Meter Burn

Meter Burn

I’ve been watching the latest Adam Sandler opus, Hubie Halloween. Okay, wait, I’ll start from the beginning.

There are two kinds of people: those who refuse to smell the rancid thing in the back of the fridge when offered, and those who do. I’m part of the latter cohort and, contrary to the former’s beliefs, I don’t do it expecting the experience to be a pleasant one. My behaviour is driven by an existential need to know where the edges of the room are, in some probably naïve desire to one day know the shape of it. I know it is going to be bad, but how bad. It is for a similar reason that I used to seek out the grotesquery of the internet, and why I will still click grim links when offered to me. It is for a similar reason that I found myself curious about Adam Sandler’s face.

Adam Sandler is a fascinating creature. Capable of legitimately fantastic work in dramas like Punch Drunk Love, romantic comedies like The Wedding Singer, and, yes, even lowbrow work like Happy Gilmore. He does not seem to give an identifiable fuck about this, though, and spends most of his time making godawful shit to cynically, almost punitively milk morons out of their money. All of which would make more sense if the money ever did anything, like odd pet projects that were representative of his actual capacity. Instead I can only glare at his career like it’s a Dadaist comedy-destroying spectacle I’m too stupid to understand.

Is that a Hubie? Is Hubie a person’s name or is it a Halloween thing Australia doesn’t have yet? I need to smell this.

It’s all of his lowbrow movies in a blender. He’s kind of retarded, he has a dumb voice and facial tic, he has a magic thermos, Steve Buscemi is there, and it’s awful. Not awful as in unsophisticated, which it is, just awful. Tying all the superficial bits of other films together means this one lacks even the simple emotional core of any one of them. It’s the cinematic equivalent to having Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, and Little Nicky explained to you by three separate nine-year-olds at once.

It’s the kind of awful that makes me need to see the writer’s room for it the same way you need to see the face of an awful driver. I imagine it being like one of those Loony Toons industrial scenes, one of the ones set to Powerhouse by Raymond Scott, where a whole tree is whittled into a toothpick. This flawless machine whose horrible purpose is to do the most terrible thing in the worst possible way. I can’t imagine anyone having a second idea. It would just be a perfect continuum of separate voices saying “vomit” and “retarded voice” that lasted the run time of the film.

I noticed it mentioned on the Movies subreddit and found myself compelled to take another whiff of something. In a splinter conversation about Sandler’s other recent works, someone said, “I hated murder mystery, it felt so lazy…this is just my personal opinion”.

Why even waste the energy required to write that?

People add the “opinion” tag as though someone might mistake their sentence for a sandwich and chip a tooth biting their monitor. You could replace that sentence with a “because…” and then demonstrate a reason. That would be a point. Even “it sucks”, as not a point as it is, is a statement. “This is just my personal opinion” may as well be replaced by “do not read those first eight words.” Why go to the trouble of expressing yourself when you aren’t expressing anything?

It’s probably my fault.

Answers on back of book.

A few years ago, I wrote about the difference between taste and assessment, how both readers and writers mess this difference up, and how this manifests as a fundamental difference between review and critique that isn’t reflected in the definitions of either. I wrote this to address something I took for granted, an understood difference between what I enjoy personally and what I assess as being of quality.

It’s an incredibly well written piece, but it is missing something, and I’m assuming that’s why it hasn’t swept the world like a neural plague and helped my species come to a better understanding of their approach to creativity.

Perfect examples.

You can explain why one shouldn’t touch an electric fence all you like, nothing will hammer that point into a skull like seeing someone get a shock meant for an adult bull. I was alternating between reading and Twitter the other day when a perfect comparative case study presented itself to me, so now I present it to you in the form of two excerpts.

This first one is from Narratology: An Introduction by Wolf Schmid and the second is from The Guardian’s review of The Haunting of Bly Manor. Read both and try to see if you can spot a difference.

To be fair, I cheated you a bit by lying. That isn’t an excerpt of the Gurardian review, it’s the whole thing. The Narratology segment, however, is a paragraph from a 258-page book. Here’s goofy me, trying to explain this separation using “words” when perfect demonstrations exist. Ah well, hindsight and all that.

Transforming some Hermeneutics

Narratology is a critical work in that it engages with, challenges, and poses ideas regarding the concept of narrative using a variety of examples and supporting evidence. This is why it’s 258 pages long, why that excerpt looks like gibberish; and what I meant when I said that critiques are longer, specific, and will use domain specific language. Strip a section of a niche work using local jargon of its context and most of it will look like madness.

