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KevinNikkel

Responsibilities: critic-curator-audience-filmmaker

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I mentioned in a discussion after the critic's roundtable at Flickerings my concern that critics too often overlook the inter-related obligations of their role with others in the "square" of cinema. (Note: Credit for the square idea goes to Bevan Klassen, director of "Wildlands" at this year's Flickerins)

The square is made of:

-filmmakers (directors, and all cast/crew)

-film critics

-venue curators

-audience

It seems to me that each of these groups need each other, but are also some how obliged to the other. This get complex, expecially when discussing the "narccistic" nature of expression. We are individuals yes, but we also exist in community. We must offer our ideas in the context of relationship.

At a minimum a filmmaker needs to respect the relationship with his/her characters and with his/her audience (a starting point for this idea would be Flickerings dogma rule 9 relates well here: "...neither the characters nor the audience are to be manipulated and/or disrespected for the sake of communicating a "message"."). I also believe the critic ought to be more aware of the filmmaker; perhaps this means avoiding a complete separation of the film from the filmmaker. Too many film reviews seem to review the film as a separate entity, devoid of its creator. Films are made by people (teams of people actually...).

Perhaps more filmmakers need to respect their audience in how they use the craft. Likewise, critics need to respect the other members of the square (filmmakers are a part of the audience... curators being another. I am a currator of a local short-film venue and am at times frustrated at the lack of concern given by critics to small events. If it isn't a Hollywood franchise that has a long run in a huge theatre it is not worth reviewing.)

The curator has a tough job. He/she has to keep making it at the box office, pick films people want to watch, pick films people need to watch, and pick films by new filmmakers to help foster growth. Conversations with a local art house cinema programmer has left me heartened that he is trying to squeeze in independent films so the exposure increases the chances that a filmmaker has the opportunity to make a second and third film.

I haven't mentioned the audience yet, but I think that more can be expected from that end too.

Kevin

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KevinNikkel wrote:

: I haven't mentioned the audience yet, but I think that more can be

: expected from that end too.

Absolutely. I have been saying this for years, and it's one of the reasons Michael Medved's approach to this whole issue ticks me off so much -- he more or less assumes that the audience is never wrong, and that the studios should cater more and more to what he thinks are the wishes and desires of the good, wholesome, American audience. (He is, of course, entirely uninterested in what audiences in other countries might want to see.) It never occurs to him that the American audience might have warped desires -- even though these warped desires may be partly due to the influence of the studios and the marketing systems that he so decries! -- or that the relationship between artist and audience is at least a two-way street, and that the audience may have some improving to do, just as the artists do.

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I mentioned in a discussion after the critic's roundtable at Flickerings my concern that critics too often overlook the inter-related obligations of their role with others in the "square" of cinema. ...

The square is made of:

-filmmakers (directors, and all cast/crew)

-film critics

-venue curators

-audience

...

I don't make movies, I make live theatre, but perhaps a (hopefully restrained) note or two on this topic may be germane.

If substantially more respect could be introduced into the relationship between artists and critics, that would be a healthy thing, but it is probably also inevitable that this will never be the case, at least the way things are in our consumer-minded and generally negative and glib culture.

My respect for critics has reached an all-time low, to the point where I do not bother reading anything the local press writes about my work. Having invested quite literally hundreds of hours in preparing the work, and being part of a production community that has invested literally thousands of hours in the work, how am I to respect the superficial opinionations of a critic spends two hours giving a quick once-over to the culmination of all this - indeed, rarely paying the work the respect of actually watching it with their full attention, but instead sitting detached with a notebook on their lap, forming their premature opinions on the fly, jotting clevernesses and watching for pull-quotes) and then firing off some (at worst) glib, ill-informed and wrong-headed superficialities.

Undoubtedly there is a certain amount of self-preservation, even vanity, in my aversion to public criticism. But it feels more like this: as a theatre artist, I approach a new script with respect. My job is to honour it, to work from the assumption that there is value in this work that I'm going to help incarnate, that maybe it knows more than I do about some aspect of human experience, and I'm there to learn, and ultimately to do all I can to realize that vision (to "realize" both in terms of personally coming to understand, and in the sense of making it "real" on stage for an audience, whom I also respect). There is something sacred about the work the playwright has done, and while his product isn't perfect (nothing on this planet is), it is worthy of my submission to it, my honouring of it with my close and humble attention. I become a student of the play before I can become an interpreter of it. I don't have the luxury of superficially dismissing the elements I don't like: particularly as an actor, I can only assume that my understanding is incomplete, that I have a personal barrier that's blocking me from fulfilling the playwright's intention, or perhaps even potentials in the work that go beyond what the writer even knew she was writing. I bring to bear on this process the all the skills, insight, experience and soul I can muster: everything that's been accumulated in several years of training, a couple decades of practising my craft, and indeed four and a half years of life on this planet. And I do this under the exacting discipline of a director, in the company of other actors, and in partnership with designers and technical artists all of whom are bringing (ideally) the same degree of commitment, honour, skill and energy to the process.

