for dinner?

But sometimes, your reaction to a cultural product can be so much more complicated.

I have a lot to say about journalistic criticism. I’ve enjoyed doing it since I was an undergrad, and I’m writing my dissertation about a journalism review. So this is not a definitive statement or anything. But…

Tiny Furniture Poster…I watched Tiny Furniture tonight on Netflix. I felt I had to because everyone’s raving about Girls, and they were both written by and star Lena Dunham, so it was one of those cultural artifacts I felt I had to be aware of.

And I didn’t like it very much. So if I have to play by my sister’s rules, I choose #2. I though it was sort of boring and pretentious and self-conscious. I even briefly dozed off right before the (spoiler alert!) sex scene inside some kind of air conditioning duct.

But I wanted to see what critics had said about it, so I poked around and found Manohla Dargis’s New York Times review. It didn’t really make me like the movie any better. It’s hard to tell if Dargis liked it any more than I did. She said the movie is “at times more pleasurable to think about than it is to watch.” But in a way, it is Dargis’s criticism that made watching this movie valuable to me. Not the movie itself, but the fact that it made Dargis think, and that Dargis’s thinking made me think about the movie.

Dargis made a connection that I, as a doctoral student in a department that has “media studies” in its name, should also have made. That the main character’s name is quite possibly a reference to a Walter Benjamin essay about the nature of art and reproduction. About representation. The movie didn’t do much for me, but the critic forced me to think. I know, however, that not everyone enjoys that kind of intellectual bullying.

I’m talking to you, Beth.

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One comment

  1. Wqueens7 · ·

    I admire people who can ignore cultural detail and fillagree; being a cultural critic is exhausting. I watched *the four lions* with my son and laughed through the first 2/3 and have been thinking about the horror and the pity of terrorists ever since (my son is incapable of understanding or discussing it with me).

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