Final Project Abstract – An Appraisal of Critical Appraisals: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Arts Criticism

In 2016, in an effort to devote more time and contemplation to the films I was watching, I started writing short movie reviews and sharing them to social media. I was hoping to both improve my own understanding of the medium and start conversations with others who were interested in film. I never considered myself a “film critic” – Arts Criticism was something formal, capitalized, and professional in my head. But every critic needs to start somewhere right? The more I contemplate the practice of arts criticism, the more elusive it seems to me. I think I naively hoped to discover a template, a solid understanding of what criticism should look like or focus on. I wanted to know how or if it was something loftier than what I was doing with my online reviews – if there was some kind of evolution or trajectory to follow from movie goer to cinephile to reviewer to film critic. I’m not sure why I ever thought there would be consensus in a sector driven by analysis and the expression of one’s opinion. There have been debates for centuries on arts criticism, and even though film is a comparatively young medium, those debates have informed thinking on film criticism as well. What is criticism? What are its functions? Who are critics speaking to – the general public, niche audiences, the artists, themselves? Who has the authority to be a critic and from where is that authority derived? And finally, is there a crisis in arts criticism – do the current crisis in print media and resulting job losses really signal the death of the critic?
To refine and hone my own approach to arts criticism, this paper explores these questions and their ensuing debates. Along the way, I explore the tendency towards elitism in art and arts criticism – a feature I find problematic. I note that current discussions and debates over whether criticism is in crisis and in danger of being “dumbed down” actually reflect the same rhetoric used at other pivotal moments in arts history, and may have more to do with asserting or re-asserting critical authority. I attempt to identify the functions of art criticism, many of which were born out of the major debates of those pivotal moments and “crises,” in the hopes of finding models to employ in my own work. And finally, I celebrate arts criticism as an artform in and of itself, an act of creation inspired by the creative work of others. In the end, I find myself still grappling with defining my own voice and approach to criticism, but better prepared for the work ahead.

Goodfellas and Marty’s Marvelous Movie Magic

Goodfellas (1990), Director: Martin Scorsese

Few filmmakers have as much skill and cinematic vocabulary to marry the technical aspects of film with storytelling as well as Martin Scorsese. This isn’t training a camera on actors working through a script. The movement of the camera, shot composition, ordering and pacing, sound and soundtrack all contribute to the storytelling and to the audience experience of it. When the camera zooms up on Ray Liotta’s face just before he opens the thumping trunk in the opening scene, this shifting viewpoint contributes as much to communicate his unease as his expression. And because we are seeing through the unnatural zooming eye of the camera, we feel that unease too.

Most of us train ourselves to ignore the technical, and just let it work its magic on us. We’ve gotten good at adopting the camera’s point of view, even though the way it “sees” is radically different than the way we do. We don’t only suspend our disbelief with regards to the content of movies, we suspend our knowledge of physics, of eye movement and focus, of how sound carries. But if you want to see the slight of hand, the wizard behind the screen, Scorsese’s films – and Goodfellas in particular – are worth studying.

Goodfellas starts in media res at the climax or turning point of the story (even if we don’t yet know this). We flashback to the beginning of Henry Hill’s involvement with organized crime. The flashback is very much a cinematic device – it’s not nearly as effective in any other medium – one dated title card, a change in mise-en-scene, et voila! We are back in the past. The nostalgic sets, costumes and props, music, pacing and camerawork help us to become seduced by this criminal lifestyle along with Henry and Karen. We’re just as impressed as Karen when Henry leads us through one massive dramatic tracking shot through the backdoor and kitchen of the Copacabana, sweeping us down to a last minute front row table. Every shot, every sequence contributes to the overall narrative and taking us on the journey through it. The excitement and energy are enticing and even with the shades of danger and violence, we can still sympathize with Hill’s seduction. But eventually and inevitably, the danger becomes too real and too big to ignore. I’m always impressed by storytellers who manage to make us care and sympathize with characters who are beyond flawed. We shouldn’t root for Henry, Karen, Tommy, Jimmy or Paulie, but we do anyway.

Is it the scene where Henry’s father beats him that draws us in? Karen’s cool plucky spirit when dressing Henry down for standing her up? Tommy’s “How am I funny?” monologue that sets up his inevitable reaction to Billy Batts’ teasing? Seeing Jimmy as infinitely cool through young Henry’s eyes? Meeting Tommy’s mom (adorably played by Marty’s own mom)? The way they all relate to food? (I’m still inspired by Paulie and his razor blade method every time I’m slicing garlic.)

There is so much working on us here. I’d be remiss not to talk about the soundtrack – Scorsese has a knack of integrating popular music into his works. I challenge you to ever listen to the piano outro to Layla again without your mind immediately pulling up images and scenes from Goodfellas.

I first saw this movie when it came out on video, back when I was 13 or 14. I loved it then, even if I had no concept of how or why it was working on me. Even as a 14 year old, I knew this film got robbed by the Oscars, losing out to the forgettable white saviour syndrome vehicle, Dances with Wolves. 26 years later, I’m still mad about it. Madder even. Because my appreciation of the technical and narrative excellence of this film only grows with every re-watch. I’m training myself to see more of the sleight of hand, the artistry, each time.

Dialogue – Wen Wei Dance, May 25, 2017

Wen Wei Wang’s Dialogue felt more like a series of dance vignettes organized along a theme than one continuous, complete piece. Each segment highlighted the individuality of the dancers, suggesting that the path to dialogue and understanding lies in the appreciation of others’ unique perspectives. In its best sequences, Dialogue plays with the dichotomy between the emotional vulnerability of its dancers and the strength of their bodies, offering a visual parallel to the requirements of meaningful communication: openness and confidence. The dialogue metaphor can be extended to the audience’s reaction to the dancers and what we bring into our interpretations of each vignette.