Having given my all to this process of honouring, studying, entering in to the work, taking an attitude of a servant, a student, a creative partner over the period of weeks or even months, I almost inevitably find the knee-jerk jottings of reviewers to be shallow, disrespectful, bad-hearted, lacking not only in insight but even more in heart, integrity, and humility. I don't think most critic have any idea how bone-headed they appear to most artists.

I also don't think they properly regard the power they wield. To read even the most palpably stupid comment in print in a newspaper being simultaneously digested by tens of thousands of other people gives that comment immense power, weight, capacity to damage. I believe that, like teachers, critics will be judged even more stringently for their utterances than will the ordinary person: they wield a sharp and deadly weapon, and when they flail about like eleven-year-old boys with a plastic sword they can do terrible damage. Woe to those who can't resist the easy, clever mockery and in indulging it do damage to someone who was about the Lord's work, creating in His image and likeness.

Of course many who create plays, movies, art, entertainment aren't pursuing a holy calling - though many are without being aware. Perhaps especially in the world of commercial movies, there are plenty of shabby craftsmen, calculating audience manipulators, shallow pretty people, movers and shakers drawn to the art form by greed, vanity and power rather than any divine calling.

Film makers wield significant power, and like all who dance with that particular devil, must recognize power's tendency to corrupt - and of course I'm speaking here of the likelihood that THEY will be corrupted by the power they wield, rather than the power they hold to corrupt others.

Film critics need also recognize that they also wield power, if only because their words are printed in black and white and read by many people, and that that power similarly endangers their souls. We all have an impulse to be gods, or at least to be prophets and speak the truths of the gods to rapt audiences. But we are not gods. And if we claim to speak for God (which we do, more or less, whenever we claim to speak The Truth), we place ourselves constantly in danger of being false prophets, vainly using God's name to add weight to our own words.

Surely the sheer quantity of crap that must be imbibed by ANY regular theatre-goer, and all the moreso in the case of the professional reviewer, will almost inevitably engender a certain cynicism, a certain guardedness, a certain jaded self-protection . But any critic who loves the art form or cares about the health of their soul would be well advised to recognize this as a terrible danger, a vocational hazard they absolutely must guard against or else inevitably fail their vocation, their readership, and certainly the artists and the art itself. "If a man loses his reverence for any part of life, he will lose his reverence for all of life."

To sum up my critique of critics, I would say that most criticism I read is shallow, unperceptive, arrogant and very taken with itself. Rarely do I see a critic who brings to their task anything like the humility and submission, the training and simple perceptive ability, or the investment of time and attention that the work deserves. When you write about a work of art, know that the artist is reading it, and that they may very well know the specific work work (and perhaps the craft in general) far better than you. In judging, you are being judged. Be very grateful that no one pays artists to review the reviewers.

(There is one local critic who brings to his work a respect and passion for the art form, as well as a high degree of perceptiveness and significant artistic knowledge and experience. He has my respect, which perhaps he has earned as much by the fact of our shared respect for the craft as by any other factor. But the reality is, at this point in my artistic and spiritual life, I'm no more willing to read his reviews than those of the more bone-headed: indeed, the very fact of the respect I hold for him renders his sword just that much sharper and more deadly, and a chance comment, rendered persuasively and published for tens of thousands of readers, has just that much more power to rob me of the joy and motivation I need to carry on doing my work, year after year. I worried for a time whether I was risking damaging my growth as an artist by cutting myself off from criticism: would I grow as an artist if I never heard the more difficult truths about my failings in the work? But I have plenty of critics, involved themselves in shaping the work: if you've never been directed by a gifted director, or worked alongside amazing actors, you may not know what exacting standards an actor is submitted to in the very process of creating. I also never shirked from the pointed criticism inherent in my actor training: literally years of being closely scrutinized and rigorously challenged in the areas of my weaknesses and easy habits. But this feels different. It is one thing to be criticized to your face by someone in relationship, who has an inherent belief in your potential and the possibility that you will grow, who is working toward the same end, that of excellence. It is quite another to be subjected to unanswerable public correction from a not-entirely-trustworthy source. Even the critic I have just praised will occasionally play to the crowd, fail to resist the devastating witticism that is more entertaining than accurate (and certainly more entertaining than edifying), or be blinded by his own subjective issues to the real value of something. As a matter of fact, I have concluded that I would like to know what this critic thinks of my work, even when his opinion is negative: but I'm going to seek that input in person, face to face, so that I can query him about what he really means, rather than what I fear he means in the limited space he's allotted in the newspaper. So that he will in turn be answerable to me for the opinions he offers: quite simply, if he has something negative to say about my work, he'll need to have the guts to say it to my face. Which, in his case, I know he will.)

