Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Critique Versus The Critic

I have been a longtime fan of film director M. Night Shyamalan. He has written, directed and sometimes even starred in some amazing movies over the years, including The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village and Lady in the Water.

M. Night is an amazing storyteller with deep characters that are always more than was the eyes can see. His movies always seem to be centralized around estranged difficult relationships that come together in moments of crisis or hardship. Another thing that M. Night is, is an artist in the purest form. He draws heavily on symbolism, story and prose. His visual imagery is soft, suggestive and moving. I did say that I was a fan, didn't I?

Yet M. Night movies are always razed by critics and moviegoers alike. In this digital age, everyone seems to be a critic and nobody on the planet seems to be a vocal fan of M. Night's work even though his box office numbers are not slouchy at all. The Sixth Sense brought in $293 million in the box office. Signs brought in $227 million. The Village brought in $114 million. Yet critics panned his movies except for the The Sixth Sense.

Roger Ebert referenced The Sixth Sense as; "The Sixth Sense" has a kind of calm, sneaky self-confidence that allows it to take us down a strange path, intriguingly." Entertainment weekly said, "It's a psychological thriller that actually thrills."

For his review of The Village, Roger Ebert opened his review by saying, ""The Village" is a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn. It's a flimsy excuse for a plot, with characters who move below the one-dimensional and enter Flatland."

Entertainment weekly opened it's review of The Village with; "What an irony -- and a shame -- it would be if ''The Sixth Sense'' turns out to be the movie that first made and then ruined the career of M. Night Shyamalan." There is not a single mention of the movie's [The Village] title being reviewed, see it here.

For his review of The Lady in the Water, Roger Ebert had this to say. "The key to deciphering M. Night Shyamalan's fractured fairy tale, "Lady in the Water," is to remember that it is rooted in the mythology of Stephen Colbert and "The Colbert Report."... The director's deficiencies as a visual storyteller are also on fine display.... Shyamalan could learn from Spielberg and Brian De Palma." Rooted in the mythology of Stephen Colbert and "The Colbert ReportWhat the hell does that mean?

Entertainment Weekly had this to say about The Lady in the Water. "Muggledom runs amok in Lady in the Water, Shyamalan's most alienating and self-absorbed project to date. His most fanciful, too, since the narrative springs from a fairy tale the director made up for his two daughters" I don't understand why, but these first few sentences, that start with a Harry Potter reference, comes after two long paragraphs talking about all of M. Night's previous films with vague references to M. Night selling out by becoming American Expresses spokesperson. Don't believe me? See it here.

Critics have become a form of entertainment in and of themselves for the most part. Whether it is a movie, music, book or art critic, they all seem to be on the same negative page. Rather than critiquing a piece as a stand alone subject, they have to reference it to other works by the artist, or even other artists. Why is it that Lisa Schwarzbaum, the Entertainment Weekly critic for The Lady in the Water had to throw a Harry Potter reference in for a review of a movie that had absolutely nothing to do with the Potter franchise.

One of the defining characteristics of a critic is their job title; Critic. The dictionary definition of critic, the first definition listed is; "a person who expresses an unfavorable opinion of something". So by definition, their job is to complain about other people's work. Period.

A critique is defined as; a detailed analysis and assessment of something, esp. a literary, philosophical, or political theory. So this means the good and bad should be discussed as a part of the critiquing process.

And that is where a critic and a critique diverge in their paths. And this is where I want to step in and provide some guidelines for providing a critique.

First, when giving a critique is important to not do a comparison.

A critique should be focused on the piece being presented, not the pieces that came before it, regardless of relevance. Focus on what is good and what could be improved with that piece. Using comparison has it's place, such as; the composition of the previous image was stronger than with this image. But to compare a Claude Monet is to a Tsukioka Yoshitoshi is the same thing that most critics do when comparing Harry Potter to the Lady in the Water or M. Night to Spielberg. M. Night and Spielberg's styles are different. When I want to see a Spielberg movie, I watch a Spielberg movie, not a Kevin Smith movie. Even comparing two movies from the same director is not a credible thing to do. Would you compare Jaws to Schindler's List. Both are Spielberg movies, so I should expect the same thing right?

My point is, a critique should be focused on the merits of the work being presented and nothing else.

Second; a critique should offer viable options for improvements.

Rather than the standard critic's modus operandi which is to simply point out the faults by saying something generic like "The composition is weak", a critique would include something like this; "I think the composition would be improved if the subject were either filling the frame or aligned to follow the rule of thirds.

Third; a critique should not be personalized.

In every critic's review of The Lady in the Water the critics were obviously pissed about M. Night's obvious panning of all movies critics everywhere. Let me give you a little back story. M. Night was panned heavily by critics for every movie made since The Sixth Sense; Unbreakable, Signs and The Village. So M. Night included a character in the Lady in the Water that is an unlikable, generally disgruntled film critic, which is how I image all critics lives truly are. This character is truly an unhappy character in the film and ends up having an unhappy time in the film.

I thought it was a great way for M. Night to show critics and his viewers, that he isn't a fan of the critics either. It was tongue and cheek, and funny. The critics didn't think so.

The critic for entertainment weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum had this to say; "But while the subplot is an up-yours to actual critics and a wink-wink to civilians (who are likely to be busy enough keeping up with the nomenclature), the rise and fall of Mr. Farber results in something far punier: The amount of story time devoted to such an inconsequential naysayer emphasizes the movie's very smallness, its unease as a cohesive piece, and the inner creative discontent at its core. Why a filmmaker so gifted with talent as well as so fortunate in his success should scrunt and scratch his private itches in public — in front of the very audience that has lauded him — is a mystery too deep for this Muggle." 

There was a lot more to the subplot of the movie than just the "Up-yours" to critics, but that is what she focused on.

Even Roger Ebert himself had this to say; "I'm sorry. Don't believe me. I am the villain. OK, not me, precisely, but Film Criticism Itself, embodied by the splendid (movie critic word) Bob Balaban as Mr. Farber, who is this film's own resident newspaper movie critic, offering caustic, self-aware commentary on the shortcomings of "Lady in the Water" as it sloshes along. In Shyamalan's rickety mythology, Mr. Farber represents... well, nothing so much as the filmmaker's pre-emptive strike against the bad reviews he expects to receive for making this poorly written, stiffly directed, audience-insulting story-without-a-cause."

And again, personalizing the material as part of the critique makes Mr. Ebert no better than M. Night, the man he is being critical of.

Critics obviously took offense to that particular message M. Night shared in the movie, but then mentioning it only minimized all of the other comments they had made, whether the comments were valid or not.

Simply calling it out in their review with their childish belittling references showed they were holding a grudge over the entire movie. I personally applaud M. Night for including this subplot in his movie. He personalized the movie, made it part of his own experience and the whole scenario added a bit of humor to the movie.

The best thing that a critics could have done was laugh it off and move on. I mean seriously, if you can't be a critic of yourself, then how can you be a critic to someone else? People take themselves way too serious. I mean come on, they get paid to bitch about things. What is not funny about that?

As participants of a critique, we can't personalize things in other peoples works. It is important to address what is important in the feedback not turn a critique into a school yard brawl.

This is what I try and do with every critique. I am not a critic, but I can be critical. There is a difference between the two and that difference is more like a Grand Canyon's difference and not a fine line. This is one reason why I can enjoy almost all music. This is one reason why I can equally enjoy a movie like, "Movie 43" or "The Toxic Avenger" and at the same time say I like "Mall Rats" and say that I like "Saving Private Ryan", Schindler's List and all of the movies in between. I simply enjoy them for what they are and not for what they could have been.

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