Posts about criticism

Snots scream: ‘snot fair!

Heh. A bunch of movie critics in the UK are whining that Disney used blurbs from real people in ads for the movie The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Welcome to the future critics: We’re all critics now. It’s particularly funny to me that critics consider blurbspace theirs. How dare a movie studio quote the people who actually buy the tickets and watch the movies? How dare they give respect to the audience?

I will confess that when I was a critic, I got pissed when I was blurbed without mention of my name. But there was only one reason for that: ego.

(While I’m at it, another blurb story: I was TV critic at People and complained in my column about a “pinhead” at NBC who had taken my review quite out of context to turn a negative review into a positive blurb. It was something to the moral effect of this: I said the show as an incredible piece of crap and the blurb said, “Incredible!” Anyway, when my putative partner in the launch of Entertainment Weekly went to Hollywood to push the magazine before its launch, he met with an executive at NBC who announced that he was my “pinhead.” He was not amused. I was.)

Media on media

I’m going to be on Howie Kurtz’s Reliable Sources this Sunday (about 1045a) talking about the death of critics. Fun part: I’ll be on with Gene Seymour, movie critic at Newsday, who just took a buyout there. I met Gene way back early in his career when I started Entertainment Weekly. A lot has happened to criticism since then.

Here’s my April 2006 column playing taps for critics. Here’s David Carr’s NY Times piece on the trend, which essentially gives voice to producers complaining that they’ll get less free publicity. (But one might point out that if they advertised more in newspapers, newspapers could better afford those critics.) And here’s a comprehensive post in Filmdetail.

What this really gets down to is:
* The dire economic situation newspapers and magazines face.
* The ecology of links that makes local coverage of national beats wasteful.
* The commodification of criticism. When I started EW, I stole an idea for a feature from the Berlin city magazines Tip and Zitty, creating a critical consensus chart that converted all the pundits’ opinions into a letter grade (our conceit). The opinions and their expression didn’t vary widely. The essential consumer service here is: what’s it about, who’s in it, how is it?
* The death of one-size-fits-all media and entertainment. Just because you like it doesn’t mean I have to, not anymore.
* Above all, I believe, this is driven by the fact that we do now and have always trusted the opinions of friends over those of alleged influencers, whether those influencers are newspaper critics, TV commentators, or unfamiliar bloggers.

I’ve said before that if I launched EW today, it would not be a magazine of critics but a site of viewers, a place for peers to compare notes and recommend entertainment to each other. Entertainment should have been the first realm of news coverage to become soclal.

Death of the TV critic

Variety sums up the sorry state of the TV critic – and makes me damned glad I’m not one anymore. Gail Shister, who lost both her column and then her TV at the Philadelphia Inquirer, went so far as to hyperbolate: “If there’s one beat that’s sacrosanct, it should be TV.” Forget City Hall. It’s Regis updates we need!

TV as we knew it is exploding and so should the critics who cover it. There is no way — no way — that one critic can perform a one-size-fits-all service anymore. TV critics, like other critics, should become moderators and catalysts of discussion and criticism in the audience. They should be discoverers of hidden gems in the vast and overwhelming world of online video. Like TV itself, they must change or die. And many are just dying. The best example of a next-generation TV critic I know of remains Virgina Heffernan, who has used both her blog and her page to cover internet video with creativity and determination.

Michael Moore for Secretary of Health

Sicko is near-great documentary that will and should have a profound impact on the election and on public policy. If no president can fix our health care and insurance mess in this country and no politician can coalesce public opinion, maybe he can.

Moore is — for Moore — practically deft and subtle as he exposes the hell we’re all in with our insurance coverage. I was impressed that, all in all, he let the stories tell themselves and he left his 2×4 in the closet. Of course, he can’t miss the opportunities to snicker and act incredulous; he has to ham. But he knows that he has a powerful message and that he doesn’t need to amp it up. And keep in mind that he’s attacking only one head of this hydra: insurance. There’s much else that’s a mess about our health care system.