What this section is doing is dealing with, for example, the difference between the word “pipe” as written on Magritte’s painting, The Treachery of Images and the word “pipe” in the sentence, “Magritte was a painter who smoked a pipe”. The former refers to a non-existent or fictive pipe while the latter is a non-fiction reference to a real pipe that existed, and this section is about delineating the difference between fiction and reality when they are both manifest as identical words on the page.

A referential signifier (designatum) like “pipe” is a label we apply to a signified referent, a physical pipe (denotatum). The point of Magritte’s painting was to highlight that there’s a space between the word and the thing that humans seldom think about. The painting is a pipe, yet it cannot be used in any manner like a pipe, so it is not a pipe. The word pipe in the sentence about Magritte’s actual pipe has an extra-textual (outside of the word itself) referent, a real object. The word pipe in the painting does not and refers only to an inner-textual (in this case, the text is the painting) fictional pipe. What this section is doing is exploring the core difference between fiction and non-fiction when both are using a word that cannot be smoked. One transposes meaning onto the “ontic sphere” (real world), while the other only pretends to.

Some of the language used may seem deliberately obtuse, but these terms do have specific meanings, it’s that they relate to ideas that makes the conversation tricky. A rose by any other name will smell as sweet, so the word used for it doesn’t affect its reality. Defining a concept that doesn’t exist outside of the language used around it requires a bit of verbosity. Even “ontic sphere” is useful as, when discussing spaces between language, fiction, non-fiction, and reality, the word “reality” could refer to any number of things. “Ontic sphere”, in all its grotesque thesaurasiness, is specific enough not to.

This may also seem like an unusual thing to bother with, but the purpose is identical to any other deep understanding. A home cook may know some recipes, and may be able to execute them well, but knowing the underlying chemistry and physical behaviour of each of the ingredients, while useless to home cooks, will allow a chef to innovate entirely new dishes.  

Imagine the way Fight Club uses various levels of interaction with its audience—directly addressing them, directly addressing them in a pseudo-factual way separate from the regular narration, the spliced penis frame—each of these manipulates the way we understand the relationship between reference and referent to assist the telling of the story.

Works that deal in mystery, unreliable narrators, or questionable reality will deal heavily in the ideas of which this concept is a core element, and this book will allow for a better understanding of these ideas, and so the production of better works.

Poking the Hive.

I came across the Guardian review after seeing its writer being mocked on Twitter. I happily joined in, as the mockery was entirely deserved just not for the review part of the piece. The opening is a combative stab at horror fans to generate attention and clicks. Declaring that Halloween is the worst time of the year is, within a review for a horror program, akin to me posting “KISS SUCKS” to a KISS forum. The little dingbat was picking a dumb fight for attention her writing would otherwise never get her and completely deserved the counterpunch purely for the obnoxious stupidity of it.

While it’s perfectly fine to respond to the snark of the introduction, that’s the only wrong thing the writer has done. Genre fans are sensitive because they’re the dismissed pile of bodies cinematic drama stands on to pretend it’s as tall as literature, so prodding them in such a manner is stupid. But the article doesn’t say horror is bad, it explains why the writer doesn’t like it, which fulfils an important function of a review: giving the reader an orientation point.  

This orientation point is necessary because there isn’t any critical language in the article. About the closest is the word “anticlimactic” and there’s a kind of reference to pacing, but nothing that compares to the language in the Narratology excerpt. Review can use this language in lieu of personal perspective, but that it isn’t used here doesn’t make this a faulty review. There’s no critical language because it isn’t arguing a point.

Have you read The Brothers Karamazov? What about anything by Tolstoy? I’ve been reading a bunch of short stories by Anton Chekhov lately because Narratology references them, and the aforementioned Russian greats, quite a bit and will frequently assume I am aware of what is being discussed. Critical articles or books with singular foci don’t ever feature a quick rundown of the work being examined, yet our review of Bly Manor spends about half of its precious space on a glib outline of the material. It does this because it is operating on the assumption that you have not yet seen Bly Manor.

If you look at a shovel and one of those giant, bucket wheel excavators you’ll be able to tell that they are for vastly different tasks, even if they share a basic similarity of purpose. Review and critique are still synonyms in Google, but the above comparison perfectly illustrates that this is like defining both a shovel and a bucket wheel excavator as a “tool for moving dirt”. The differences between these two works are staggeringly obvious.

