Some of my friends and family wonder what exactly a critic does. Here are a few ideas and some explanations. For this post, I chose some common movies that everyone has perhaps seen, to serve as example of some of the insights that criticism can offer.
At the most simplest, literary or film criticism can look closely at how characters and narratives are constructed, and how they relate to society. The celebrated Columbia scholar Edward Said notes that literary critics are the only professional readers of cultural texts there are. The implications are that literary scholars can bring us informed perspectives on how to judge and interpret a given piece of culture.
Literary critics are not after hard answers in the way mathematicians or linguists or biologists are. They rather interested in making the most pertinent suggestions possible about a given cultural text, in order to show both how we can understand it and how it helps us understand ourselves as cultural beings. Critics are likely to offer opinions about what texts they think are the most interesting, and what these texts allow us to think about. In short, how these texts help us think about our world, and what insights they permit us. At the end of the critic’s task, we do not have new conclusions as much as we have a more informed, more nuanced perspective on the world we live in – we understand it better.
So when we are confronted with a cultural “text,” be it a movie, novel, poem, or artwork, the literary critic begins by asking careful questions. What story is it trying to tell? Whose story is it? Whose world is being shown? What ideologies are embedded in the narrative? The literary critic often finds that there is evidence of multiple narratives playing out simultaneously.
Let’s look an example. In Rambo, the portrayal of a disillusioned Vietnam vet is chock-full of competing ideologies. Some of them could be regarded as reactionary and politically conservative; others are progressive and could even be called radically revolutionary.
The disillusionment of the Vietnam vet is a direct criticism of the way vets were treated by the American public. Thus, one of the meanings embedded in the movie is the resentment and contradiction faced by a generation that faced the Vietnam war, either as a direct participant or a secondary witness. In a war that was seen by some as something bad, or even evil, returning vets had to face hard questions about their role and their identity in society. Rambo identifies as a warrior, but back in peacetime America he grapples with the difficulties of integrating into society.
Another interesting moment in the film is when Rambo is harassed and arrested by the sheriff because he doesn’t look right, isn’t dressed nicely or clean shaven. The sheriff uses the authority of his badge to enforce his personal assumptions about a man whose appearance he doesn’t like. He glibly tells Rambo that he ought to shave and get a haircut if he wants to fit in better. The sheriff sees his policing role as relevant not only to crime but to social codes, such as the length of one’s hair or the clothes one wears.
Rambo resents being judged by the sheriff. The power of the sheriff’s badge allows him to unconsciously crystallize subjective judgments into enforceable policy. As viewers we detect a complex interplay of multiple social issues. Most visibly at issue is the legitimacy of the policeman’s use of power. Within the figure of the sheriff who harasses Rambo, where does the human dimension stop and the law dimension begin? Is the scene suggesting that the sheriff is basically a good guy making bad decisions, or is the whole prospect of law-enforcing fundamentally flawed and in need of rethinking?
At a deeper level, the scene seems to want to think about the predicament of returning war-vets, of they difficulty they have fitting into society, of the contradictions of their confrontation with civil authority. While they had been trained in the Vietnam jungles to be lawless and murderous, now they were supposed to be docile, obedient, and socially productive.
Moreover, the war vets had sacrificed hugely for the (supposed) interests of their country; they had killed others, been injured themselves, and been psychologically scarred by the war. But now they were offered little compensation for such enormous sacrifices, and were socially valued very little. Rambo had been a hero in Vietnam; back in America he is only a homeless vagrant commanding little respect from anybody at all.
These dimensions of the movie alone make it worth watching. But the film has much more to say.
The film wants to think even more deeply about justice itself in our society. Rambo revolts against an unfair system that is taking away his liberty in the name of subjective judgments (such as ideal length of hair) transformed into enforceable laws (such as those against “vagrancy”).
Disgusted with the way he is being treated, Rambo revolts. We might admire his strong sense of justice. The film is seems to be suggesting that the policemen’s use of power is illegitimate when it juxtaposes the scenes of Rambo’s rough treatment in the jail with his memories of being tortured at the hands of his Vietnamese captors. It is as if both are similar examples of not justice but violence, whether the captors wear badges or not.
