Carson and Barnes Circus, in the 1960s

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Morning with Showbiz David: What Value the Critic? A Mere Exercise in Ego?

A review is a very personal expression. Should be, otherwise it is as anonymous and bland as a corporate report, the synthetical product of group-think or a recycled press release. The idea of forming a composite of what a range of experts or consumers believe (similar to holding one’s fickle finger up to the wind) betrays the reality of an individual reaction, and forms an artificial construct.

Film critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times once wrote about how he agonized over a negative notice he had composed for the movie Titanic, because a storm of critical acclaim had embraced it. Turan finally realized he had to go with his gut; there was no other way short of selling out to popular sentiment. To be a critic is to tread a lonely path, but it is the only authentic path to take. The moment you betray the truth of your reactive emotions is the moment you have lost your way.

If you are honest with your feelings about any work of art, “objectivity” is the conscious exercise of forcing yourself to focus on the work itself rather than on the producer, the director, the performer, about whom you may harbor ill will or adoration.

Our reactions to any and all elements are subjective. For example, consider the comedy bike rider Justin Case in Boom A Ring: I found his running monologue very amusing and so I gave him the highest marks, judging him worthy of Monte Carlo Gold. Another person, simply unamused, would likely issue a lower mark.

Justin Case also provided a circus through-line for me that actually worked. So did the straight-ahead Boom A Ring score. Both helped give the show a strong structure. Conversely, at the Big Apple Circus, I found the music, itself the star of this year's opus, to be ironically disjointed, and so that impacted on my overall score. Others who relished it from start to finish would naturally have given the show higher marks. Who is right? Nobody. We only have opinions to offer.

Everything in our makeup (desires, fears, affinities and aversions, life experiences, artistic preferences) that we bring to an artistic work is perhaps as defining as what the work brings to us. Which is why a film you might have dismissed at a certain age may, at a later age, engage you in surprising ways. You have changed; the film did not. Antonioni’s The Passenger moves me because, I suppose, it speaks to an existential sense of life deep in my soul. I know people who find it boring. The best we can do is to explain why we are moved -- or left unimpressed.

Is a review useless? Yes, to everyone except to those for whom it entertains or stimulates, amuses or informs or challenges. Indeed, to be engaged by a provocative point of view may cause you to reexamine your own. When a review totally agrees with your own reaction, you will feel happily reassured, but would you wish every review to affect you in this way? You would soon become skeptical. We are each too infinitely different to ever allow for such a curiously predictable outcome.

Can a review be instructive? Rodgers and Hammerstein acknowledged how Boston theatre critic Elliot Norton, when reviewing a new musical of theirs in out-of-town tryouts, would sometimes prove valuable in helping them figure out and solve scripting problems. And all of it from the notice Mr. Norton filed. Sometimes Hammerstein would engage in correspondence with critics.

To be a critic is an act of ego and conviction, and to that I plead guilty. It is to campaign for your values, hoping you will influence someone, same as what a philosopher or author, teacher or poet or preacher or columnist does.

We often trash critics, yet we wait to see what they have to say. Why? I suppose because we are drawn to the idea that an “expert” is better qualified to evaluate something than our friends or relatives, even though, in truth, anybody can write a review. All they need is an opinion and the ability to express it. Oh, yes, and a little working courage.

More about theory on some Sunday up ahead.

[photo by Boyi Yuan]

7/26/09

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