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An Odyssey Through Contrarianism In Society

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I'm an enthusiastic reader of Jim Emerson's blog Scanners -- other British readers of this LJ might not be so familiar with it. Emerson is the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, the official web presence of the first film critic ever to receive a Pulitzer Prize. One recurring topic on Scanners is flawed film criticism, arising from a misperception of what film critics are and what film criticism should do.

A while back, Jim posted a series of entries about "Contrarianism". Contrarianism is Jim Emerson's word for criticism which prides itself excessively on going against the grain of popular opinion. (He's shamelessly trying to get this phrase into common usage, but I forgive him) Even if you don't know the phrase, you've almost certainly read some Contrarian criticism; these are the articles that usually start with "Forget what the snooty, out-of-touch critical elite have told you -- The Departed/Borat/Pan's Labyrinth/Little Man is not a masterpiece..." and ends with something like "Sure, Martin Scorsese/Michael Haneke/Liv Ullman/Uwe Boll is a good film-maker for ivory-tower intellectuals, but when you're on your way to the cinema with a bag of popcorn, a nice cold beer and Insert Proletariat Accoutrement Here, take my advice and give 'em a miss!"

The great irony of Contrarianism is that, in opposing the supposedly dictatorial tone of critics whose main motivation is an appreciation for art and imagination, Contrarian criticism often ends up being far preachier, with much more of an unpleasant I-know-what's-good-for-you tone, than the criticism it's reacting against. In this, I suppose, the grand master is Shawn Edwards, the Kansas-based film critic whose annual end-of-year best-of lists are usually completely identical to the Oscars he derides so much, only he gives his movies popcorn bags instead of stars for their ratings, so you can tell he's a man of the people. Jim Emerson's preferred example of Contrarianism Gone Mad is Armond White, who doesn't rate quite as highly as Edwards on the Uriah Heep faux-humilitymeter, but whose review of Borat in particular drips with culture-war stereotypes of elitist America-hating liberals who club together to recommend movies that support their own agenda. The irony being, of course, that if there was some kind of shadowy cabal of prominent American critics, the well-known, widely-published veteran White would be a prime candidate for membership.

Invoking Edwards and White on one side of the debate and Emerson and Ebert on the other might give the impression that Contrarianism is an American critical disease, and perhaps it's true that not even the most politically-motivated British critic (Christopher Tookey) could write an article like White's Borat review, in which one low-budget studio comedy is held responsible for every perceived social problem in the country today. When Jim suggested a Contrarian Blog-a-Thon for this weekend, a lot of people posted reviews of classics and movie greats they felt were underrated - and a lot of people posted reviews of critical pariahs and movie lepers they felt were underrated. (You can get a good look at what others have written on the subject here)

I could have followed that path - there are plenty of films released this year alone that I felt were given too easy a ride (Red Road, I'm looking at you) and plenty that got an undeserved kicking (Tideland, what did you do to upset people?). But there was something else, something about the whole idea of Contrarianism, that I found troublesome. Despite feeling sure I'd seen examples of Contrarianism in the British press before, I was having trouble thinking of something I could write about it -- until two articles in the Guardian cast a new light on the matter.

Before I read these two articles, my nomination for Premier British Contrarian went to Tony Rayns, a critic who combines a remarkable and laudable knowledge of far Eastern cinema with one of the most irritable and annoying prose styles in UK journalism. Rayns is never satisfied with attacking a film-maker or film that he dislikes when he knows he could bash its fans too. So his review of Oldboy asserted with utterly misplaced confidence that no Chan-Wook Park fans would have the intelligence to appreciate its classical allusions, while Kim Ki-Duk was damned for making "exportable" Asian cinema, raising the truly terrifying possibility that people might get to see some of the films Rayns talks about. Yet, somehow, he's never more risible than when he's writing about film-makers he likes, in part because he seems to attribute their success entirely to their being friends with one Tony Rayns.

He proudly admitted to stripping "sexist crap" from Wong Kar-Wai's outline for 2046, thus single-handedly saving this acclaimed director from embarrassing himself. During a Sight & Sound interview with Bong Joon-Ho to promote Memories of Murder, he asked Joon-Ho whether he was influenced by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, then informed readers that he himself had given the director his copy of that book. Even this was eclipsed by his truly excruciating liner notes for the Second Sight DVD of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours, which begins by noting that the director likes his friends to call him "Joe" -- then actually had the gall to refer to his subject as "Joe" for the rest of the booklet.

