Thursday, August 4, 2016

"Pushing It"

I don’t know why this bothered me, but it did.  And when something bothers me, you are likely to hear about it.  If something good happens, you may hear about that too… if I remember it.  The troubling stuff seems to stick longer.  (I may have just inadvertently defined a pessimist.)

I am reading an L.A. Times review of a recently released movie – an animated feature.  Animated features interest me.  They deal with issues I care about more often than movies with actual people in them, which don’t.   

So I check out the review, which begins with this:

“Why does ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ exist?  I mean besides the obvious reasons, like the bankability of family-friendly animation, the ticket surcharges for 3-D or the fact that Universal Pictures and Illumination are trying to boost their share of the non-Minion collectible toy market.”

I stop reading and I think – and I am curious if you agree –

That’s kind of cynical, isn’t it?”

I return to the movie review, hoping for the “attitude” to recede, and I read:

“… the picture is a glorified hairball pulled together from the strands of better, more appealing movies and then noisily coughed up and disgorged at a multiplex near you.”

So no.  It does not. 

I then check the “by-line”, to determine who wrote this unpleasant – by which I do not mean negative, I mean unpleasant – review and I read the unfamiliar-to-me name:  “Justin Chang.”

Justin Chang I researchily discover is a recent “hire” (April, 2016) as an L.A. Times movie reviewer, supplementing veteran film critic Kenneth Turan, who’s been working at the Times since 1991.  (The “book” on Turan:  “Dully reliable, and reliably dull.”)

Armed with this information about Justin Chang, I immediately start thinking, rightly or wrongly – which are the only two ways I know how to think – about this nastily written review:

“New guy trying to make a name for himself.”

(The original title for this post, which I replaced with “Pushing It” was “Trying Too Hard.”  But I felt “Trying Too Hard” was me trying not hard enough, so I changed it to “Pushing It.”  It’s subtler, don’t you think?  Although these parenthetical interruptions themselves may be “pushing it.”)

Justin Chang’s review…


You want your writing to stand out.  But, for me, the best way of making your mark is by not making your mark, illuminating the subject in an appealing manner without drawing undue attention to the writer. 

Justin Chang’s review of The Secret Life of Pets, although it went on to make some legitimate reviewer-appropriate distinctions, was overall too smartass for my liking.  And my first thought was,

“New guy trying to build a reputation but doing it the wrong way.”  (A variation on “New guy trying to make a name for himself” to avoid boring repetition.  Though I repeated myself anyway.  Man, this is a tough gig.  Plus, I am drawing too much attention to the writer.  Oh well.  What are blogs for?)

Curious as to his professional origins, I Google “Justin Chang.”  I discover that before coming to the Times, Justin worked since 2010 as a film critic for the show biz periodical, Variety.

Being a nice person, I immediately construct an explanation, rationalizing the misplaced aggressiveness in Justin Chang’s review of The Secret Life of Pets:

It’s where he came from.


A traditionally more provocative outlet than the middle-of-the-road Los Angeles Times. 

Variety was famous for its eye-catching headlines.  The classic example:

“Hix Nix Stix Pix”

(Translation:  Rural moviegoers reject films set in rural surroundings.)

So, okay.  Justin Chang has residual “Variety” in his blood and it emerges in inappropriate situations.  Did you ever have a “fuck” accidentally slip out when you were speaking to your grandfather?  It’s like that.

Then, still wishing to give Justin Chang the benefit of the doubt, I consider the coarsening effect of “Social Media” on mainstream journalism.

On “Social Media” you can say anything.  I don’t, because I was born in another country.  Yes, Canada.  But also “The Land of Politeness, Decency, and Self-Imposed Restraint.”  I am too old to vituperate.  (Although age has not to deterred a “Tweeting” candidate for president.)

Okay, so to a substantial degree it’s generational. 

“Restraint?  What’s that?

But hold on…

I recall the writing of an equally youthful L.A. Times reporter who also joined the paper in 2016, a sportswriter named Andy McCullough, currently the everyday “beat reporter” covering the Dodgers.

A hastily composed writing sample (sportswriters are required to “file” almost immediately after the game), concerning a gifted pitcher’s unimpressive return to the mound after a year-and-a-half’s layoff due to a surgically-repaired injury:

“The digits beamed across Dodger Stadium’s right-field scoreboard, an electronic clearinghouse for fastball velocity readings, the numbers offering a startling depiction of Hyun-Jin Ryu’s physical limitations.”

Elegant scribbling, n’est pas?  I’d have changed “startling depiction” to “startling reflection”, but otherwise, it reads beautifully.  Perhaps I am simply being subjective, favoring nimbleness and balance over condescension and “‘tude”? 

Possible Variety counterpart (if they covered sports, which they don’t):

“Ryu: P-U.”

In the end, it is not about age.  It’s about taste, verbal facility and judgment.  And about making your reputation the less flashy more reliable way:

One carefully crafted sentence at a time.
Half-Birthday Notice:  When Milo says "I'm four-and-a -half", he's announcing he is more than four.  When I say, "I'm seventy one-and-an-half, I'm announcing I am less than seventy-two.

The distinction is cosmetic but in both cases.  But in both cases, it matters.

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