Monday, October 19, 2009

Reviews and Criticism (Part Two)

In Part One of my three-part ramble-a-thon about my recent thoughts on film and theatre criticism, I go on about reviewers I like and what I get out of theatre and film criticism, closing with the assertion that film and theatre criticism is in trouble. In part two, I talk about some of the symptoms (sort of), and where I diverge with mainstream thought on this oft-discussed subject.

Some have argued that granting stars and grades to reviews is a detriment to criticism (Ebert has mentioned the 1-4 star rating system has caused him endless amounts of grief). I don't mind them. Sure, it can be argued that they truncate criticism. And they do beget problems. But to be honest, for me, seeing those stars on Ebert's main site or those grades on the Onion AV Club's main page actually entices me to click on the link and read the review.

Like I'm not going to be compelled to read the review attached to the F rating or the film that garnered zero stars. Come on!

When push comes to shove, one of the jobs of a popular film critic is to ultimately let the reader know if he or she recommends the movie or not. In other words, a review should answer the reader's question, "should I see this or not?" In an interview, Ebert said he felt the thumbs up/thumbs down system is more helpful in this regard, since, for example, telling someone that they found a movie to be a 7 on a scale of one to 10 isn't helpful or meaningful, with which I agree.

So although it can pose problems, stars, grades, thumbs up or down, and fresh or rotten tomatoes don't bother me. They encourage me to continue reading and help me determine as a potential audience member, if I should go or not. I know this isn't the case for many people who simply just look at the grade on Critic-O-Meter, the "fresh/rotten" icon on, or see the number of stars allotted to the movie and leave it at that. But of course, I'm not other people.

Some have also argued that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's show, At the Movies, was a huge blow for legitimate criticism. I could not disagree more. In theory, with any other reviewers, perhaps it could have been (more on that later). But the show made the idea of film criticism fun and popular for mainstream audiences.

Plus, because they were (and Ebert still is) excellent critics who were knowledgeable and passionate about films, their show (for me) was one of the few true debate shows. Not this FOX News or CNN Crossfire spinning bullcrap: their arguments were well-made and sincere, and their fights were sometimes intense. As a viewer, you got strong, well-articulated arguments for or against a movie from passionate and intelligent people who weren't afraid to be scathing.

If you go to the archived site that features many of their old reviewing clips, check out their argument over Oliver Stone's The Doors to see a prime example of this. Both make very good cases for and against the movie, and neither one can understand why the other thinks and feels the way they do about the film (Siskel is visibly shocked at Ebert's opinion).

(And okay, for a larf, also check out the review clip where they argue over Cop and a Half.)

I truly miss Siskel & Ebert. With Siskel's death in 1999, the show eventually became Ebert & Roeper. Though still fun to watch, Ebert and Richard Roeper just didn't have the same chemistry. Then Ebert's inability to speak due to complications from thyroid cancer in 2006 eventually (after Roeper did the show with a revolving lineup of guest critics and celebrity guests) paved the way for one of the most ill-advised changes to the show.

I'm talking about bringing Ben Lyons on board as co-host.

Lyons is the epitome of the problems arts criticism is facing. It's not the stars, grades, or thumbs that cause the problem; it's so-called critics like Lyons. He's appallingly unknowledgeable about film. He has no passion for film (his negative reviews are soft and weak). He's a quote whore. He's been suspected of being a shill (due to the multiple celebrity photos he likes to pose for and product endorsements he's done, I think these suspicions are correct).

Case in point: he called I Am Legend "one of the greatest films ever made."

And, on top of it all, the new show was just plain dull.

Though he didn't refer to him by name, the Intertubes are speculating that it's very likely Ebert was thinking of Lyons when he wrote his brilliant "Roger's Little Rule Book," offering a list of ethical dos and don'ts for film critics.

Whether Lyons was Ebert's target audience or not with his rule book entry, it's a must-read for anyone in the arts criticism game.

Fortunately, Lyons has been fired after less than a year and the show now has New York Times critic A.O. Scott and Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips as the co-hosts, both of whom are respectable, intelligent, and legitimate critics.

I also see some problems in the realm of New York theatre criticism, though not as blatant. There's no Ben Lyons equivalent (as far as I know) in the New York theatre reviewing scene. However, there have been many occasions where I've read gushingly glowing reviews for what I've found to be mediocre plays that read like they're currying favor with a production company, playwright, director or actor. There have been a number of times I've read reviews where I've either thought, "are they with the marketing department?" because the language is almost identical to the press materials, or thought it was clear that the critic came up with the "clever" line for the review well before they saw the play (and found a way to shoehorn it into the review after seeing the play).

