Setter’s ‘Spectives: Coming to Bury Rather Than Praise

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Are we allowed nowadays to express how little we’ve learned from Pauline Kael’s film reviews?

Or is that speaking ill of the dead? Because the last thing I’d want to do is speak ill of the dead … though, as I recall, Kael often spoke ill of the living, so that’s fine, right?

For instance: There was that completely non-judgmental review of Dances with Wolves, remember, where she suggests that director Kevin Costner has “feathers in his head”? That’s OK to say, isn’t it? I mean, levying personal insults at the filmmaker rather than criticizing the film is copacetic, no?

No. It sure ain’t. And I don’t think it makes sense to do that—no matter how bad the director’s films are.

Saying a flick’s poor in some way is, to my mind, much more fair. One of the reasons I never found Kael’s reviews enlightening is that they tended to include content, like the feather-festooned phrase cited above, that directly attacked those involved in the movies’ creation, for some reason, and that’s not valid criticism. Blast the film, not the maker. If the director’s a bad person, that’s one thing, but it also may be irrelevant. The picture is the thing when composing a movie review, and it should focus on that while describing what isn’t to like about the director’s techniques rather than the individual as a person. Keep the nastiness to the work.

I’ve never subscribed to the Cult of Kael, and although this is a big reason why, it isn’t the only one. I disagreed with her many a time on her perspectives, though once in a while I concurred. Yet her insistence on personal insults kept me from admiring her work overall. There are plenty of good critics in this world who maintain honesty without succumbing to such practices. Too bad Kael couldn’t do the latter. Frankly, I couldn’t praise that if I tried.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: You’ll Know It When You Don’t See It

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613The  best scene, I think, in Whit Stillman’s arch but amusing movie Metropolitan is when the youthful, Marxist-leaning protagonist assuredly tells the girl he’s interested in that he only reads criticism—not the actual works being criticized.

What a kohlrabihead, right? The film even suggests he’s misguided … and, if I remember correctly, he goes against his own mantra later on in the movie to read a classic, non-criticism book.

We can learn something from this character. Though it’s not that great literature’s more important than great criticism (which we already know it is).

It’s that we have the freedom and ability to talk about works of art without experiencing them—just based on commentary, hearsay or whatever’s in the air. Expert criticism can prevent you from wasting time at a bad movie. Or from reading a horrible book. It’s preemptive … and you don’t have to feel guilty about not taking in something you know you’ll dislike.

Is there a chance you’ll miss something you would’ve enjoyed because the review indicated it’s bad? Sure. All reviewers have different perspectives, varying tastes. Yet our capacity to evaluate criticism means we can gravitate toward the ones who fit our own sensibilities best, giving us a framework for opinions without the burden of assessing the experiences in person.

Laziness? Nope. It’s a necessity–especially when it could prevent you from spending 15 bucks on a lousy film … and get you instead to drop that amount on a great one.

And yes, we can still think for ourselves. Critics aren’t mirror images. They are, however, useful when you want to familiarize yourself with something before you try it. It’s like a background check for entertainment. I don’t think we could do without it.

Perhaps the young protagonist in Metropolitan learned the error of his ways. We do need art in our lives, and criticism alone can’t fulfill that requirement. But it can help you avoid stuff that isn’t entertainment, and if that comes with the price of being opinionated about works you don’t see, I’m not gonna quibble. There’s so much in the world to experience these days, it’s helpful to pare things down to the necessities.

And I give props to the critics for that.