The Guardian article was released the same week as the show it’s reviewing, its writer establishes a personal perspective regarding the material in the opening paragraph, it’s short, uses a general vocabulary, and it includes some superficial information about the program itself. It is not making a statement on horror, it is not arguing a point about the genre, it is not arguing a point at all. In this, it’s fine that she hates horror. Review differentiates itself from critique by helping a reader work out if they may want to engage in the reviewed work or not. If you similarly hate horror, this may be the show for you. If you love horror, then you have the tools to come to a similarly useful conclusion about how to spend your time.

Howling into the Void.

Existence is a weird place and weirder still for a social animal with an individualist streak. What is red without any of the other colours to define its redness? What are we without any other people to see us as ourselves? In this, we howl into the void, even if it’s just to get our neighbours to tell us to shut up, because then we know we exist.

But you can at least learn to howl in tune and you can do this even if only your ears will hear it.

Text response, any writing about a work, is one of the most common forms of writing people do and most waste this on a rough howl. Your opinion doesn’t matter, going to the trouble of writing something online just to tell people they don’t have to engage with it is a waste of everyone’s time, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to say.

Having a better understanding of even these superficial elements of review and critique will allow you to better consider what you are going to write, if it’s worth writing at all, and this consideration will make the things you do engage in deeper and more worthwhile.

Beyond this, separating these elements will open you up. Once you don’t view works as monoliths slathered in irreducible opinions you’ll find more parts to like and, ultimately, more art to enjoy.

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5 Replies to “Meter Burn”

  1. As somebody who just recently started delving into the world of critique (in some parts due to your previous post on the matter), and having kinda of a tough time internalizing all the necessary terminology, this came as quite the welcome surprise.
    Any preliminary opinions on these Russian greats, you mentioned?
    I’m interested, because I have War and Peace on my book pile, as well as some of the seminal works of Dostoyevsky on the to-do list.
    And for anybody else who might be interested in dipping their toes into media critique, but to whom the language of Narratology and similarly complex analyses might seem a little too daunting to, I’d recommend “The Weird and the Eerie” by (the late) Mark Fisher. It’s short, straight to the point, focuses on mostly late 20th century films and writing, and the vocabulary is approachable.

    1. The Russians are interesting because the strata of their writing movements are fairly clear, so they make great educational tools. I can really see why this book from around 2010 uses them so much. Chekhov’s shorts aren’t exactly much in terms of fun reads themselves, but as experiments in literature, they’re great. You can really see how each is there to practically explore an idea at the core of narrative, and this kind of demonstrated exploration is an important compliment to the academic. The showing versus the telling.

      I’ve downloaded what is meant to be the better translation of War and Peace and some of the Dostoyevsky works, but haven’t started them yet. I want to make sure I’m in a better regular habit of morning reading, so I don’t forget, leave it too long, and have to restart. Part of me is genuinely curious about them as works, though for the monsters like War and Peace, there’s a bit that wants to just say I’ve done it, like with Ulysses.

      I haven’t read Weird and Eerie, though I’d recommend A Theory of Adaptation edited by Linda Hutcheon. It’s an academic compilation focused on adaptation in fiction and blends the more accessible with the complicated academic well. Also, adaptations are one of the common discussion topics on the net, so it’s a very useful book.

  2. I think a lot about how works of critique and creative advice make assumptions on what the audience is likely to have already seen or read.

    Mostly I think about how I once read a book of writing advice where a major part of it operated under the assumption that the reader has not only seen Kung Fu Panda, but seen it recently enough to remember the plot. As someone who does not remember the plot of Kung Fu Panda, I found this baffling.

    Working out which media you can use as a reference point without having to introduce it first is difficult but I feel that wherever the line is, Kung Fu Panda is way over it.

    1. Certain work, like say a whole book dedicated to a single piece or creator can get away with it, but outside of that, the balance is very hard. You’ve just got to pick your battles because you can’t, particularly in the age of the internet, know what your audience is going to ultimately be.

      I write mine specifically to try to mix a few things here and there. There’s a lot of informal speech, but I mix this with specific terminology, and there are a lot of references to broadly known material, but also some for more obscure work. The idea is to scaffold one to the other, so people can use the familiar base to explore the unfamiliar.

      But again, maybe the 12 people who read these all don’t know the one thing I think they do.

      Generally, if the detail is small and part of your argument, you can get away with a sentence of basic framing.

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