Using Critics

Do you have time to see every movie, read every book, listen to every music album and attend every play? That’s 250 movies, 53,000 books, 6,000 music albums and 2,000 plays each year.

If so, go ahead and skip this chapter.

As for the rest of us, we’re limited to a very tiny portion of the above. And that means we have to pick and choose among all the available options. The primary criterion we use to winnow down the list is that of maximizing the probability that we’re going to enjoy what we’ve settled upon.

There are a number of ways to do that. One of the most common is to rely on the recommendations of our friends. This assumes that, a) we have friends, b) we trust their judgment, and c) they see everything before we do.

Let’s start with b, trusting their judgment, because that is really a glib phrase, tossed off casually without much thought. Do you really trust their judgment?

Let’s take a typical example. Your friend Friedheim, who is a movie freak, sees them all on opening day and can’t wait to report back to you.

Among Friedheim’s recent recommendations to you were Terms of Endearment, Speed, Last Action Hero and Waiting to Exhale.

Among the movies he told you he hated were Fried Green Tomatoes, Passenger 57, Steel Magnolias and Lethal Weapon II.

You saw all the movies he both loved and hated. You really liked Speed, Last Action Hero, Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias. You hated Terms of Endearment, Waiting to Exhale, Passenger 57 and Lethal Weapon II.

So here’s the question: Do you trust Friedheim’s judgment?

And here’s the answer: Yes, you do, but you don’t necessarily agree with it.

What that means is this: Over time, you have come to understand two things about Friedheim’s opinions about movies. His taste in action films very closely mirrors your own. His taste in female-oriented relationship films is very different from yours.

Over time, you have come to rely not on Friedheim’s opinions, but on his consistency. He always seems to like the same action movies as you do, and he generally feels exactly the opposite from you about relationship movies. So you can use his opinions as a fairly reliable guide to help you choose which movies to see, even though you may only actually agree with him about half the time.

The important point here is this: Friedheim’s reliability as a critic is based at least in part on your knowledge of his biases. You are intimately familiar with he likes and doesn’t like.

Now: you’re in Owatunna, Minnesota, cooped up in a cheap motel during a business trip, and you have a few hours to kill. You’d like to go see a movie. It’s an hour’s drive to the closest cineplex where 800 movies are showing simultaneously. You pick up a copy of last Sunday’s Owatunna Bugler & Gazette and check out the movie reviews.

Some guy named Oofdah Svensen has written a capsule review of Gut-eaters From Venus. He tells you that it is a lousy film and you shouldn’t waste your money on it. Most likely, you will bypass this film and look for something else.

But here’s the problem: You don’t know exactly why Svensen didn’t like it. And even if you did, you still don’t know what Svensen generally likes and doesn’t like, so you have little basis on which to make a decision.

Suppose Svensen hated the movie because the special effects are tacky and unrealistic, the aliens are ridiculous because how could any creature get around with just one leg and three knees, and how in the world did they cross 450 light-years of space to get here anyway?

In other words, Svensen’s numero uno criterion for a science fiction movie is plausibility. If the technical aspects are so far-fetched as to compromise the credibility of the basic premise, he hates the film.

But he never told you that.

And you couldn’t care less about plausibility. You have no problem suspending your disbelief. For you, conflict and relationships are what count; how would Joe Everyman react to a space invasion? Would we find heroism and gallantry in the resistance of a common baker who stands up to the aliens and inspires his fellow earthlings to do the same?

You’ll never find out if you would have liked Gut-eaters From Venus, because Oofdah Svensen told you it was a lousy film and you believed him.

What Svensen did was to judge the film on what we might called a subjective opinion. Now that’s a funny term because, after all, all opinions are subjective, right?

Maybe. But some are more subjective than others.

By this, I mean that some opinions arise out of particular hot buttons the critic might have, like Svensen’s. These are subjective opinions.

Others arise out of more commonly accepted standards. These are objective opinions. For example, if Svensen disliked Gut-eaters From Venus because the pacing was too slow, the dialogue was childish, the aliens’ words were so slurred you could hardly hear them and the ending was unsatisfying because it left too many plot elements unresolved, that is an objective opinion based on the same kind of criteria that typical folks like you and I might use.

Any critic who doesn’t inform you of his biases is doing you a disservice. He’s making it impossible for you to place his opinions in some kind of context.

Because the job of a critic should not be to tell you whether or not you’re going to like a book or a movie or a play. It should be to help you decide if you’re going to like it or not. And the only way to do that is give you enough information not just about the movie but about the person who is telling you about the movie.

Without knowing something about the person, you have no way of evaluating whether his opinion is worth the paper it’s printed on.

This is what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said, "The medium is the message." You may think that the message is the review that’s printed in the Arts and Leisure section. But that’s only half the message. The other half is the medium (i.e., the critic) who told it to you. You have to put them both together to get anything useful out of the review.