I've also been dismayed on more than one occasion to find a production of a show I've seen and found either mediocre, middling or downright subpar get virtually unanimous praise from the critics. Not just because I feel oddly out of step with the majority opinion (though there is that; that, "Did I watch the same play?" feeling can be a bit disconcerting), but because I find the lack of diversity in critical thought disheartening. It's when I get the feeling that there's no thinking going on in these situations I get bummed out.

(Though, I'll admit, this doesn't quite bother me when the unanimous critical response of a show coincides with my opinion, or when my theatrical work is the recipient of unanimous praise. It's imbalanced, I know, but I am, I must say, only human.)

Earlier this year, I saw a play from a critical darling (since I didn't review it at the time, I won't disclose which one - feel free to call me a weenie, it's fine) that I found to be, how shall we say, "a bit crap." I came across a middling and wishy-washy review for the play that read as if the reviewer didn't like it, but either a.) didn't have either the nerve or heart to give it a negative review, or b.) was strongly encouraged by his editor to not write a negative review.

Please note I have no evidence of either, I'm just saying that's how the review read.

Suffice it to say, it was a weakly-written review, where I didn't really learn how the critic thought or felt about the piece; the kind of review I hate reading as a theatre-goer/criticism fan and receiving as a theatre-maker/criticism fan. In hindsight, I really regret not writing my assessment of the show on this blog at the time.

(I know we're entering straw man/glass house territory here. Plus, it's an area where I can't prove the motives, since we're dealing with the subjective opinions of people I don't know. But really, is anyone going to argue that there's no intellectual dishonesty and laziness in the realm of theatre criticism?)

I admit that this syndrome of trying to oversell a show or following the herd of mass consensus is inevitable. Plus, it’s not all necessarily bad. Part of a critic’s job is to serve as a sort of cheerleader for certain works, so hyperbolic language is part of the game. If a critic really wants people to come see a show, they’ll often use language similar to that of a press release to urge their readers to buy tickets.

Perhaps I just have much stronger passions and opinions about theatrical works than movies (more on which I’ll get into in part three), although I do remember having that immensely frustrating, "Did you all see the same bullshit movie I did?" when all the critics gushed over Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, which I found (and still find) to be a dull, heavy-handed, emotionally false and manipulative melodrama.

I hope this isn't going to be misinterpreted as sour grapes or me grumbling about how everyone else is stupid 'cept me (grumble grumble, grunt grunt). That’s not what I mean. This is also why I'm not citing specific examples: I don’t want people to get caught up in some bullshit, theatre-blogosphere-centered pseudo-controversy about me trashing specific critics (plus, I've been guilty of this myself in my own reviews, which I'll get into in part three). That’s not what I’m trying to do here.

I'm trying to point out overall problems I find with theatre criticism that pervades the entire scene, regardless of the source. I'm really more referring to the problem I see in theatre criticism where, as a reader, I neither get a good description of the play itself (and good reviews shouldn’t just offer gushing adjectives or snide bon mots; they should give the reader a detailed and accurate description of the show) nor get a good idea of what the critic thought or felt about the show.

I actually think the emergence of Critic-O-Meter (the New York theatre scene's equivalent of, albeit with grades instead of a Pass/Fail system) will serve the critical scene well. Although it has some flaws (it doesn't collect all the reviews, and I have some quibbles about the letter grades some reviews are assigned), rounding up all the available reviews for a currently playing show and ranking them from most favorable to most scathing is a boon to folks like me who like reading criticism (and quite helpful, I think, in helping theatre-goers become more informed when choosing a show to see).

Overall, I wouldn't mind seeing more intelligent, diverse and honest critical discourse in the New York theatre scene (or any scene, really; I just cite New York because it's my home) from more sources (from print and online media, from bloggers, from other theatre-makers). Hell, I think the equivalent of an At the Movies debate show/forum for theatre would be amazing (either in television, streaming video or online text form would be fine; it is, after all, a new media era).

In Part Three: I ramble on about how I (sort of) participate in the critical scene, the ways in which I (regretfully) can't contribute more, and the ways in which I (possibly) can.

Thinking Jennifer 8 is the greatest movie of all time,

James "Seriously, Folks, I'm Kidding" Comtois


1. Siskel and Ebert discuss criticism:

2. Michael Criscuolo's excellent entry on his (now defunct) blog on the nuts and bolts of writing reviews.

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