Tools of the Trade

From Farah Mendlesohn’s review of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction:

Yet, as we shall see, Csicsery-Ronay succeeds in incorporating movies successfully only in his chapters on the science-fiction sublime and the grotesque, and, within that, in his discussion on the visual forms. While I accept his arguments (and those of other critics) that sf cinema and games, among other forms, are becoming the dominant cultural conception of what sf is, their values are so different, or so skewed in a specific direction that it seems to me ‘accommodation’ is neither enough nor appropriate, that the tools applied to literary forms of science fiction can only leave the impression that the non-literary forms are inadequate, and that it is past time that the academic community withdrew from a theory of everything in this field, and acknowledge instead that there are separate and immensely valuable critical approaches which place cinema and gaming and graphic novels at the centre, and leave the literary beyond the Pale when viewed through their filters

I actually said something related to Richard last week, that part of the reason I don’t write much about films or TV is that I feel I lack the vocabulary to talk about them seriously: that is, to address their specifically filmic or televisual aspects. So I’m sympathetic to the argument here (and to the criticism of Seven Beauties; although it hinges on what you mean by incorporating “successfully”, and I would allow some of the instances excluded in the review as successful), even as I’m also sympathetic to those critics arguing that visual modes of sf are culturally dominant, and feel that I should write more about film and TV. On the other hand, I can’t be so absolutist as to state that a primarily literary understanding of sf will inevitably cast non-literary forms as inadequate, or indeed vice versa. See, for example, Gattaca, Primer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, films with goals not very different from the types of literary sf I tend to enjoy; and is a generic sf action flick any less “inadequate” as serious sf, or inadequate for radically different reasons, than your average Neal Asher novel? It’s not as though “academics” are out on a limb in placing sf films within essentially the same framework as sf books, either. Not for nothing is the fannish crack about the former being at least a decade behind the latter so familiar. Nor, I think, is it possible to deny that the relationship is a two-way street, and that we have seen an increasing amount of cinema-influenced sf. So I end up thinking that accomodation actually is the correct approach (and that I want to read more film criticism) — that there are enough points of overlap between the two modes to make co-consideration useful, as long as the non-overlapping points are not ignored. Agree? Disagree?

15 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade

  1. I’m not sure why Mendlesohn would conflate cinema and games since even the most narrative game is still primarily an interactive entertainment. Cinema and literature strike me as much closer bedfellows.

    I don’t their values are “so different” and I’m not sure on what basis Mendlesohn suggests it as I’m sure she would be the first to admit she doesn’t know much about SF cinema or cinema in general. The idea that cinema is solely visual and hence the same as computer games seems a product of this.

    Like you, I don’t see any reason cinema has to be inadequate against the same criteria as literature. It is true that proportionally they are more likely to produce inadequate texts but that is merely a result of the commercial realities of their production and written SF has its own vast share of the inadequate.

  2. Both you and Martin seem to be thinking along the right lines to me. In terms of reviewing practice, surely as long as one acknowledges that cinema uses different techniques to present its core content, then the tools used to evaluate the implications and effects of that content can happily be rather similar? This is about thinking through the differences and similarities between direction and cinematography on the one hand, and voice and literary style on the other. What those techniques are achieving and supporting, however, remain as Martin points out rather similar.

    It occurs to me that this conversation could easily lead into the hoary old debate about the differences between reviewing and criticism, mind…

  3. I have long considered SF as much a set of aesthetic decisions as thematic ones. For all the talk about novum, dramatised hypotheticals and speculative fiction, dress a gunslinger up as a robot and – voila! – SF, in whichever medium.

  4. Martin, it’s Csicsery-Ronay who conflates, not me (I watch plenty of movies by the way, I just don’t write about them).

    Also, I don’t think Niall meant to do this but he gives the impression that I am the one who has insisted on an extreme division–which I do not–while framing a hypothetical. I’d agree with him re Gattaca and Eternal Sunshine… for example, while at the same time pointing out that these are not the “popular” sf movies and that this needs to be addressed. For a very long time, the more a movie was lauded by the literary sf community, the worse it was likely to do at the box office. What I am saying about this is that rather than dismiss this issue, we need to examine it carefully and perhaps accept that new modes of discussion and critical language are needed. I’m not trying to be exclusionary–quite the opposite.

  5. Martin, it’s Csicsery-Ronay who conflates, not me

    Sorry, yes, I shouldn’t have just said it was you. However, you do seem to be agreeing with him on this point, even if you differ on what this ultimately means.

    I’d agree with him re Gattaca and Eternal Sunshine… for example, while at the same time pointing out that these are not the “popular” sf movies and that this needs to be addressed.

