Take a moment, if you will, to consider an argument that I will refer to as the Farrington Fallacy. I am sure you have heard it uttered countless times. An argument that most likely drives you nuts when you hear it, that is, when you aren’t using it yourself. An argument, reduced to its most basic elements as thus:
I didn’t like Movie Z because Movie Y did it first.
Now, you’ve probably heard this argument with any number of films. I know I have with movies like Reservoir Dogs and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and seemingly countless others. I’ve observed that in recent years this argument has started cropping up more frequently and by people intelligent enough to know better.
It used to be that Quentin Tarantino faced the brunt of this sort of wrath. Early on in his career his style of mash-up movies had as many detractors as it did fans; all too often his critics focused on his fondness for borrowing from other films, sometimes wholesale, and putting his own twist on it as infantile, petty, and perhaps most ridiculous, as plagiarism.
Too often critics (and online who isn’t such) are too focused on trying to create an irrefutable point with their prose, an impenetrable weave of critique, conjugations and compound sentences that will smother their opponent’s argument. The goal is not dialogue, but complete and total victory. Granted, I am often guilty of such actions, and I am sure I’ve been guilty of using the Farrington Fallacy myself, but the current rise in its usage is something I find troublesome.
The Farrington Fallacy derives its name from Reed Farrington, his moniker itself a known deceit for long-time fans of Film Junk, both of its website and its podcast. Reed is a popular guest star on the podcast, and more recently has developed his own self-styled cult of personality over his exploits, or more accurately, his totally lack of exploits. Reed is also a co-host of Film Junk’s popular spin-off Cantankerous, which started out as a podcast and quickly developed into a series of shorts that in turn spawned the truly ridiculous and amazing Cooking with Gerry short films.
Now Reed is an interesting creature of habit. He likes his routines and he doesn’t like wavering from them. He likes people to work to attract his attention, both in his personal life and in his movie viewing habits. He also seems to hate the movies he likes, almost solely due to the fact that he likes them. But none of those issues truly concern me or have anything to do with the Farrington Fallacy. Instead, it is Reed’s penchant for being dismissive when he watches movies that catches people’s attention and is my true focus.
When Reed would join the Film Junk crew for a movie review, he would peculiarly fall into the same trap. Rather than offer up actual critiques of what he had watched, all too often Reed would simply rely on a declarative statement on how he didn’t see anything new. But even more interesting was his indifference in supplying any other reasons to dislike a film, thus leaving the listener with the only logical conclusion that could be surmised from such a display: that Reed Farrington bases everything he likes or dislikes on whether or not he has seen it before.
Now Reed is hardly the first person I had heard use this argument, or even the most egregious. That particular title would perhaps belong to one Kurt Halfyard, my co-host on the Row Three Cinecast and a frequent contributor to the outstanding film website Twitch.
On this particularly momentous occasion, Kurt argued that one of his reasons for disliking the first Iron Man film (and don’t get him started on his reasons for disliking that film as they are vast and he is time consuming) was that he disliked a tactical display that showed up whenever Tony Stark was in his suit and the camera was shooting a first-person perspective. His reason being was truly priceless, that because a similar conceit had been used in the Paul Verhoeven action classic, Robocop.
Now the reason why this became immediately humorous to me was three fold: One, tactical displays were an incredibly common occurrence during any sort of air based combat films that had risen to prominence decades earlier. Two, this sort of tactical display had been used in the Iron Man comics for decades and were really an homage to air-to-air combat as they were to comic that the film had its origins. Three, both these films and the comics had existed long before Robocop had been made. So if the Farrington Fallacy was to be used for the dislike of Iron Man, then Kurt would have to apply the same logic to his beloved Robocop and thus deem it inferior based on this single item.
Of course Kurt refused to do any such thing, and instead spent weeks attempting to convince people that his logic was sound in spite of all of its obvious faults, because that is what Kurt does.
Now this isn’t to say that Kurt isn’t able to come up with a solid rebuke of Iron Man, though I can assure you it would be anything but concise, but rather how dangerous the Farrington Fallacy is to use when he has far superior arguments to construct his point. But rather, I respectfully request the opportunity to put forth the conceit that the Farrington Fallacy is utterly self-destructive, not just to one’s own argument, but to dialogue, discussion and film criticism itself.
Now, the Farrington Fallacy is a shutdown tactic that is itself a variation on the timeless Appeal to Authority, which is described as thus:
This argument most commonly runs into issues when the person in question is not an actual authority on a subject, thus if they are not qualified to make reliable claims then the argument is fallacious. But beyond this, the reasoning itself can be flawed regardless of if the person making the argument is an authority or not, as just because someone is an authority on a subject, that does not mean they are without bias or simply incorrect.
In the example above that Kurt used, he inserted himself as an authority when he made his argument, which would be diagrammed as follows:
Now, I think most people that know Kurt would agree that he is an authority on film. I think people would also argue that he is an authority on Robocop, where Kurt is not an authority would be in regards to comic books, and anything having to do with comic books. This lack of authority on that medium is what leads to his incorrect supposition on the origination of the idea, which in term is just one way in which his argument was proven to be fallacious.
