Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Kevin Smith, Critics and the unreliable narrator

March 29, 2010

I like (most of) Kevin Smith’s movies. I download his smodcasts. I follow him on Twitter. But his recent dust-up over critics not reviewing Cop-Out favorably is a highlight of a general misconception about criticism in general.

And it is something that I have also suffered from in the past. It is something that is hard to work out of the system once it has found a home. Above, where I mentioned “not reviewing Cop-Out favorably” I had begun to type “not liking Cop-Out” before realizing how charged that sentence is and how it reflects the same ignorance Smith appears to have, at least momentarily, suffered from. It doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, matter if critics like a work. There’s been more than a few books, movies, music, etc. that I’ve enjoyed on some level while also believing that they are likely quite crappy with little redeeming value or meaning. Sometimes I just like some mental junk food.  So, despite my enjoying something, I would still stand up and say, “Yeah, it’s crap. But I enjoyed it.”

The thing is, if you’re trying to honestly criticize something, that “Yeah, it’s crap” part has to be there. For instance, see my recent post about Laura van den Berg’s collection of short stories. I liked a LOT about the collection. I say I liked a lot about it. In the end, though, when everything gets tallied up and conclusions have to be drawn, though, I also had to say that I thought it had serious shortcomings that it did not overcome.

It’s this duality that I think is lost in the argument between critic and artist. The artist sees someone “not liking” their work when “like” really has very little to do with it. This understanding of the role of a critic is made worse by misunderstanding of terms a critic uses that an artist, frankly, may never need to know even if they employ a technique the critic perceives.

Which appears to be partly what happened on this blog recently over a review of Pekar’s The Quitter. In a comment to a follow up blog, attempting to illuminate the use of “unreliable narrator” there was a mention of The Screwtape Letters. Which struck me as odd.

It has been years since I last read The Screwtape Letters and, recently, I haven’t had time to go back and entirely re-read it. But I have scanned through it, I’ve scholar.googled it and did a quick glance through some lit journal searches. My immediate recollection was confirmed. The Screwtape Letters is not an example of an unreliable narrator. While why Screwtape isn’t an unreliable narrator is important, it’s not pertinent to this blog. What’s pertinent is that this mistake was made. This isn’t to single out that individual commenter but to use it to illustrate something that is likely fairly common – a genuine language/process gap between the critic, those whose work is the subject of criticism and the audience for whom that work was created and for whom the critic is writing.

The language and backgrounds for becoming a “critic” and becoming an “artist” are inherently different. Many artists have the words “self-taught” somewhere in their biographies. And it’s my opinion that this isn’t just a brave thing, to have struck out to master a craft with little or no fall back plan or option, but a necessary thing for many artists as I’m not sure that all that is necessary to be an artist can be taught or accrued in a classroom. Or maybe that’s just the romantic idealist in me wanting to see the artist, at least in some way, as the woman for whom inspiration must strike to allow them to forge their timeless works. A critic, however, almost certainly has to be in a classroom through necessity. There is simply very few other options for being exposed to the work of other critics, for gaining any sort of understanding of the field, than without the aid of classes and instructors who are already learned of the lay of critical land.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise when the two sides lock horns over what one writes about the other. It has to be all but inevitable. The training for each can come from wholly different directions, employing language and terms in ways that are wholly different from what the other side employs. Sure, each side can (and do) try to bridge that gap but it’s a gap I’m not sure is always bridgeable. After all, a critic does come off very much as a judge and that’s the sort of eye that no one likes to fall under.

But what role does the audience play in this?

Part of me wants to tie this into our current political climate where intellectualism has become a dirty word.  Language has an inherent political context. Nearly everything said or written can find itself twisted and appropriated for all sorts of purposes. I think it becomes clear that the term “critic” is slipping from our lexicon, too easily associated with “criticize” and all of the negative connotations that word can find itself lugging around. Instead we see this term “reviewer” being bandied about.

