Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Look Who's Getting Defensive-
or Too Little Too Late

The Mainstream Critics are still trying to get a handle on just what it is that bothers them about the rise of internet criticism. It sounds sometimes like they are floating trial balloons, like politicians trying to get their talking points solidified. Thanks to Playgoer for pointing me to this article in the Globe regarding the demise of the perched vulture of the highbrow critic. The main subject of the article is the popular internet movie site of Harry Knowles. Here is a sample:

But as the blurby, slangy, barely-considered Ain't It Cool style becomes the lingua franca of film criticism, we should cherish the last of our old-school film writers. The curmudgeon confronting the screen, perched hawkishly in his seat, his pen over his notepad like a cocked talon, represents a high principle: He expresses the vigilance of civilization against inanity.

How much information or atmosphere, really, is communicated by this line in a recent review of ``The Da Vinci Code" by the young, syndicated writer Luke Y. Thompson (in the Dallas Observer): ``The very final scene is nice, but the endless Rosslyn Chapel bit gets interminable"? ``Nice"? I'll take the nonagenarian musings of Stanley Kauffman (b.1916) over at The New Republic, as he struggles-at another screening of ``The Da Vinci Code"-to stay awake: ``Three or four times in the last half-hour, I thought the film was over, only to be jarred by more of it."

Ahhhhrgg. While I completely agree that there are editorial and stylistic concerns with New Media, it seems the writers of articles like this are getting it completely wrong.

The danger is that Internet Critique lacks negativism?!!! Or wit?!!! Come on.

Well, I'll see you your Stanley Kaufmann quip, (which is actually executed much better by an IMDB reviewer commenting on Death Tunnel.) and I'll raise you the following from Harry Knowles:

"If you liked the first two X-MEN films – and know the comics –then for the vast majority of the film you’ll notice how clumsy things like deaths are handled, how emotional beats are handled like a disobedient toilet with a plunger in its mouth."

Customer reviews on IMDB or Amazon can be playgrounds of eloquent snarkiness, far surpassing the style and wit of even some of the major reviewers this article holds up. And by the way, I am not advocating the replacement of Stanley Kaufmann with Harry Knowles. But I would advocate the replacement of Luke Thompson with Harry Knowles. By that I don't mean Harry Knowles should be writing for the Dallas Observer, I mean that people who are reading Luke Thompson should spend that time on-line looking for better reviewers. Go to Rotten Tomatoes for instance.

Knowles problem is that his reviews are interminably long and by that they include endless cliches. This is an editorial problem rather than an insight problem. The Globe article zeroes in on the populism of writers like Knowles, without mentioning the most obvious conflict...Knowles is now an industry insider. He has appeared in actual movies, and he is very often flown places to attend special screenings. However, he never seems afraid to call a piece of junk a piece of junk, even if he has been flown out, put up in hotel and given a private screening room to see the work before anybody else. Interestingly enough, this doesn't stop studios from continuing to extend these offers. Why? The answer is simple: Knowles' influence. His website is extremely popular, studios are willing to take a chance at a Knowles knock because they could get a Knowles nod.

Who is reading the Dallas Observer movie reviews, when there is so much out there on the web? Reviewers like Kauffman will die in readership only because they are not taking advantage of the medium. Go to Roger Ebert's site, and the companion blog of Jim Emerson, and you will see that Roger Ebert's reviewing style and his wit have not changed, but his site and his delivery method is built for this century. (Emerson just started an Opening Shots Project that has readers e-mailing in their favorite opening shots, while Emerson breaks down some famous and not so famous opening images and how they relate to the larger canvas of their respective films.)

I am a subscriber to the New Republic and I enjoy the criticism of Stanley Kaufmann and Christopher Orr, but I wish their interface was something more. I wish I could access past reviews more quickly, I wish they had something of a home page of their own.

Scott Walters, the blogger behind Theatre Ideas has adopted a new motto: "If you don't like change, you are going to like irrellevance even less." While mainstream theatre critics seem to have missed the boat on blogging, the NPR gang seems to have leap-frogged over us bloggers a bit with Podcasting. (WBUR, our local NPR affiliate has been doing a great job with this by way of their Artscasts.)