And yet, try as I might, I can't completely eviscerate Rayns. He is not a Contrarian in the way that White and Edwards are, because most of the time he is not reacting against anything -- his grudge against Chan-Wook Park has a slight Contrarian overtone, but was there even a widely accepted position critics were holding on directors like Ki-Duk or Weerasethakul before Rayns weighed in? The wildly divergent press opinion on movies like The Isle and Tropical Malady suggests not. The painful truth is that Rayns has been invaluable in importing films that a Western audience would never get the chance to see otherwise; Shohei Imamura's 1979 film Vengeance is Mine had not been released at all in the UK until Eureka Video's Rayns-assisted DVD edition in 2005. Rayns is an excellent critic to skim-read; take his work for the information, but leave before the opinions start.

The true spirit of Contrarian criticism in Britain is to be found in Xan Brooks's blog post about Aardman Animation's failure to crack the American market. Whereas most British newspapers were rueful about this setback for arguably the only homegrown inheritor of the maverick spirit of Hammer, Ealing and the Boulting brothers, Brooks simply says he's never liked Aardman, and has inexplicably waited until now to tell the world. This is part of the spirit of Contrarianism, of course -- a Contrarian's opinions are never presented as something with intrinsic value, but rather as a counterweight to prevailing press opinion. It is a parasitic criticism, implicitly acknowledging that it would have no value without the work of other, more pioneering writers.

What is unusually dismal about Brooks's article is that it offers no argument or insight beyond that initial admission of not liking Aardman films. It is the skeleton of an article, a bare armature without the clay of opinion and analysis to hide its essential flimsiness. It scarcely qualifies as criticism at all. Even after reading it, you're still lost as to what Brooks finds so objectionable about these movies, other than that they're overrated (the Contrarian's war cry) and too British (British how? British like Richard Attenborough? Like Asif Kapada? Like Baronet Oswald Moseley?)

At the risk of taking a Contrarian pleasure in dissing beloved writers who aren't around to defend themselves, I attribute a lot of this problem to Pauline Kael. It doesn't matter, in retrospect, that she could be a passionate and driven critic; all her obituaries boiled down to two aspects of her life. Firstly, there was the audacious attacks on The Sound of Music and Star Wars (so daring, gasp the Contrarians. She really stuck it to sacred cows!) and her friendship with many of the leading film-makers of her era (she was at the centre of it all! How cool is that?). Kael became remembered not so much for the substance of her opinions, rather for the fact that she held those opinions in the first place, planting the seed in a thousand future Contrarians' minds that all you have to do to be a legendary critic is be outspoken and controversial as often as possible. Xan Brooks was clearly taking notes.

The other article in the Guardian wasn't even about movies at all -- it was a review of Nick Cohen's new book Who's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way. [This review, one of the few published in the country that actually hauled Cohen up on his limp arguments, does not seem to have been archived, though Brooks's rant against Aardman is preserved for posterity. Go figure] I've written about Cohen in more detail here, but the part that is relevant to this discussion is the citing of Christopher Hitchens as a "self-described 'contrarian'". Suddenly, the term had a political dimension. I was beginning to suspect as much, but this opened up whole new vistas of Contrarianism.

One of the maddening things about Cohen and Hitchens is that, for people who attracted a lot of attention for apparently changing their political stance, they aren't terribly flexible. Whereas many of the initial supporters of the Iraq war on the left and right alike are acknowledging that a change of plan is needed to complete Iraq's transition to democracy, Cohen and Hitchens remain stubbornly in favour. They were yesterday, they are today, and no matter what happens in downtown Basra tomorrow, you can bet they'll still be supporters of the grand plan as initially outlined by Bush and Blair in 2003. This is because, secretly, they don't think this debate is about war at all. It's about thumbing your nose at former colleagues.

Cohen's Damascene moment apparently came when he was writing an article excoriating Blair for the decision to invade Iraq. Halfway through writing, he realised that he actually thought the invasion was a good idea; he was merely criticising Blair because he'd established his persona as a critic of Blair. This might have been the trigger for a complete rethink of Cohen's personal attitudes towards partisanship; instead, it meant he turned from senselessly and ceaselessly attacking Blair to senselessly and ceaselessly attacking the left in general. His characterisations of modern left-wing politics are riddled with straw-men, unconvincing slippery-slope arguments, wild generalisations and occasionally outright slander, but it's made his name.

In this respect, he's become exactly like one of the people he professes to hate -- Noam Chomsky. The outspoken critic of American foreign policy likes to practice what Francis Wheen calls political double-entry bookkeeping, a process which looks oddly Contrarian to my eyes.

When the US mainstream media says something, it's Chomsky's job to say the exact opposite, whether it makes any sense or not. In his widely-derided rush-job on 9/11, he said that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not that bad compared to the death of a single security guard in a US raid on the Sudan in 1999. The raid, aimed at what the Americans thought was a weapons manufacture plant, hit a pharmaceutical plant, with dire consequences for the nation. If we're not "moral hypocrites", according to the Great Thinker, we "have to accept" that the Sudan disaster was worse than the death of several thousand Americans, since the 9/11 attacks were done out of hate, and the death in Sudan happened because the plant was deemed "unworthy of attention". You would not want Noam Chomsky sitting on the jury at a manslaughter trial.

