Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Being Critical

So I got a job a few months ago as a classical music critic. It's an enormously fun gig. I get free tickets to things, and then I get paid to write about my experience. After attending a slew of concerts, ballets, and recitals, I've been thinking a good bit about the methods and process of reviewing a performance and a composition.

In all honesty, Roger Ebert is my model for criticism. Without a doubt, he is the most successful film critic ever. He's had a long-running TV show, he's reviewed thousands of movies, and he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer. But perhaps most surprising and impressive is the enormous impact his blog has made on the internet. Once he made an off-hand comment about how video games can never be art, and all the nerds of the world rose up against him (including me). Sure he can turn a phrase, but I would argue that there's something in his method that makes him stand out. I'll catalogue what I've noticed about his reviews:

1) Ebert is generous. Although Roger has been known to pan a movie, he consistently rates movies higher than other critics. And even when he hates a movie, he will often look for some redeeming quality. Take his infamous review of North:

I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.

But then in just the next paragraph, he writes:

Rob Reiner is a gifted filmmaker; among his credits are "This is Spinal Tap," "The Sure Thing," "The Princess Bride," "Stand by Me," "When Harry Met Sally" and "Misery." I list those titles as an incantation against this one. 

"North" is a bad film—one of the worst movies ever made. But it is not by a bad filmmaker, and must represent some sort of lapse from which Reiner will recover—possibly sooner than I will.

As I've begun writing reviews of performances, I've found myself in an awkward situation. I often know several of the musicians involved in the production. I'm closely affiliated with BYU, which is where I do a lot of my reviewing. Because I know them and because I'm a musician myself, I know how much work goes into even a very bad performance. And so I try to be generous. The hardest review I ever wrote was for the worst performance I've ever been to. Here's the rub: you have to be honest. If you're not honest, your readers won't trust you and will stop reading. But you should always remember that you're writing about the artistic oblations of humans—not abstractions. Most people deserve to be treated as such and not as an opportunity for target practice.

Also, no performance should be guilty until proven innocent. As I listen with an ear more tuned to the positive, I find myself discovering new beauties in pieces I have heard many, many times. I consistently find new eloquence in worn passages.

2) Ebert writes in the first person. I think this just makes sense. When people read reviews, in their heart of hearts, I don't think they're expecting a definitive, impartial assessment on whether something was artistically acceptable. Readers want to hear an informed opinion, and opinions, as well as how those opinions have been informed, are ultimately personal. It would be deceptive, for example, if I didn't let readers know about my own experiences with the Dvorak cello concerto when I sit down to write the review.

Plus, readers want to know that the critic is a human. Should one write entirely in the third person, one would run the risk of sounding like one is thinking that one is thundering down from Olympus. This leads me to my next point.

3) Critics should allow themselves to be swept away by the experience of what they're reviewing. Roger Ebert is a great movie critic because he loves movies. In his articles, you can sense his love for well projected images, for certain actors and directors, and for the whole process of sitting in a dark theatre and watching a movie. If you do not love music—love hearing an orchestra tune, love getting lost in the sound, love the passionate nonsense of notes—you should not review music. If you go into a performance looking for ways to put it down, no one will want to read your reviews. While it's true that negative reviews are often fun, readers know when the writer is a jerk.

4) Ebert is a great writer. I don't think this is the only reason behind his success, but it certainly contributes. When he writes a scathing review, he does so in such pithy, clever ways. I cherish the conclusion of his review of The Village:

Eventually the secret…is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.

And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we're back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets.

This is so much better than the myriad reviews online which just said, "Teh ending was stupid!!!!! I want my money back!!!!!!!!!!" But it ultimately doesn't give any more information or insight than those multitudinous outpourings. It's just more artful. He's capable of artful writing largely because that man reads so much. Actually, I've never seen him read, but unless he's totally lying in all of his blog posts and his memoirs, he's spent his time in the pages of the masters. Spending time with the best workers of your craft is vital no matter what your field.

Anyway, hopefully by the end of this post you'll see why I take issue with this quote from an otherwise great movie, Ratatouille:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

I disagree with all of this. I doubt it was written by anyone who ever seriously reviewed a work and had their byline attached to that review. Being a critic is not easy—you have to be more aware of nuance than the rest of the audience. A large part of the job is seeing and hearing what others do not. And I certainly do not "thrive on negative criticism." If I had my way, I would never write a negative review. I don't like going to bad concerts, and I don't like rubbing it in the performers' noses. Also, I don't think criticism is meaningless. I think it's dialogue, and although it can't exist without the subject of its criticism, what's the point of creating a work or performing a piece if no one responds to it? Would Beethoven's nine symphonies mean anything if no one ever heard them? No.

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