Hot Topic: In Defense of the Professional Critic.

I was watching the Chicago Bears play against the Houston Texans last night when the team came upon a 4th and 1 situation; the ball was on the opponents’ 47-yard line and the crowd was screaming for Bears coach Lovie Smith to go for it on 4th down. Of course coach punted the football, but commentator Al Michaels made an interesting quote from legendary Chicago Bulls commentator Johnny Kerr:

"If a coach starts listening to fans, he winds up sitting next to them."

The Bears went on to lose but that quote kept on ringing in my head. Professional sports, like film, is a public entertainment. They both feature highly trained individuals executing a craft that is watched for enjoyment by large crowds who not only watch, but also critique the work of these individuals play-by-play. I remember once going to a Denver Bronco game and hearing fans heckle a wide receiver who dropped a pass.”You should’ve caught that,” one fan screamed, “my grandma could’ve caught that pass, and she’s dead!” Never mind that the wide receiver was backpedaling at full speed and had a 6’2” cornerback draped all over him, and it was 20 degrees outside and snowing. Having played football myself, I empathized with the player, although I was disappointed that he didn’t make the catch, because hey - I want my team to make all of their catches.

We live in a world that is saturated with access, where the public can critically review any given subject via message boards, forums, and review sites. Restaurants can be made or destroyed by customer reviews on Yelp, books can be vaulted into the stratosphere by Amazon reviews, and movies can be made or trashed on iMDB boards. The common thread to all these sites is that they contain reviews by the public, and not from professional critics. And in this, I’m beginning to see a quandary, because just like how I want my favorite football players to catch all the passes thrown at them, so too does the public place their immediate expectations upon the places they eat, the books and film they consume, and the places they frequent. It is these expectations which affects the quality of their reviews, and it is these immediate expectations that the professional critic tempers, because they’re experts in their medium and their barometer of quality is their own experience, education and informed taste.

It seems more and more commonplace that a lot of the things that the public adores - Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, McDonalds, Caribbean Cruises - are consistently trashed by professional critics. I’ve known for awhile now that just because something is popular, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good. I do try to read and watch what’s popular to get a feel of the zeitgeist, and I’m often shocked how appallingly bad most bestsellers and blockbuster films are. Take Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code as an example. It has to date done over $250 million in sales, spawned a major movie franchise, and was outsold only by J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It is, by all estimations, a major, major success. So I decided to read it, and after an hour I wanted to gouge my eyeballs out of my head after reading some of the worst writing I’d ever come across. I’m not a professional literary critic, but you don’t need to be when you come across writing like this:

"A voice spoke, chillingly close. "Do not move." On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars."

Voices don’t speak, people do. And frozen people cannot turn their head slowly because, well, they’re frozen. Silhouettes can’t stare. That’s just from the first lines of the book, which progressively went from crap to pure shit as I read it.

Leonardo deserves better.

But the public defenders of dreck like The DaVinci Code or Michael Bay’s Transformers movie franchise will espouse that these exist to purely entertain, and that’s what they see what most professional critics are forgetting when they trash films and books that are staggeringly popular. The “I want to shut my brain off and just enjoy something” mantra is what has driven many a mediocre book or film to stratospheric success, and I’ll be the first to say I too would love to escape in a book or film, and I’d say a majority of professional critics would love to as well. Not all critics want to sit through a two-hour incomprehensible tone poem about the Holocaust by Jean-Luc Godard, and I’d be willing to bet that they’d much rather spend those two hours watching a well-crafted comedy like Bridesmaids or Mean Girls. But the key here is well-crafted. The critic appreciates quality and knows just how hard it is to achieve, much like my empathy for the wide receiver who dropped a pass in a snowstorm. He makes that catch and I know it’s quality work, he drops it and I know it was a hard thing to do. (It’s a different story if he made no effort at all, which is a failure of expectation from a professional athlete and is worthy of criticism).

