Posts about Culture

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.

There is no crying in baseball

But there is crying and moping in soccer. I got to see the World Cup finals off and on and not knowing a damned thing, I enjoyed it (I tend to watch just the Super Bowl in football and the World Series in baseball…. no, I’m not a real man). At the end, as the Italians were dancing, the French moped, understandably, but theatrically. Then over U2’s song at the end (how can you have a football game without a halftime extravaganza?) they showed tons of soccer players crying. You wouldn’t see that in American football or baseball or, for God’s sake, Nascar.

And all that stuff

Some notes on the Fourth of July….

: I was upset that the new Superman now fights for, in Perry White’s words, “truth, justice, and all that stuff.” Yes, all that stuff that we hold so dear on this day.

Was this a crass business decision in the age of globalism? Was it American self-loathing? Was it a joke?

Yet, of course, the movie is really about the American way. The dramatic theme underlying the action revolves around Lois Lane’s disillusionment with Superman. She wins her Pulitzer prize — as they are won these days — arguing against the use of power with an editorial that announced we don’t need Superman anymore.

But, of course, we do. The question is, who is Superman? Superman himself wonders that and so he goes off for five years to discover not much. And we in America wonder that. We used to see ourselves as the superpower that came to the rescue. But now we’re bungling a war. It is becoming popular to vilify us. And, I’m horrified to say, Americans abroad are starting to masquerade as the nationalistic version of Clark Kent: Canadians.

Yet we live in an age when evil is cartoon-clear. The bad guy today is not some vague and shadowy bunch hiding under beds. The bad guy today is as clearly identifiable as a comic-book villian. Lex Luthor is Bin Laden.

Where is Superman when we need him? He used to be around here somewhere.

: As it turns out, the abandonment of the American way was no accident and no joke. The Hollywood Reporter talks to the screenwriters, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris:

“The world has changed. The world is a different place,” Pennsylvania native Harris says. “The truth is he’s an alien. He was sent from another planet. He has landed on the planet Earth, and he is here for everybody. He’s an international superhero.” . . . .

[T]hey penned their first draft together and intentionally omitted what they considered to be a loaded and antiquated expression. . . .

“We were always hesitant to include the term ‘American way’ because the meaning of that today is somewhat uncertain,” Ohio native Dougherty explains. “The ideal hasn’t changed. I think when people say ‘American way,’ they’re actually talking about what the ‘American way’ meant back in the ’40s and ’50s, which was something more noble and idealistic.”

Which is them saying that we’re not noble now.

While audiences in Dubuque might bristle at Superman’s newfound global agenda, patrons in Dubai likely will find the DC Comics protagonist more palatable. . . .

“So, you play the movie in a foreign country, and you say, ‘What does he stand for? — truth, justice and the American way.’ I think a lot of people’s opinions of what the American way means outside of this country are different from what the line actually means (in Superman lore) because they are not the same anymore,” Harris says. “And (using that line) would taint the meaning of what he is saying.”

The American way now taints movies. Every American should should be insulted that Superman is in such hands as theirs. If you think the American way needs updating and buffing up, what better way to do that than through an idealistic movie? But, no, now being pro-American — even at a time when America is attacked — us politically uncorrect.

: See this interview with Christian Cox, an American living in London, on the BBC web site.

She says the level of anti-Americanism she has experienced “feels like a kind of racism”.

“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for Americans, or me, I just want people to realise that we are dealing with hatred too.” . . .

Ms Cox, 29, says she has been called, among other things, “terrorist”, “scum”, “low life”, and feels that she is constantly being held to account for the actions of President Bush and for US foreign policy. . . .

“But some people just fly off the handle without even talking to me – it’s as if they had been waiting to run into an American all day to let their feelings out,” she says.

To avoid confrontations she says she lowers her voice on the Underground and in pubs.

But in one incident an older man asked her directly if she was American.

“When I said yes he said: ‘I just want you to know that I think you are the poorest people I have ever met in my life’ – meaning we were low-life.

“I said I was sorry he felt that way, but that I disagreed.”

The man started shouting obscenities at her group. The row developed into a brawl and Ms Cox suffered a black eye as she tried to pull two people apart.

“After that I cried for two days, then booked a flight back to the States. I felt so hated, I needed to be with people who loved me.”

Some friends now advise her to tell people she is Canadian, to deflect potential abuse, an option she calls “sad”.

Yes, it is a form of racism. It’s not cool to announce a dislike of races or religions or nationalities — except, these days, America.

: It’s enough to make us feel German.

Thanks to an accident of junior-high teacher politics (nobody liked the French teacher), I ended up studying German and, as a result, came to visit, enjoy, and do business in Germany. Often when this comes up in conversation in America, there’s an awkward moment when it becomes clear that others think this makes me weird or worse and sometimes I find myself in the position of needing to defend Germans.

But a few weeks ago, when I was in Munich, I heard Americans say that they, like the American in London above, feel the need to hide their nationality for fear of attack or shame. They start saying ‘eh’ and ‘oot.’

At the same time, Germany, which for obvious reasons has tried to avoid pride and patriotism for 60 years, is suddenly rediscovering the swollen chest thanks to the World Cup. They produced a booklet listing 250 reasons to love Germany. They bought ads on my PATH trains saying that we should be friends. They held an adopt-a-German tour.

Yet while I was there, I also went to a movie about the dark days of the Stasi infiltrating friendships and offices and marriages in East Germany, leading to betrayal, imprisonment, and even death. That same is still fresh, still to be grappled with.

Who’s the Supermensch?

: Yesterday, I picked up The Times of London and read an essay — A Call for Clear Thinking — by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch MP who challenged Muslims to join the civilized order. In it, I see more stirring words about freedom than in Superman or any Independence Day picnic. It’s also timely coming just a few days before the first anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London. She writes:

After the carnage of the terrorist bombings in London on July 7, 2005, Tony Blair defined the situation as a battle of ideas. “Our values will long outlast theirs,” he said, to the silent acquiescence of the world leaders who stood alongside him. “Whatever (the terrorists) do, it is our determination that they will never succeed in destroying what we hold dear in this country and in other civilised nations throughout the world.”

By defining this as a battle of values, Blair raised the question: which values are at stake? Those who love freedom know that the open society relies on a few key shared concepts. They believe that all humans are born free, are endowed with reason and have inalienable rights. These governments are checked by the rule of law, so that civil liberties are protected. They ensure freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, and ensure that men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, are entitled to equal treatment and protection under the law. And these governments have free-trade practices and an open market, and people may spend their recreational time as they wish.

That is what I call truth, justice, and all that stuff. Perhaps she is the Superwoman we’ve been waiting for.

: Yet in our own Congress, our lawmakers do not understand all that stuff. Be very afraid that in multiple votes lately, a majority of both houses has cast off the First Amendment to vote in favor of censorship on our airwaves and for restricting the right to burn the flag. It’s so obvious: by trying to protect the symbol, they defeat what that symbol stands for — the very essence of truth, justice, and the American way.

Happy Fourth.