Tuesday, July 18, 2006
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So you want to be a critic....
Within every blogger (and commentor) lurks someone who yearns to be a paid critic. There are perils to this profession, however -- though the peril depends on the subject matter of the criticism.
[I]f "nice reviewing" has attracted few explicit defenders, a number of today's critics nonetheless seem to share a tacit understanding that it is somehow indecorous--what used to be called bad form--to come out and say that a book is bad. Peck's critics generally lambasted him not for the substance of his judgments, but for his unwillingness to play by what they determined to be the rules. "If you're going to be in it for the big run, you have to act responsibly," intoned Sven Birkerts, whom [Dale] Peck had criticized precisely for his tendency to be overly generous in his criticism. (Birkerts did not elaborate on what he meant by this, but presumably, if you're "in it for the big run," whatever that means, you will inevitably run into some of your subjects at cocktail parties--or, worse, they will someday review your books.) John Leonard, in a scalding review of Hatchet Jobs, Peck's collected essays, in The New York Times Book Review, laid out his own idea of literary etiquette in these guidelines for "responsible reviewing": "First ... do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite."On the other hand, if book critics fear being too harsh in their assessments, A.O. Scott points out in today's New York Times that there is a bigger fear for movie critics -- being irrelevant:
“Dead Man’s Chest” [is] a fascinating sequel — not to “Curse of the Black Pearl,” which inaugurated the franchise three years ago, but to “The Da Vinci Code.” Way back in the early days of the Hollywood summer — the third week in May, to be precise — America’s finest critics trooped into screening rooms in Cannes, Los Angeles, New York and points between, saw Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s best seller, and emerged in a fit of collective grouchiness. The movie promptly pocketed some of the biggest opening-weekend grosses in the history of its studio, Sony.UPDATE: Of course, there are worse killjoys than being a critic -- try the academy for that. posted by Dan on 07.18.06 at 11:08 AM
There is a general problem that is called "movie critic's disease" in my household. It comes from having a much higher and more intensive level of exposure to something than does the general public. If you see ten movies a week and have to write reviews, basic notions of diminishing marginal utility suggest that you will value novelty and nuance in a film compared to someone who watches one movie a week. Hence you will go gaga for art films and won't be impressed by a good car chase or fight scene.
Similarly, it's my impression that musicians and critics are more favorably disposed to jazz, on average, than are civilians. This is because jazz often breaks out of standard expectations about time, melody, form, etc. relative to pop and rock genres, and so provides novelty and nuance for jaded listeners. I'm pretty sure the same thing goes for poetry and fashion, too--stuff that's weirder or more subtle or harder to understand will appeal to the over-exposed critic more than something "classic" that's closer to what's been done before.
The problem is that quality and novelty of this kind are likely to be imperfectly correlated, no matter what you mean by quality--popular appeal, Aristotle's poetics, fomenting class struggle--so that jaded critics may be uniquely unsuited guides to what is "best" in their domain.posted by: srp on 07.18.06 at 11:08 AM [permalink]
Just because a popular movie gets bad press doesn't mean the critics have diminishing marginal utility. I do not believe that most critics are overly swayed by novelty in judging *every* type of movie. I see on average eight films a week and I judge them according to the genre. Simply put, if it is a horror movie, did it scare me? If it is a comedy, did I laugh? If it is an art-house movie, did it provoke me? I don't demand pioneering film-making from, say, a Wayans Brothers movie. That would be absurd. So, for the summer blockbuster, I simply ask, was I entertained? Did I get swept up in the swash and the buckle? Did I feel like an over-excited kid? Now, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and Superman Returns bored me to tears. I don't think that's because I am being elitist or dismissive of a tried and tested formula. They were just too long, narratively weak, and cannot compare to the glory of say, Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Pirates 1. I am as happy to see a movie with fast cars, beautiful people and cool stunts as the next guy...but even trash can be high quality!posted by: bina on 07.18.06 at 11:08 AM [permalink]
Eat at soundbites yet?posted by: JG on 07.18.06 at 11:08 AM [permalink]
Maybe this seems too counter-intuitive, but just a movie is "popular" doesn't mean people actually like it or think it has artistic merit. Da Vinci Code being an excellent case in point. People who loved the book felt compelled to see it, other people wanted to be part of the event or the water-cooler talk. Now how many of those people really loved the film? How many of them have a desire to see it again? Will the critics who panned DaVinci code look smart in 20 years? I bet they will. Critics who panned "Shawshank Redemption" clearly missed something that the mainstream audience found, I'm not sure that's true when you're talking about big budget "events" like Da Vinci Code or Pirates. If Scott thinks his job is to tell what movies to see on a given week-end he's way off-base, I think his real job is to provide viewers with some critical benchmarks they can use to make up their own minds.posted by: vanya_6724 on 07.18.06 at 11:08 AM [permalink]
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