Bad Review! BAD Review!

Is there any real value to harsh criticism? Crooked Eclipses (my friend Steve Matuszak) looks at a vicious critical attack he once suffered, and digs into Mencken to find an answer.
I would only add that I think critics are becoming more valuable the less relevant they are. With such a flat world, and so much competition for the art consumer dollar, most art comes with a phalanx of hyperbole around it. And as art consumers , we’ve grown so accustomed to it, we are suspicious of anything that doesn’t have hype. In film, there is a small, small audience that’s willing to go see the latest “pretty good” film, anything that’s less-than-overwhelming but interesting in its own way. Most of us save our dollar for the must-see.
Even if we know that that hype is partly self-generated, it affects us, and there’s a complex of not just compromised critics but social media and search engine-optimizing consultants who know how to inflate the value of a piece of art. The critic is the only person who is allowed to call Bullshit.
As someone who wrote a few hundred film reviews back in the late 90s, I can say that the times I was too harsh were times I was either just plain careless (which happens), or I was reacting to what I felt was a faction of the critical establishment going soft on some principle or other, which isn’t always fair to the actual artist.
I agree that criticism can be revelatory, but I can also say with certainty that readers are more interested in the Consumer Reports-type of coverage: Thumbs Up or Down, or the “Tomatometer.” Good criticism, like good art, walks a line between engaging the reader and having the integrity to not give a rat’s ass about him.

Crooked Eclipses

siskel and ebertWhy are bad reviews supposed to be so good? Toward the end of Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert, when it was revealed that late in his career Ebert often developed friendships with the people whose work he was reviewing, it was implied that his criticism went soft. A. O. Scott, as I recall, concedes that Ebert’s bad reviews weren’t as cutting as they’d once been, as if that somehow meant that Ebert’s standards had slipped or his criticism was corrupted in some way.

I’m not sure where this idea comes from. It could have been H. L. Mencken, who, bristling against the audacity of “constructive criticism,” which usually involved some idiot telling him how he might have improved his writing, declared, “All the benefits I have ever got from the critics of my work have come from the destructive variety. A hearty slating always does me good…

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  1. Thanks for re-blogging my post and for your considered response. I appreciate it. I would like to point out, though, that I wasn’t trying to address the question of whether or not harsh criticism has any value. Re-reading my post, I can see how you might think that, so I would like to clarify my position. I’m claiming instead, as Chronik Spartan picked up on, that there seems to be a consensus that a critic’s worth is based on how harsh his or her criticism is. So in spite of other faults that Ebert had as a critic (his tendency toward hyperbole comes immediately to mind), A. O. Scott seemed most chagrined that Ebert’s bad reviews ceased to be as nasty as they’d once been. The question I pose in my post is why is viciousness so frequently used as the yardstick for good, gutsy criticism?

    You offer one possible answer: harsh criticism offers resistance to the vast hype machine used to sell mediocre art. So perhaps it is thought that only a critic who dares to savage a work of art is fighting the good fight. OK, though I think that is an inflated view of the importance of criticism. You and I definitely agree that critics have never been more irrelevant than they seem to be today: people will see what they believe they want to see regardless of what critics say. For example, TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, which received 18% on the Tomatometer yet went on to earn $244 million dollars in domestic box office sales and over a billion dollars worldwide.

    Relevance aside, though, why would vicious reviews be the only way to fight the hype machine? After all, while extolling crap, the hype machine also dismisses and marginalizes the challenging or idiosyncratic. For years, critics dismissed Elaine Mays’ unjustly maligned ISHTAR as one of the worst movies ever made, a claim that is simply untrue, and at the time of its initial release, David Lynch’s masterpiece LOST HIGHWAY was largely panned. Wouldn’t championing such films in the face of almost universal opposition also be a way of calling “Bullshit” to lowered or suspect standards?

    Where I think you and I disagree, is where you say, “Criticism can be revelatory.” I think it *must* be revelatory. Or illuminating, or about *something* other than whether or not a work of art is good or bad. You “say with certainty that readers are more interested in the Consumer Reports-type coverage.” I say that while such coverage seems to make criticism relevant, it is precisely that type of coverage that renders criticism irrelevant. I discuss this at more length in another blog post, “Critical Disdain,” but suffice it to say here that sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritics thrive because they understand that if all a critic is saying is whether or not something is good, what they say really doesn’t matter. What matters is the bottom line—whether or not the critic liked it—which can be turned into something the hype machine can easily circulate, which can’t be done with real ideas.

    You want to fight the hype machine? Resist Consumer Reports-style coverage and actually say something.

  2. Here’s the link to “Critical Disdain,” if you’re interested:

  3. Yes!

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