I've been seeing a lot of articles lately about the impending death of criticism (film, music, etc.) at the hands of the internet/blogs/etc. Today I came across an interesting quote (in this article) from Pauline Kael: "Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising." I was immediately reminded of a good scene in a bad movie, Almost Famous, in which the great rock critic Lester Bangs (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) defends a fledgling rock music criticism with pretty much the same argument as Kael. It's a strong argument. I mean, who are you going to trust, the publicist who writes for the movie or record company whose job it is to get you to (or suck you into) buying the "product," or the critic, who's seen pretty much every movie, or listened to every rock album ever made? Or, these days, all of the thousands, millions of "critics" on the web?
I think the publicist, the traditional critic, and Joe Blow on the web all have their own place, function, and usefulness, as long as one knows what he's reading and by whom it's been written. This goes directly to Kael's argument (above).
Clearly we should be able to trust the publicist to get some basic facts straight: "This movie, Titanic is directed by James Cameron and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet." Really, who would doubt a sentence as boring as that? It's highly unlikely that you'd walk into the theatre and sit down, only to discover that the "stars" of the movie are Carrot Top and Phyllis Diller, and that it was actually directed by Leni Riefenstahl. (Believe me, as much as you might wish for it, it ain't gonna happen.) On these basic details, we can take the publicists at their word.
Things get a bit trickier when the publicity department of, say, a major studio starts describing the movie (i.e. the actual content of the "product"). And the ways they have to describe things to you are myriad! (And, if I may be perfectly candid, they constitute an art form unto itself. These guys could sell you back the turd that you just flushed down the toilet. I hate them, but they have my deepest admiration.) To stick with the Titanic example, did any other guys notice how the trailers seemed to emphasize the size of the ship, and the general mayhem surrounding it's sinking? Has anyone not heard the phrase "chick flick in disguise"? Haha! Nobody sucked me in with that one! I was living in my mother's basement at the time, but still... Basically you should treat the publicity put out by media companies like you would a used car salesman. Stop listening after "this one's a Ford Taurus..."
I should talk a bit about the internet hordes, the self-proclaimed "critics," the Amazon "reviewers," the bloggers, etc. First, though, I want to make one thing clear (hopefully it already is clear to regular readers): I often post about music (and much less frequently about movies). I don't do "reviews." I post a tune, tell you I like it, and perhaps call you an idiot for not liking it (and really, what the fuck is wrong with you?). Sometimes I might say something remotely useful like, "this band sounds like The Stones," or something. I call this "blogging." I do not call it "criticism."
If you're a young person who hasn't seen many movies or heard a lot of bands, the swarm consensus of the internet can be a useful thing. You've heard Lady Gaga and seen pictures and videos of her and you're wondering if maybe she could dig a guy like you and... Oh. No, not that. Heh. Look, you're a young person who hasn't heard a million albums yet, or seen a thousand movies. You've heard and seen enough to know that you like, say, Green Day and vampire movies. And really, that's cool. For now. You have instant access to opinions on all the stuff you like. But is all the stuff you like all there is?
Critics. Who are they and what the fuck do they do? Fucked if I know, BUT... If I had a job as a critic, I'd guess that my newspaper/magazine/TV show/website/etc. would expect a few things. I'd guess that they'd expect me to know how to write well. That probably, but not necessarily, would require me to have some sort of university education. I almost certainly would have to prove that I had some sort of background in the subject matter, whether it be movies, music, or whatever. What kind of publication (what kind of society?) after all, would accept the opinion of someone who had neither knowledge of the subject nor the proper tools to express his/her "opinion" on it? (Don't answer that, kids!)
It's not like you should accept the word of a critic as the "Word of God" or something as foolish as that. But the word of the guy who's listened to more albums, say, than you have should count for something. If it doesn't, then why even go to school to learn any subject? Don't get me wrong, it's not like I haven't had problems with the judgments of critics. I used to curse Robert Christgau for giving a "C" to a Stones album when I was a kid reading Creem. Thirty-five years later, having absorbed The Stones' work in its entirety, it's clear to me that Love You Live was a turkey.
[One thing that really does bug me about most rock criticism is its insistence on writing about fucking lyrics. I mean, shit, do I have to go all Schopenhauer on this or what? It's fucking music. I like it when what the singer does kinda matches the music, but please, these guys aren't Keats. Spare me the analysis of the "poetry." What the fuck does the album sound like?]
Anyway, the point I'd like to make is this: A "critic" has to have some kind of background in the subject she is criticizing. Proper criticism requires a breadth and depth of knowledge on a topic that, frankly, most people don't have. A critic has to be able to place a work into it's proper context in order to judge it against other works. She also has to have a much better than average ability to write. Go ahead and try writing a review for your favorite movie, album, or book sometime. It's not the same as talking about it. Writing and speaking are completely different creatures. Hell, I'm a musician and I've given up on trying to review music. "I really like/hate this album. It sounds like their other album which reminds me of this album by another band. They play their instruments well/poorly. The songs are good/bad." That's about all you're gonna get outta me on paper! Come over some time for a beer, though, and I'll play you the fucking album and show you what I like/hate about it. You might not agree with me, but you'll know what the fuck I'm talking about!
I like reading well-written reviews. When I was a lot younger I used to read reviews for stuff I knew I'd never see, read, or listen to. There is knowledge to be gained from a well-written review. Reading reviews has helped me to talk about movies, albums, etc. (Sadly, it hasn't translated to writing about music or movies.) I have no doubt that there are some good "amateur" reviewers out there doing some great stuff on the web. They deserve an audience. But when newspapers and magazines start dumping all their on-staff critics/reviewers they are essentially eliminating culture from their pages. And I mean "culture" in the only sense that matters or has any real meaning.
Cue the publicists...