The public wants immediate expectations met, and the critic wants quality that lives up to expectations. There’s a huge difference. At a restaurant a diner wants something that tastes good and served efficiently without fuss. The critic also wants the same thing, but she also knows the pedigree of the chef, the history of the cuisine and what makes it special, and the proper way a restaurant should be run. Her judgement of the quality of the meal will be placed up against those parameters, and she’ll make a much more insightful and critical choice than someone who just wants a good meal.

But shouldn’t it be enough to just have a good meal? In the short term, yes. But in the long term, absolutely not. Art and dialogue persists through a constant pushing of the medium, and if the public embraces what is simply “good” as opposed to what is exceptional, or what is flawed but a bold new attempt - they will be spinning their wheels. And since the endgame for so much content, food and experience is to make money, producers of such will continue to feed the lowered expectations of the bigger public opinion.

It’s hard to write this and not sound like a pretentious blowhole. I hate a bad review from a critic as much as the next guy, but I also want criticism from people who know that field intimately, are madly passionate about film, and who want to see the medium reach the levels of their taste. Are they a reflection of the greater public opinion? Likely not. But they are there to give the public an opinion - an informed, reasoned opinion - about what they feel is the best or worst representation of that craft. And it’s ultimately up to us to use our judgement whether or not to pursue it.

Critics - and by critics I mean people who are good writers, who have studied their mediums and are passionate about them - are necessary for every field because they act as the filter to separate the bad from the good, and to support what is brave, unconventional and contributing to the medium. And of course critics can get it wrong - many a film has been critically panned and yet later been recognized as a maverick work. But I’d rather a trained critic get it wrong than my neighbor who hasn’t studied cinema for a single minute of his life get it wrong. That’s not to slam by neighbor - I’ll take a recommendation from him any time, but I won’t have him decide what is good or bad for the medium. And that’s what’s happening on the Internet right now. People are overriding the critics, and if writers, chefs, filmmakers and studios keep listening to the people, they’ll proverbially end up in the seats next to them. The barometer of quality should be driven by a balance of both - a critical gaffe can be saved through a supportive public, and a public misconception can be righted by a critical review.

Don’t trust the boxoffice and go see DREDD.

I think of the golden age of cinema - the 50s through the 70s - where films were put through the critical gauntlets of Cahiers Du Cinema and the likes of Pauline Kael, Serge Daney, Manny Farber, Gene Siskel, Andrew Sarris and Andre Bazin, and I can’t help but think that those critics made our medium better. They were critics that wanted to see cinema that not only entertained them, but that also challenged the medium with the intent of making it better, more expansive, and as a greater, deeply textured expression of the human condition. These critics were harsh, but only because they want quality and craft from the people who are the very best in their field. There isn’t a filmmaker, author or chef in the world who doesn’t want to please a tough critic, and when they do, they know that they’ve done something special, and that critic has pushed them to that limit. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and it only works when the public trusts its critics, and the critics are believed in by its craftspeople. And it’s more than okay to disagree with a critic - that’s what they’re there for - and that’s the healthiest thing that can happen for any art form, which is debate and discourse of what is working and what isn’t. It’s absolutely vital to progress, and it is the role of the critic to eloquently and rationally be the firestarter of that debate.

I want to leave you with one of the most beautifully written passages about criticism I’ve ever experienced. It is from Pixar’s Ratatouille, where food critic Anton Ego - voiced by Peter O’Toole - speaks of the responsibility and burden of the critic. It’s staggeringly gorgeous and relevant, and is arguably one of the greatest sequences in all of cinema. Of course that’s my critical opinion, and I’m sticking to it.


Faust Vs. Dälek

derbe respect, alder

Played 141 times

Music for the Weekend: T-Electronique by Faust vs. dälek.

A little German-inflected Krautrock / hip-hop by Lilith composers dälek, who collaborated with legendary industrial pioneers Faust to create one of the finest genre-bends in musical history. Seriously. The album’s that fucking good, and is one of the biggest reasons why I approached dälek to do the score for Lilith, which they absolutely killed.