Theatre reviewing in the major papers only holds its sway because the internet alternatives have generally not provided a consistent source of reliable reviewing yet. Theatre is too expensive for a freelancer with a website to attend on regular basis, unless they are getting comps.

Most of the theatre blogosphere is still populated by artists and playwrights who are heavily active in the scene. Doing shows, directing and/or writing, provides little opportunity for us to see enough of a sampling of productions out there. When a show is commented on in the blogoshpere it is generally in the context of three things:

1. We have a friend involved in the show.

2. We are being paid by somebody as a freelancer to see the show.

3. We really are a fan of a show or playwright and we willingly went to see it, and usually find something to write about in it.

Rarely do we have to spend three or four nights a week going to shows to which we have no connection, or really no proclivity towards, or passion for. In this respect, we lack that empathy with the grind of the traditional "reviewer."

There are internet alternatives though. Locally, Larry Stark and Will Stackman are two exclusive internet reviewers, and they see just about every show in town. Norm Gross for PMP Network is another local theatre reviewer who covers many, many shows.

Of course, the biggest problem for the transition of theatre journalism to to an online prescence is the same problem facing theatre companies. The consumers/audience of both are graying rapidly. The subscription audiences are less and less likely to be using on-line or podcasting to get tied in to theatre reviews. However, the exciting thing is that perhaps if theatre uses New Media it can connect the younger audience to actually start atteninding theatre.

(Speaking of the New Republic, where is theatre critic Robert Brustein lately, I honestly miss him. Does anybody know if he is all right?)
*Update: Alison Croggon who runs the Blog Theatre Notes out of Melbourne, Australia writes to remind me that she reviews 1-3 shows a week. She receives comps. Which reminds me...there are so many blogs I regularly read and need to add to my links on the right. (Alison included.)


Alison Croggon said...

I hate to be simply self-promoting (or do I?) but do take a look at Theatre Notes, my theatre blog. I've been reviewing weekly - one to three shows - for the past couple of years. It's a reasonably comprehensive coverage of new theatre in Melbourne, not too big a city - around 3 million people - with a focus on the innovative. Limited by time rather than anything else.

I do it because I like going to the theatre, and because it's badly served in the mainstream media here. The internet permits me to write seriously about the art without having to do a consumer guide. I get comps, because there's no way I could afford to go otherwise. Aside from not being paid for my trouble, I function exactly like any other critic.

YS said...

Hi Alison,

Thanks for commenting. I do check out Theater Notes quite a bit.

You are the equivalent of the local reviewers I mentioned in my post, and example of what will become more prominent in the future.

I actually have a question. Do you get pull-quoted there in Melbourne?

Also, in relation to my post, do you basically pick the shows you are going to see, or do you look at the listings for the next couple of months and lay out a way you can adequately see everything possible?

Hopefully more reviewers like you will read this post and let us know about them.

Alison Croggon said...

I think it's fair to say I have "influence", probably the most a blogger can hope for. If I do get pull-quoted, it's usually under the banner of State of the Arts, an online zine that reruns my reviews in exchange for giving me links. People still like the authority of an institution.

I am on most press lists and get invites to many more shows than I can get to. I try to cover all the major shows in the two biggest companies (the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Malthouse) and to spread my reviews between the various independent theatres. I don't cover commercial theatre. It's a pretty lively and international scene here so it keeps me busy and fascinated and, like I said, it's a small metropolis, so there's some possibility of covering most of the major events, though I can't aim to be comprehensive and don't try. Yes, I do choose what I see, I am not obliged, after all, to see anything; and I try to see the shows that I think will interest me most, whether it's because it's a particular writer, or I know something of the company, or because I think the artists involved are worth following, or simply because they're new. I make no bones that I am an advocate for certain kinds of theatre. But this is supposed to be a sideline of mine, not a full-time job, so there are limits. Aside from intense cultural events like the Melbourne Festival, when I throw caution to the winds and try to get to as much as is humanly possible.