Thursday, June 25, 2009


My blog stopped working the way it normally works. I've been here all the time, apparently blogging to myself. Sorry for the inconvenience. We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.
My dictionary defines “criticism”, as, first, “an act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.” The second definition of “criticism” is, “an act of passing severe judgment; censure.” In the third definition, they don’t bother judging at all; they just kill you. Or at least that’s how it feels. Am I tipping my hand in this matter?

“Criticism”, generically, means “passing judgment.” It could be positive; it could be negative. But that’s not how the term is generally applied. When you say about someone, “They have a problem with criticism”, this rarely means they have a problem hearing the words, “That was really great.” I mean, that’s possible, but if you do have a problem hearing the words, “That was really great”, it’s unlikely to compare with the problem you have hearing the words, “That was so bad, it should be a crime for that person to attempt anything like that ever again. Preferably a capital crime.”

I personally find negative criticism numbing, and demoralizing, and at its worst, creatively immobilizing. It’s hard doing this stuff, and “hard” rises to “impossible” when it’s publicly asserted that you stink at it.

Sensitive to my sensitivity, Dr. M delivered the L.A. Times review of Best of the West in the form of a newsprint doily, having carefully cut out all the critical parts, so what I’d end up reading was an entirely positive review. With a number of holes in it.

All this comes to mind because yesterday, I found myself being highly critical of The Hangover, a new movie comedy I barely chuckled at. The Hangover will survive my condemnation. Last weekend, it took in another 26.9 million dollars at the box office, bringing its current total to a hundred and fifty-two point nine million, on its way to a projected take of two hundred million dollars, or more. But surviving my criticism is not the point. I spoke harshly of other people’s work. And it didn’t feel good.

(My first draft version read, “I spoke angrily about other people’s work.” That was a “giveaway” of my actual feelings, so I covered it up, by changing “angrily” to “harshly.” I am now giving away the “giveaway.” I was angry at The Hangover. Not only was it not particularly well done, in my view, but it reflected the type of comedy that put another type of comedy – the carefully observed comedy of everyday life – and the people who write it – including myself – out of business. That’s enough to make you angry, don’t you think?)

It’s also enough to distort your critical judgment. This is something I have frequently noticed about critics. Very often, critics seem to be speaking less about the thing they’re reviewing than they are about themselves. I’m sure it’s not easy separating the two, but you have to try. Otherwise, the reader will be learning more about the critic than the thing they’re criticizing. And that’s not what reviews are supposed to be about.

“Did he like that ‘restaurant’ movie?”

“I’m not sure. But I think somebody once gave him a bad table.”

I really don’t care about that.

I’ve heard people say, “Critical notices are very helpful. They point to what I should try and do better in the future.” These people are usually English, and they’re almost always lying. Trust me. Negative criticism is a dart to the heart. It’s almost impossible to think otherwise.

“It wasn’t you they were criticizing. It was your performance.”

“And who delivered that performance?”

“You did.”

“Thank you. And shut up.”

Okay, criticism hurts. Point taken. But what are you going to do? You come out of a movie you hated, you say, “That really sucked.” Fine. Everyone has a right to their opinion. This is America (and Canada). That’s how it works. (Though less so in Canada.) Still, there’s one thing, I think, that’s important to keep in mind.

The people who made the movie you hated accomplished something bordering on the miraculous. Those people had an idea, they sold it, and then proceeded endure all the struggles required to see that movie through to the end. If you’ve ever participated in such an enterprise, you realize what an enormous accomplishment that is. Just getting it done is a monumental achievement. Getting it done well? The odds against it are astronomical.

On top of that, if the movie turns out to be a commercial success, you may not understand why, but you have to allow that there’s something there, some accidental or otherwise confluence of who-knows-what that struck a nerve with the ticket-buying public. You may hate how they did it, but it’s unquestionable that they connected. In my books, that accomplishment merits an acknowledging tip of the hat.

I tip my hat to The Hangover. My criticism, however, remains. With apologizes for the overkill.

There are a number of challenging issues relating to criticism. Can a reviewer corral their personal prejudices enough to truthfully respond to the material in front of them? Is there an ideal of perfection against which a work can be judged, or are there just different equally worthy approaches to the same end? On a non-professional level, does a lack of expertise, or an excess of expertise – I have a story about that – cast doubt on the validity of someone’s opinion? Important questions, all worthy of exploration.

But they’ll have to wait.

I’m going swimming.
Correction: Okay, so the door to the roof was locked. The guy still had enough energy to move around a mattress. Did he not have the strength to call down, “I’m on the roof”?


Anonymous said...

Well, I guess the bottom line is, it's not going to get an Oscar nomination. Er...wait...with 10 nominees next year, maybe it will.

Clarence Ewing said...

Earl, I hear what you're saying, but I'm not all-the-way on baord with it.

I absolutely agree with you that many critics put too much of their own biases into their evaluations. I differ with you, though, on your thoughts about movies like "The Hangover." A lot of popular movies are as bad as crticis say they are, subjectively, objectively, or any other "-ectively" there is.

The difference is that some film makers, by accident of birth or being in the right place at the right time, are in a position where they can make total pieces of crap and still get them shown in 10,000 theaters. What you call inherent intrinsic value, I call having clout and/or a relative who owns a studio.

Just because a movie rakes in cash doesn't mean it's any good. It could mean there are a lot of bored teenagers looking for something to do on summer vacation, and sitting in an air-conditioned theater watching just about anything the projectionist puts up there is a good option. It could also mean a distributor shoved a movie down a theater's throat as a condition of being allowed to show the next Johnny Depp blockbuster. As with pro athletes or corporate CEOs, the size of the paycheck doesn't necessarily correlate with the quality of the product.

Corinne said...

Yeah!!!!! You're Back!!!!!

I've haven't read anything yet.

I was just so glad to see you!

Good idea, having Ken let us know.

Now back to the post......

Anonymous said...

The only thing you are too harsh with is yourself. But everyday reading of your blog leads me to believe that that will not change. :) Your review, I thought, was balanced. You simply said that your sense of humor was different than those that liked the movie. Besides, you made me think about why I find one movie funny and another not. I sat and listed my favorites on one side and the least on the other. The difference boiled down to how engaging I found the characters. If I can't connect to them, I rarely find the movie funny, no matter what the jokes are. The first part of The Family Stone I had trouble investing in the characters. By the time they got to the Christmas debaucle, I was much more interested in the people so I found that scene absolutely hysterical. It is my opinion that it takes better writing ability to get the audience invested in the characters. But there's obviously enjoyment for those that enjoy the jokes that I feel are flat. Maybe I'm too critical, too. Anyway, there's my theory. And I missed you, too.

A. Buck Short said...

On the other hand, there have been some great critics with genuine literary skills. There's only one thing you really need to appreciate them -- not being involved.

Whenever I get upset with a critic, I think of one thing about their job. They have to sit through something, pay attention, absorb what they can about it, apply anything else that might be related, and then come up with some unique presentation that someone will find of interest or insightful. Hell, that's a TERM PAPER.

At least a lot of us were through with most of that when we got out of school. These dudes are in term paper purgatory.

Now I have only one question, Earl.
Doily-schmoily, what's with you and holes?