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A Subtle Complaint About Subtlety Complaints

by Matt Singer
July 5, 2012 9:39 AM
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I have three film criticism pet peeves:

1) Critics who make blanket genre dismissals  -- i.e. "Oh, I hate horror movies."

2) Critics who give negative reviews to Neveldine/Taylor movies for any reason whatsoever.

3) Critics who complain when a metaphor isn't subtle enough.

Number three's the worst because it's most prevalent -- rarely a week goes by that some critic somewhere doesn't take a movie to task for its unsubtle metaphors. It's an epidemic of unsubtle proportions. 

That's not to say there aren't occasionally movie metaphors that are indeed too obvious; the one that opened Sophia Coppola's "Somewhere" -- an emotionally lost movie star literally going in circles in his sports car -- always struck me as a bit too on the nose.  But generally speaking, film critics who write about metaphors turn them into a no-win situation for filmmakers.  If directors make their symbolism clear enough for people to recognize it, they're criticized for being too obvious. If they bury it so deep that viewers don't spot it, they're criticized for making dumb films with no substance. They're damned if they do put in subtext, and damned if they don't.

For example, take the scene a "The Artist" that some critics cited as "unsubtle" -- the moment when Jean Dujardin's fading silent star and Bérénice Bejo's rising ingenue share a chance encounter after some time apart. The site of their meeting is a staircase; he is going down as she is going up, a metaphor for the directions of their respective careers. Is it obvious? Yeah, I guess, if you're paying attention. But it's not as if Dujardin's character says "My, look at you! Climbing these stairs much like you are climbing the ladder of success in Hollywood!" In fact, he doesn't say anything because "The Artist" is a silent film, one that depends on visual storytelling like the characters' positioning on that staircase to speak on its behalf.

On the other hand, my beloved Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor get taken to task all the time for their supposedly superficial films.  But Neveldine/Taylor bury plenty of complex ideas in their work; they just bury them so deep they're almost subliminal. Each of the two "Crank" films, for instance, is structured around a nifty bit of long-form symbolism. In the first movie, Jason Statham's Chev Chelios needs to constantly feed his adrenaline to stay alive; in the sequel, "Crank: High Voltage," he gets an artificial heart that requires constant shocks of electricity. Though both films share one cast and sport similar gimmicks, they come from two totally different genres: "Crank" is an action film while "High Voltage" is a gross-out comedy. In both cases, the gimmick underlines the effect each film and its respective genre has on its audience: "Crank" (adrenaline) keeps the viewer excited and "High Voltage" (shocks) keeps the viewer shocked. The way the form follows function is so subtle most critics, much less most audiences, completely missed it. So what happens? Neveldine/Taylor get called meatheads.

Directors are constantly told that film is a visual medium, and that they should show and not tell. So what happens when they show rather than tell? Critics harp on the way that they show. No metaphor is subtle enough to be praiseworthy -- because if someone found it, how subtle could it be? When it comes to subtlety, critics are like those guys on TV who chase ghosts for the express purpose of disproving their existence.  

Maybe critics are a bit too hung up on subtlety. Many seem completely oblivious to the possibility that the director knew exactly what they were doing when they deployed blunt symbolism. Maybe it's obvious for a reason. Maybe this was a point too important to leave to vagaries. And maybe subtlety is a little bit overrated. Sometimes it's nice to drive a car in circles for a while -- hey it beats the hell out of the character sitting and talking to someone and saying "God, I feel all washed up. I feel like I'm going in circles." Too often I feel like critics are going in circles -- chasing this impossible romantic ideal of the perfect metaphor: so expressive that it explains everything and yet so hard to spot that they're the only ones who catch it.

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  • Stella | July 8, 2012 1:54 AMReply

    Not vagaries, but vagueness, perhaps?

    Vagary: an unpredictable, capricious, or erratic action, occurrence, course, or instance: the vagaries of the weather. Whimsical, wild, or unusual idea or notion.

    Vague: not clearly or explicitly expressed or stated; indefinite or indistinct in nature or character; perceptible or recognizable only in an indefinite way.

  • Cranky | July 5, 2012 5:32 PMReply

    Crank wasnt that good. High Voltage: terrible. Dont see you defending putrid Ghost Rider films. Pathology script was kind of decent but not worth buying. Favorite scene was in the crackhouse. Havent seen Gamer but will. Based on Crank/Ghost Rider these dudes are not the genre saviors you make them to be.

  • Darryl Ayo | July 5, 2012 1:35 PMReply

    I vehemently disagree with your premise and you disagree with it too. You yourself provide an example of a ham-fisted metaphor. The issue is that many folks find these storytellers lacking in ingenuity, guile, craft and yes, subtlety. One cannot rightly use the "show don't tell" axiom as a bludgeon when the storyteller performs her craft artlessly. One can do a job and one can do a job poorly. Or do a job well.

    It is absolutely no fault of the critics (and let's be honest--plenty of casual viewers as well) if they notice that a storyteller is making a sloppy, hackneyed attempt at "visual storytelling."

    While I'm here, we can dispense with the notion that fulfilling the literal description of a task is reasonably interchangeable with a positive value judgement. So while a visual storyteller may complete a solid attempt at communicating through pictures, the product's actual success or failure is dependent on how good a job this craftsman has done.

  • Evan Waters | July 5, 2012 3:17 PM

    But how, precisely, do we draw the line between a well rendered metaphor and one that isn't subtle enough? What are the criteria for that evaluation?

  • Daniel | July 5, 2012 2:57 PM

    Darryl, you're spot on. As I was reading the article I was preparing myself to write what you wrote here. Thanks for saying it so well.

  • Daniel Carlson | July 5, 2012 12:03 PMReply

    I think one reason critics also dismiss certain moments or metaphors as unsubtle is that they're so accustomed to looking for those things that they lose a little perspective. I'm as guilty of this as anyone. When you devote years to reading movies and not just watching them, it becomes second nature to look for the bits of dialogue or action that feel like summations of the larger story. Sometimes those moments are small and perfectly subtle, but they feel much bigger or louder to people trained to hunt for them. Doesn't mean the moments don't work; it just means we're focusing on the search, not the effect.

  • Corey Atad | July 5, 2012 1:47 PM

    I like what you're saying here. It reminds me of the old complaint that critics don't know how to sit back and enjoy films, which is obviously a stupid thing to say, but if you flip it a bit there is something critics can learn from. A critic's job is not to be a cipher for a general audience, but in understanding films it's important to understand the experience of watching them. In my opinion, the ideal way to review a film would be to watch it once without thinking too critically. Just take the film for what it is, sit back and see where it takes you. Then watch the film again, this time critically analyzing how the film achieved its effects and themes the first time. This reveals the layers, but it doesn't ruin the more virgin experience the film have been designed for. Of course, turning your brain off doesn't really work. If a critic sees a metaphor that feels too on-the-nose, they can't just ignore it. Then again, who decided that being on-the-nose had to be a bad thing?

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