Posts about criticism

Guardian column: Who needs critics?

My column for the Guardian this week pulls together some of what I’ve written here to ask what the role of the critic should be in a world where everyone is a critic and no critic can watch everything. (Nonregistration link here.) Snippet:

New media
When everyone’s a critic, where do all the critics go?

Jeff Jarvis
Monday August 7, 2006
The Guardian

Who needs critics, anyway? Not the producers of The Da Vinci Code, who launched a gigahit without showing the movie to critics much in advance. Not the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, which was deep-sixed by professional scribes – who as a group gave it only 52 out of 100 points, as calculated by – while the critics who count, the ones with tickets in hand, gave the sequel the biggest three-day box office in US history. Not newspapers in the US, which are laying off critics and refusing to send many of those left to soak up PR and parties at television critics’ junkets to Hollywood.

Yes, who needs critics in an age when everybody’s a critic? And what is the role of the critic at a time when there is far too much entertainment for any critic to take in and review?

The critics are, naturally, debating the point. The Wall Street Journal’s man on movies, Joe Morgenstern, fretted recently that at a time when “shoddiness has been radically redefined by a surging stream of studio swill … 11 movies so far this year have gone into distribution without being shown to critics – up from two during the same period last year.”

Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw warned: “Without critics you would be left with hype, with a jabbering army of Amazon reviewers and headache- inducing prose on” New York Times critic AO Scott argued that critics, even if ignored, suffer for your good: “We don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for the money. We do it for you.”

Music man Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone dismissed his amateur competitors: “Much as I like Depeche Mode, I’d sooner shoot myself than read 50 short reviews of their latest CD by DM obsessives. If that’s the future of arts journalism, best of luck to all.” But the Wall Street Journal’s man in the theatre, Terry Teachout, argues on his blog at “Middle-aged print-media critics who want to be read in the age of web-based journalism must start by recognising that they’re in direct competition with younger bloggers. If they don’t, they’ll vanish – and most of them will deserve their fate. If I were a newspaper editor, I’d be looking to the blogs for the next generation of critics.”

In 1990, I created Entertainment Weekly, a magazine of pop cultural criticism in the US, because I saw an explosion of entertainment choice thanks to cable and the VCR (little did I know what would come next). And so I said we needed critics to help us find the good stuff. But if I started EW today, I’d create it online and I’d try to find ways to gather the taste of the crowds regarding far more entertainment: let sci-fi fans help you hunt the best sci-fi; debate the literary merit, if any, of Harry Potter; argue with Woody Allen fans over whether he has his mojo back. Mind you, I’d be loath to end up with the world’s largest focus group or most uninformative online poll. Instead, I’d hope this would be a salon of salons, where you could find the discussions and people you like and with them, the entertainment you want.

Would I have critics? Yes, but their roles would change. They still should give their views and set art in context. But rather than issuing pronouncements and bon mots, unchallenged, from the screening room, I’d want them to spark the discussion about entertainment: find the good voices, pinpoint the arguments, even referee debates among artists and critics. A great critic should be a magnet for fascinating discussion. Take the debate around politics at the Guardian’s Comment is Free and imagine similar discussion over the arts, with critics acting not as pontificators but as opinionated moderators, even generous hosts.

Just as the public and critics have a new relationship thanks to the internet, so may artists and their audiences alter roles. I know authors who’ve written books on blogs, to get help from readers. I know others who have opened up acts of fiction online with interactive elements to make the audience part of the art. The New York Times reported recently that the producers of some TV shows go to the fan site Television Without Pity to defend what they have done to favourite characters. I’ve never been one of those to predict that we would want to choose or create our own endings to movies and books. Art should not go karaoke. I do believe in the role of authorship. But what happens when the public, so quickly promoted from audience to critic, can now become participants in creation? What happens when art becomes interactive?

Critic on critics

A.O. Scott writes what is — until the last paragraph — a good column today on the critics vs. the box office (aka, the audience). He points to the RottenTomatoes and Metacritic ratings for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean — 54 and 52 out of 100. “Even in an era of rampant grade inflation, that’s a solid F.” But at the box office, of course, the movie is setting records: “Its $136 million first-weekend take was the highest three-day tally in history, building on a best-ever $55 million on that Friday, and it is cruising into blockbuster territory at a furious clip.” So…

For the second time this summer, then, my colleagues and I must face a frequently — and not always politely — asked question: What is wrong with you people? I will, for now, suppress the impulse to turn the question on the moviegoing public, which persists in paying good money to see bad movies that I see free. . . .