Finally, at the moment of total powerlessness, the film “splits” into fantasy “revenge” on harsh reality.
Many films operate this way when the plot departs suddenly from harsh reality into a kind of impossible “revenge on reality” fantasy.
Here, Rambo will suddenly transform from total victim into superwarrior, able to single-handedly defy the policemen, the law, and the state itself by become his own army.
Departing from the far more likely reality of continuing in predictably misery and victimage, the plot suddenly veers into the kind of fantasy that allows us to imagine a different, “magical” outcome.
This dramatic cut from the realistic into the fantastical occurs often in Hollywood cinema. In the recent Bruce Willis flick “Red,” an ordinary-looking, rather lonely man falls asleep with a book in his hands, seeming rather disappointed with his lot in life. In the ensuing scene, which could easily be interpreted as the dream he has while sleeping, he is suddenly a CIA superoperative, ready to fight the forces of evil as the hero of his own life.
In the Pixar film “Up,” the old man, who regards his life as a prolonged failure, who is old, decrepit, disenchanted with the world, and about to lose not only his house but his liberty, goes to into his house for the night, only to walk out the next morning as the hero of his fantasy, able to realize his last (and only) adventure. This shift marks the slip from a sad, but realistic portrayal of the unrealized visions and depressing existence of a typical American life, in which tragedy and heroism are no longer possible, to the fantasy, the what if, the impossible dream in the slipping mind of a man about to lose anything meaningful to him.
In one final example, we see a variation of this in Die Hard 4. Like Die Hard 1, the whole movie can be read as a morality play for normative middle class family values, whose essential message is to give respect to the male head of the family, the patriarch. In a society where family values are constantly seen as slipping, where wives are free to leave their husbands and look after there own interests, where daughters are no longer under the thumb of their fathers and can access sex without permission, these two movies appear as the desperate fantasy of a disintegrating value system trying to legitimate itself.
The movies are framed by an anomaly in the value system: a female family member, who according to traditional middle class values ought to be subservient to the patriarch, has revolted. In the first Die Hard, the wife has left the husband’s side to move to LA in pursuit of her own success and financial independence. In the fourth Die Hard, the (20? year old) daughter refuses to recognize the authority of the father; she sleeps with whomever she likes, without parental permission, and reclaims her right to reject and dismiss her father’s orders. So in both films, we can see a symbolic castration, in the sense of the paternal authority being flouted or rejected. The ensuing action, all the violent beatings and heroic rescues, arrive as an attempt at proving the masculinity of the thwarted patriarch, whose authority, in both films, is very explicitly restored at the end of the film. Both females apologize to the patriarch and restore his claim to authority, along with their submissive role.
But my digression has been to give examples of the “split” moment when a story moves from a likely, realistic, or typical narrative into a fantasy of heroism, revolt, or violence.
To return to Rambo, we can see this moment occur when he is being abusively washed up by the policemen, who are essentially violently imposing their own class-generated dress-code on him. Cut your hair and shave your beard, or else we’ll put you in jail. When they move to shave him with the straight razor, and while he is being brutally restrained, he has a traumatic reawakening of his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, during which he was tortured.
Rambo is obviously suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the fancy name for the psychological disturbances that follow in the wake of traumatic combat experiences. At this point, the one of ultimate helplessness, and in a moment of frustrated impotency identified with the prisoner of war experience, he has a revenge fantasy. The whole rest of the movie can be read, at one level, as a giant fantasy of revolt, what he would like to do, but, normally, is inconceivable. Since the movie is fiction, the fantasy can be represented realistically, and we can appreciate its full development.
The point here isn’t to argue that this is the right or the only way to read the movie, but simply that this is one of the ways we ought to read the movie, as a revenge fantasy of a PTSD Vietnam vet, abused by a decadent middle-class society deaf to the traumas it has implicitly caused and whose justice system only enforces its paternalistic, reactionary moral codes out of touch with the realities of the modern world.