Reviews and Criticism (Part One)
Note: this entry ended up being far too long to read in one sitting on a computer monitor, so I'm breaking this entry up into sections. Here's part one (of three), in which I ramble about reading film and theatre criticism.
I'm going to take a weird tangential break from my typical horror film entries, shameless self-promotion and dick-and-fart-joke symposium to offer some rambling thoughts on arts criticism (mainly film and theatre criticism). It's a subject I've been thinking about a great deal of late, so I figured I'd ramble a bit just to get some things out of my system. And seriously: I ramble in this entry. I'm very liberal with my definition of art criticism, use straw man arguments and sometimes don't cite my sources. I'm also all over the map here. Just humor semi-senile grampa and let me ramble. And feel free to post your two or three cents in the comments section.
I'm actually a very big fan of criticism. I regularly read several critics and am fascinated with the writings from several others.
I love reading Roger Ebert's reviews. For me, he's really one of the best. Don't look at me like that. Surf his site and read his reviews if you think I'm just being lazily middlebrow. Sure, he's a popular critic, but he's immensely film-literate (and literate in general) and writes good arguments for his opinions of films. Even when I don't agree with him, I love reading his often well-argued theses on films. Though lately he's been a very soft touch (he's pretty quick to grant positive reviews), and isn't a good gauge for me in figuring out if I'll like an upcoming movie, I love reading his essays and reviews, simply because I think he writes good arguments for or against a film.
I also really enjoy reading my former professor Ray Carney's essays on film and art. He's not a popular critic, but very much an art film critic (he's pretty much the critical authority on John Cassavetes). Although he's a hardliner (Kubrick, the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson are mainstream hacks, in his view), he offers good arguments and writes very worthwhile, provoking and insightful essays on films and art. (He was one of the first champions of not only Cassavetes, but of the new wave of so-called "mumblecore" filmmakers like Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers before they were given that shitty label.) One of the biggest values I get from his writing (and there are several; seriously, folks, check his essays, books and interviews out) is for finding good or great independent films I wouldn't otherwise know about. If he offers a film a favorable quote, I'm making a point to go see it.
Nathan Rabin from the Onion AV Club is also aces in my book. In addition to finding his writing absolutely hilarious, I eagerly await every installment from his column, My Year of Flops, in which he revisits a commercial failure from years past to see if it's a so-bad-it's-good gem, an actual masterpiece that was ahead of its time, or a genuinely bad crass, focus-grouped studio "product." He and Scott Tobias (also from the AV Club) are great at opening the discussion of the value (or lack thereof) in bad movies and cult films. In general, when I'm looking for reviews that will coincide the closest with my tastes, I turn to the film page on the Onion AV Club.
I'm also fascinated...from a distance, mind you...with Armond White, the current critic for The NY Press and chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, and his work. I won't bore you with the details of how and why he's controversial. You're on the Internet. Look him up. Go on, I'll wait. He doesn't anger me as much as others. He's written some fascinating essays and insightful reviews, and is clearly very educated. And all opinions are subjective. But, let's face it: when someone who writes in an academic and elitist "voice" writes positive reviews for Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe but writes negative reviews for Wall-E and The Wrestler, you know (as a reader and filmgoer), you're being played.
(My suspicion is that White's motives aren't just to be simply contrary, but to get people to start thinking about their tastes in mainstream films. I don't know if he's on the right track or successful, but to give him the benefit of the doubt, that's my suspicion. For a really good and even-tempered essay on the pros and cons of White, I recommend James Berardinelli's ReelThoughts entry here.)
I'm not really sure if I get much value from White's reviews aside from immediate entertainment value. A positive or negative review from him doesn't factor into my movie-going habits or tastes at all. I think because he garners such controversy, yet has some genuine bona fides and is clearly intelligent, I feel compelled to check out his reviews and interviews.
And I have to say, I also miss Charles Taylor over at Salon.com. I thought sometimes he, too, would be intellectually dishonest: he wrote a middling and dismissive review for Jackie Brown, then wrote a negative review for Kill Bill Vol. 2, saying he wished Tarantino would go back to making great films like the unfairly underrated Jackie Brown (though to be fair, he did admit that he dropped the ball on the review for Jackie Brown, but there are plenty of other examples where he's pulled a 180 on his own self-created criteria). But he was thoughtful, and there are more than a few times he hit the nail on the head with his reviews (his reviews for Star Wars Episode I and Dogville are spot on).
Taylor's essays on popular films were also enjoyable and thought-provoking (in particular his loving essay on E.T. and his essay Blahbusters). So yes, I have to admit, I do miss Chuckie T., and that Salon.com's value as a source for respectable film criticism has suffered as a result (sorry, Andrew and Stephanie).
Well, enough. Suffice it to say, I enjoy reading film criticism. I enjoy reading the varied takes on past and current films. I enjoy reading the academic and scholarly essays, I enjoy reading the reviews that basically serve as a consumer report (i.e., "See it or skip it"). I like seeing how different critics carve out different niches for themselves and how different critics approach a film from different angles.
I also enjoy reading theatre criticism, although to be honest, I don't follow theatre critics so much as the reception of specific productions. Perhaps this is because I've seen more films than plays, and I enjoy comparing and contrasting reviews and critics' opinions (as well as comparing and contrasting their opinions to mine) to works I've seen or have the hope/intention of seeing.
(Though I actually enjoy reading Martin Denton's reviews relatively regularly, as well as Aaron Riccio's. We don't always agree, but I enjoy reading their takes on shows. And when we do agree, I find their reviews eerily in sync with my assessment. There are some other critics here and there I check up on just for the fun of it as well.)
After I see a play, whether or not I review it, I often find all the reviews for it and read them.
I think arts criticism, for many reasons, is facing some trouble. With print media dying, critics becoming either shills for the studios (a little more on this in a moment) or so cynical they've lost interest in their jobs, and attention spans getting shorter, long-form (even medium-form) criticism has seen better days.
In Part Two: I continue to ramble about the trouble film and theatre criticism is facing. (Spoiler: I don't blame the star ratings system, letter grades, or Siskel & Ebert's "Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down" system.)
Knowing where to stick his thumb,
James "Academic Artisan" Comtois