I do think, though, that Sicko would have been stronger if it has been more journalistic — that is, more complete and, yes, balanced. Moore extols the virtues of the national health systems in Canada, the UK, France, and, as we all know by now, Cuba. Watching all those well-cared-for Canadians, I had a relapse of a recurrent urge to move north. Though he goes to waiting rooms and debunks some myths about the wait for care — at least in those rooms — no one would deny that these systems, too, have their problems; just read the British press about its National Health Service. On balance, his argument is still valid — all the more valid, I’d say, if he’d have dealt with those yes-buts we’re bound to hear. I know, Moore would say he isn’t making journalism, it’s advocacy. I say the line is blurred and whatever you call it, an argument will have more impact if it has the discipline to answer the hard questions.

I can think of many other movies that had an impact on the culture — you can list a dozen that affected American thinking about race — and that affected public opinion — name your anti-war movies from the Vietnam era — but I’m not sure I can think of a movie that tries to have such a direct effect on policy and legislation.

My suburban theater was jammed last night with plenty of people who surely vote Republican; I’m in a minority out here. They left sharing rave reviews. I’ll bet that Sicko will be a hit on two scales: gross and impact.

And Moore is using the web to extend that impact. A few weeks ago, he asked people to share their horror stories with us:

Here are the 70 responses so far.

Here’s a guy who says he couldn’t get his broken hand fixed because he didn’t have insurance or $400 and so now it’s mangled — “waaaa, but I guess that’s the state of things in America.”

Here’s a very simple video from a woman who couldn’t get insurance, try as she might, and who reacts to the heart-rending stories of others responding to Moore (in particular, this woman with MS here and here):

At a screening for the 11 of 900 health care lobbyists who showed up, Moore says he wants the voters to demand universal health care from the candidates and he wants people to speak up and support Rep John Conyers’ universal health-care bill. The audio’s messed up but this is the essential Moore platform:

And here, Moore goes to testify on Capitol Hill. It’s more than a movie. It’s a campaign.

(Crossposted at PrezVid)

Sir, step back from the Mac

Some things just should be video. Like Slate. So far, I’m wildly unimpressed with its multimedia effort. How can a minute and a half be so boring: a explanation of Rhode Island’s size:

And then there’s Rudy Giuliani’s famous ferret call. This is Slate’s treatment in rather pointless animation:

And this is the much funnier version I blogged on PrezVid a few weeks ago:

Maybe Slate would be better off finding the funnier videos other people make.

Sopranos, the sequel

Kudos to Alan Sepinwall at the Star-Ledger, the official newspapers of The Sopranos, for getting the only interview with David Chase.

“I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there,” he says of the final scene.

“No one was trying to be audacious, honest to God,” he adds. “We did what we thought we had to do. No one was trying to blow people’s minds or thinking, ‘Wow, this’ll (tick) them off.’

“People get the impression that you’re trying to (mess) with them, and it’s not true. You’re trying to entertain them.”

In that final scene, mob boss Tony Soprano waited at a Bloomfield ice cream parlor for his family to arrive, one by one. What was a seemingly benign family outing was shot and cut as the preamble to a tragedy, with Tony suspiciously eyeing one patron after another, the camera dwelling a little too long on Meadow’s parallel parking and a walk by a man in a Members Only jacket to the men’s room. Just as the tension ratcheted up to unbearable levels, the series cut to black in mid-scene (and mid-song), with no resolution.

“Anybody who wants to watch it, it’s all there,” says Chase, 61, who based the series in general (and Tony’s relationship with mother Livia specifically) on his North Caldwell childhood.

Sepinwall also debunks the email and comment-thread that burst into forums and blogs like Phil Leotardo’s brains under the SUV tire. There was a lot of excitement about the idea that all the people in the final scene in the restaurant were assassins or ghosts — take your choice — from earlier shows but Sepinwall says it’s just not true. The speculation almost got me to believe that Tony was dead: he saw himself in the restaurant as he came in and this was his life passing before his eyes as he died. But that did seem too neat and the appeal of the Sopranos is that it’s not neat. Cue Sartre.