I don’t for a minute believe that financial success contradicts negative critical judgment; $500 million from now, “Dead Man’s Chest” will still be, in my estimation, occasionally amusing, frequently tedious and entirely too long. But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.

Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody’s fun when it doesn’t live up to our notion or art? What gives us the right to yell “bomb” outside a crowded theater?

Scott is quite right that critical opinion and box office do not need to agree. A critic, after all, is just one among millions in the audience — the one who gets to see the movie earlier (well, not as often, these days) and who is paid to have and explain an opinion. But it’s wrong to think that critics should be predictors of commercial results. I remember years ago appearing on a TV news interview with an ad agency guy going over the fall schedule and he said I was “wrong” about some shows because some of those I liked would fail or vice versa. I said I wasn’t trying to predict their success — that’s his job. I was just trying to give my opinion. He didn’t get that.

Later, when I started Entertainment Weekly, I got into a huge fight — the last big one — over Pretty Woman. The magazine’s critic didn’t like it (neither did I). The top editors at Time Inc. all fussed and fumed and said that well, obviously, he was wrong and the box office proved it. Even they didn’t get it. Sadly.

Here’s where Scott ends his column. Get ready for a 200-pound lead weight dropping in that last sentence:

So why review them? Why not let the market do its work, let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcana — the art — we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t. But the deeper answer is that our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and even of the people who see them. We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you.

Oh, come now. That’s a bit too self-lionizing when the tongue appears to be nowhere near the cheek. You do do it for money. And you should do it for fun. And I don’t think criticism is like covering government; it is not and should not be informed by constant skepticism and distrust of artists and audience. At EW, I had one stopper criterion for potential critics: They had to love the area they criticized. I hate TV critics who hate TV; why bother? Now a critic who loves TV can be more righteously upset seeing bad TV but his or her attitude sitting down to watch something should be joyful anticipation.

The kicker notwithstanding, I think this is the first third of what could be a very interesting column. The last two-thirds are missing. I’ll reprise my questions from this post: What is the role of the “professional” critic in an age when everybody is a critic (well, everybody always was, it’s just that we can hear them now)? What is the role of the critic in the age of the — pardon me — long tail, when no critic can possibly pretend anymore to watch everything or cover every interest? What is the role of the former audience in art when it can become fluid? There is an opportunity — a need — to redefine criticism in a new media age. I wish Scott would tackle that.

The rights of the author

Nevermind copyright for the moment. I want to look instead at creators’ rights.

A federal judge just ruled against CleanFlicks’ sanitizing of movies, editing out the allegedly naughty bits and then selling cleansed copies. The judge said this was a violation of copyright. The Salt Lake Tribune’s coverage adds: “The ruling does not affect another Utah company, ClearPlay, which has developed technology in DVD players that edits movies on the fly as they play.” So this ruling does come down to copyright — the right to copy — yet it also raises other issues.

Out of this news comes to opposing views from two web authors. (I love it when that happens. The web should be a neverending Oxford debate; may the best argument win.) Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, takes CleanFlicks’ side, arguing that it’s our right to remix. Infotainment rules, on the other hand, argues that in this case copyright is a good thing for it is keeping bad things from happening to creative work.

I’m not entirely sure where I come down (yes, mark this day in your history books). On the one hand, I’m encouraging media people to submit their creations to the great remix out there: If you’re remixed, you’re part of the conversation, I say, and the conversation is the new distribution. But on the other hand, I would hate it if something I created under my name were mangled: I hate editors; that’s why I blog.

So get past the rights of ownership to the rights of authorship. When you create something, what rights should you have — ethically and legally — to maintain your creation in its full form, to protect your ideas and thoughts from bastardization?

When I wrote for People magazine, way back when, I wrote a favorable review of Concealed Enemies, a PBS miniseries. As I told the story here, the then editor-in-chief of Time Inc. took it upon himself to change not just the words but the opinions in my review (to make it favorable to his friend and mentor, Whitaker Chambers). He tried to put opinions that were not mine under my name. I said I would resign rather than let that happen. I saw it as a journalistic and ethical right to protect my views and my reputation with them. I won, by the way.

So what if someone took something I wrote here and changed my opinions utterly? What if the so-called Parents Television Council took a post of mine and made me an enemy of the First Amendment and Howard Stern? What if Dell made me into a satisfied customer?

