Friday, November 27, 2015

On criticism…

I thought this was a thoughtful post by Devin Faraci over at birthmoviesdeath.

It was sparked by an article Jesse Eisenberg wrote over at the New Yorker, in which he satirizes film critics.

Film critics in general got their knickers in a knot over it, as is their wont, and wrote snarky responses.

Faraci makes note of this, then muses on what it is to be a critic:

"…How many times do you think you've generalized actors/acting in your career as a critic? And how many times do you think you have been profoundly wrong about the actors about whom you're writing? I bet a lot, and I bet that very few film critics have been trained as actors or had any real experience as actors. I bet very few have even been on a film set. Maybe some have made a short in film school, but that's like saying your canoeing trip lets you understand how the captain of a Navy destroyer does his job…

And this is true. It's something I've thought about since I started reviewing films and television shows for my piddly little echo chamber -- I mean blog. I'm keenly aware that there's a lot going on behind the scenes in television and film (akin to chickens running around with their heads cut off), most of which I'm entirely unaware of.

Feeling entitled to being entertained at the cinema, I criticize.

And yet I know my complaints can be unfair, and lack appreciation for the pressure creators are under, which is enormous.

Working in film and television is tough, and audiences are more ornery than ever.

Take the recent article by Steven Moffat about the difficulties he faced making the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who, or the recent video in which Peter Jackson is very candid about how messed up making The Hobbit movies was. As noted over at slashfilm:

“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” Jackson admits. He recalls having to call for extended lunch hours just so he could figure out how to approach a scene. Compare this to the literal years of pre-production he had on The Lord of the Rings.

I didn't like The Hobbit films, but I admire Peter Jackson for soldiering through it, knowing how it would impact his reputation. There were jobs and livelihoods depending on him.

Some franchises are so 'beloved' that dedicated fans will issue death threats against the creative team.

Moffat writes in the Radio Times:

I don’t think I’ve ever worked on anything that was as difficult, terrifying and as much of a responsibility as writing the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who. I wanted everybody to love it. I knew that was impossible, but I wanted people – from those who had never seen it, to the absolute diehard fans who hate every episode I’ve written – to love it. So it was monstrously stressful and very hard: the uncastable cast, the impossible brief, the unwritable script...

I can remember sitting with my wife saying, “I can’t tell if it’s good any more, it could be rubbish – I’ll have to leave the country. I’ll have to fake my own death.” And then going for a meeting with the producers the week I was meant to hand the script in, and we were still trying to assemble the cast. We all just sat there, thinking, “This is impossible, this can’t ever work!”

Who needs the hassle? Obviously the positives outweigh the negatives or they'd have left the field long ago. Something keeps Jackson and others doggedly plugging away, offering up their creations to a fickle and ornery audience.

When Eisenberg directed barbs back at the critics, they didn't respond with grace.

Devin Faraci:

"But there's one other thing to consider: if you can dish it out, learn to take it. I struggle with this a lot; the nature of my opinions and writing seem to give offense on the regular, and that leads to people lashing out at me… 

As critics we're saying a lot of shit into the abyss, and while it doesn't feel personal from where we stand, it can be taken as personal… 

I can get a hundred nice comments about something, but I will always fixate on the nasty ones, due to whatever is broken inside of me. I suspect that a lot of people in the arts are similar - the same thing that makes you want to put yourself and your performance/thoughts out there is the same thing that makes you truly feel the slightest negative feedback.

So we're dishing it out, every single day, every single movie we see. All the time. And sometimes somebody hits back, whether it be Eisenberg in The New Yorker or Innaritu in Birdman, and the true test of us as people and professionals is how we deal with it."

I find it harder to criticize now that I'm trying to create. It expanded my perspective. I'd like to laud the positive, and yet, paradoxically, it's the stuff I really don't like that compels me to write commentary.

Even a Uwe Boll movie is an accomplishment.

I don't think I could do what he does.

It's basically like running a small military campaign.

I appreciate his work, but not his product.

C'est la vie.


  1. I worked in the Art Dept for a season of a TV show. After that, Art Dept special odd jobs and one-shot needs in a movie.

    Making films (movie and TV) is an insane blend of business venture, military campaign and religious cult. The pressures and decisions and metaphorical ball-juggling is nutty. It's been my comparison that a film project has all the stress, and joys, the highs and the lows of five years on any normal job - only condensed into five frenetic months.

    After that, I decided that this career stream was not for me.

    I still don't understand how they do it. Many movies have satirized the dozens of negotiations a minute that happen from pitch to opening day. I don't understand how that many minds can work on a film and have something come out horribly bad. Or incredibly good. By logic, that many "cooks working on the broth" should pretty much always produce an insipid sort of muck.

    Regardless, of course we're allowed to criticize the final product. Restaurant kitchens (from McDonalds to a five star trendoid palace) are organized chaos as well, but if the waiter puts a plate of "Botulism Surprise" in front of me, I will complain and critique.

    The thing I've learned in art classes and writing groups is HOW to critique. One is not allowed to "tear the guy a new one". Positive phrasing and careful wording. Don't be a dick. It's called "diplomacy".

    At the risk of getting too bunnies and rainbows, give constructive criticism where needed, but don't forget to praise where it's deserved. Have you ever phoned a fast food joint and thanked them for a crackerjack customer service effort? I have a couple of times. It's funny and sad how the manager trips over their tongue. The corporate binder has all sorts of pages on dealing with irate customers. I don't think they have any guidelines for compliments.

  2. Interesting stuff, Murray. What a crazy business!