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.

The Brothers Quay and my very first movie.

This weekend I was elated to read an article in the New York Times about filmmakers Steven and Timothy Quay (aka The Brothers Quay) making a movie about the temple of momento mori, the insanely macabre Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

I’m not sure if I mentioned it before in this blog, but the Brothers Quay are something truly special to me. I’ve written about movies and music that have had a profound impact on me, but none more than the seminal work of the Brothers Quay, their short film The Street of Crocodiles. While La Haine remains my favorite film of all time, it pales in its personal significance to the Quay film, in that Crocodiles inspired me to make my first ever movie.

The NYT article also reminded me that I had written extensively about the Quays a long time ago, and I dug up a post that I did almost five years ago on my now-defunct, non-film related MySpace blog (remember MySpace?), and I thought it would be worthwhile to re-post it here. (There are personal historical elements in the post that I’ve already written about in the Lilith blog, so if anything, I’m consistent! ;)).

Also at the bottom of the page is a link to Street of Crocodiles in its entirety.



Originally posted January 17, 2006

Gotta love technology. Below you will find the complete film of what I tell everyone is my favorite film of all time. It’s “The Street of Crocodiles” by the Brothers Quay.

There’s quite a story to my liking of this film, and this story is basically the telling of how I became a filmmaker. Read on, and you might find a parallel to how you too found your passion in life.

I first saw the film on public television in 1987 when I was 12, and it burned several vivid images in my brain, images that I could nary comprehend, but at that age I knew only one thing: that I liked those images very much. I didn’t see the film again for almost a year, not knowing what the title was or who had made it. But again, on public television, it aired again and this time I watched it with joy and scientific precision. I made sure to tape it, and I watched it over, and over, and over again. I made notes, drawings, schematics about every frame of the film, and I knew that someday I wanted to make a film like this. I had to.

We didn’t have a camera in the house, so my first attempts at animation came through making flip-books. I would spend almost all of my evenings after school drawing on note cards, drawing decrepit figures wandering in a world of decay and rot. I wish I saved those drawings, I spent so much time on them and they probably had a raw beauty to them that I could never possibly replicate today. Each flip book would provide me with about two to three seconds of footage, and I made a collection of them to give me about a twenty five second “film.” It was gratifying, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

I would spend weekends at the library in Aurora, Colorado reading up about stop motion animation and filmmaking. The Quays hadn’t achieved the cult status then that they have now, so there was no mention of their work or how they made films. There were, however, a couple of books on Eastern European animation, particularly the works of Jan Svankmeyer. There were a few works of Svankmeyer on VHS, but none of the libraries in Colorado stocked them. I did however find an old catalog in the library, a catalog to order films through the mail from a store called FACETS in Chicago. They claimed to have every film on Earth, although they didn’t have any of the Quay films so I held that comment quite suspect.

The Svankmeyer tape was very expensive for a kid in middle school, so I had to devise a way to get some money (without having to go through the embarrassment of asking my parents to buy me a tape of weird, semi-erotic Eastern European animation). As most Indian kids, I never had an allowance, but I did have one source of revenue- my lunch money. Mom would give me a dollar a day for lunch, and the tape was almost thirty dollars. So I skipped lunch for a month, and acquired my first ever foreign film. It took almost three weeks for the film to arrive in the mail, and I was excited beyond belief.

I watched the Svankmeyer tape in private, and it blew me away. It was so raw, so primal, so gross, and so completely enthralling. Like with the Quay film, I made notes upon notes upon notes. I started to write little scripts for films and comics that dealt with issues of death, of rebirth, and of rotten meat. Good thing my mother never read this stuff, she probably would have put a quick end to whatever fascinations I had with art!

And then the day came- my father bought a Panasonic video camera, and he managed to use it all but once, and it was starting to gather dust in the corner. I confiscated the camera and set up a little studio in the basement of my house, where I built small sets and used the one light that the camera came with to light my scenes. I tried my best to build puppet armatures out of wire and garbage, but it just wasn’t happening- I couldn’t make the armatures stand up. So i needed my actor, and lo and behold I found an old Mickey Mouse doll that had almost 12 points of articulation. It was robust, it could stand in various positions without falling over, and it was perfect but for one thing- it looked like Mickey Mouse.

So I transformed him. I gave Mickey dead eyes and stripped him of his robes- he was a black, almost unrecognizable creature and he had quite a journey ahead of him. My casting was complete.

There was one problem with using a video camera for stop motion animation, and that was that the shortest shot you could take was a one second shot (done by tapping the red record button like a maniac to ensure the fastest start/ stop time). I had made the understanding that good quality animation was done at 24-frames per second, and here I was working at a pitiful 1-frame per second. After much trial and error, i devised a plan to alleviate this, if just a little.

I dug up our old VCR and ran it into our new one, so to make a dubbed copy. The quality was good, and the older VCRs had a limitation in that if you pressed fast-forward during the dub, it would record in fast forward. It was a technical glitch for the technology, but it served me very well. So I went ahead and shot my movie in 24-frames per 24 seconds (over a one month period where I would move Mickey’s arms and legs bit by bit, shot by shot), and complied all of my footage on one tape (the movie was edited in camera, I wouldn’t figure out how to use the 2-VCR system for editing until later). I would then dub my footage onto a new tape, but while pressing the fast-forward button on the source VCR. This bumped up my frame rate from one frame per second to about eight frames per second. There were distortion lines from the FF funtion, but I could live with that, because in that moment, Mickey came to life. I had given movement to that which was dead and immovable. It was a landmark moment of my life.

Using the dub system, I was also able to put in music directly on the tape, and my music of choice was “Stigmata” by Ministry (I was a twisted child by every means).

And so I had made my version of “Street of Crocodiles,” and while it was shit in comparison, I was hooked. For life. It wasn’t later until college that I made a second attempt at the Brothers Quay, where I made an 8mm film called “Haus Der Luge (House of Lies)” for a beginning filmmaking class that I took pass/ fail. The intro title card of the film had, in small letters, “apologies to the Brothers Quay.” The film was the closest thing to “Street of Crocodiles” I had made, and I sent it to the Denver Underground Film Festival, and it won 3rd place. I still have ‘Haus’ on tape, but unfortunately the Mickey movie was recorded over, as it was imperative that I had to tape the Denver Broncos’ playoff run to the Super Bowl, in which they got their asses kicked. It is gone, forever.

And maybe that’s why I had to write this long, exhaustive entry. Because it’s the only record of my first movie I ever made. It lives in my head only, but it’s still the most important piece of art that I’ve ever made and ever will make. It’s my treasure.

And I owe it all to public television. Enjoy the film below, and I hope you see the magic in it that I first saw so long ago.

Streets of Crocodiles

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