Art and criticism are fundamentally built on the nature of discourse. If criticism was, as Rotten Tomatoes may want to suggest, about consensus, there would be no point to criticism. Someone had to criticize the problematic ugliness to Rembrant's figures before someone could value it as a revolution. The author has to be murdered by Barthes before it can be reclaimed. Cinematic discourse depends on the ever impossible question: frame or window?
The goal of the critic should be a personal statement, and my favorite statements are often ones that in no way reflect my feelings toward the art objects I'm seeing. How did that person see that idea in that thing? This is most remarkable when a critic approaches a work that not only reflects something very different from my own judgment system, but everyone around me.
While most people call this contrarianism, I call it the counter-intuitive approach. I also think there’s a difference between the two. Contrarianism, as the connotation suggest, goes against the grain: it’s fundamentally seen as a negative. Counter-intuitive suggests a new way of reaching a goal, something that uses a new method to approach the same issue. There’s a positive spin to it: a suggestion that this approach can create a new way of viewing the object at hand.
I wanted to write this for a few reasons, mainly because more often than not, I’m seeing more and more posts that could be labeled as contrarian, including my own. Some of these pieces I think are very good, others I think need work. The desire to write something contrarian often comes from the wrong energy, as well as the clicks and hits that come with it (see: any Slate headline). So this is partially an attempt to reclaim that energy.
I also wanted to stake my own claim and give myself a series of principles to work off from. If you want to write something that suggests a counter-intuitive approach, I would suggest some of these guidelines.
(1) Never Make It About the Good Versus Bad: Just like one should do when writing any form of criticism, the last thing you should write about is whether this makes the object at hand good or bad, or at least make your piece about the value judgments. One of the things I do like in Calum Marsh’s Side Effects piece (which I have an issue with I’ll get to later) is that he brings up a point that I thought was ignored by most of the critics I had read on the film: the relationship between database structures and how we narrativize them. Marsh’s ultimate point might be that “this film is amazing,” but I think the more important point is that he recognizes that why everyone else wrote about the fun, twisty, campy aspect to the plot, there was something else going on that should really be explored more in criticism on the film.
(2) Find the Best Arguments that Counter Your Own: It’s one thing to take a consensus based on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic pull quotes, but if you really want to write a piece that suggests a counter-intuitive approach, know exactly the best argument for the piece you are writing against. This is good for two reasons: firstly, your piece will have a much stronger basis than simply approaching a grab bag of opinions out there (not that you need to mention them by name unless needed). Secondly, a great writer will always make his assumptions clear, which is where your counter-intuitive approach often differs. Thus, you’ll also make your assumptions clear in your piece as well. This is why even though I fundamentally disagree with Calum’s To The Wonder piece in Cinema-Scope, I found it great to contend with because he laid out his auteurist assumptions about Malick from the get go, so his conclusion made sense from the axioms he laid down.
(3) Let Them Know What’s Coming: Following up on point #2, if you do mention and deconstruct specific people, follow the “Rizov Rule” (which this piece is somewhat of a corollary to): contact the people you’ll be writing about if possible.* This not only gives them a heads up warning to let them know they are being written about, but also that way you can spark a dialogue, a point I’ll come back to later.
(4) Make Your Piece About Curiosity, Not Dogma: Perhaps the most important part of a counter-intuitive piece is what can separate you from Armond White: the tone you take. The best counter-intuitive pieces have some sort of logical flow that approaches the new idea with a type of boyish excitement. This comes to what the goal of your piece is: is it to tell everyone they are wrong and you are right? Or is it to engage with the art object at hand and show everyone what you found? Read Ignaity Vishnevetsky’s appraisal for Tony Scott: there’s a reverence for the work at hand, and while there are some statements about how and why people approached him wrong in the past, but never once does he chide anyone about their approach to Scott. He’s found something special and wants to show it to everyone to share.
(5) Have the Right Facts: Any counter-intuitive approach to criticism will necessarily evoke a response from an upset party, if not many. The easiest way to prove your argument wrong will be if you have any wrong facts. Do not have these. Don’t generalize. Cite your sources if necessary.
(6) Focus on Your Approach: It’s important to place yourself in the landscape of the critical opinion and theory out there and note how other approaches differ from your own. But don’t spend too much time discussing what everyone else “got wrong.” Tell me what you got right. This was my big issue with Calum’s Side Effects piece: his second half on the film itself is a really smart read on the film that corroborates my own piece (one that never got finished but will be…one day). His first half spends a little too much on opposing himself to what’s out there, explaining a little too much on the wrong approach (which comes back to rule #4) and why that is. It’s important to establish the landscape, but you want to spend as little as time. My Saving Private Ryan piece mentioned a little about the response to that film and Lincoln, but I only used those to set up what I really wanted to talk about. I was too excited to talk about what I had seen in the film.
(7) Write Well: This goes for anything involving criticism. It is also the hardest rule.
(8) Create a Discussion: Criticism is about a discourse between yourself, your reader, and the object at hand. Engage in that discourse. Your piece should open itself up to discussion, not shut down other ways of thinking. I’m still proud of that Killing Them Softly piece I wrote, not because I don’t necessarily think it’s the right approach to the film (I think John Semley’s piece gives a better reading), but the slew of comments and emails I was able to engage with after writing it made that film something really worth discussing. Write your piece because you want to talk to others about these issues and feelings you’re working out. Engage with others, not at others.
*The exception of this would be the case of a public figure that would fall under the legal jurisdiction of Associated Press V. Walker (1967). Not that your writing would be a legal case, but as a moral judgment, unless the person or writing is well enough known (such as Dan Kois’s “Cultural Vegetables” piece), it’d be nice to include them in the conversation.