And what’s the job of a “reviewer?” Well, it seems their job is to simply review. Now, there are certainly aspects of that word that lends itself to serious critical work. The daily/weekly articles written for movies, plays, books, etc. have long been called “reviews.” In the military the term “review” also has a serious charge to it, a formal retrospection into an event for the purpose to lay a judgment of. Looking into my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, however, and those sort of definitions appear no sooner than fourth under the heading “review.” The first three definitions are far less formal that use phrases such as “a looking back” or a “general survey, report or account.”

Going away from the dictionary, considering personal connotations to the word review, and what I come up with is an expectation for an informal recounting, which is even more relaxed than a “general survey.”

To think of a movie review now, you would almost come to expect a simple recounting of plot with some very basic or rudimentary thoughts about the movie but nothing that would be overly critical (or overly praising). A “review” of Transformers could simply be

It’s a movie about robots fighting other robots,  and some people get involved. It looks pretty on the screen and is, at times, really loud.

I get the impression that is the sort of thing expected of movie reviewers now. Something lacking in actual criticism since it is something that isn’t really implied as part of the process any more. And it’s here where maybe literary criticism is shielded in a way that movie criticism isn’t. While there is certainly a TON of movie criticism, a large number of people who write passionately and knowledgeably  about the movies are burdened with the title of “critic” or “reviewer,” titles that either immediately draw ire or inspire confusion as to role.

Alright, I’ve gone on long enough. Part of the whole Kevin Smith Thing is, I’m sure, just bruised ego. It’s natural. But I think another part of it is the shifting of expectations of society and how language has shifted with those expectations. Maybe we no longer expect a reviewer to be critical and get somewhat put off when they are. When this difference of expectations is met with even greater differences in language, the fire becomes an inferno as one perceives the other as chucking gasoline rather than turning on the hose.

My Own Failing Memory

March 1, 2010

Or: Why I Write These Things

I tend to read quite a bit and I try to reflect on what I read. But ever since leaving school I have found that I have went without a certain stimulation and the memory I have for what I read has begun to slip. Finer points become lost. Meaning becomes less, well, meaningful.

Realizing that a lot of years and a lot of money was quickly becoming lost to me, training falling by the wayside as it were like a carpenter long long out of practice finding that his ability to visually measure a gap or to trim a piece to fit has eroded, I knew something needed to be done to try to keep me going.

Watching a kid, looking for work, and day to day life doesn’t afford me much time (or cash) to get out, though. To try to horn my way in with people in the real world if I knew where people in the real world met to talk about such things.

Having weighed my options and assessed my situation, I came to the realization that my only real outlet was the web. It’s something I can access from home, where I can carve out my own little space and, with some luck and persistance, maybe find my way into my own little niche here.

By and large it has worked. I feel I get more out of my reading now, and that I can recall more from it to find specific reasons why I love/hate whatever piece of work I’m writing about, why it might be significant or insignificant or why I might pick up another book the writer. While reading (and writing) is a solitary act, there is a social aspect to it that has to be engaged in to reap the full rewards of the solitary acts. To closet yourself away, to forego the experience of sharing a book or an idea, is to complete the experience only halfway.

Now is a blog (or any digital interface) as fulfilling as a person-to-person encounter? yes and no. On the digital medium, it does offer up more time for people to deliver a thoughtful response but you also lose the immediacy of a moment. There is a certain kind of energy that comes with talking about a book or a movie with someone who has shared that experience and who is excited by the discussion of it. Also, it’s easier to go out for drinks when the person you’re talking to is next to you. No one wants you to drag your laptop down to the pub and set up shop at the bar.

Lethem’s “Gun, with Occasional Music” a future movie?

December 11, 2009

as a fan of Jonathan Lethem, I like hearing about new books from him and I like hearing of the possibility of new movies based on his books (though I don’t like Ed Norton essentially casting himself as the lead in Motherless Brooklyn). 