Enough. Clearly, some of these ruminations will have no relation to the question of writing movie reviews: for example, I doubt whether Lars von Triers has any desire to have us all line up outside his hotel room and take turns sharing our insights into his latest work, one on one. But if any of these comments from someone working in a related art form stir anything in you with respect to the potentially holy (but often debased) task of film criticism, I'll be glad.

Ron

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Ron wrote:

: Having invested quite literally hundreds of hours in preparing the work,

: and being part of a production community that has invested literally

: thousands of hours in the work, how am I to respect the superficial

: opinionations of a critic spends two hours giving a quick once-over to the

: culmination of all this - indeed, rarely paying the work the respect of

: actually watching it with their full attention, but instead sitting detached

: with a notebook on their lap, forming their premature opinions on the fly,

: jotting clevernesses and watching for pull-quotes) and then firing off

: some (at worst) glib, ill-informed and wrong-headed superficialities.

Heh. I forget the exact percentages, but reading this, I was reminded of Chuck Jones's remark that making a cartoon was something like 5% love and 95% hard work, and once you're done, only the love should show. The trick of the artist is, in a sense, to make himself, or at least his work, invisible. And since the last movie I saw was Bad Boys II, and since I dashed off some quick, glib, superficial opinionations about the film last night, I wonder if the makers of that film might say, as you do, that I have not recognized all the hard work that they put into the film. But in fact, it is PRECISELY because all I saw was the hard work that the film rang so hollow to me.

I suspect I may be verging on a tangent that has little to do with the point you were making. Anyway. FWIW, I suspect it is easier to form opinions that are not-so-superficial in theatre than it is in film, since many of the plays you put on have been published and written about and studied for years, and indeed, the critic may have seen earlier productions of them, too -- whereas most films are basically original creations, and even so-called re-makes tend to be very different from the originals (Gus van Sant's Psycho aside). So the critics has much less time to process the written part of the film than the written part of the play. And as for the notebook thing, most critics don't have the time or opportunity to see plays or films TWICE before they write their reviews, so they need to make little reminders for themselves -- I don't think they are necessarily pre-determining the opinion that they will form once they have seen the completed play or film.

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Heh. I forget the exact percentages, but reading this, I was reminded of Chuck Jones's remark that making a cartoon was something like 5% love and 95% hard work, and once you're done, only the love should show.

Very nice quote, PTC.

The trick of the artist is, in a sense, to make himself, or at least his work, invisible.

Oh, I completely agree.

And since the last movie I saw was Bad Boys II, and since I dashed off some quick, glib, superficial opinionations about the film last night, I wonder if the makers of that film might say, as you do, that I have not recognized all the hard work that they put into the film.

My point wasn't (mostly) that people should be obliged to appreciate my (or someone else's) artistry simply because I've put so much time into it. What I was going after was the idea that both the reviewer and the artist have the job of relating the to play itself, the script/story as a creative enterprise to be considered more or less separate from my performance in it. And that, after spending weeks and weeks immersed in the playwright's creation, trying to appreciate every implication and master every nuance of this sub-creation, an actor or director can find the off-the-top-of-the-head potshots of a once-over-lightly critic, well, hollow. Superficial.

To put it another way: you guys are at a disadvantage. If you want to win our respect (increased mutual respect being something, I think, that would benefit not only the critics and the criticiezed but also the art form AND the audiences), do your homework, and bring to the theatre a humility and willingness to learn that behooves not only critics but also artists and other audience members. When there may be more to a work than you were able to grasp in a deadline-driven single viewing, just keep that in mind, and acknowledge (even in the body of the review itself) that there may be more there than has yet met your eye.

And as for the notebook thing, most critics don't have the time or opportunity to see plays or films TWICE before they write their reviews, so they need to make little reminders for themselves -- I don't think they are necessarily pre-determining the opinion that they will form once they have seen the completed play or film.

