The intentional fallacy

This profile of Quentin Tarantino in the LATimes is notable for revealing the director's desire to reign in the deep mining of his movies' for key source material.

But as it turns out, after all these years of happily giving it up for his favorite filmmakers, Tarantino has become deeply conflicted about discussing the sources of his influences, in large part because Tarantino's honesty has often been used against him by critics and bloggers when they want to belittle his films or blame the filmmaker's endless parade of movie references for the swarm of mindless Harry Knowles-style fanboys who now dominate the online movie scene. In the course of a long conversation the other day, Tarantino managed to go--in a matter of minutes--from saying he "loved having influences" to saying that he was "unbelievably annoyed" with critics who used his reliance on influences as a way of trashing his movies.

After checking out some of the critical feedback to Tarantino's films, I began to feel his pain. In the course of an otherwise admiring review of "Basterds," Roger Ebert argued that judging from the way Tarantino photographed Melanie Laurent near the end of the film, focusing on her shoes, lips, dress and facial veil, "you can't tell me [that] he hasn't seen the work of the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano." (Cackling with laughter, Tarantino's response was a resounding: "No.")

But the critic that really got under his skin was Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, who in the course of reviewing "Kill Bill" said the movie felt as if Tarantino "were holding us captive on a moldy postgraduate couch somewhere, subjecting us to 90 minutes worth of his favorite movie clips strung together, accompanied by an exhausting running commentary along the lines of 'Isn't this great?' "

To say that Tarantino finds this aggravating would be an understatement. "Here's my problem with this whole influence thing," he told me. "Instead of critics reviewing my movies, now what they're really doing is trying to match wits with me. Every time they review my movies, it's like they want to play chess with the mastermind and show off every reference they can find, even when half of it is all of their own making. It feels like the critics are IMDB-ing everything I do. It just rubs me the wrong way because they end up using it as a stick to beat me down with."

This is a classic critical analysis dilemma: can we, should we, guess the artist's intent? I side with the thesis of W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley's essay "The Intentional Fallacy" that argues that interpreting a piece of art based on knowledge of the artist's life or factors external to the work itself should not be the primary type of criticism. That type of criticism is not replicable, and as is clear from the article above, is often fallible. Many movie critics are taking wild guesses, often wrong ones, about what Tarantino's influences are.

A closely related problem is one that is hinted at in a line near the end of A.O. Scott's review of Shutter Island, and that is whether critics bring too much historical appreciation of director to their later works. Maybe we can label this the "auteur delusion"?

Mr. Scorsese in effect forces you to study the threads on the rug he is preparing, with lugubrious deliberateness, to pull out from under you. As the final revelations approach, the stakes diminish precipitously, and the sense that the whole movie has been a strained and pointless contrivance starts to take hold.

There are, of course, those who will resist this conclusion, in part out of loyalty to Mr. Scorsese, a director to whom otherwise hard-headed critics are inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt.

This has been a common addendum to many critical reviews of the movie, which I have not seen. Those who don't like the movie imply that many who do are Scorsese fanboys who see art in even his weakest movies.

It's hard to argue with the idea that each movie should be approached on its own merits. For me, the tendency I must combat is the reverse, and that is my attraction to contrarian opinions. People whose opinions offer differ with me and who seem like bright thinkers intrigue me. It's the Sherlock Holmes mystique, the idea that there's a thinker out there so logical and unemotional that his thinking clarifies your own.