Monday, May 2, 2011

"If you can't say something nice..."

For a year or two now I've been referring off and on to critics as parasites and to myself as a recovering professional writer. In conversation a few days ago with a fellow sufferer I took it a step further. I explained that for most of my distinguished career I was a second- or third-string film critic, whose job was to trash the worst of the worst as entertainingly as possible. To eviscerate people who'd spent a minimum of several months trying to make something other people would enjoy. Eventually I was sick and tired of the way I had to think and write about movies to do that job effectively. I didn't quit solely for that reason, but I was glad to see the back of the profession.

I was drawn back in repeatedly, though, in part because for several years writing reviews was the only thing anyone was willing to pay me to do. But my heart wasn't in it. What occurs to me is Homer Simpson's snorted remark at the notion that the employees of the Springfield nuclear plant would ever stage a work action: "This is America. We don't go on strike. We show up and do a really half-assed job."

An option I have pursued pretty faithfully for the last few years is writing only about things I like. Not something editors tend to favor, but it can work fine on a blog. Almost invariably when I forget myself and regress and trash something, I regret it. No evidence whatsoever that large numbers of film professionals read HG and get their feelings bruised. But its creators aren't the only people who can be stung by a snide ad hominem comment in a review of a work of cinematic or televisual entertainment. Life may or or may not be more important than art. It sure as shit is more important than criticism.


Christian Lindke said...

Legitimate criticism either advocates for the overlooked, or looks to instruct on how to improve on the fallible. Anything else is either marketing, or snark.

Every attempt at art has something to teach regarding how to do art correctly.

That doesn't mean that every "review" should be held to that standard, just that there is a difference between a film reviewer and a film critic.

David Chute said...

As a rule of thumb, anyone who's trying to make a living at it is automatically typing themselves as a reviewer. In the culture of today it is a craft that should perhaps be pursued the way poetry is, for the love of it, in full awareness of how marginal it is, in little magazines and at staged readings in the lobbies of movie theaters, while a dweeb in a beret taps on a bongo drum. Or to be slightly more au courant: Elvis Mitchell's Def Film Criticsm Jam. Manny Farber, IOW, as role model rather than Ebert ot even Kael.

Christian Lindke said...

I think this is only because we have let it become so. I think a very serious film critic could shatter the marketplace through sheer differentiation alone. There is no one out there -- Bogdonovichesqian in their approach to film criticism except for Professors.

One cannot take a Drew Casper class without coming away with a better understanding of how film works, one can easily walk away from an Ebert review having learned little -- if anything -- about the underlying art.

Kael rode the razors edge between criticism and review. She's got some meat in her writing that adds to the ability of filmmakers to improve the medium -- unlike so many today.

There should be a rule that a critic should have to talk about one thing that the director/cinematographer/screenwriter/whoever did right and why. Screeds about how lame Transformers 2 is because of testicle jokes are as ridiculous as the testicle jokes themselves. Fact is, there is some pretty skilled film making in that not so good film.

If you want to see a person breaking through the anti-pop pretention of the Hollywood crowd, I recommend the Vince Vaughn episode of Dinner for Five. Vaughn just cuts right to it and gets a table that is about to go all "that's common and for the hoi polloi" to realize that story and motive can motivate the blockbuster.

Think about "The Rock" and the Navy SEAL scene. It's powerful and manipulative. It is wonderful film making. Whether the film deserves the scene is another matter entirely, but that is the kind of things critics could discuss.

But...First, stop all the screeners! Second, stop all the junkets! Do whatever you can to eliminate the sense of entitlement that reviewers acquire.

GoJoe said...

The ancient wisdom excerpted in the headline of this post has, over the years, become a mantra of sorts...