Why Past the Popcorn?

“Whatever is Entertaining, Artistic, or Instructive.”

Who needs another website devoted to reviews and analysis of new film releases?

The basic premise behind our approach is the idea that the artist’s intent matters. By contrast, the so-called “fallacy” of authorial intent, one of the byproducts of twentieth-century formalism, claims that the critic or the viewer is the sole arbiter of meaning—that the filmmaker’s intent is ultimately irrelevant.

The originators of this theory of intentionality, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, limited their observations to the critical study of poetry. They wrote in 1946, “Poetry differs from practical messages, which are successful if and only if we correctly infer the intention.” By this revolutionary statement, critics were freed to explore the effects of a poem without first mining the biographical and literary history of its author (the “external” and “intermediate” evidence). Wimsatt’s and Beardsley’s artistically egalitarian conclusion? “The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s… The poem belongs to the public.”

As Wimsatt’s and Beardsley’s theory gained popularity and was applied by extension to other artforms, various schools of form and reader-response criticism (as well as deconstructionism) flourished—all of which have their legitimate functions and yield productive artistic insights, while establishing “the ‘community of readers’ as the ultimate point of reference” (as Fabienne André Worth observed in her comments regarding Godard’s Masculin, féminin).

Yet at the same time, art of any form is still communication. Film, in particular, is an attempt by an artist or group of artists to express certain ideas about beauty, meaning, or truth. To the extent that a critic overemphasizes a subjective impression of a film at the expense of what a film actually says—or what can be known of a filmmaker’s intent through interviews, the filmmaker’s body of work, or the film itself—communication has not only failed, it has been willfully disregarded. Sadly, the vast majority of film criticism, while still making valuable contributions to the understanding of any given film or culture in general, tends to undervalue the communicative power of film.

Past the Popcorn agrees with Wimsatt and Beardsley in principle that if an artist “succeeds,” then the work of art itself shows what the artist was trying to do. At the same time, we acknowledge that film is a collaborative artform with sometimes competing objectives, and that we, as critics, are not always well-equipped to assess either a given film’s intent or effects.

Therefore, when a film appears not to “work,” or work particularly well for us, we grant to the filmmakers the possibility of intent apart from effect; and we will address that intent as a means of shedding light on the potential significance of film which, to our sensibilities, has somewhat failed. We do so out of respect for filmmakers as artists, not as polemicists or celebrities—whether we agree with them or not. To the same extent that we care to be understood, we care to understand.

Consequently, reviews and essays appearing on Past the Popcorn will attempt a serious analysis of a film’s meaning, both from the audience’s point of view and from the filmmakers’, as much as is critically possible. Recognizing that all films still exist (in part) as entertainment, films will also be subjectively reviewed for “nutritainment value” and audience-appropriateness.

A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything. So we find that when real forces, good or bad, like Kipling and [Shaw], enter our arena, they bring with them not only startling and arresting art, but very startling and arresting dogmas. And they care even more, and desire us to care even more, about their startling and arresting dogmas than about their startling and arresting art. —G. K. Chesterton

It is dangerous for an individual to assume that any attempted work of art actually is what it appears to himself. I have known a child to assume that his grandfather, kneeling for prayers, was a horse to be mounted and ridden. —Booth Tarkington

People ask me all the time, “What does that song mean?” Well, if I could say it in other words than are in the song, I would have written another song, wouldn’t I? —Elvis Costello

The best audience is one that will be fair enough to suspend judgment until it has first found out what [the artist] is trying to do; then is competent enough to discover how well he does it; and finally is so all-wise as to know whether or not it’s worth doing. —Booth Tarkington

The aim of the critic, as Chesterton once remarked, is to show what the artist did, whether the artist meant to do it or not. —Robert J. Reilly

Egoistic instinct is subtle and glamorous. It can even mistake itself for authoritative judgment upon works of art; but if we avoid being carried away by its eloquence we needn’t share in its error. That is, by making ourselves a little hard-headed we can escape the confusion of mind that damns an ostrich for not being a giraffe. —Booth Tarkington

I have investigated the dust-heaps of humanity, and found a treasure in all of them. I have found that humanity is not incidentally engaged, but eternally and systematically engaged, in throwing gold into the gutter and diamonds into the sea. —G. K. Chesterton