Tuesday, April 14, 2009

CRITICS + ARTISTS = BFF???

Last week, a theater critic for The Guardian UK was going through her Facebook account, saw a handful of friend requests from artists whose work she often writes about, and was then forced to ask herself the question: "What is the appropriate relationship between the artist and the critic?"

It's a personal question, yes, and there should be no definitive answer (imagine, in the future, some well-intentioned moron pushing legislation to restrict it), but I think it's a topic worth mulling over in an age where most of our art criticism has gone online and is "print-worthy" within a blink of an unedited moment.

If a writer has the intention of taking a publicly-critical look at an artist's work, then my quick answer to the above question would be "none; no relationship". That's easier said that done, of course, but it seems to me that the relationship between artist & critic should be similar to that of politician & journalist. No, I don't mean deep probing or investigative research or on-the-spot questioning of just another private citizen, but, as is the case when journalists become too close with public servants, the critical blinders can go on and the tough things that must be said can get swallowed.

Take Roger Ebert. Recently he gave the new Alex Proyas movie, Knowing, a four-star rave. Big deal. He loved, I didn't. But the first thing that popped into my head was "Hmm... Roger Ebert did the commentary track on the DVD for Proyas' Dark City. They must have some kind of friendly relationship, yes?". The point is, I couldn't help but wonder if Ebert's reading of Knowing was somewhat skewed by him knowing Proyas. To be fair, Ebert hasn't given Proyas' career a four-star pass (he was critical of I, Robot), but for a movie that seemed to be getting universally ripped, Ebert's lone positive voice noticeably stood out.

Look, we all have biases, and I'm not saying artists and critics shouldn't be friends or lovers or etc. That's silly. But I DO think - as industry professionals - both parties should try their best to not swap spit when it comes to their jobs. And in the age of online movie criticism, the "job" of movie critic is becoming ever more blurred. Sites like AintItCool, Cinematical, Indiewire, SpoutBlog, and Bloody-Disgusting are some of the most frequented film sites, yet the reviews on those sites seem to be more promotion-driven than insight-stirring. Some of the writers for those sites even seem to get pretty buddy-buddy with the filmmakers they end up reviewing movies of.

"Who cares!"... "what a waste of breath!"... "loser", some of you may be saying. I get that. I understand, that to some people, the role of movie critic may be on par with that of IRS agent, but it's something I love and it's something I think is worth keeping as pure as possible.

39 comments:

Ed Howard said...

"Sites like AintItCool, Cinematical, Indiewire, SpoutBlog, and Bloody-Disgusting are some of the most frequented film sites, yet the reviews on those sites seem to be more promotion-driven than insight-stirring."

I think this is actually part of a separate problem, that of many of today's online "critics" becoming buddy-buddy, not with artists, but with studio promotion machines. A lot of the articles at the sites you mention are hardly even reviews, they're the kinds of fluff pieces you'd see in EW or something -- "previews" of forthcoming movies, which means of course regurgitating the studio hype materials. The big movie sites online tend to be very light on critical insight and analysis, but then that's also true of the big print magazines, for the most part. Real film criticism is on the sidelines, because I don't think most people care to read real film criticism; it requires so much more thought than a piece that gushes about the stars or effects in a movie.

SpoutBlog has some good stuff, though, and perhaps delves a little deeper than the other big online hype centers.

Fletch said...

Best use of Lady in the Water I've seen in quite some time...

I wasn't aware of the Ebert/Proyas connection. Not that I cared about his 4-star rave (I haven't read it or anything, and have no real interest in Knowing to begin with), but that's certainly a red flag of sorts.

Speaking of all this, I'm on the lookout for a celebribuddy of my own. Fox, I know you're tight with several celebs - how 'bout sharing the love?

Marilyn said...

I'm not sure that doing a commentary track actually constitutes a conflict of interest, perhaps just Ebert's enthusiasm for the film and desire to support it. Ebert's also been softballing his reviews for several years, perhaps a function mellowing.