This is bollocks, obviously, but it's par for the course. Chomsky made his name in the late 70s, arguing that press reports of a genocide in Cambodia were anti-socialist propaganda, the result of refugees exploiting the media's desire to demonize Communist regimes in other countries. When the Khmer Rouge fell, and the mountains of skulls proved that it was Chomsky, not the mass media, who was hearing what he wanted to hear, there was briefly a danger that the high priest of anti-capitalism might be lumped in with David Duke, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and all those other Contrarians who recently had a Contrarian Conference in Iran.

Never fear! With a leap and a bound, Chomsky cleared his name the Contrarian way. In an essay entitled The Cambodia Industry (a reference to Norman Finklestein's insufferably smug The Holocaust Industry -- thus implying that his critics are equivalent to the big bad state of Israel and making it all about his victimisation in just three words!) Chomsky said that the issue at stake was not the prevalent sadness over the two million people who died at Pol Pot's command -- obviously, that is an emotion only capitalist swine-dogs would feel -- but rather the lack of public concern over the Cambodians who died in the American bombing of that country directly prior to the establishment of the Khmer Rouge.

One suspects that, existing on the anti-war left during the 70s, Chomsky might just have met some people who thought both those events were tragedies, just as he may well have met people who wept for the deaths in the Sudan and in New York and Washington. But, like a good Contrarian, he chose to disregard them, because such beliefs can't be squeezed into an easily grasped black-and-white argument between easily identifiable heroes and villains. Chomsky's famously opaque writing style is nothing to do with the complexity of his worldview; it's actually the mark of a man who's tied himself in knots trying to uphold the ridiculously simple us-v-them-v-us-v-them reality he's constructed for himself.

Since, in sociology, everything is connected, here are two more events. 101 Movies To Avoid, a book purportedly by an anonymous movie marketing bigwig, was published in Britain this month. It is a list of one hundred and one movies that the writer considers to be overrated. Among the selection is Shane Meadows's Twentyfourseven (included because "real life isn't in black and white") and Rebel Without a Cause (included because the author feels the dialogue "What are you rebelling against?" "Whaddya got?" is laughable). I shouldn't have to explain why these examples are pathetic.

Meanwhile, a few years back, some Americans were puzzled by the news that George HW Bush and Bill Clinton were apparently good friends. How could two people, whose political philosophies were supposedly so different, possibly get on? How could they be seen in the same room together?

The reason for this surprise comes down to a key difference between British and American politics, and the way that they manage their own Contrarianism. In America, politicians often speak quite civilly to each other in private -- it's only in the public sphere of debate that the accusations of being a traitor, being a secret sexual deviant and being in league with the Antichrist come out. In Britain, by contrast, politicians spend all their debates flinging increasingly pathetic schoolboy insults at each other, then carefully strip their public statements of anything representing a memorable opinion.

Money does not trickle down. People enjoy having money and want to hold on to it. Influence, on the other hand, is quite the export product; the more you spread it around, the more you gain. The mood of a nation is set by the people who hold the most influence. If America feels paranoid and divided at the moment, it is because its leaders are paranoid and divided; by contrast, Britain follows the contemptuous, idle example of a leader who seems increasingly to be staying in power because neither he nor any of the voting public have anything better to do with their time.

This is why an American Contrarian, whether that's Chomsky or White, is usually so angry and so fearful of dark conspiracies who push 'their' influence on the general public (and thereby reduce the influence of whichever Contrarian is complaining about it?). Britain, meanwhile, breeds people like Xan Brooks and the anonymous author of 101 Movies To Avoid; people who can barely muster the energy to raise their eyelids, but want you to know that they're dangerous and controversial all the same. I'd love to round this article off by saying that one or the other is preferable. But, frankly, they're not.
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On February 18th, 2007 05:29 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
Chomsky and the Sudan bombing
I think you have misrepresented Chomsky's point about the destruction of the Sudanese drugs factory.

To quote from

'This single atrocity destroyed half the pharmaceutical supplies of a poor African country and the facilities for replenishing them, with an enormous human toll.'


The plant "provided 50 percent of Sudan's medicines, and its destruction has left the country with no supplies of choloroquine, the standard treatment for malaria," but months later, the British Labour government refused requests "to resupply chloroquine in emergency relief until such time as the Sudanese can rebuild their pharmaceutical production" (Patrick Wintour, _Observer_, 20 Dec. 1998).

In other words, many more deaths were caused than 'a single security guard'.