Truly, this technique/tool is necessary: I guess I'd just suggest that it can be done well or badly, and done badly can unfairly skew the reviewer's perception. Certainly a skilled critic must have the ability to note specifics on the fly without pulling out of the movie (or play) and prematurely adopting an inappropriately cerebral, detatched, "critical" stance. I guess I merely want to observe that some critics allow the notepad on the knee to subvert the very endeavour they're involved in: trying to receive the play as a play, to let it work its magic (assuming it has any to work).

As for the "no time to see it twice" thing, I really think that's a problem. A symptom of our too fast, non-reflective age: a destructive consequence of the need for media to report instantly on everything, a culture of sound bites, knee jerk reaction and the Reign of Uninformed Subjectivity. Something I really respect about your approach to films, Peter, is the recognition that there's great value in second (and third, and fifth) viewings: if I'm right, you won't add a film to your end-of-the-year Top Ten list if you haven't viewed it more than once?

I've always admired Eric Bentley, who simply refused to write a review after a single viewing of a play: he insisted on seeing it once "sans notepad," to give himself over to the experience of the work, to attend to it completely without pulling out to analyze; then a second time, after reflection and conversation, notebook in hand, to really look at how the thing did what it did (or why it failed to do what it wanted to do, or whatever). That's integrity.

Of course, there are plenty of movies (and, dare I admit, plays?) which simply don't merit a second viewing. Fine. But it's also worth noting that there are plenty that do, and a modicum of respect for the art form would suggest certain reforms to the way critics (and their taskmasters) go about the business of responding publicly to such works.

One of the great things about this discussion board we're part of here is that many of you engage in real attentive conversation with others before drafting your final reviews. Good on you! Just as an unexamined life is not worth living, an unexamined opinion is not worth publishing.

Ron

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Ron wrote:

: My point wasn't (mostly) that people should be obliged to appreciate my

: (or someone else's) artistry simply because I've put so much time into it.

Heh. I am reminded of a seminar of Ken Eisner's that I attended, wherein he observed, disapprovingly, that many people tend to approach films from a "work ethic" point of view -- "They're just so happy the film GOT MADE, they think it HAS to be a good film!" (This is the only reason I can imagine that Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, for example, got as much praise as it did -- I'm actually thinking of a former member of your theatre company who told me he liked the film just because it was so rare to see a four-hour play committed to film, as though the sheer size of the task somehow compensated for all the flaws one might find in that film -- whereas to me, the sheer size of the task was, itself, just part of the sheer bombasticness of the film -- but I digress.)

: And that, after spending weeks and weeks immersed in the playwright's

: creation, trying to appreciate every implication and master every nuance

: of this sub-creation, an actor or director can find the off-the-top-of-the-

: head potshots of a once-over-lightly critic, well, hollow. Superficial.

I can appreciate that, sure. I can also appreciate that people who aren't so close to the material are sometimes better able to have a more, um, objective view of how well it all comes across.

: As for the "no time to see it twice" thing, I really think that's a problem.

: A symptom of our too fast, non-reflective age: a destructive

: consequence of the need for media to report instantly on everything . . .

Oh, but you WANT the media to report "on everything". If the Vancouver Sun or the Georgia Straight had to tighten their belts and report on only a few plays, do you think they would cover smaller venues like Pacific Theatre? Or would they prioritize the bigger venues like the Vancouver Playhouse and, I dunno, the Stanley? Likewise with film -- a lot, lot more people want to read about The Matrix Reloaded than Raising Victor Vargas, so that is where the press is going to go, even though I think the latter film was a far more rewarding viewing experience than the former and would certainly benefit a great deal more from getting some attention in the press. And as for the reporting things "instantly" bit, how long does a typical theatre production stick around, anyway?

: Something I really respect about your approach to films, Peter, is the

: recognition that there's great value in second (and third, and fifth)

: viewings: if I'm right, you won't add a film to your end-of-the-year Top

: Ten list if you haven't viewed it more than once?

Actually, I do count films that I have seen only once, but I often feel the need to apologize for this, usually by quoting C.S. Lewis's words to the effect that no book was any good to him until he had read it twice (but there were still some books that prompted him to write "NEVER AGAIN!" on the front page after he'd finished reading them once!).

: I've always admired Eric Bentley, who simply refused to write a review

: after a single viewing of a play: he insisted on seeing it once "sans

: notepad," to give himself over to the experience of the work, to attend to

: it completely without pulling out to analyze; then a second time, after

: reflection and conversation, notebook in hand, to really look at how the

: thing did what it did (or why it failed to do what it wanted to do, or

: whatever). That's integrity.