I will say from personal experience that it is hard to slam a film when you've met and enjoyed the company of its maker. It can be done, of course, but you want to give creativity a chance. I had a would-be writer in a class of mine, and as bad as he really was, I just couldn't level with him. I only made suggestions for improvement.

Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Olson said...

Who cares!
What a waste of breath!
Loser!

Just had to get it out of my system. But Marilyn's right: Ebert's been a lot easier on everybody in recent years. He's also good buddies with Werner Herzog, so much so that Werner dedicates movies to him.

Rick Olson said...

Addendum:

Of course, I'd LOVE to pal around with Herzog myself, I'm so jealous ...

Fox said...

I think this is actually part of a separate problem, that of many of today's online "critics" becoming buddy-buddy, not with artists, but with studio promotion machines.Ed-

True. And the things is, I don't have a problems with those sites being promo-friendly sites (posting stills, posters, interviews, etc.) it's just that people go to those sites for criticism as well.

I mean, Harry Knowles is great at what he does: generating excitement, building buzz, providing an outlet for fans (he's cornered a very profitable niche for himself), but I don't enjoy reading his reviews at all.

Fletch-

How dare you judge and mock Nic's #1 movie without seeing it!

And, I want to be clear, I wasn't calling out Ebert for purposely fudging his review of Knowing, I was just saying that the thought popped into my head. I have no idea of the relationship between him and Proyas, I just know he's been a big champion of Dark City and did the commentary for it.

Fox said...

Marilyn & Moviezzz-

Right. Again, I don't mean to say that Ebert is definitely up to no good simply b/c he did a commentary track, but it still made me suspicious.

And it didn't make me "suspicious" b/c I knew that he was a fan of Proyas' - b/c obviously he is, critics are fans too - it made me wonder if they'd become friends of some sort after Ebert did the commentary for Dark City.

And it's not unusual for critics/writers to do commentary tracks for movies, but they are generally done on movies that aren't so contemporary. (For example, Ebert's track on the Citizen Kane DVD, which I think is quite good.)

Rick-

You bring up an interesting point on Ebert "going easy". Reading some of his older stuff, he seemed to be much more critical and tough. Maybe he's just eased up, or, maybe he's been influenced by friendships. It's a curious thing to think about.

NOTE: I'm not trying to rip Ebert exclusively, I like the guy, I just think he's the closest thing we have to a critic who's also a celebrity.

Rick Olson said...

I can see you're not ripping Ebert exclusively ... I like him too. But a brush with death -- and ongoing problems -- can change your perspective on things.

Marilyn said...

Id' say the brush of death was not his own but that of Gene Siskel. I note a gradual softening from that time.

Jason Bellamy said...

Great post. Some thoughts ...

* Beyond his overall softening, I think Ebert’s rave of Knowing has more to do with his mostly solo championing of Dark City than with a relationship with the director. What I mean is that Ebert was perhaps Dark City’s biggest supporter, which is what led to doing the commentary track. Watching Knowing I immediately saw things that reminded me of Dark City. That was my ah-ha moment when I understood – without needing to read Ebert’s review – why he thinks Knowing os a 4-star film. In some ways, this hits on themes brought up in Craig’s recent post about critics and fans taking all-or-nothing approaches to filmmaker worship or derision. Frequently, once someone celebrates (or slams) a filmmaker, technique or style, they almost become slaves to that first love (or dismissal), as if criticizing it (or praising it) later is the same thing as flip-flopping. It isn't. At least, not always.

