Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reviews and Criticism (Part Three)

Here's where I offer the third and final part of my overlong blog entry on film and theatre criticism. In the first two parts, I blather on about my enjoyment of criticism, my particular favorite critics to read and what's wrong (and right) with the criticism scene. In this final part, I talk about my involvement in the critical world and where I'd like to go from here.

Film and theatre criticism fascinates and entertains me (hey, it's great fun to read a well-written scathing review of a play or film). But more than that, I find it to be an important profession, since good criticism can help audiences gain a deeper understanding of a art work, as well as help articulate their thoughts and feelings about plays and movies they've seen.

There's been more than one occasion where I've walked away from a play or movie, and had a problem with it, but couldn't quite articulate what it was. You know, one of those, "tip of my tongue, can't put my finger on it," problems. Then I'd read a well-written review that would clear a huge mental roadblock for me, helping me clear my own mental path for what I found wrong with the work.

Criticism and analysis is important and must be protected, especially since film critics are becoming shills for the studios (as Armond White, Ray Carney, Roger Ebert and Charles Taylor have all argued) and theatre critics can sometimes get too caught up in being haughty or "clever," remembering the "cheerleader/advocate" part of the equation but forgetting the "reporter" end of it.

(I agree with the introduction to the video of Siskel & Ebert's discussion on criticism, shown in the appendix section of part two, which explains that film criticism is in that weird nebulous place between news reporting and op-ed column writing. I think it's crucial that good criticism should remember both sides of the coin.)

Again, this is why I'm fascinated with White, from a distance. I agree with his argument that critics need to step up their game when it comes to ethics and integrity, and agree that in this day and age of print media dying and online magazine budgets shrinking, critics need to be especially vigilant, but am not buying that he's necessarily doing so. (Seriously, sir. You can't suggest that the Wayans Brothers vehicle Little Man is "a near-classic comedy" yet cite District 9 as an example of the "sloppiest and dopiest pop cinema" and expect to be taken seriously by the elite or the mainstream.)

Which finally brings me to my limited role in all of this.

I periodically write film reviews and essays for this site and theatre reviews for both this site and nytheatre.com. I enjoy writing reviews. I enjoy how writing reviews forces me to be an active and engaged audience member. I'm not able to leave a show, then think, "Meh, that was fine; where are we getting food?" when I have to write 500-1,000 words on the play. Writing reviews makes me have to assess and articulate my thoughts and feelings on the play I've just seen.

I also like being a part of the dialogue about theatre playing in New York, no matter how small. This is especially true when I find, very much to my surprise, that I've honestly gone against the grain of popular opinion. And I assure you it's not me being deliberately contrary when that happens. I tend to write and send/post my theatre reviews before reading others, so I'm usually shocked when many other critics and reviewers love something I loathe and vice versa.

Simply put, I think writing reviews has made me a better writer, a better audience member, and a better thinker. Not to mention, it's fun.

I'd like to continue participating in the dialogue of film and New York theatre. However, I ultimately don't think I can be a major or steady part of that dialogue.

Not because I think writing reviews is an ethical conflict of interest with writing plays, mind you (although I'm discovering, the more people I know and work with in the city, the more difficult it is to be truly impartial). I've actually never felt that. I think it's perfectly fine for a participant in the field or craft to critique other participants in the field or craft. Honest and open peer assessment is a good thing. There should be more of it. Plus, it's not the end of the world for a reviewer to have both some humility and understanding of the inner workings of the craft being critiqued.

No. The reason why I don't think I'll ever be able to be a major and steady part of the ongoing public critical dialogue (which is really just a fancy way of saying I'll never be a professional full-time critic) is because I'm not able to fully commit to it. I see about 50-60 plays a year. I really would need to see and write about 100-300 plays or films a year (at least) to be a "legit" critic, in my view.

And that would take away from my playwriting, which I don't want to give up.

Ultimately, to be a professional film or theatre critic, I'd need to increase my time commitment by 100-500%, which means I'd ultimately have to abandon my playwriting, or at least curb it substantially.

I don't see that happening anytime soon.

And I'm also not quite as...I'm hesitant to use the word because it may give off the wrong connotation...passionate about a great number of plays and films I see. Not that I don't love seeing plays and films; far from it. But I think if I were to award a star rating or grade to the bulk of the plays or films I would see (provided I reviewed every film and play I saw), there'd be a lot of two and two-and-a-half star reviews or C+/B- reviews.

Take my pal, colleague and oft-collaborator Abe Goldfarb. He sees a lot of movies. He loves movies. He's very passionate about many, if not most, of the films he sees. I love his scathingly articulate takedown of Wanted as well as his loving write-up of The Dark Knight. They're funny. They're honest. They're articulate. They give the reader a very good description of the films themselves.

And last but not least, they're very, very passionate. He's got some very, very robust opinions of the films he sees.

Recently, he saw Zombieland, as did I a couple days later.

Here's Abe's assessment in his own words from his Facebook page (yes, I know, not a formal review, but still worth reading):

"Zombieland is a piece of shit. It has no wit, no atmosphere or sense of place, no character to call its own, and almost no zombies. It fucking sucked, and I'm frankly upset about it. Woody Harrelson is misused in all his awesomeness, and what, they couldn't afford Michael fucking Cera? Who is this Eisenberg chump? PIECE OF SHIT.

