Sunday, 27 November 2011

"Along come these left-wing militants who blast everything within a three-mile radius with their lasers": Why the concept of over-analysis is a stupid myth and doesn't exist.

This fortnight's / month's post is on a subject dear to my heart, and one which surrounds a popular myth that has bugged me for years: the position that certain films, books, music and popular entertainment weren't meant to an analysed in any serious way, and any attempt to do so is a futile and pretentious enterprise, practised by only the most self-indulgent of navel-gazers. I put to you that this viewpoint is not merely misguided and narrow-minded, but that it is self-contradictory and demonstrably false. Yes, dear readers, tonight I defend that most unpopular and derided of creatures: the film critic. Incidentally, this one is a bit of a rant.

Spongebob Squarepants: Disproving the myth of stuffy academics
Firstly, let me begin my blasting the popular conception of art criticism. Since this is a blog about films I'll limit myself to that medium. The image of the critic distanced from both popular opinion and reality, jollying himself to the meta-academic pleasures of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, sat in his ivory tower while he misses the more earthy, blue-collar pleasures of Joe Dante's Gremlins, looking down his nose at anything that resembles a blockbuster, is as old as the hills and is still extremely pervasive. Whilst I'd agree there is an element of snobbery amongst some schools of criticism (Halliwell's Film Guide, I'm looking at you), the vast majority of popular critics that I read are as open to American blockbusters as they are to Scandinavian social realism and Italian arthouse cinema. Even amongst so-called bonafide academics, there is an extraordinary rejection of snobbery: one of my university supervisors, who has got a PhD and academic publications and everything loves Spongebob Squarepants and Batman: The Animated Series. The notion that 'high' critics don't engage with 'low' art in any positive way is nonsense and needs to stop.

This leads me on to my main target - the (frankly, idiotic) mantra that some films were never meant to be 'over-analysed'. This is something that I have heard repeated over and again from intelligent, normally open-minded individuals, and it has to stop. Firstly, let me start with the word 'meant'. This is misleading because is presupposes that the mantra-chanter somehow had access to the inner-motivations of the film-makers when they wrote, directed, filmed and edited their work. You might well think that Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was never meant to be watched as anything other than entertainment, but, how exactly do you know this? Did Bay consult with you beforehand, wringing his hands over whether he is an artist, or entertainer (as if those things are mutually fucking exclusive to begin with)? No? Well then sit the fuck down. More to the point, the intent of the artist doesn't bloody matter. In scholarship / criticism / whatever, there's a rule called the Intentional Fallacy, which, in short, states that 1) We can't ever really know the intentions of an artist so there's little point in trying to decipher them, and 2) there will inevitably be meanings and subtexts in any piece of art not necessarily consciously inserted by the artist. Did Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster consciously invoke Christian iconography when they created Superman? Maybe, maybe not, but it's damn well there and you'd be a fool to deny it on the basis that the creators didn't intend it to be there.

Gremlins is only fit for entertainment, you say?
Fuck you.
So that's one word polished off. Let's move on to the next one, and the real meat of my argument: 'over-analysed'. Like it or not, we analyse things everyday. If you're not particularly bothered about the cultural significance of Roy William Neill's Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, or how Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is really about the voyeuristic nature of cinema and the objectification of women, that's fine with me (though I really do think you're missing out if you don't care just a little bit), but don't call the discussion of these things something they're not. What, I think, people usually mean by 'over-analyse' is that whatever film review / article / opinion they're griping about, a review of the aforementioned Gremlins, for example, has exceeded the analytical limitations they would like to see set for that particular film. Let's say you disagree with my opinion that what makes Gremlins interesting is the way it constantly breaks the fourth wall in a way that reflects the delightful, dangerous and hilarious anarchy that the eponymous Gremlins embody. Perhaps you don't like my writing style, or you favour the opinion that the Gremlins represent something other than anarchy, which is all fine and dandy. But, and excuse me while my prose briefly devolves into splenetic fury, exactly who the fuck put you in charge of how far I'm allowed to analyse a film, or whether that's how I should derive pleasure from it? Do you like Gremlins? Well, bad luck chump-change, because you've just analysed a film. Yep, that's right, even deciding whether or not you like something constitutes analysis, since presumably you've come to your decision based on, you know, the component parts of the film and whether they add up to something that pleases your pink little brain. To return to my carefully considered question, who (the fuck) put you in charge of deciding when I should stop analysing Gremlins, or Superman, or my fucking Campbell's Tomato Soup if the mood should strike me?

There is no such thing as over-analysis. You can analyse something well, and you can analyse something badly. You can make your points in a measured articulate way, or you can ramble incoherently. You can make complex ideas clear and accessible, or you can obscure simple ideas with impenetrable prose and a contempt for your reader. You can look at every facet of one frame of a film, or you can discuss the movie's big themes. You can make a value judgement based on a historical or purely aesthetic basis. You can hate a film because it's pretentious and self-indulgent, or because it's violent and over-crammed with unnecessary CGI. You can take whatever opinion of a film that you like, but you can't accuse critics of over-analysis because it's nonsensical, and this silly, embarrassing fallacy of taking criticism 'too far', whether it's for The Three Colours Trilogy or Uncle Buck, has got to stop. It's just bloody stupid.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry but I think you have over-analysed this. No obviously I fully agree with you (especially the sweary bits). I think people don’t analyse stuff enough and by stuff I mean everything. I think people don’t like the idea of ‘over-analysis’ because it means they will have to give a coherent argument for their opinions. They are scared they will have to admit that their analysis has been so minimal they may have to change their opinion and god forbid that anyone should have to change their opinions. What’s wrong with holding the opinions of your parents and peers for life without any analysis apart from whether or not having them will make you fit in? Fucking everything!

    From experience I think that the people who don’t analyse media extensively are the same idiots who don’t even analyse their own political and philosophical opinions extensively. I didn’t want to say this but if you don’t like ‘over-analysing’ then you are probably a racist, sexist, homophobic, bigoted, stupid Nazi and most definitely a twat.

    If we don’t ‘over-analyse’ everything then what makes us different from non-human animals?