* On the larger issue: Being an art critic is different than being a political or sports reporter. So far as I can tell, relationships with one’s subjects are unnecessary, unless you want to do DVD commentaries or host Q&As or get interviews, none of which pertain to written criticism itself. With politics and sports reportage it’s different. A relationship might make it harder to be brutally honest when it counts (not good), but it might get you a lead or background information or access that you couldn’t get any other way (good, and necessary … see Woodward-Deepthroat). If art critics are just evaluating the work itself, the best way to do that is at a distance. Consider this: People trying out for an orchestra perform behind a screen so that judges evaluate only the music being played. In many ways, that’s the ideal.

* That said, criticism would be vastly improved if critics expressed their opinions as if they had a friendly relationship with the artist in question, as if they’d have to make the same observations over lunch the next day, face to face. If you’re a critic, you understand that’s part of the job: to be tough and honest. If you're an artist, you should understand that you can't have your work loved without risking that it will be hated. Far too often – especially in the blogosphere – people make remarks too flippantly and carelessly. It’s free speech and I support that, and I make the mistake sometimes too. But my goal is to write nothing that I wouldn’t stand behind the next day and read to the artist him/herself. (As long as I never meet Nic Cage, I'm OK.)

* To run with the Ebert example, it’s clear that he’s softened. I imagine it would be near impossible for Herzog to make something that would get fewer than 3 stars from Ebert. And a few years ago he bent over backwards to find a way to keep from criticizing Spike Lee’s She Hate Me, essentially deciding that since Lee has made some great decisions in the past that he couldn’t possibly make any poor decisions now. But while this might have a lot to do with a personal bond between Ebert and Herzog or Lee, it has just as much to do with the relationship he’s developed over time with their films, and that can happen to all of us. To use the orchestra tryout example from above, the best test would be if films didn’t have trailers, publicity campaigns or opening credits. But that isn’t realistic. (Which isn’t to suggest you were arguing for some flawless scenario.)

* Short story long, if I had the title of Top Critic, I’d err on the side of caution when it came to developing relationships with filmmakers. If you believe in the criticism, those relationships will only make the job more difficult.

Rick Olson said...

Marilyn, that may well be. Maybe the weekly brushes with Siskel helped keep him sharp.

Rick Olson said...

it has just as much to do with the relationship he’s developed over time with their films, and that can happen to all of us.Jason, I think that's so true. I have a much harder time panning some of my heroes -- Altman's a good example -- than I do others, and I never got to meet him. I just developed a relationship with his movies.

Greg said...

Rick said...

I can see you're not ripping Ebert exclusively ... I like him too. But a brush with death -- and ongoing problems -- can change your perspective on things.


Marilyn said...

Id' say the brush of death was not his own but that of Gene Siskel. I note a gradual softening from that time.
...

I agree, and I won't begrudge anyone for going soft when mortality is staring them in the face. I don't follow Ebert anymore really but he was the first critic I ever read with regularity and he has had more than a few friendships with people in the biz and still managed to give their works bad reviews. I think Ebert proved the right critic can be friendly with the artist and still be honest. But it's rare and probably best to keep the two separate.

Fox said...

Rick, Marilyn, Greg-

I hadn't thought about the mortality angle (perhaps b/c I'm only 14 years old and I don't think about those things yet...) but it's good one.

I don't begrudge Ebert anything. He's more of an entertainer now anyways, right? He's done good things (helping make movie criticism mainstream after Kael, Sarris, Farber made it respectable) and has an obvious passion for an art form that we all admire. So, as far as I'm concerned, he can do whatever he wants at this point.

I guess you could argue that Ebert's approach has damaged film criticism (reducing people's interest in it to flipping through the movie section in the paper to see which weekend films got the "THUMBS UP!"), but I would argue that that's had more benefit than drawback.

Having said all of that... (and this is piggybacking on Jason's comments) I would LOVE to see him rip into Spike Lee at least once, b/c sometimes the guy deserves it and Ebert just doesn't seem to want to lay it down on him.

Fox said...

Jason-

Lots of good stuff there in your comments...