I can't believe you've read Chomsky's arguments in their original form, are you relying on Francis Wheen or Oliver Kamm?
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On February 18th, 2007 06:27 pm (UTC), parma_violets replied:
Re: Chomsky and the Sudan bombing
I admit that my wording in that passage may be a bit misleading, but even in the light of the deaths the US was indirectly responsible for in this incident my point still stands; Chomsky is trying to characterise deaths caused by ignorance, negligence or sheer lack of regard as being worse than deliberate murder borne out of hatred. I disagree. There is a reason, after all, why courts generally hand out stronger sentences for murder than manslaughter.
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On February 18th, 2007 10:49 pm (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
No, the point that Chomsky was making was that the Sudan bombing was worse in that it probably caused far more deaths. Your misreading is betrayed by you putting the factory in Somalia.

Also I think you are minimising the subsequent deaths by calling it manslaughter. The bombing of the Sudan pharmaceutical factory was an unprovoked criminal act of aggression. The Americans made no apology, recompense or any effort to minimise the effects of their aggression. In fact they couldn't care less about the subsequent deaths of Sudanese through disease. As they say, they 'don't do body counts'.

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On February 19th, 2007 07:49 am (UTC), parma_violets replied:
The bombing of the Sudan pharmaceutical factory was an unprovoked criminal act of aggression. The Americans made no apology, recompense or any effort to minimise the effects of their aggression.

Both of which could be easily said about the 9/11 attacks. Did I miss a weepy TV apology from Osama bin Laden? Was there a UN resolution allowing him to attack the Twin Towers?

You say that the point Chomsky was making was that the Sudan bombing was worse in terms of body count, rather than intention or motive, but the whole argument he was making was about morality, and whether or not we're "moral hypocrites" who think 9/11 was worse than the Sudan bombing or not. Besides, it reinforces my point - Chomsky argues as if one thing always cancels out another. Why can't we feel that the Sudan bombing and 9/11 were both terrible tragedies? Because it wouldn't be Contrarian to do so; Chomsky seems to think, in this and the Cambodian discussion, that proving your opponent wrong is the same thing as proving yourself right.

I shall fix the Somalia/Sudan thing; it was a silly error and I admit that. But my point remains. I'd also like to say that I'm amused that I have to point out that Bill Clinton's government has the moral high ground over Osama bin Laden; had Rush Limbaugh said such a thing, we'd all be clamouring to denounce him, but once Saint Noam of Massachussets puts that opinion forward, we're duty bound to tie ourselves in knots trying to justify such a self-evidently silly argument.
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On February 19th, 2007 12:50 pm (UTC), gileswl commented:
I first came across the term "contrarian" in politics, not criticism. I don't think it applies as readily to Chomsky as to Hitchens: I'm not convinced the two individuals are of a kind. Chomsky has attached himself to a particular issue and viewpoint, and would probably be quite happy if that became the received view. (NB: In what follows I make no comment on the accuracy of Chomsky's claims.) I note that his writings always spend an enormous amount of time establishing his credentials: typically, those who agree are "serious" or "scholarly" or "professional" (this last often referring to Chomsky himself). Those who don't aren't, and are normally also accused of being political operators or profit-motivated: but their lack of professional credentials is usually remarked upon. In this way, Chomsky attempts to establish that there is a group of individuals competent to comment on the matters at hand; that he belongs to this group, and his opponent does not; and that this group is largely in agreement with him. (I think his opacity also owes something to an attempt to give the appearance of "serious scholarship" - everyone knows that's impenetrable, right?) I think your characterisation of Chomsky always disagreeing with the US media is misleading. Both parties tend to try to fit any new data into their pre-existing narratives, one for institutional reasons and out of laziness and the other because he has intentionally constructed a master narrative which is either correct or a symptom of paranoia. These narratives are very different, but Chomsky has no problem using or agreeing with press reports that suit him.

Hitchens, by contrast, always wishes to show himself opposed not just or even mainly to power but to consensus. Hence his deliberately abrasive style: it's not supposed to persuade, it's supposed to get attention. (Reports are that he is similarly abrasive and attention-seeking socially.) Hence this unintentionally hilarious photo. Hence his stinging attacks on, err, Mother Teresa. Hitchens' essays always present themselves as puncturing conventional wisdom, and call attention to dispute, not agreement. He mostly argues using the implicit syllogism that his opponents or their arguments are absurd or evil: ergo, his contradictory position is correct. I think this phenomenon of ego-driven rather than belief-driven dissent - of dissent for effect, not to persuade - is what contrarianism is really about, certainly if the label is self-applied.

From all that you may gather I don't buy that contrarianism results in behaviour like Chomsky's. I would attribute Chomsky's analysis partly to America being in general more comfortable with notions of good and evil, and their tendency to paranoia about governments. That and the fact that both Hitchens and Chomsky are presently in a hole and digging, but Chomsky has been there for several decades longer.
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