I also chose the German theme to celebrate the release of one of my dear friend’s books, The Fifth Kraut by Jeff Kohmstedt. It’s a brilliant and earnest coming-of-age story about five teenagers growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1990s. While that sounds like The Breakfast Club (which is not such a bad thing at all), Jeff’s book avoids the cinematic cliches and delves into the choices we make in our teenage years that ultimately shape our adult lives. That these choices are made at a time when we are at our most confused and misshapen is all the more poignant, and is something we can all relate to. Me especially.

In this blog I’ve shared the process of creation of film, and I have to say I was equally blessed to be privy to Jeff’s journey of getting his first novel written and published. Like Lilith, the story of the creation of The Fifth Kraut is one filled with ambition, dedication, crushing defeat, and ultimately the commitment to make a dream become a reality. I’m so very proud of him, and any artist for that matter, who shows the determination and wherewithal to fight against the odds and turn imagination into action. The Fifth Kraut is a labor of love, and I hope it gets the recognition it deserves, and the exposure of Jeff’s exceptional writing talents to a wider audience. He’s inspired me to finish my own novel, which has been woefully sitting only 3/4 completed, waiting for the big wrap-up that lives in the recesses of my brain. I owe it to my story to finish it.

The Fifth Kraut is available here at Amazon, in both printed and Kindle formats. You can support Jeff on his novel’s Facebook page here.

As promised to Jeff, I avoided any pornographic images in this post, although dammit it was tempting. :) Have a great weekend!

Hot Topic: What Went Wrong With Wonder Woman.

Holy hell that’s an alliteration!

So call it a case of schadenfreude or whatever, but I felt the need to download and watch David E. Kelley’s preemptively canceled Wonder Woman pilot. My interest in the project is twofold given that a) I’m a huge fan of the Lynda Carter series and the subsequent kickass animated film, and b) that there’s been a large underground fan support for Julia Voth to be Wonder Woman. I think she’d be awesome for it, and even when we were doing the color correction, Patrick, the colorist, paused Lilith on a frame of Julia wearing glasses and said “I just have to say it, Julia simply is Wonder Woman.”

Julia in ‘Lilith.’ I see Sarah Wilson, Patrick sees Wonder Woman.

But thank the lord that Julia wasn’t in this pilot. Even in its unfinished state, Wonder Woman was an absolute car crash of different ideologies and goals. It seems to encapsulate Hollywood’s so-far failed attempts at “grrl power” aesthetics, i.e. the confident woman who kicks ass like a man but bleeds with the heart of a lady (with massive, heaving bosom). See Red Riding Hood, Tomb Raider or any reboot out these days and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Snow White with a shield, battle armor and sword? Uh, okay.

If we look at the original Wonder Woman created by William Marston, Diana of Themyscira was not just a symbol of female equality, she was actually a thesis that women were superior to men. Marston’s basis was that women could win wars with love, and not bloodshed. Diana was the perfect woman, blessed by the gods, and destined to be “beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, stronger than Hercules, and swifter than Mercury.”

Looking at the original Lynda Carter television series, despite its action hokeyness (an issue of execution rather than intent), they pretty much got the character spot on. Carter plays Diana with a deft sensitivity that is uniquely and solely female, and she was a real woman’s woman - curvy, alluring, and most importantly, emotionally flawed. Diana struggled with her responsibilities as a warrior queen, as a vigilante, and as a woman.

Nobody rocked a Diane Von Furstenburg wrap dress like Lynda Carter.

The DC animated movie ups the ante by maintaining the same physical and character traits, but irons out the hokey action with awesomely rendered fight scenes. In the animated series Diana lives up to her warrior status, kicking ass out of a sense of responsibility to protecting others. The series also plays up one of the most intriguing aspects of the character, which is that Diana, like Superman, is an alien to the human race. She is learning about human behavior and feelings, and unlike her Draconian existence in Themyscira with the Amazons, Diana is allowed to be a little selfish, to love on her own for her own desire.

