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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

what he said: the Chicago ‘Tribune’s Michael Phillips…

…on what arts criticism is, and what it isn’t:

There is so much fear and self-censorship in the critics’ ranks in America today. There are so few full-time salaries. You can smell the caution and paranoia in too many reviews weighed down by generalities and a stenographer’s devotion to “objectivity,” which isn’t what this endeavor is about at all. It’s about informed, vividly argued subjectivity.

Approached the wrong way criticism is an inherently arrogant and narcissistic pursuit, yet what I’m left with, increasingly, is how humbling it is. It’s hard to get a review right for yourself, let alone for anyone reading it later. It’s even harder to be an artist worth writing and reading about, because so much conspires against even an inspired artist’s bravest efforts.

Criticism is a way of writing about life, and the world, and a symphony’s place in it, or a performer’s, or a photograph’s.

Or a film’s.
Phillips is writing at his Chicago Tribune blog Talking Pictures in response to what happened to Cleveland classical music critic Donald Rosenberg, who sued the Plain Dealer after the paper removed him from his primary criticism beat, the Cleveland Orchestra. Phillips delves into the details of the case, which are open to interpretation, but I was mostly struck by how Phillips’ explanation of criticism seems to strike right at the heart of how many consumers of the arts seem to misunderstand what criticism is.

Two of the primary negative responses to my review of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, for instance, seem to boil down to either 1) “You might be right (though probably not), but you should have been nicer about it. Did you have to be so mean?” or 2) “You should stick to reviewing the movie, not ranting about Hollywood or feminism or your own stupid biases and blinders.”

Phillips’ words above and below are exactly how I feel, too:

[W]e’re only worth reading when we push our luck and ourselves, and remember that without a sense of freedom, coupled with a sense that we cannot squander it, we’re just filler. As David Mamet said to a gathering of theater critics back in 1978: If you are not “striving to improve and to write informedly and morally and to a purpose, you are a hack and a plaything of your advertisers.”

The advertisers are fewer now. Times are not easy. But a critic must write as if he has everything and nothing to lose, just as a filmmaker or an artistic director or a music director should have no choice but to aim high and dig deeply and damn all the rest of it.

There is nothing less worth reading than a timid, “objective” movie review. Except maybe the back of a breakfast cereal box. I refuse to be as boring as Cheerios.

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  • RogerBW

    If I just want to find out who’s in a film, I have IMDB.

    If I want a consensus view on whether it’s any good, I have rottentomatoes.

    If I want to find out an individual’s view on the film, with the hope of working out for myself whether I’ll enjoy it based on my points of general agreement and disagreement with that individual… I come here, or to ReelViews, or to a few other places.

    Thank you for your review of Scott Pilgrim. It seems to be becoming increasingly unpopular to find any fault in any film related to a comic book; I am glad you continue to have the guts to do so. Yes-men (and -women) are boring and, by their nature, predictable; as long as you keep throwing me curveballs like actually liking Eat, Pray, Love, I’ll keep reading…

  • Kris

    I get frustrated reading attacks on Stephanie Zacharek’s reviews over at Movieline, too. I very rarely see eye to eye with her, but she’s clearly (to me, anyway) a very smart woman and a very deft writer so I like having her opinion to round out my impressions. (Besides, for every Zacharek review I disagree with, which is admittedly most, I can just remind myself that she loved Firefly/Serenity and I know I’m not wasting my time reading her.)

    I just can’t understand why so many people seem to believe that critics should never be, y’know, critical. You want cheerleaders, you’re in the wrong section of the newspaper.

    What’s funny is how many people write things, there and here and everywhere, like “if you don’t like it don’t see it” and “why bother writing about it?” when you could say the same about them commenting on a review by a critic with whom they already know they disagree. With critics it’s your JOB, and you criticize because you care. With pissy commenters you can pretty much tell that they don’t make their livings writing thoughtful responses to the work of others; it’s too often just childish whining that their opinion Has Been Challenged.

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