Let me explain further. I will tell you in all immodesty that when my novel The Halls of Justice was published, it was blessed with good reviews. So I was surprised a few weeks later when my editor called to say that I’d gotten one that wasn’t so good. I was anxious to read it, because I’ve learned a lot from what professional reviewers have had to say about my books.

When I got the review, I found out something interesting. All of the critic’s negativity stemmed from this one sentence: "The biggest problem is the author’s insistence on telling the whole story in the first person."

I could easily imagine some casual reader out there blowing through this review in a hurry, coming across this sentence without thinking about it and dismissing my book because, after all, who would want to read a book that the author insisted on writing in the first person!

This was a subjective opinion. This particular critic just doesn’t happen to like books written in the first person. (Many of the other reviewers loved the book because it was written in the first person.) I imagine he didn’t like Presumed Innocent, either, and you would have missed out on one of the best pieces of modern fiction ever if you had blindly followed his opinion. Same goes for Moby Dick.

What he should have said right up front was, "I have to tell you all that I don’t like books written in the first person. If you don’t either, you won’t like this book, and that issue made it difficult for me to really think about the rest of it." Or something like that.

I’m not coming down on this guy because he didn’t like my book. I’m annoyed because his criticism was unfair. Suppose he also doesn’t like books that take place in Romania, or books with long chapters, or books with characters whose names end in the letter ‘e’?

Another critic took some issue with my book because he felt the first part moved too slowly. Another felt that I introduced some plot elements in the end that came out of left field because I hadn’t laid enough groundwork for them.

If I had the book to write over again, I’d do it exactly the same way, because I happen to disagree with these criticisms. I think that the moderate pace of the first part contrasts nicely with the speeded up tempo of later sections, and I also feel that I planted plenty of red flags as to what was going to happen in the end.

But that’s not the point. The point is that those two pieces of criticism were completely legitimate. These two guys happened to feel that I should have done a better job based on the kinds of criteria that we can all pretty much agree on, and so their critiques were perfectly reasonable.

Because they were objective opinions.

The bottom line here is that you have to take artistic criticism with a grain of salt. The size of the grain is a function of how much the reviewer lets you know about the context within which he’s writing the review.

I’ve found that there are several things you can do to get more out of reviews.

First, read more than one critic. See if there are any patterns. If three different reviewers tell you that the dialogue in Gut-eaters From Venus is so laughably bad that it ruins the whole movie, that’s a piece of information you can use. If one or two think that the dialogue ranks right up there with Ibsen, you may be a little confused, but that’s okay: at least you didn’t skip the movie just because one random critic voiced an opinion that others didn’t seem to share.

Second, follow one or two critics and read everything they write. This will make you familiar with the kind if things they like and dislike, and you can match them up against your own tastes.

There is a music critic for the Los Angeles Times who thinks that every time Bruce Springsteen farts it ought to win a Grammy. A lot of people feel that anything he writes about Springsteen is totally useless because he automatically loves everything the man puts out.

To a large extent, that’s true. But let’s say you’ve been reading his reviews for a long time, and you’ve already learned not to pay too much attention to his overly-enthusiastic ravings about Springsteen. However, it turns out that the last four times he praised the lugubrious, hermetic kineticism in Springsteen’s’ lyrics, you really loved those albums, even though you have no idea what the hell lugubrious, hermetic kineticism is. And the last four times he raved about the dialectic eclecticism of the background vocals, you hated those albums.

Now you know something you can use. And this critic is useful to you, even though you may not agree with him.

Third, separate the subjective from the objective, and try to find some context. Usually, a good critic will give you plenty of this kind of information. At its simplest, this will happen if the critic is good at explaining why he liked or disliked the work in question. (This only works in full-length reviews, not the little summary capsules.)

For example, here is a capsule summary of Robert Altman’s movie M*A*S*H from one newspaper: "A jumbled, incoherent mess."

Here’s an excerpt from the same critic’s full review: "Sloppy sound editing turns this film into a jumbled, incoherent mess. Characters speak over one another so often that it’s all but impossible to hear a complete sentence from any of them."

Of course, characters speaking over one another is a Robert Altman trademark. That kind of realism is one of the things that made M*A*S*H such a great movie. It’s a very effective and fascinating technique if used properly. And if you read this critic’s full review, you might have dismissed that piece of negativity because the reviewer gave you enough context within which to do it.

Unlike a lot of people who are subject to the slings and arrows of critics, I think very highly of that profession. Critics generally do an excellent job of helping you sort out from the vast expanse of possibilities those things you might want to invest time in. You just need to give a little thought to the best way to use critics.

One last thing: beware of those guys who purposely praise really rotten movies. They do it so their names will be featured prominently in newspaper ads because they’re the only ones who had anything positive to say. When was the last time you saw "American Movie Network" or Paul Wunderlich or WBAI quoted in an ad for a good movie?

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