In 1977, after two decades of ardent and involved devotion to the cinema, I attended a screening of the original Star Wars movie drawn there against all my best instincts by the phenomena of the huge adult crowds lining up at the box office to see this putative kiddie flick, and by the largely positive reviews from certain film reviewers who ordinarily would dismiss such a movie almost out of hand. An hour or so after it began I left the movie theater mid-show disgusted and angered so simpleminded and cartoonish were the story and dopey dialogue, the high-school-production acting Alec Guinness's performance excepted (what in God's name was Guinness doing in such a movie(!)?), and the special effects which looked as if they were lifted from some video game, and with but two exceptions (Schindler's List, and the showing of a print of the newly restored Lawrence of Arabia), haven't entered a movie theater since as I sensed that this movie and its enthusiastic reception by adults and professional film reviewers marked the beginning of the end for serious cinema in America and the beginning of a blockbuster mentality among filmmakers that's incompatible with the creation of works of cinematic art.And with the single and singular exception of the aforementioned 2005 experience, so has it remained to this day. There is today an ancillary experience: We cannot today find so much as a single movie reviewer (forget about critic), online or in print, in whose writings we can place any aesthetic trust, or who writes with the panache, eloquence, grace, and intelligence of film reviewers and critics of days past. Gone are the likes of Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Bosley Crowther, and John Simon. (Mr. Simon is still alive but no longer regularly reviews movies in print. He does, however, have an online blog — Uncensored John Simon — but which blog is, unhappily, not devoted to reviewing anything.) Much of the blame for the debased quality of today's critical writing on movies can be laid squarely at the feet of TV's Dynamic Duo, the late Gene Siskel and his late partner in crime Roger Ebert, the modern-day originators of the thumbs-up-thumbs-down school of movie reviewing. One can readily understand the appeal of such reviews both for reviewers and their audiences. They're relatively easy and quick to write, and for their audiences, infinitely easier to assimilate and understand than are the deeper-thought-out, more deeply examined and researched criticism of the best movie reviewers and critics of yesteryear. But that's hardly a justification of the practice. Merely an attempt at a partial explanation, superficial and true though it may be. Oh!, where have all today's true movie reviewers and critics gone? Are they all hibernating, awaiting a more propitious cultural time to make their reappearance? Or is it the case that the species has simply outlived its appeal and usefulness and consequently gone irretrievably extinct? O tempora! O mores!
The new [Met] Ring, I loved it, in the Met and in HD. The sets were fantastic, and elastic. The singing was very good as well. So why exactly are so many against it?To which we replied:
Because it ended up being a Robert Lepage spectacular (actually, a spectacular that failed as a spectacular; but that's quite beside the point) with Wagner's music serving as sound track and Wagner's drama given only lip service. Mr. Lepage's focus seemed to be on what he could get Le Machine to do that would result in some visually arresting effect for its own sake at any particular moment rather than on how the capabilities of the contraption could best be exploited to support, express, or frame the drama moment by moment from work's beginning to end. It's a tail-wagging-the-dog approach that's all but guaranteed to result in shallow (at least attempted) coups de théâtre pretty much every time, precisely as it did in this production.After a repeat viewing of the Met's HD film of the tetralogy (via our HD DVR recordings of the HD PBS telecasts), we saw nothing to alter that opinion. For our comments on each of the music-dramas as telecast, you might want to consult the following S&F entries: Das Rheingold
While I take your point (and it's a reasonable one), saying we ought to accept the lesser of two evils with some measure of gratitude is hardly an answer to the problem. The Lepage staging of the Ring is in every way unacceptable, especially for a company with the prestige and stature of the Met. And what makes it unacceptable is NOT fixable except by doing away with it altogether as it's flawed conceptually. The Lepage staging centrally features Le Machine as the looming, hulking, impotently conspicuous star of the show as it could not otherwise be, and that's utterly and fundamentally perverse. And when I say the staging must be done away with altogether, I mean doing away with both Lepage and his humongous, dead-weight, ill-conceived, Frankenstein contraption to which contraption he's devoted entirely. The ONLY way such a contraption could justify itself is if it were capable of becoming THE ENTIRE STAGE ITSELF, perfectly plastic and malleable, and by so doing become invisible or transparent as a contraption. That's nowhere in the cards with Le Machine, either technically or practically; ergo, it has to go, along with its creator who cares infinitely more for it than for Wagner's great work which work both he and it were supposed to serve.And so it goes.
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these [professional] critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically — which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period. [...] And so the fact is that (to invoke the popular saying) everyone is not a critic. This, in the end, may be the crux of the problem, and may help explain the unusual degree of violence in the reaction to the stridently negative reviews that appeared in the Times Book Review earlier this summer, triggering the heated debate about critics. In an essay about phony memoirs that I wrote a few years ago, I argued that great anger expressed against authors and publishers when traditionally published memoirs turn out to be phony was a kind of cultural displacement: what has made us all anxious about truth and accuracy in personal narrative is not so much the published memoirs that turn out to be false or exaggerated, which has often been the case, historically, but rather the unprecedented explosion of personal writing (and inaccuracy and falsehood) online, in Web sites and blogs and anonymous commentary—forums where there are no editors and fact-checkers and publishers to point an accusing finger at. Similarly, I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put. When, after hearing about them, I first read the reviews of Peck’s and Ohlin’s works, I had to laugh. Even the worst of the disparagements wielded by the reviewers in question paled in comparison to the groundless vituperation and ad hominem abuse you regularly encounter in Amazon.com reviews or the “comments” sections of literary publications. Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.RTWT here.