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Culture Warrior: Responsible Film Criticism and the Case of ‘Antichrist’

By  · Published on October 5th, 2009

Warning: In the interest of discussing the problem of spoilers, this article discusses the act of spoiling in criticism of the film Antichrist, a discussion which necessitates revealing spoilers. Confused, yet? So am I. Anywho, if you’re planning on seeing Antichrist, don’t read the fifth paragraph of this post.

Everybody gripes about how movie trailers reveal almost everything one would want to not know about a movie going in, sometimes spoiling plot details that occur well into the second and third act. It’s a rare and special experience to go into a movie with little to no expectations – that is not to say low expectations, but without expectations strategically shaped by advertising and materials written about films – to the point that such an experience has become an absolute anomaly. Even if one avoids press, advertising, and tweets about a film, buzz emanating from unintentionally overheard conversations, or simply shaping the atmosphere going in, is probably that hardest thing of all to avoid. I wish as much as anybody that trailers revealed less, or that I didn’t often spend the entirety of a film silently, unintentionally notifying those moments seen in the trailer and anticipating those other moments from the trailer yet to come. Nevertheless, I choose to watch trailers – sometimes multiple times – before seeing a movie. I simply enjoy watching them and believe trailers to be (like the music video) a cinematic art form all their own (e.g., the recent trailers for A Serious Man and Up in the Air). However, I’ve made the habit in recent years not to read reviews, articles, or even press kits before seeing a film, because in my own experience these can be the most potentially spoiling of a given film’s many outlets for analysis or advertisement.

Of course, it is ultimately the responsibility of the filmgoer to shape the framing of their viewing experience through an active, informed method of choosing whether or not to consume trailers or reviews before seeing a film, but this doesn’t remove the responsibility from the trailer editor or the film critic when it comes to potentially revealing too much. For movie critics in particular, revealing some plot detail is par for the course. Often occurring in the second paragraph of a review, a plot overview is often necessary to shape and qualify the criticisms and praises within the review at large. But sometimes movie critics overstep their bounds, and it remains vital, no matter the critic’s particular opinion of the film, that the review not reveal anything that may spoil essential surprises or take away from the film’s intended weight and effect beyond the simple, restrained, typical plot synopsis we’ve come to expect (spoilers are more acceptable, of course, accompanied with a warning like the one at the top of this page). Although some of us actively choose to avoid reviews or related articles until after we’ve seen the film in question, it must always be safe for a moviegoer to read everyday film criticism before deciding to venture out to the theater and spend their hard-earned cash.

The peculiar example of Antichrist seems to me a compelling case study because it represents a special situation where movie critics by and large have felt justified in revealing certain plot points within the body of their reviews that should not be known going into this film simply because their very opinion (often negative) of this film makes it seem okay.

Take Todd McCarthy’s Cannes review of the film in Variety from May. Though Variety is an industry publication often concerned with the bottom line, their early reviews sometimes set the stage for later critical consensus. For many reasons McCarthy’s review is one of the most appalling pieces of film criticism I have ever read (it must be noted that I’ve felt rather neutral about McCarthy’s criticism up to this point). Though I am not the biggest proponent of Lars von Trier’s latest provaca-film, my opinion on its merits differs from McCarthy’s significantly (particularly with his first-sentence dismissal of Antichrist as an ‘art-film fart’ – jeez, with language like that you’d think he works for a movie blog or something). But my problem in this case isn’t with his particular take on the film (just as valid as anybody else’s) or his unfortunate rhetorical approach, but rather his warning-free revelations of the specifics of Antichrist.

The Spoilery Fifth Paragraph: One of my problems with this write-up is McCarthy’s detailed partial revelation of Dafoe’s character’s fate and Gainsbourg’s character’s incapacitating him through some sort of abuse of his genitals, before not-so-cryptically mentioning a violent act Gainsbourg performs on her own genitalia. To McCarthy’s credit, he doesn’t explicitly state what happens, but mentioning these occurrences at all creates an aura of expectation not intended or made available through the film’s advertising and promotion. Combined with similar revelations made in reviews by other major publications, the new Lars von Trier film suddenly became the “genital mutilation” movie or, somewhat inaccurately in its voyage through the rumormill, the “castration” movie. McCarthy even reveals the source of the film’s now-famous line “Chaos Reigns,” a line that only works as an in-joke to those that have seen it, and a polarizing moment indicative of the larger polarized response this film has received. Laughable or not, the “Chaos Reigns” moment (a line which could potentially come this year’s “I drink your milkshake”) is only effective (forcibly taking the spectator out of the movie or leaving them curiously, if not firmly, in their seats) if it is unanticipated.

Those of us hearing or reading such reviews and gaining such knowledge with or without seeking now can’t help but see the film under this rubric, helplessly anticipating what is to come in a way that inevitably and unavoidably hinders our perspective of what comes before the film’s climax, framing our expectations in a way the filmmaker never intended. Yes, what happens in Antichrist is gruesome, but the particulars of this challenging material should remain hidden in reviews like McCarthy’s so as to give this film the chance to play to its full, intended effect. Film critics, regardless of or despite their own take on a film, have an essential responsibility to write in such a way that still allows the film experience to still potentially belong to the reader when they see it for themselves.

I get it, Antichrist is an extreme film, and it’s human nature to share the witnessing of something as demanding, graphic, unusual, challenging, pretentious, ham-fisted and even unintentionally funny as Antichrist with others. In a social setting, the sharing of such details would be acceptable, but in legitimate film criticism it is never acceptable. Even if a given critic thinks this film is an abomination, it doesn’t give them the right to spoil, as if there was an accepted philosophy somewhere that deemed it okay to spoil “bad” films but not “good” ones (a meaningless designation, of course, as all art is subjective, and some art can find worth outside the limitations of its own autonomous merit).

Film criticism is never meant to take the place of a spectator’s eventual opinion or experience. Good, effective, responsible film criticism contextualizes a film’s existence, gives an informed and reasoned argument on its merit and value, and sometimes even initiates or participates in an ongoing discourse on various subjects related to the film. It even, to a degree, is expected to frame the film with a set of expectations necessary to properly consume it (what so-and-so film is, what it isn’t). Responsible film criticism should not, however, replace the potential experience of the spectator. It should never look at itself as an ultimate, discussion-halting end-all opinion justifying the discussion of such details to help its case. The cinematic experience of the reader of film criticism is just as valid as that of the informed critic, and the potential of their experience should be handled with great care and respect above all else. Anybody can write a plot synopsis or a list of spoiling details. The successful film critic stands out in their ability to frame and discuss with authority filmic experience for the reader while allowing (even enabling) their readers the autonomy of the cinematic experience that they are always entitled to.

What do you think?

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