One of the early segments felt like a dialogue with another work of art I’d seen recently. In a scene reminiscent of a rave, Nicholas Lydiate, wearing nothing but sunglasses and underwear, joins the other fully clad dancers grooving to drum and bass. His wardrobe is the only vulnerable thing about him – he is confident and cocky; a scene-stealer, performing deep squats and gyrating with abandon. I am watching him, but I am thinking about The Sleepwalker, an uncannily realistic bronze sculpture of a man in his tighty-whities, frozen mid-step along the Highline Park in NYC. He looks like a “living statue” street performer – the ones who make you jump by moving suddenly as you pass. It takes a few uneasy minutes to realize that he is, in fact, an inanimate sculpture. Tony Matelli, the artist, describes The Sleepwalker as an existentialist piece – there is something so lost and vulnerable and confused about seeing this man exposed and out of place outdoors that it inspires a feeling of dread about the world. Seeing Lydiate come out on stage full of swagger in his unflattering white underwear, I felt like he was reclaiming this man, dispelling the dread by giving us a peek into the Sleepwalker’s internal life. He only looks vulnerable, but inside, his life is full of movement and strength and surety and humour. There is joy to be found in this world. It’s all about perspective.

A later sequence moved me to tears and felt like the heart of the entire performance. Arash Khakpour begins a solo where his movements speak of shame and insecurity. He uses his shirt to hide his face, drawing the bottom hem up over his head, erasing himself from view. The others flock to him, pulling his shirt back down, beginning a beautiful and tender interplay amongst the entire company of dancers as Khakpour continues to try to hide himself while the others compassionately unveil him. They move together in a circle, tightening and then loosening their grips on each other, each weaving their way into and out of the ring, sometimes breaking the circle but never breaking contact with at least one of the others, who pulls them back in. It is the most perfect visual representation of dialogue and conversation – individuals connecting through communication and empathy. Understanding is not static – it shifts and comes in and out of focus like the dancers entering and leaving the circle. It requires a commitment to continue the dance.

The scene that followed was jarring by comparison: the circle breaks apart and the others form a semi-circle around Khakpour. Their movements become robotic and inhuman as they appear to shoot Khakpour as he writhes on the floor, telegraphing injury with each shot. Violence begins where dialogue fails. It is impossible for me to divorce Khakpour’s ethnic identity as an Iranian-Canadian from reading this scene. It becomes a non-verbal commentary on Islamophobia, reminding us that seeing people of Arab or Muslim backgrounds as threats and scapegoats for our fears harms our targets most acutely, but also robs us of our own humanity and ability to connect.

Not all of Dialogue’s vignettes touched me – the spoken word segments broke the spell a little – but overall, I was moved by the choreography and the sincerity of the performances. The focus on individualism allowed this all-male dance company to explore a broad and nuanced sense of masculinity using pathos, humour, and sexuality. Ralph Escamillan’s work on this front was especially notable  – his high heeled tango to Leonard Cohen was a breathtakingly sensual finale, a piece that seemed a little disconnected from what came before it unless one reads it as an unabashed acceptance and expression of this dancer’s identity. Then it suggests that we need to come to an understanding of ourselves before we can engage in dialogue seeking the understanding of others.

Red: A Haida Manga – Communicating Both Within and Without the Bigger Picture

Red: A Haida Manga – Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, (Douglas & McIntyre, 2009)

When speaking about Haida manga, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas explains that this new form he created is a response to monumental art – pieces so large and full of meaning that their scale can overwhelm their observer. He wanted to give the viewer a way in to a more intimate relationship with a monumental piece. Manga provided a convention to allow him to carve up his larger vision and storytelling painting into smaller panels, reproduced as single pages in a book. The reader can linger or flip through, reading at their own pace, appreciating the beautiful watercolours, and paying attention to all the details that contribute to the narrative.

But he doesn’t want you to stop there. In an afterword, he encourages you to tear the book apart, two copies actually, so that you can reassemble the monumental work, creating “a composite – one that will defy your ability to experience story as a simple progression of events.” Why not simply include a fold out at the back of the book with a larger version of the composite piece? Asking the reader to destroy the book to create something new further demonstrates Yahgulanaas’ whole-hearted commitment to the accessibility of art. The book itself is not a precious object. The act of communication is the point. Tear this thing apart and get to experience story in a whole new way, a way that will make you question how communication works and how stories can be told.

Yahgulanaas is often described as “playful,” but this goes far beyond play. Red is a radically humanistic approach to art, communication and storytelling. Not only has he demystified the object d’art itself, he has created a hybrid form, with roots in many traditions – a Haida story and aspects of traditional Haida art like ovoids, u-shapes and animal-humans mix with some Japanese stylistic influences like Kabuki face painting, and are realized in Chinese watercolour techniques. The composite is overlaid by thick-lined Haida totems that read as manga panel divisions in its deconstructed book form. This hybridization speaks to another of Yahgulanaas’ goals: to talk to both Natives and non-Natives alike and remind us that Indigenous cultures are not monuments or artifacts from the past – they are alive, breathing, relevant, and evolving.

The story of Red is based on a true story, one that Yaguhlanaas has the authority to tell because of his own family ties to it. He has chosen to share this story outside his own community. This decision would not have been made lightly. Red’s story illustrates that when it comes to justice and reconciliation, vengeance, xenophobia, and violence can only bring about tragedy for all involved. We need to open a dialogue and try to understand each other. With Red: A Haida Manga, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas is making the first move. How will we respond?

Melissa McDowell