    Why? The books that are of most critical interest are not the “popular” SF books either. Surely this is a high-low art discussion and has nothing to do with the medium?

    For a very long time, the more a movie was lauded by the literary sf community, the worse it was likely to do at the box office.

    I am not as confident as you that such a thing as a literary SF community exists but regardless of this the Hugos don’t really support this idea, instead it shows a popular award for the “literary SF community” reward popular films. As you would expect.

  6. This kind of strikes me as stating the obvious :-)

    There are traditions of criticism that have virtually nothing to do with the genre-based criticism that has grown up around fandom and its academic and para-academic fellow travellers. These traditions have produced writers who have produced technical lexicons, canons and perspectives that are by-and-large completely independent of any and all work done in the lit-genre scene.

    Ideally bridges should be built and ideas cross-pollenated but there aren’t really any writers who do work across multiple media. Lit-genre people may write the odd film review, the odd game writer might draw on a piece of film theoretical jargon but the scenes are largely independent and nobody talks to each other.

    To me this suggests a real gap in the market for a group blog or a conference at which people from the different traditions write about each-others’ mediums.

    * What might an actual MMORPG expert say about Halting State?

    * What might a Fantasy expert say about Dragon Age : Origins?

    * What might an expert in Horror cinema say about Datlow’s latest anthology?

    These kinds of questions would yield some genuinely great insights and I think that we would all benefit from taking a wider view. But of course, we’re not all interested in games and films and books and the writings of others about these media and so we keep groping away at the hind-quarters or the elephant happily ignorant of the fact that it has a trunk.

  7. I’m not trying to be exclusionary–quite the opposite.

    I think the problem is that I don’t see how your argument for increased use of specialised critical filters leads to anything other than a more balkanised environment. (Even if you could get together the group of field-straddling polymaths needed for Jonathan’s oh-so-appealing conference…)

    If your argument is one about popularity — sf studies needs to pay attention to mass-popular instances of sf — well, again I agree, but perhaps I’m more optimistic than you are. An awful lot has been written about The Matrix, and I’m sure an awful lot will be written about Avatar. (Indeed, I’d bet that more has been written about The Matrix than Gattaca.) On the other hand, as I say in the post, I think Seven Beauties is more successfully inclusive than you do anyway.

    A while ago, I signed up to one of those film preview-screening services. I was quite struck by the fact that they didn’t have a category for “sf”; they had action, drama, family, romance, and so on. This of course is actually obvious if you look at the way films are marketed; but so far as film is concerned, sf films are niches within those broader categories, and those tend to be sufficient to explain box office performance. Eternal Sunshine did pretty well for an indie-romance, and so on. The fact that we like “sf films” (or even, “good sf films”…) as a category makes us anomalous (and means I get offered previews to all sorts of things I have no interest in seeing), it doesn’t strike me as evidence that said films are in themselves special.

    (I sort of feel we’re talking past each other here, but I can’t work out where the disconnecting assumption is.)

  8. I’m not sure my suggestion was so much a ‘poly-math’ thing as much as an ‘I’m-interested-in-other-media-and-am-willing-to-try-my-hand-at-writing-about-them-while-listening-to-what-people-from-other-scenes-have-to-say-about-my-medium-of-choice- thing :-)

  9. I think people may be overestimating the insularity of video games. True, I don’t see a lot of people in written SF circles talking about games much, but in my experience the people reviewing and discussing video games, particularly genre games, tend to be pretty familiar with the “state of the art” in the literary area. To take a notoriously literary and inaccessible author as an example, Gene Wolfe’s “Fifth Head of Cerberus” was recommended by one of the Penny Arcade guys recently, and “Dragon Age: Origins” (the game equivalent of Avatar in terms of expense if not quite in popularity) had an unmistakable homage to a relatively obscure section of Book of the New Sun.

    More subjectively, I think this greater connection to written SF and fantasy has allowed games to track closer to the trends of literary fiction. The stereotype is mainstream cinema is, what, thirty or forty years behind written SF? I think on average games are maybe ten years behind. Put it this way, Hollywood is still fascinated by Philip K Dick (not that I blame them too much) but Halo, as mass market a game as there ever was, is mainly inspired by Iain M Banks.

    Film directors and reviewers are a different story. Roger Ebert always frustrated me with how, while admirably open minded when it comes to genre, he seemed to think Clarke and Asimov as the pinnacle of science fiction.

  10. Matt — It’s one thing to be familiar with other media (nobody’s denying that… there are plenty of games that borrow from films, let alone books) but quite another to be familiar with the critical vernacular surrounding those other forms.

    If the Penny Arcade boys mentioned Clute then you might have a point (though the Penny Arcade boys aren’t critics or even reviewers) but I don’t think that their having read a few books is either surprising or a bone of contention.