But online, where authorities on even the most obscure sub-genres of films can be found to be legion, claiming to be an authority is hardly a way to prove your argument to be correct. Instead you have people trying to trump each other with even more obscure references and minutia (Or God forbid they make claims at having a film degree, or have taken a film studies class, or have read Roger Ebert’s biography 57 times) in an attempt to prove they are the greater authority on the subject at hand, and thus their argument must be correct. But beyond authority there is another element of the Farrington Fallacy that often rears its ugly head, and that is the issue of bias.
Now, in spite of what you may think, bias is not inherently negative. Depending on the context bias can actually be tested and accounted for, and as fallible creatures bias is generally expected to occur in almost every situation. The problems with bias arise when people fail to admit its presence, or are simply unaware of its existence in their argument. Unfortunately, when it comes to reviewing films, it is far too common for people to dismiss bias with claims of objectivity in an effort to prove that their opinion is in fact, fact.
It is in these moments of grandeur that the Farrington Fallacy tends to make its presence known. Critics, refusing to admit their biases, or blithely unaware, simply take root as an object of objective authority and plant their freak flags for all to read. Then, when called on their bias, hyperbole or even ignorance they fire back with yet another volley of mock authority. Unfortunately, this kind of steadfast defense of false suppositions is the kind of online arguing that leads to posturing rather than discourse and stifles any attempts at engaging in a reasoned debate.
Perhaps the most recent example of bias interjecting itself into the common narrative is with the discussion of High Frame Rate film making, and more specifically, the usage of HFR in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The bias in this instance takes root as well in the Farrington Fallacy, or at least an inverse application of it. For this example I shall use one Matt Brown of the outstanding MAMO podcast, The Substream website, and by proxy, Row Three as my unwitting victim of the use of the Farrington Fallacy.
Now the argument used against HFR is that 24 FPS is superior because it came first, though Mr Brown has a far more romantic hypothesis. He believes, and I am paraphrasing pretty outrageously, that 24 FPS is correct because we simply lucked into it, and it has now weaved itself into the fabric of mainstream culture, and perhaps our very identities as film viewers. A sweet, romantic notion this may be, it is still falling prey to the Farrington Fallacy that 24 FPS is superior to 48 FPS because it was first. And quite clearly showing Brown’s bias towards 24 FPS.
Now the debate on HFR is still raging, and perhaps the general public will end up preferring 24 FPS, perhaps even because it did come first and they are too steadfast in the now to step towards THE FUTURE. But 24 FPS is not inherently better because of this, and that is where Mr Brown’s logic and bias fails him.
To be fair to Brown, he at no point hides his bias, nor uses it as his only reason for preferring 24 FPS, rather he actually has the intestinal fortitude to attempt to examine his biases and see if there is an inherent truth residing within them. And that is where Brown rises above the standard discourse on HFR, he is actually attempting to have a *gasp* discussion on the merits of HFR and its potential influence on film in the coming years rather than simply dismissing it because of his bias. He is attempting, as MAMO often does, to rise above the fray, rather than continuing to add to it.
But Brown is in the minority when it comes to this kind of reasoned behavior. Far more often during the HFR debate people fall back on the Farrington Fallacy as the primary basis of their argument. That there is no need to change. That the new is worse than the old. They then take this framework and construct even more ridiculous hyperbolic claims. They will no longer watch another film. Or that Jackson and Cameron are aiming to destroy the natural cinematic order with this nefarious plot to insert HFR as they New World Order of film.
This may seem like ridiculous hyperbole on my part, but I assure you it is true. Take, for example, one Devin Faraci of Badass Digest, who normally appears to have a firm grip on reality, who recently wrote a post detailing his overwhelming fears on such an insidious plot to corrupt cinematic viewings to the point that everything that came before The Hobbit will never be able to be viewed again by future cinephiles. His flaw isn’t the direct use of the Farrington Fallacy, but rather he takes a false supposition and runs with it until he delivers a soliloquy almost fitting for a Bond villain. But that supposition is based on the belief on an inverse application of the Farrington Fallacy, that the old is inherently worse than the new. Needless to say, this argument also suffers the same failings of the original.
Now, while I am someone who loves hyperbole this might seem more than a bit hypocritical of me to suggest that people cease and desist with such dysfunctional behavior. Frankly, I have no intention of doing such a thing as criticism at its very core is an art form that’s been inbred with hyperbole for decades and hadn’t quite flourished in the mainstream until it was given the platform that is the Internet.
But when hyperbole and fallacy are used to not only trump logic, but stop discussions from even occurring you start to realize we are on the wrong side of this rather slippery slope. The issue isn’t hyperbole, it is in discourse. And while the Internet will probably never be the best platform for reasoned discourse, I don’t think it is too much to ask that we attempt to at least take a few steps in the right direction.
Starting with, of course, the elimination of the usage of the Farrington Fallacy.