Fast forward past the various attempts by Joss Whedon to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen (which I’m quite sure would have been awesome), and we arrive at David E. Kelley’s version. From the outset, things were off. We see Wonder Woman tracking down a thug in a crowed street, leaping cars with a wire-work silliness that only paid dividends in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Wires are for Wuxia, remember that motto always). Diana tackles the thug and forcibly takes a sample of his blood, kicking his beaten body to the feet of oncoming police officers. She’s all of a sudden become Batman, the ire of the police department and a vigilante with a chip on her shoulder.

We find out later as to why she has a chip on her shoulder, it’s because giant evil corporations are killing poor black kids in the hood who just want to go to college. Oh brother. Her burden, then, is apparently that she just can’t be everywhere to help everyone. That’s like the college application essay question that asks us to describe our greatest weakness, and some smartass overachiever writes "My greatest weakness is that I just work too hard and care too much."

Get a life.

Then shit gets weird. Kelley has Diana be the head of a giant corporation that makes money selling dolls in her own image (cue Malibu Stacy), and then, inexplicably, she goes home to a small apartment where she plays out every cliche of the modern, lonely single woman who lives with her cat and watches The Notebook over and over and over again, all while devouring a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Lonely Diana’s biggest problem is that she can’t set up her Facebook page. Seriously.

But when lonely Diana becomes Wonder Woman, a strange thing happens. She talks about her boobs being agents of persuasion (again, seriously) and she fucking kills people. Like murder. Sure, they’re bad guys, but still. Wonder Woman doesn’t murder people, she conquers with compassion. At least that’s what I thought.

This new interpretation of Wonder Woman is a heartless machine, something more similar to the Terminator than an Amazon Queen. Even the selection of Adrianne Palicki as Wonder Woman seems off - she’s no doubt a beautiful woman but her face is stone cold, almost shapeless, and her body over-inflated (her bustier clearly shows where her already generous bust ends and the padding begins). She’s not a woman, she’s a sketch of a woman, and through a male gaze no less. Kelley’s Diana is not flawed by her own desires to be free, but rather by a crippling insecurity that the world is moving on without her. She is only confident when she has her costume on or playing dress-up as a corporate executive, which is Psych 101 for a debilitating low self-esteem. But when Kelley’s Wonder Woman fights the bad guys, she has a carnal, almost sexualized bloodlust. You’d think as a guy I’d be turned on by that, but it’s actually kind of disturbing and creepy to watch.

So do all girls on film have to kick ass, nay, destroy, to be seen as confident and strong? Is this the precedent that Wonder Woman set for future heroines? I don’t think so. The Wonder Woman of today is a videogame fantasy, an avatar controlled by teenage-minded men, programmed to destroy like a man, but submit like the way they want their women to be. We’ve allowed feminism to be interpreted by men, which when that happens, will eventually always work in the man’s favor.

So who is Wonder Woman on film? Look at Meryl Streep’s performance as Julia Child in Julie & Julia. A woman working against the forces set up against her, a woman pursuing her dreams, acknowledging the support of her best friend - her husband - and achieving success and fulfillment on her own terms. Look at Sigourney Weaver in the Alien series - kicking serious ass, but not as a man would, which is to simply blow everything up, but as a woman would, with surgical precision and purpose. She’s deadly, alluring and compelling all at the same time.

Of course I’d be lying if I said Wonder Woman didn’t have a sexual element to her - she is wearing a bustier and booty shorts, for god’s sake. She is a definite Wonder from a physiological standpoint, but unlike the Kelley remake, she never uses her sexual allure as a weapon or tool of manipulation. In the comics and the earlier adaptations, she was simply beautiful, and not a seductress. We’ve now made Wonder Woman into a fetish, and she deserves better than that.

Now and then.