Steven Spielberg wouldn’t allow so much as one “fuck” to be taken out of his Saving Private Ryan and that’s why some stations refused to be caught in a vice between him and the threat of an FCC fine and so they didn’t air the movie. Was that Spielberg’s right? I’d say so. He would rather that his movie not be seen than mangled by someone else.

So in one sense, the CleanFlicks decision is just a copyright fight: You can’t copy and sell a movie. But it raises these issues of authors’ rights. And so does that other technology that takes out the dirty bits for you.

But on the other hand, if you bought a DVD of Private Ryan, don’t you have some rights of use and ownership? Couldn’t you hit a dump button every time the F bomb is dropped if your kids are in the room? How do your rights of ownership clash with Spielberg’s rights of authorship and ownership?

And what if you’re a TV station reporting on the controversy over Ryan and you go into the movie and compile all the scenes with no-no words but show it on the air with bleeps. You do this to avoid FCC fines. Or what if you’re a comedy news show and you take all the bleep words and turned them into jokes: “Motherflower… Goddogged…” You do this to make fair comment on something in the news.

All this is timely around here as I talk about the need to reinvent the book, not to mention the rest of media; the need to get into a conversation; the need to be collaborative, the benefit of the remix; the value of the direct link. And the question often is raised: What is the role of the author in this new world? In journalism, I say that the author becomes more of a moderator, and when you’re seeking facts and information, that makes sense.

But in art, the author is the creator and has rights surrounding that creation. But that may change, too, as art itself becomes more collaborative. So what are the rights of the author? Do copyright and Creative Commons protect those rights? And what are the ethics of the remix? Is linking to the original sufficient? Is permission required? Is fair use a license to quote and thus to comment? Aren’t selection and alteration forms of comment? What rights does the audience have to change? In an age of the permalink and the deep link and the ability to track and compile consumption, in an age when consumption becomes an act of creation, isn’t that ability to just get to the good bits the audience likes a form of editing?

Here’s what Gillespie says:

As a viewer, I am already acting as a “third-party editor” to Apted’s–and every other directors’–films. As a writer, I can sympathize with Apted’s sense of creative ownership and his fear of losing control of his work. . . .

But here’s the rub. There is only unauthorized editing whenever a piece of culture is put in front of an audience. The individuals watching in the darkened theater, the family room, or on a computer screen are constantly making choices, skipping over stuff, misinterpreting things, and more. The audience, alas, has a mind of its own, and that mind doesn’t care about the creator’s intentions. . . .

But the old model, in which a producer produces and an audience passively consumes culture, is over. To be completely honest, that old model was never the way culture worked anyway, but even the pretense of full artistic control is finished in today’s environment, in which individuals have an ever-increasing ability to produce and consume culture on their own terms.

And here is Infotainment’s argument:

In the conversation about the coming digital revolution in books, I argued that many authors will want to keep their books whole–not to cling to copyright for its own sake but rather because sometimes it is the integrity of the work that makes a particular book exceptional: it is of a piece, and every word is essential to making it what it is, so altering it takes something away from the work. Books like that exist. Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Others will have their own examples.

So too with films. Whether you’re colorizing them to get eyeballs not used to black-and-white or chopping them up to make them Palatable for the Pious, you’re destroying their integrity.

It’s a valid argument, and an argument we need to be clear on–and one we will need to stand up for–as the digital revolution continues apace and the Moral Marauders start to take advantage of it

What’s yours?

Who needs critics?

Scott Collins, TV writer for the LA Times, reports that as newspapers are cutting their budgets, fewer and fewer are sending TV critics to the networks’ junkets.

At long last.

I had a nice chat with Collins about this on Friday and in his story, he’s right to say that I’m callously unsympathetic to the whining critics now on house arrest, far away from the press conferences and parties at the Ritz.

When I was a critic for People and TV Guide, I never went to the junkets. They seemed absurd: just press releases in 3-D. I believed it was the job of a critic to criticize. I said that the only that that separated me from the audience was that I got the tapes first, I couldn’t fast-forward through them, and I had to explain my opinion. It was not my job to buddy up to the stars and get insipid lockerroom quotes.

And today, as newspapers’ budgets shrink, as they close foreign bureaus, the last thing they need is more network flackery they can get from the PR Newswire instead.

Add to that the changing nature of TV; it’s not about three or even 30 or 300 networks anymore and it’s not about programmers’ schedules. It’s about an endless stream — a river, an ocean — of video of all kinds from all times and all sources. The old role of the critic, telling you what’s on TV tonight, is absurdly out-of-date.