Guns, with Occasional Music is one of those books that I loved to read but wasn’t sure could ever be a movie. Or at least a successful movie.  depending on who is involved,  I can certainly see it being pulled off. But with its mix of Dashiel Hammet style detective story with weird sci-fi, I’m not sure I see an audience for it unless it is drastically changed for the screen. Which would take out all of the fun.

So, if it gets done, I’m hoping for something with a modest budget, modest special effects, and a director who knows how to stretch a buck and get the image he wants (I’m thinking Gondy or Jean-pierre Jeunet, personally).  Whatever happens, it’s a project I’ll probably follow.

Kurtzman and Orci are poor writers

May 14, 2009

I saw the new Star Trek film yesterady.  Right up front about this, I’m a Trek fan and there will be spoilers. I really like the series and while I don’t read the books or have everything from the shows/movies memorized, I am pretty damn picky when it comes to Star Trek and what they do with it. Especially when they want my eight bucks to see what they’ve done.

A glance at Rotten Tomatoes tells me that a lot of people really like this movies. From talking to other people, the movie has also been really well received by the public.  But so was Transformers.

And it was crap, too.

If all you are looking for is an action movie with Star Trek props then this movie is for you. As a special effects extraveganza with a lot of stuff blowing up it excels. Abrams sets a break neck pace that attempts to not allow you to think about anything that is happening on screen.

Which is goood because the moment you start thinking about the movie it goes all to hell. This isn’t to say that I, or anyone, should expect Oscar calibre work on a Star Trek film. For better or worse it will always be looked at as just “Star Trek.” But Kurtzman and Orci can’t write a decent script to save their lives.

They get the character names right, they get the props right and they lift all of the significant lines for the characters from the original Star Trek cast. But they have no idea how to deploy their forces correctly or efficiently. The lines seem thrown in and forced by the actors, used because they were expected to be used. They don’t give Nero any real depth of character, relying heavily on “he’s a bad guy with a big ship” while never really giving him a chance to be an enemy. He blows up a planet and…well, that’s it. And he really hates Spock.

And this isn’t the half of it. The method of destroying the planet, and the tool used for it, are less than thoughtout and seem to be around because, well, it looks cool and allows space for another fight scene where one guys brings a gun, which he loses, and they end up fighting with swords. And you have to wonder, or at least I have to wonder, why Nero wouldn’t go to Romulus and work to save his own planet with his knowledge of the future rather than detroy a bunch of other planets while still leaving everything else the same. He says something about destroying the federation to ensure Romulus’s future but the Federation didn’t blow up the star that whiped out Rumulus (and, apparently, most of an entire galaxy which makes me think that Kurtzman and Orci don’t have any idea on how big a galaxy actually is and how many stars actually explode without whiping them out). 

The movie entirely lacks an internal logic and structure.  While Trek isn’t exactly hard sci/fi, this movie continues a Nemesis tradition of showing a frightening lack of basic knowledge about science and isn’t even consistent with it’s mistreatment of science. Sometimes blackholes suck you through space and time, sometimes they just rip your ship all to hell. Apparently, it’s justa coin toss as to which of these events will happen and you just take your chances.

On the plus side, Simon Pegg was excellent as Scotty but I think a lot of that goes to Pegg  just being good at his work. Bana was horribly underutilized as Nero. Nero could have become an iconic Trek movie antagonist if the writing was better as it looked like Bana was really selling the character. The rest of the cast I’m lukewarm over. They cast for the right ethnicities but none of them were overly memorable beyond Chekov’s accent jokes (which were funny). Unfortunately, I thought Urban’s portrayal of Bones bordered more on charicature than anything.

So I’m not looking forward to the next Trek movie as Kurtzman and Orci seem to have been given the reins for that one, too. They write bad movies. They have always written bad movies and they will continue to do so. But people like seeing stuff blow up even if it makes little to zero sense in the events leading up to and leading away from the stuff blowing up. I’m not against revamping Trek, or even against Abrams speeding it up a bit, but they need better material to work with.