Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Who Criticizes the Critics?

This post at 2 Blowhards quotes from an interview with Ray Carney, Boston University film professor, writer, and longtime lackey of John Cassavetes, the man who pioneered the aesthetic credo that movies should be just as boring as real life.

Okay, that's unfair. Cassavetes' movies aren't (always) boring, and Carney is an interesting writer sometimes, and as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out, he's done good work in praising the work of filmmakers whose work never went Big Media. (Carney has probably been quite influential on Rosenbaum's big theory of the film industry, namely that there are all these great movies out there that aren't famous because the Evil Mainstream Media -- for all I know he might call it the MSM -- doesn't want people to see them. I remain unconvinced by the theory that Mikey and Nicky would have beaten Rocky at the box office if only the big corporate fat cats hadn't been afraid of it.) But for me, Carney is basically useless as a critic because of his Cassavetes obsession. He's constantly comparing movies unfavorably to Cassavetes movies, telling us that other moviemakers should be more like John Cassavetes; every Carney essay is the writerly equivalent of that guy in your dorm who never seems to acknowledge that there are, in fact, other musicians besides Elvis Costello. He is, in other words, an example of a critic who is also a fan, and whose abilities as a critic are impaired by his fandom.

This is pretty common, I think, though usually not on as extreme a scale as that. Sometimes there are other extreme cases; I seem to recall that there was a woman a few years ago who wrote a book on operatic tenors, and concluded with a chapter arguing that a semi-successful tenor she liked (Peter Hoffmann) was the greatest tenor of all time. Usually what happens is that a critic will become such a fan of someone's style that he or she likes everything that artist does; when it came to Sam Peckinpah or Brian DePalma, Pauline Kael (Carney's nemesis) was always bending over backward to see the good in their work.

But that's not a problem, except on the occasions when the critic tells you to go and see a bad work by their favorite artists. The problem is that fandom can be the prism through which one sees everything else even remotely similar. If you're as big a fan of Cassavetes as Carney is, then almost everything is going to be analyzed based on how much it is, or isn't, like a Cassavetes movie; the idea that that approach might be right for one artist, but not for another, is no longer apparent. It happens with music critics too, and used to happen quite a lot; the critic B.H. Haggin was such a Toscanini fan that he basically evaluated every conductor, every performance, based on how much it was or wasn't like a Toscanini performance. (Other critics similarly want every conductor to sound like Furtwangler, or every Beethoven sonata performance to sound like Schnabel.) John Simon, back when he was reviewing movies, was so obsessed with Ingmar Bergman that you got the impression that he liked movies insofar as they could be compared to Bergman movies (eg Simon once said he liked The Rules of the Game, but didn't think much of other Renoir movies -- and Rules has a certain kinship with the types of stories that Bergman liked to do, though it's too entertaining to pass for a Bergman movie). I also recall we used to have a TV critic at The Globe and Mail who would constantly complain that other shows weren't more like, God help us, Sports Night.

The difference between the critic and the fan is that the critic has a certain amount of semi-objective reporting to do. The "objective" part is that the critic is supposed to describe what a work of art, or a performance, is like and what it's trying to do. Then the critic can go on to say whether he or she likes the thing, but at least you know what he or she is reacting to. (A good critic will describe a work so vividly and so accurately that you can know, by comparing your tastes with the critic's, whether you'll like it or not.) But when you're a fan, you become so preoccupied with the object of your fandom that it can blind you to the notion that other approaches might be just as legitimate. If you see something that covers some of the same territory as your personal favorite, but takes a different approach, your inclination might be to reject that approach.

Not to mention that if you're a fan, you just want your favorite to succeed, even if it means rooting against other works that might have their own value; I know I've rooted for the failure of perfectly good, or at least decent, TV shows because they were up against shows of which I was a fan, and I naturally wanted my favorite show to survive. This stuff is an option for a fan, though I'm not saying it's anything to be proud of; it's just natural, when you're a fan of something, to compare other things unfavorably to it. The point is that that isn't, or shouldn't be, an option for a critic. The critic who can't be bothered to say anything about a work or a performance except that it's different from his favorite is a critic who is too lazy, or too much of a fanboy, to figure out what this other work is trying to do.

Fanboys are necessary; we're all fanboys of something (except for those of us who are fangirls). But someone who can't pull himself out of fanboy mode makes for a lousy critic. That's true of Ray Carney, it was sometimes true of B.H. Haggin, and it's frequently true of Harry Knowles.

I'm sure Ray Carney appreciates that last comparison.

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