Monday, June 4, 2007

Attack of the Killer Critics

For some perverse reason, I've been slogging through all of the print and online reviews of the recent slate of summer movies. As far as I'm concerned, they're all god-awful.

Note to people who get paid to review works of art and entertainment: you can leave the ignorant snarkiness to us Bloggers now. Since you're getting paid to do this, try to provide something useful, like informed opinion.

Ah, but what should inform that opinion?

My very first professor back in Gradual School, many and many a year ago, was a man named Michael Gordon. He had been a member of the Group Theatre back in the 30s, and had abandoned Socialism and Theatre to head West and make a lot of money in Hollywood, directing such fine pieces of cinema as "Pillow Talk." Late in life, he had gone into teaching--as some sort of penance, I think, or to tilt the scales back into balance before having to meet Anubis, god of the underworld. When I knew him, that introduction looked ready to happen any day. He was a tiny and wrinkled little raisin of a man, with thick, black-framed glasses, ludicrously artificial, jet-black hair, and a blue cardigan that he wore every day (or perhaps one of a fleet of blue cardigans that he kept stocked in his closet).

Michael ran a class called Manuscript Analysis, in which we had to produce 20-page papers every Monday morning, describing and analyzing a play or screenplay he had given us. Early in the course, he made clear to us what he was looking for in analysis, by quoting Goethe, of all people, on the role of the Critic. The critic, said he, should answer three questions:

1. What was the artist attempting to do?
2. How well or poorly did the artist do what s/he set out to do?
3. Was it worth doing?

Pompous as the reference to Goethe may have been, I've kept that definition close at hand for years. I think it's useful, and rarely used. Most critics ignore them completely, and focus instead on these three questions:

1. What did I want the artist to do?
2. To what extent did the artist do what I was hoping or expecting?
3. How many sarcastic comments or ad hominem attacks can I squeeze into my word-count, to show everyone how clever I am?

Case in point: the New Yorker magazine's recent review of the third installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. At one point in the review, just before calling the new movie "At Wit's End" instead of "At World's End" (see how clever?), the reviewer attacks the movie's intricate and convoluted plotting, comprehension of which requires at least a passing familiarity with the second installment of the series. Apparently this is a Terrible Thing To Do, and a sin committed by Spider Man 3 as well. The reviewer says of these filmmakers:

What they fail to realize is that big summer movies, even the successful ones, are designed to be forgettable, passing through our system at precisely the same rate as a pint of Pepsi. Nothing is left but fizzing nerve ends and a sugary soup├žon of rot.

Now, had he said "what I want of summer movies..." I would have forgiven the comment. I would have thought he was a jackass, but not, perhaps, an agent of Satan. However, he did not say that. He said, with authority gotten from Idon'tknowwhere, "big summer movies...are designed to be forgettable."

Really? They are? Every one of them? By design? By law? SAYS WHO?

Really? ANY movie that is big--meaning, I suppose, large budget, big stars, opening-weekend hoopla, and so on--and any movie that is released between Memorial Day and Labor Day--has been designed by its creators and released by its studio with the intention to be forgettable and stupid? Studios, writers, directors, actors, and so on all conspire every year to release complete idiocy because that's what Big Summer Movies MUST BE?

Is this worth deconstructing any further? Is there some reason why, just because a movie was released during the summertime, we should be holding it to the lowest possible standard...and then deriding it when it even attempts to aspire to something more?

And this is a reviewer for a major national magazine.

Personally, I enjoyed Pirates. And Spider Man. I wasn't offended by being asked to follow a complicated plot, even in a mere summer movie. I wasn't outraged at being expected, in Part 3, to be aware of what had happened in Part 2. I kind of took that for granted. But then, I wasn't aware of the Eternal Law of Summer Movies as laid down by The Critic. So, foolishly unmediated, I went to see the movies and enjoyed them.

Perfect? Of course not. But I thought they did very well what they set out to do. They just didn't do what The Critics wanted them to do.

As for me, if I wanted to spend my summer evenings surrounded by nothing more engaging or demanding than deafening noise and blinding lights flashing in my eyes, I'd go find some hideous laser light rock 'n' roll show.

Do those even exist anymore?

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