Sunday, July 12, 2009

Top 6 Lines of Criticism that I Find Stupid

Like most irritable, pretentious jerks, I read a pretty good amount of criticism--especially criticism of newly-released movies, books, and TV shows. Sometimes I find it enlightening, sometimes I find it engaging but disagree with it, and sometimes it makes me really, really angry. Mostly, it makes me angry when one of the following happens:

6. Defending something by saying, "You couldn't have done better."

Okay, this isn't something that any professional critics actually say, so I'm starting off with it. I don't know who came up with the ridiculous idea that you have to be good at something in order to recognize when it's terrible, but that person is terrible at coming up with critical ideas (and I'm no good either). Do you have to be Steven Speilberg to know that the movie Bride Wars is terrible? Do you even have to see the movie Bride Wars in order to know that Bride Wars is terrible? Or even better is extrapolating this to other things: can only the greatest rodeo clown tell you when a rodeo clown is terrible? Do you have to be an excellent prop comic in order to find this incredibly unfunny?

(P.S. If you are going to claim that there is no such thing as an excellent prop comic, you are wrong)

5. Praising a movie/show/book for "subverting convention"

There are times when "subverting convention" can be good--if a joke or situation is well set-up to resolve in a more realistic or different way than it frequently would in fiction. But I think it's often really much lazier to defy fictional convention for the sake of defying it--there's a reason that, say, the original ending of Clerks (with Dante getting shot for no reason) is unsatisfying and stupid, and it's the same reason why the two main characters HAVE to get together at the end of Eternal Sunshine, and that's the same reason why episodes of The Sarah Silverman Program feel pointlessly nihilistic at their end whereas How I Met Your Mother provides normalcy and relative closure. Convention, especially in structure, is there in the first place because it usually dictates good storytelling. Altering it doesn't mean you're doing something good, and it often means you're doing something bad.

4. Turning a critical essay into a showcase for the critic's own intelligence and humor

I'll admit, I do this sometimes. But I don't have any pretensions to being a real critical source, and the few things I've ever written with the intent of being a real, critical article (rather than something for yuks), I try to avoid self-indulgent jokery. The buzzword for this kind of stuff is "snark," and I would say that this excellent essay by Heidi Julavits is about the first and last thing that needs to be read on the subject.

3. Praising comedy as meaningful for its dramatic elements

This is one that REALLY gets me. There is some cultural value that we place on things only when they are dramatically weighty, and as a result, we get reviews for things like Superbad that say something like, "It's often hilarious, but what really makes Superbad a great movie is the friendship between the two main characters." I'm paraphrasing, but you get my point. Yes, Superbad is hilarious. Yes, it has an honest and positive depiction of male friendship. But why is it the latter that makes it great? Doesn't the latter serve the former rather than the other way around? Why do reviewers thing something is inherently meaningful when it tugs at their heartstrings but not when it makes them laugh?

2. Reviews where "judgment" is passed definitively, but only in the last sentence or two

The purpose of criticism should be to identify the audience that would enjoy a movie, let the members of that audience know that they would, and let those who wouldn't know that they wouldn't. That's easier said than done, but it's often not even attempted, especially with criticism written by non-professionals (read: students). I can't tell you how amateur reviews I've seen that consist of 1) three sentences of plot summary 2) one "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" sentence of passing judgment.

1. Criticizing a work for the possibility of it being misunderstood

Okay, this is the reason I wrote this list. I saw Bruno yesterday. It's great, well worth seeing, and I personally liked it a whole ton more than Borat for reasons that don't need to appear on this list. But while Googling criticism of it online, there was one anti-Bruno refrain that I found troubling: "What if the people watching and interacting with Bruno don't understand that the vast majority of gay people are nothing like that?"

This is, to me, a wholly worthless line of thought. Should Sacha Baron Cohen stop doing Bruno for fear that people might not get that it's an absurdly cartoony characterization? Should we include title cards that explain the "real" meaning of what someone is doing? Should we stop making any sort of art for fear that it might be misunderstood? If you can argue that Baron Cohen shouldn't have made Bruno because it might be fodder for homophobes, it's a slippery slope down to arguing that Saving Private Ryan shouldn't have been made because it could be seen as glorifying war, or that Huck Finn shouldn't have been written because it can be completely misread to be seen as endorsing racism. If Baron Cohen had stopped himself from creating something as intelligent, hilarious, daring, and deep as Bruno because he was worried about making bigoted people more bigoted, the world would've lost a great movie.

1 comment:

Dylan said...

You're criticizing criticism. The postmodern implications are making my head spin.