  11. Jonathan: fair enough, I understand now. That’s a pretty high standard though…as an art form I would argue video games haven’t matured to the point of having that sort of criticism at all. There aren’t any Clutes writing about video games.

    Well, actually, there are, but that criticism is concerned with game design, not narrative, and thus is almost completely unrelated to either film or literature. I know you can make the case there’s something to be learned there but I’m a little skeptical. To a game designer, all novels are pretty much the same thing, and for what they’re interested in I don’t think they’re wrong.

  12. OK, having thought about it a little more, I now disagree with what I just wrote. I guess being on all sides of an argument is one way to be sure of being right.

    I think there’s some common ground between game design and genre literature in particular, because much of the blood, sweat, and tears in the theory of game design has gone into how to introduce new systems and concepts to a player without being too simplistic but also too intimidating. Since most players don’t read instruction manuals this instruction has to be inserted as part the experience.

    This is something SF and fantasy writers and (maybe less so?) critics have been working on from a different angle. There are even some similar mechanisms: games quoting from their instruction manuals on loading screens is reminiscent of the once popular chapter-leading infodumps from fake references, for example.

  13. Matt — I think that video game studies, much like film studies, is an academic field that has yet to produce very much writing whose repercussions can be felt outside academia. Yes books are produced but they are mostly read by other producers of books. They don’t really contribute very much to how most people understand games.

    The guts of video game criticism are in the magazines historically speaking. The critical lexicon contains terms like “shoot em up”, “beat em up”, “MMORPG” and so on. Windy articles about what Baudrillard might think about Gears of War are very much an intellectual cul-de-sac if you ask me.

    While I think that there have always been decent video game writers, it is only comparatively recently that they have really started to create a niche for themselves. Some of this writing is about the nature of play and interface as you suggest, but an increasing amount of it is about story-telling and the relationships between genres and emotional involvement.

    In fact, good video game criticism is very much like good film criticism : It engages with ideas and stories while also displaying a grasp of the formalist fundamentals.

    You’re right about info-dumping though. I was recently thinking that I might write a column about the history of the introductory mission :-)

  14. Jonathan:This kind of strikes me as stating the obvious :-) There are traditions of criticism that have virtually nothing to do with the genre-based criticism that has grown up around fandom and its academic and para-academic fellow travellers.

    Well, that is obvious but I don’t think it is the issue here. There are genre-based critical vernaculars (for example, SF) and medium-based critical vernaculars (for example, film). I – like you – would say that if you wanted to write about SF cinema you would use the two. As I understand Farah, however, she is saying that the critical vernacular of SF is so closely intertwined with literature that it cannot be usefully mixed with the critical vernacular of cinema and to do so does SF films a disservice. I’m not clear why and, in the extract and her comment here, she doesn’t provide any evidence of what the differences might be or what the new critical vernacular might look like.

    As Niall suggest, there also seems to be some element of cultural studies creeping in as well.

    Matt: I think people may be overestimating the insularity of video games.

    I wasn’t suggesting they were insular or ignorant of written or filmed SF. I was suggesting they are less critically compatible. Halo may be mainly inspired by Iain M Banks but a comparison between the two will be less useful a comparison between, say, the Culture novels and Star Trek. That is because narrative is far less important in Halo.

    Jonathan: I think that video game studies, much like film studies, is an academic field that has yet to produce very much writing whose repercussions can be felt outside academia.

    As I suggested upthread, I think you could say the same about SF studies or even literature studies.

  15. Martin — I think that it would be quite profoundly wrong-headed to hold the position that you attribute to Farah.

    However, I took her to be saying something different. Namely that lit-based genre criticism lacks the kind of critical vernacular available to film- and game-based critics and when the times comes for lit-based genre critics to write about films and games they wind up failing to engage with these works of non-lit-based genre and that this is a bad thing.

    It’s one thing to say that lit-based critics have a critical language that is tied to literature but quite another to suggest that a genre must be discussed in that critical lexicon. I took Farah to be saying the first, you take her to be saying the second… I think.

    As for the insularity of academia I’m not so sure… I think that academic literary critics have done a pretty good job of colonising the discussion of literature. Our understandings certainly of the canon is based more upon academic study than upon reviews and journalism. The same is not true of film and games where academic writings have remained (with a few notable exceptions) the sole preserve of other academics.

    Put it this way : If you asked me who to go to in order to learn more about film I would suggest Manny Farber and Serge Daney before I suggested a work on film studies. If you asked me who to read to know more about games I would direct you to The Brainy Gamer and his ilk before I suggested an academic work of game-related theory. Conversely, ask me about Shakespeare and I would direct you to someone like Stephen Greenblatt.

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