Friday, May 25, 2007

such times we live in

Over at The House Next Door, a link to a particularly sarcasm-laden review of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End led me to comment on the critic's behavior:
If you admit, up front, that you're bored and/or unimpressed with the spectacle, that you went in knowing it would suck, then I'm going to discount you and your review. Don't review PotC:AWE as if it's Bergman -- it's not pretending to be. It's supposed to be big, stupid fun, and I can't tell whether or not it succeeds at that because Lee's attitude is piss-poor from the minute he planted his seat in the theater. You can feel his resentment of this franchise, cluttering up his cineplexes, thwarting his desires that every screen be showing something more worthy.

Further down in the comment thread, we got into a discussion of critics and criticism in general. I've given a lot of thought to this, over several years, and here's how I think about it:
[O]rdinary people don't work as film critics [...] -- it's as simple as that. Your income is tied to your opinions, and your ability to express them, and therefore you're a member of an elite cadre, even if you're not willing to admit it. What percentage of the population do you think is made up of people who support themselves as critics? I'm sure its infinitesimal. Ordinary people go to work and make things (in this, factory workers are not so different from software engineers), or serve others, or a cause (waitresses, cabbies, CPAs, politicians).

But a critic exists only in symbiotic relationship with the industry he critiques, and whether or not he survives is entirely dependent on the goodwill of the audience, and to a certain extent, the industry itself. It's a perilous position, and to survive it you have to convince yourself that you are adding value, providing a service, doing something besides hitching a ride on the back of someone else's hard work. And that gives you an attitude[.]
I'm sure you've noticed how many critics -- not at all of them, but a lot -- can't help telling you how much smarter than everyone else they are? Not explicitly, usually, but they find ways to make sure you know it. That's the attitude I'm talking about. Even the ones that don't have a superior attitude have to believe, by definition, that their opinions are so valuable that a larger audience should read them.

Another commenter jumped all over me for calling critics parasites, and a whole host of other things -- I eventually gave it another try, because I don't think what I'm saying here is inaccurate in the least:
[I] see where criticism, as a whole, fits into society and the economy, what role it plays, and its relevance to the population at large.

In short: it's not all that important. Before you go getting all shirty with me again, think about it. In spite of how silly much of criticism is -- and you have to admit that there's a lot of useless cheer leading masquerading as criticism -- people can still make a living off it. It's awesome. It amazes me, really -- the same way I'm amazed when I get paid for a column. But even though one of my jobs is about the coolest thing I could ever hope to get paid for, I'm not about to start thinking that it has any significance in the grand scheme of things. We're living in an extremely prosperous time, and that allows many of us to get paid for stuff that no one would have dreamed of a couple of generations ago.

You can't seriously mean to argue that criticism exists independent of its target industries. I don't view critics as parasites (although some producers probably do); I used "symbiont" because constructive criticism is useful to target industries, as it shines light on the problems and praises what it gets right.

Am I really so wrong about this? How so?

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