The common complaint against critics is that they sneer from the safety of the sidelines while the true creators are out there risking all on the field. Theodore Roosevelt put it best: "It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause.”
Agreed. But when the cause is unworthy? When the politician is up to no good, when the book or film is pretentious dreck? That’s when you want a merciless critic, preferably one who can launch fusillades of witty scorn against a deserving target. My favorite panster might be New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane: his hilarious reviews of bad films make me glad bad films are made. Lane and his ilk are especially skillful in their use of sarcasm. Consider the first paragraph of humorist Joe Queenan’s review of The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, the memoir of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, the man who gave us Flashdance:
Since its inception, Hollywood has been viewed as a latter-day Byzantium where a galaxy of sensitive, sophisticated human beings have altruistically joined forces to bring spiritually elevating, culturally nourishing entertainment to the untutored masses. Now along comes a harsh, revisionist tract alleging that the film industry is teeming with venal, amoral men and women who do not care about art, who would stab their own mothers in the back if it would advance their careers, who will do anything for a buck and who have even been known to engage in meaningless sex to attain their objectives.
I relish that kind of snark, but still, I also appreciate Teddy Roosevelt’s grievance with critics. A couple of recent events have placed me squarely on both sides of this divide.
The first event is the tenth anniversary of Titanic. Let me say first that I am a hater and proud of it. My wife and I saw it in the theatre in the first run and found ourselves smirking rather than weeping, even laughing aloud at what was supposed to be one of the film’s signature passionate moments: Kate Winslet’s hand slapping the steamed-up window of a Model T.
What we hated most about Titanic was the dialogue. The special effects were obviously amazing, the story compelling, but James Cameron’s script was laughably bad in places. Titanic’s shortcomings seemed obvious to us, but as the whole world seemed to get swept up in this film, most of the nation’s film critics - many of whom surely knew better but were fearful, perhaps, of being regarded by the masses as art snobs – cravenly went along for the ride, heaping undeserved praise upon this schlocky epic. Some were even calling it the greatest film of all time. But a few brave critics, notably Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, had the guts to say the emperor was naked. “What audiences end up with word-wise,” he wrote, “is a hackneyed, completely derivative copy of old Hollywood romances, a movie that reeks of phoniness and lacks even minimal originality.”
Turan was not alone, of course (David Edelstein of Slate wrote that some of the film’s lines “wouldn't make the final draft of a Days of Our Lives script”), but it was Turan’s criticism that so rattled James Cameron that he sent the LA Times a letter attacking Turan. If I were Turan, I would have taken Cameron’s thin-skinned response as unintentional vindication of my critique. So I salute you Kenneth Turan, a critic who gamely pointed out – when it sorely needed pointing out - how the doer of deeds might have done better.
But a second recent event had me siding with T.R. once again. On Christmas Eve jazz pianist Oscar Peterson passed away at 82. In recent years I have become a fan of Peterson’s swinging, accessible style. I play his music so often in our house that my son got him mixed up with a certain icon of children’s television: he became “Oscar the Peterson.” As I grew fond of Peterson’s music (particularly his trio work from the early sixties), I started reading about him and discovered – not really to my surprise – that he was not loved by serious jazz aficionados. Part of the problem, I have long suspected, is that he was never drug-addicted or mentally ill, two qualities that always score points with jazz critics (see “Davis, Miles”). The standard knock on Peterson was that he was all flash and no substance, a technically peerless pianist who lacked the inventiveness and soul of contemporaries such as Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk.
When I heard that Peterson had died I began reading his obituaries online, wondering if and how the critics’ dismissive opinion of his music would appear. The standard AP obituary emphasized his brilliance and popularity without implying any shortcomings. The newspapers of his native Canada – where he was a national icon – had nothing but praise. But paragraph three of the New York Times obituary subtly, almost imperceptibly, sneers at Peterson's crowd-pleasing style:
Mr. Peterson was one of the greatest virtuosos in jazz, with a technique that was always meticulous and ornate and sometimes overwhelming. But rather than expand the boundaries of jazz, he used his gifts in the service of moderation and reliability and in gratifying his devoted audiences, whether playing in a trio or solo. His technical accomplishments were always evident, almost transparently so. Even at his peak, there was very little tension in his playing.
The nerve of that Oscar Peterson! Playing music that people actually liked to listen to!
In fact, you could even say that Oscar Peterson was sort of the Titanic of jazz piano, a beloved popular favorite who was not favored by the intellectual elite.
So. I love snotty critics. Except when I hate them. How do I explain this self-contradictory posture?
Well, for one thing, am I alone in having elevated taste in one area and popular taste in another? My father-in-law attends both operas and monster truck rallies. I’m a snob about books and an anti-snob about food. When Steven King described his fiction as the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries I could relate, because I won’t have his books in my house, but I am a longtime fan of twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun. Maybe this self-serving fluctuation in critical taste is just a natural way to be. Having one foot in elitism and the other in populism lets you feel lowbrow resentment of the highbrow or highbrow disdain for the lowbrow - as each is convenient for you.
Second, I must acknowledge the extent to which my fandom distorts and intensifies my response to critics. When you’re a fan, there’s no taking a detached view of criticism: it is always personal. When President Truman’s daughter Margaret gave a piano recital in 1950, and the Washington Post’s music critic gave her a bad review, Harry wrote him a letter threatening to kick him in the nuts. What fan hasn’t felt that kind of hostility toward an unfriendly critic?
But critics should not let fear of hostility blunt their candor. In most cases I am inclined to give credence to the opinions of a perceptive critic, especially when that critic does not seem to have an axe to grind or a pet theory to push. There’s usually some illumination there, even if we don’t much care for it. As a gratified member of Oscar Peterson’s devoted audience, I don’t like reading criticism of his music – especially in an obituary – but I must confess that his critics were on to something: he wasn’t particularly original. I appreciate the honesty, even if it stings. What disturbs me to this day about the Titanic episode is a suspicion that there were professional critics crossing their fingers as they wrote, pretending to adore what they knew in their hearts was sorry.