I'll start with this one:

* That said, criticism would be vastly improved if critics expressed their opinions as if they had a friendly relationship with the artist in question, as if they’d have to make the same observations over lunch the next day, face to face. If you’re a critic, you understand that’s part of the job: to be tough and honest. If you're an artist, you should understand that you can't have your work loved without risking that it will be hated.---

Idealistically, that sounds nice, but it would require a level of maturity from humans that I don't think we've evolved to quite yet.

Because of that, I think critics would self-censor themselves quite a bit if they wrote as if they were meeting face-to-face with the artist the next day.

Do writers get overly-sensational because they can hide behind computer screens or papers? Absolutely, and I think you bring up a good point of how that can bring down criticism itself, but sometimes tough things need to be said, and as we know with the incident of Cassavettes throwing Pauline Kael's shoe out the window, sometimes those things are better said away from passionate emotions that may turn physical.

And then - sticking with Kael - there was the way Sam Peckinpah reacted to her calling Straw Dogs "fascist" (something I completely disagree with, but I believe she was 100% sincere about her opinion).

But I think exchanges between artist and critic in a "safe" forum are great, and I would be fine talking to anyone whose movie I have ripped... but I wouldn't expect to be friends with them afterwards.

Jason Bellamy said...

Kael is the perfect example. She stood by everything she wrote. That didn't make her right or polite or free of bias, but she stood by her work. In that sense, it was honest.

If critics can't call it like they see it, they shouldn't be critics. The are parts of the job that are easy. That's the part that makes it hard. If a professional critic hasn't lost sleep at some point over a review, I'd say he/she hasn't done the job right.

Disagreement is fine. Insults are fine. One of the things I love about blogging is that everything I write can be ripped to pieces by anyone who reads it. They don't even have to sign their name. But that's a good system of checks and balances.

If I write honestly, fairly, respectfully, though sometimes harshly, I can sleep at night. This isn't to say that I've got it all figured out. I don't. But personally and as a reader I have known writers who have been willing to call it like they see it without resorting to sensationalism. That's the model I try to follow.

Fox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fox said...

But that's a good system of checks and balances.---

Exactly. Comment sections are great. Perhaps the best form of debate b/c it's istantaneous and you don't have two people shouting over each other like on the radio or TV or even at two podiums in a lecture hall with a heckling audience.

So, if someone wants to say I'm wrong or I suck or etc. we can just have it out here, and we can each get our say in... one post at a time.

Now if I could just get Gus Van Sant or Sacha Baron Cohen in here to talk about how much THEY SUCK!, then we would have a grand old time!

Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Bellamy said...

Moviezzz: Yeah, I was trying to imply that.

Kael wasn't flawless by any means, and there's evidence to suggest that she praised films just because she had the inside angle on them. My only point above is that she wasn't afraid to sit across the table from someone she might have slammed. On the Web, there are too many people who type a big game but don't even put a handle on their comments (anon posters). If you're bold enough to type it, you need to be bold enough to own it, I say. Kael was bold. Flawed, yes. But bold.

Fox said...

Jason-

Would you agree, however, that some of that closeness, some of that "face-to-face" interaction between artist & critic (something that seems MORE prevelant these days with sites like Indiewire and Cinematical and AintItCool that do lots of interviews) has cheapened criticism on some of these online sites?

Critics & writers should stand by what they say 100%. No doubt. I'm in total agreement with you on that.

But... let me throw out an example here to flesh out a point...

Last year I saw Eagle Eye at a festival and Harry Knowles presented it. DJ Caruso was there, and he and Harry are friends. The movie sucked... BAD! But
in his review of it the next day or so, he acted like it was the best thing ever. Everyone in that theater knew it sucked, yet in his review he seemed to dance around that notion and just focused in on how hot Michelle Monahagn was and that Billy Bob Thorton is a good actor.

My point being is that you could feel the strain in his words that he just couldn't say anything negative b/c DJ is his friend. He was bound by their relationship. And I don't blame him! I mean, though you and I are only friends through blogging and e-mail, I don't think I could review a movie you had made b/c I would feel conflicted over being honest with you.