"Some reviews have compared it favorably to Shaun of the Dead. Anyone who tells you that it's funnier than Shaun, more atmospheric, more thrilling, more resonant, comparable or better in any way at all, is trying to sell you something. I declare shenanigans.

"The intro was okay, but smothered in redundant, irritating voice-over, muted gore and the sort of humor that lets you know everyone involved was very impressed with themselves. It's an almost surreally smug film for how unambitious it is deep down. ... it was exactly the soulless, focus-grouped studio product I thought it was going to be"

Here's my assessment of Zombieland:

"[Shrug] [Fart]"

Reading Abe's assessment of Zombieland, I thought, "There's absolutely nothing here I disagree with." Yet on an emotional level, I felt no strong sting from or seething hatred for the movie. On an emotional level, it did very little for me. I wasn't expecting much, and in that regard, I wasn't disappointed.

(I also do want to make a tangential point here by saying, seriously, Abe. You really should think about getting a gig reviewing films. Your critical voice would be tremendously more valuable than, say, Stephanie Zacharek's. Or Armond White's, for that matter.)

Mediocrity doesn't typically anger me (with some rare exceptions, like Rock Star or Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, both of which still fill me with trembling rage), perhaps because I simply expect and accept it. I'm really impressed with Abe's ability to be incredibly moved (both to joy and rage) by several movies he sees.

That's my long roundabout way of saying that another major roadblock for me being a professional critic is that I see myself getting very jaded and/or indifferent very quickly; and the last thing the film/theatre criticism world needs is a jaded critic who's most common reviews are, "Feh, it didn't do much for me," or, "Feh, it was all right."

(Tangential update: I find it either fitting or ironic that over the weekend, I saw Where the Wild Things Are, had very strong feelings about it and felt compelled to review it for this site. Go figure.)

I'll admit, I sometimes find myself jealous of professional/full-time critics and wishing I could be one. Not just because their job is watching plays or movies and writing about them, even though that's pretty damn cool, but because they're contributing to and often spearheading the dialogue over art, culture and popular entertainment (sometimes all three).

They're also, if they're doing their jobs, providing an independent voice separate from the marketing departments.

I'm still a bit saddened that the Bloggers Nights introduced back in 2006 ended up dying on the vine, even though I understand why it did. Many theatre bloggers freelance in the field and don't want to offend potential employers. I can respect that. Since I self-produce through my own company and am not seeking a theatre job, I'm not really as dependent on maintaining such potential bridges.

However, I've still found myself becoming a little gun-shy lately about writing up friends' or acquaintances' shows I didn't care for. If given the option (i.e., I didn't promise a review to them or Martin), I opt out of writing anything. And honestly, it's nothing more than stupid cowardice on my part, plain and simple. I - and they - should suck it up and be fine with it.

As Ebert wrote in his little rulebook: "If you give [a negative review] to the work of a friend, and they're not your friend any more, they weren't ever your friend."

As Don Hall wrote: "Dear Theater Types (Critics, Too)...thicken up, OK?"

Well put, gentlemen.

(True story: I was once comped into seeing a friend's play on closing night and was not given clear reasons as to why, i.e., if I was expected to review it or not. Throughout the run, my friend had been revealing extreme sensitivity to the critical reception the play had been given. I read the reviews. In my view, they were fine: mixed-to-positive reviews with a quibble here and there over an element here and there. But to him, they were scathing slams. Since I had some issues with the play, I decided not to review it. I'll leave it to you to figure out the moral of the story and tell me what it is.)

Although I don't think being a professional critic is in the cards for me right now, I still want to do my small part to contribute to the critical dialogue. Also, I would like to continue stepping up my proverbial game with film and theatre criticism. Even though criticism for me is ultimately a hobby, it's a hobby I take very seriously. This is why I've been writing more horror entries this month (it's not just to coincide with Halloween and the impending Blood Brothers show). In the ensuing months and in 2010, I would like to write more reviews, for both film and theatre, provided I don't get to a point where I become a jaded crank who mainly writes, "Whatever. [fart noise]," as my default review.

Though...maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's not crucial to review more plays or more movies to contribute. Maybe it's not the quantity, so much as stepping up and writing about the works I see I feel strongly about, both good and bad. Like I said in part two, I do feel some regret for not writing about the plays I had strong feelings about for various chickenshit or lazy reasons (and I think it's too late now; not only is there not much point in championing or trashing productions that are long since closed, but my memory for the details for these shows have faded). Maybe I should work at making sure something like that doesn't happen again.

I don't know. I'll get back to you. Regardless, with the landscape for film and theatre criticism changing, I see many are areas for improvement and self-improvement. I'm interested in improving my contribution to the critical scene: I'd like to continue improving my review-writing skills. I'd like to see more critics bring their own proverbial baggage to their reviews, be more passionate and personal about what they've seen and be more honest with their assessments. I'll continue to work on doing the same.

Anyway, this was a long entry, even broken up into parts, so thanks for reading.

Critical of his own ramblings,

James "Conflicted" Comtois

Appendix: Isaac Butler offers his thoughts on critics.

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Blogger Sean said...

This was fantastic. Inspired by your posts and by Isaac's, I'm throwing up my own.

And yeah, "throwing up" is the right term here, I'm pretty sure.


12:51 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thanks, Sean! And Awe. Some. Sauce. I'm readin' that shit now.

1:43 PM  

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