The hip critic

On her Facebook profile, NY Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan just updated her list of favorite TV shows — a list that should draw more curious interest than just anybody’s. She now leads off with her favorite web shows. Bravo. Her list:

+ lonelygirl15.com
+ black20.com
+ youtube.com/hodgestansson
+ theburg.tv
+ ysabellabrave.com
+ strindbergandhelium.com
+ metacafe.com/watch/356198/amazing_canon_rock_cover_by_funtwo/

Her favorite old-style shows: Friday Night Lights, I Love New York, Rescue Me, Big Love, Entourage, 30 Rock, The Sopranos, Weeds, Bionic Woman, The Bachelor, The Deadliest Catch, America’s Next Top Model, King of Queens, John From Cincinnati, The Shield, Laguna Beach, The Hills, Inside the Actors Studio, Shalom in the Home, House, American Idol, The View, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Lost, Project Runway

I, too, lead off my list with web TV and I’ve just added to it. Mine starts with naked self-interest, shows in which I have an investment: PrezVid.com, IdolCritic.com, Black20.com, 39SecondSingle.com, JamesKotecki.com, ABC (Australia) Mediawatch, Chasers War on Everything, Rocketboom, Ehren Senf, Ze Frank, Alive in Baghdad, JetSet

My old-style shows (for now): 30 Rock, Heroes, Sopranos, Weeds, Entourage, Lost, American Idol, House, This Old House, Cheers, Seinfeld, Picket Fences, Cosby (early years), Twin Peaks, Dobie Gillis, 60 Minutes, David Letterman, Daily Show, Colbert Report

Critics’ critics

Guardian entertainment critic Dorian Lynskey has a most entertaining column about what’s it’s like to face the bloggers and commenters in the paper’s group arts blog:

. . . Like backroom comedy writers dragooned into performing late-night stand-up in a club full of tetchy drunks, this paper’s critics have had to learn to deal with hecklers very quickly. The first time I experienced it, my offering was described as “stereotypically self-indulgent Guardian wank bordering on self-parody”. I sulked for a bit, then got over it. All but the kindest critics have written unpleasant things about artists in their field, so we should learn to take a few knocks.

I’m not convinced, though, that what might politely be described as “robust” debate on the blog generates light as well as heat. The internet has always licensed people to be far ruder than they would be in a face-to-face encounter. In 1990, US attorney Mike Godwin formulated Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Similarly, as an arts blog discussion grows longer, the probability of the writer being branded “smug”, “pointless”, “arrogant” or “London-obsessed” approaches one. . . .

This is just one front in a wide-ranging battle between the blogosphere and so-called old media. In an ideal world, there should be room for both print critics and online ones, with plenty of overlap between them. Good writing is good writing, wherever it appears. But the campaign is in its early days and there are several years’ worth of grievances to thrash out before a peace treaty can be agreed.

Many of the people who post on blogs appear to be annoyed not by what the writers say so much as the fact that they’re in a position to say it. You can spot this type because they write things like: “You’ve only written this to provoke a reaction.” Or: “Why did you even write this? What a waste of time.” As if writing to complain about a waste of time were not, in fact, a bigger waste of time. . . .

You’ll find something similar on the websites of Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice and anywhere else critics invite feedback – only to wonder why they bothered. I hope this resentment will fade, because although a firestorm of invective can be very amusing, it’s only when critics and readers meet halfway that enlightening debate can happen – and surely that’s the whole point of the exercise. Recently, I posted a blog entry about why I dislike Bruce Springsteen. Predictably, some Boss fans were not best pleased and the usual reasoned responses ensued (“Back to school”, “knobhead”, etc). But halfway down, a reader who knew more than I did about Springsteen’s strengths and failings weighed in with a series of nuanced posts that broadened and enriched the discussion in a way I couldn’t have predicted. I’m also fortunate with the contributors to my Readers Recommend blog, where differences of opinion are met with good humour and nobody has ever been compared to Hitler.

These are relatively early days. With time and luck, the good will out and the bad will lose the chips from their shoulders; or, failing that, find something better to do with those slow periods at work. Until then, at least, every critic knows that it is always better to be read than ignored. No amount of abuse at the foot of a blog is quite as disheartening as the dread phrase: “Comments (0)”.

Last I checked, this piece had 74 comments.