So, yes, writers should feel comfortable enough to tell the aim of their criticism exactly how they feel, but, in order to do that, they should refrain from being friends with each other. I think that is one of the reasons why indie blogs like Spout and Indiewire appear to be so "in the can" for Mumblecore. You get the sense that they all hang out together at festivals and drink and talk on couches about the scene they've created. It's all kinda stupid and incestuous and it's letting an inferior form of film like Mumblecore go largely un-checked by a generation and group of people who should be at the forefront of shouting them down.

Jason Bellamy said...

Yeah, I tend to see some of the sites you mentioned as less "criticism" than promotion -- a kind of Entertainment Tonight form of cinema discussion. Or, if something more, maybe something along the lines of a Larry King interview or an episode of Inside the Actors Studio.

So is there more face-to-face interaction with capital-C Critics of the traditional variety of newspapers and magazines? I'd guess yes, only because non-print tends to pay more and so most writers leap at every chance they get to build an image beyond the printed word. (Which I have no problem with, for the record.)

Anyway, I want to be sure to make it clear that I don't throw all websites or blogs into the hype category. Not at all. And, likewise, some critics for traditional print outlets make the same mistakes. But, as you're indicating, it's pretty difficult to rub elbows one day and call it like it is the next.

To move away from film, I'm pretty impressed by Michael Wilbon's abilty to chum up to players and still write strong columns in the Post or take someone to task on PTI. But there's no question that he handles his friends differently than his non-friends. That he admits as much is what keeps my stomach from turning. After all this rambling, maybe that's what I want: If you can't be brutally honest, at least be honest about that. What pisses me off is when you can tell a writer is holding back and he/she pretends otherwise.

Fox said...

But there's no question that he handles his friends differently than his non-friends. That he admits as much is what keeps my stomach from turning.Fair point. And I guess I should grant someone like Knowles credit for being open about that as well. He surely doesn't hide who he gets chummy with, and, as you implied, AintItCool isn't exactly the type of site filmheads go to for deep criticism. It seems to me to be more of a quick check on "Did Harry like ______ ?: YES or NO" and then people move on.

In fact, and this is a generalization, but AintItCool seems like the place for people who DON'T like to read lenghtier, debatable, folded-out film criticism.

P.S. And since you brough up sports, I like how my team - the Astros - are already 4 1/2 out of first after only playing 7 games. Way to go boys! ... (sigh) but I still love ya.

Arbogast said...

Ebert's also been softballing his reviews for several years, perhaps a function mellowing.Oh, he can still be an unconscionable douchebag when he wants to be and as childish as ever. His review of Blindness was pretty nasty and unprofessional to boot.

And for the record, what I said was "what a waste of sperm."

Arbogast said...

I'm also wondering why Fox has a hard time writing out "because"? Is it like that whole Jewish G_d thing?

Fox said...

I'm also wondering why Fox has a hard time writing out "because"? Is it like that whole Jewish G_d thing?---

Arbo-

It's actually my way of saying "before Christ". I find the old B.C. way too capitalized and punctuated.

So... when I said:

"I would LOVE to see him rip into Spike Lee at least once, b/c.", I meant...

"I would LOVE to see him rip into Spike Lee at least once, before Christ."

Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arbogast said...

You say.

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Fox said...

Arbo-

Now THAT is by far the best sidebar "blurb" I could ever hope for.

In fact, I'm adding that quote of yours to my goddam paper resume!

Ed Howard said...

I like how Fox leaves his spam comments untouched. It adds character to the place.

Ed Howard said...

Not to mention padding his comment count.

Ed Howard said...

Just like I'm doing, now that I think of it.

Fox said...

Ed-

Next time do one of three-in-row comments as "Anonymous" or with a different handle so it looks like I have a variety of readers!

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