Yeah, I can respect that. Interestingly, I'm not sure whether it would make more sense to open the notebook on the first or second screening of a film. Given that films are usually screened only once before their release dates, I know I HAVE to take notes the first time around -- and if a chance to see it a second time comes up, then I tend to relax a little more, just to see what general impressions leap out at me this time. The studio distributing Adaptation happened to screen that film a few weeks before it opened, and THEN they sent me a copy on VHS, so I had the unusual good fortune to see that film twice before I had to hand in my review, and the second viewing really, really clarified things that had not stood out to me the first time around. It was like, now that I knew where the film was going, I could pay more attention to how it got there.

Certainly, whenever I'm writing a longer film-related article for a magazine or something, I make a point of seeing the film a second time, just to make sure I know what I'm talking about. Publications of that sort tend to be less ephemeral, and they have wider readerships than the community papers that are my bread and butter, so they deserve the extra effort.

: Just as an unexamined life is not worth living, an unexamined opinion is

: not worth publishing.

Heh. Whereas one of the things that impedes my own writing is my constant fear that I haven't examined my opinions enough, or something. smile.gif

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...I'm actually thinking of a former member of your theatre company who told me he liked the film just because it was so rare to see a four-hour play committed to film, as though the sheer size of the task somehow compensated for all the flaws one might find in that film -- whereas to me, the sheer size of the task was, itself, just part of the sheer bombasticness of the film...

"Bombasticity", perhaps?

Point well made. Kenny's Dane pic was a great reminder that, sometimes, more is less.

: ...after spending weeks and weeks immersed in the playwright's

: creation...an actor or director can find the off-the-top-of-the-

: head potshots of a once-over-lightly critic, well, hollow. Superficial.

I can appreciate that, sure. I can also appreciate that people who aren't so close to the material are sometimes better able to have a more, um, objective view of how well it all comes across.

Definitely a fresh perspective, yes. And when they're genuinely insightful, it can be a treat to hear from people who are new to the work, once you've been buried inside it for eons.

: As for the "no time to see it twice" thing, I really think that's a problem.

: A symptom of our too fast, non-reflective age: a destructive

: consequence of the need for media to report instantly on everything . . .

Oh, but you WANT the media to report "on everything". If the Vancouver Sun or the Georgia Straight had to tighten their belts and report on only a few plays, do you think they would cover smaller venues like Pacific Theatre? Or would they prioritize the bigger venues like the Vancouver Playhouse and, I dunno, the Stanley?

Yes, definitely, cover it all. But find a way to do it better, less superficially. Clearly economics and workloads are reality factors in all this, but if we want criticism to be all it can be, we've got to get past our culture/economy's tendency toward faster, cheaper and more superficial.

: I've always admired Eric Bentley, who simply refused to write a review

: after a single viewing of a play...

...Given that films are usually screened only once before their release dates, I know I HAVE to take notes the first time around --

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Oh gosh. There is too much to respond to here. Let me just make some general initial inquiries:

Kevin:

Would the "venue curators" side also include Regal Entertainment Group and other huge theater-owning (and thus film-choosing) monstrosities? If not, then there's no way I can buy into your model.

Ron:

: ...how am I to respect the superficial opinionations of a critic spends two

: hours giving a quick once-over to the culmination of all this[?]

To somewhat relate this to Kevin's theory, the problem (as much as there is one) is that the most critics act simply as audience proxy: Why see the work a second time, they might argue, when 97 percent of the audience will only see it once? Why discuss the subtext of a movie or play when most viewers won't think further than the delivered verbiage? (I do not completely agree with these arguments, mind.)

: It is one thing to be criticized to your face by someone in relationship,

: who has an inherent belief in your potential and the possibility that you

: will grow, who is working toward the same end, that of excellence. It

: is quite another to be subjected to unanswerable public correction from

: a not-entirely-trustworthy source.

Okay. But even if there were no critics, your plays would be subjected to unanswerable (at least by you) public correction: People will see your play, people will tell their friends they went to your play, people

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: It is one thing to be criticized to your face by someone in relationship,  

: who has an inherent belief in your potential and the possibility that you  

: will grow, who is working toward the same end, that of excellence. It  

: is quite another to be subjected to unanswerable public correction from  

: a not-entirely-trustworthy source.  

Okay.  But even if there were no critics, your plays would be subjected to unanswerable (at least by you) public correction: People will see your play, people will tell their friends they went to your play, people

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