And add to that the fact that everybody’s a critic today. This isn’t just about going to see the compiled opinions of the world converted into personalized data — ‘people who like Superman also like….’ It’s also about conversation. The Times reported last week that producers of shows are going to Television Without Pity to respond to debates among viewers about characters they love on shows they feel passionate about. They demonstrate that a show is not owned just by its authors but also by its audience. And these debates can (but don’t have to) influence those shows.

Art becomes interactive.

So I have little sympathy with the mewling critics who complain to Collins that they’re missing out on the expense-account trips with drinks and shwag. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Gail Shister blurbs even the junket: “TCA is the Super Bowl of television coverage. Anybody who’s anybody is there and accessible.” Oh, yes, and the White House pressroom is where real news happens. Wake up and smell the free lunch.

I have even less sympathy for Shister and other critics whining about having to do something other than just write their columns from on high:

She’s resisted bosses’ entreaties to write a blog because, she said, she’d prefer to focus on her print column, which runs four times a week. But the noise from the Internet is permeating even her hermetically sealed cubicle. “Technology has compressed the whole notion of journalistic time,” she lamented. “The day of a scoop being a scoop for 24 hours is long gone.”

The day of the scoop is over. And the day of investing in a platform for one critic’s ego is long gone, as well.

If critics want to get together, it would be a better use of their time — and perhaps their bosses’ T&E — to reimagine the role of the critic, a discussion that has started — and, unfortunately, stopped — on this Arts Journal blog and continues regularly in the visionary thinking of critic Terry Teachout and in the work of my future CUNY colleague András Szántó. Maybe we should play host to such a discussion at CUNY. Anybody game?

As in other, weightier realms of journalism, I say that critics will act more as moderators, helping us not only find the good stuff but also sparking discussion. Yes, the critics will have opinions about not only quality but also about meaning; they will set culture in context as the good ones always have. But they can’t watch it all anymore. And they’re not the only ones with opinions and perspective. Now the culture can speak as well. So the greater challenge is to create a structure for that discussion, to make sense of it.

And this changes not only criticism, it also changes the art.

No, I say we’re never going to get to the day — long predicted — when we’ll all want to make our own endings to novels and movies. There is, by God, a role for authorship. But then again, a TV series isn’t like a film or a book (at least until books become more fluid); a TV series continues, it lives. If a show is successful, it is because the people formerly known as its audience feel as if they, too, own it; it works when it comes to life and becomes part of their lives. And so perhaps it is wise to include them in the process of creation. I don’t mean to rule by focus group, poll, or galvanic skin response. But if you are open to the people who love what you do, if you let them contribute, they will. So in that sense, even creators become critics and moderators and even the audience becomes creative.

Yes, it is time to reimagine criticism in a future without network tote bags.


I challenge anyone to read Manohla Dargis’ review of Superman and find out more about the movie than about the critic’s psychotherapy.

Dargis paints a simple cartoon sequel as a homoerotic, misogynist passion play. But, as they say in therapy, it seems she’s projecting.

There’s always been a hint of Jesus (and Moses) to the character, from the omnipotence of his father to a costume that, with its swaths of red and blue, evokes the colors worn by the Virgin Mary in numerous Renaissance paintings. It’s a hint that proves impossible not to take.

Oh, I think I could resistIntentionally or not, the Jesus angle also helps deflect speculation about just how straight this Superman flies. Given how securely Lois remains out of the romantic picture in “Superman Returns,” now saddled with both a kid and a fiancé (James Marsden), it’s no surprise that some have speculated that Superman is gay. The speculation speaks more to our social panic than anything in the film, which, much like the overwhelming majority of American action movies produced since the 1980’s, mostly involves what academics call homosocial relations. In other words, when it comes to Hollywood, boys will be boys and play with their toys, whether they’re sleeping with one another or not, leaving women to weep, worry and wait to be rescued.

Every era gets the superhero it deserves, or at least the one filmmakers think we want. For Mr. Singer that means a Superman who fights his foes in a scene that visually echoes the garden betrayal in “The Passion of the Christ” and even hangs in the air much as Jesus did on the cross. It’s hard to see what the point is beyond the usual grandiosity that comes whenever B-movie material is pumped up with ambition and money.

Maybe because the director’s point isn’t your point.

I read the whole thing and have no answer to the obvious questions: Should I take my kids to see the movie? Would I enjoy it? What’s it about? Is it exciting? Boring? Fun? Nothing. None of that. All I learn is a convuluted answer to the question, ‘And how does this make you feel?’