Posts Tagged ‘critics’

Love, Sort Of

Love, ActuallySo this is the tenth anniversary of Love, Actually, the British ensemble film that’s become a Christmas staple for a lot of us. I’ll go on record here as being a fan—I find the film funny and touching and ultimately charming. I’d much rather watch it than a lot of Christmas movies (::cough:: Miracle On 34th Street ::cough::). But as is the way with cultural phenomena, when a lot of people like something, you’ll eventually start getting pushback. Christopher Orr slammed Love Actually in the Atlantic. Lindy West went after it with a metaphorical hatchet in Jezebel. Other people weighed in with negative comments.

The thrust of all these bad reviews is basically that Love, Actually is over-rated romantic tripe, and that people who like it are sentimental dummies. For those of us who occasionally fall for romantic comedies, these are familiar arguments—most romantic comedies get hit with nasty reactions at some point. But it seems to me this argument misses the point. It’s not a question of whether Love, Actually is good or bad. The question is why a critic feels called upon to go after people for liking something he/she doesn’t.

Criticism serves a purpose—a good critic can illuminate why something works or doesn’t work. But there’s something about this ex post facto criticism that grates. In a sense these critics aren’t so much analyzing the movie itself as they’re analyzing and dismissing the people who happen to like the movie. It reminds me of something William Goldman once said—snobby people can never really like anything because they’re afraid some even more snobby people will say, “Oh, so that’s the kind of thing you like.” In effect these critics are sneering at the movie’s fans: “How can you like something so puerile? Allow me to kick it to pieces to show you how mistaken you are in your bad taste.”

It isn’t just Love, Actually that gets hit by this kind of reaction. Pick a movie you like and do a quick search. You’ll usually find somebody who’s quite willing to tell you it sucks. Love Casablanca? Silly you. Some Like It Hot? Nope. Pauline Kael, that doyenne of movie critics, seemed to specialize in this kind of movie fan bashing at times, as witness her dismissal of the wildly popular  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Love, Actually has a lot of admirers too, but it also has a lot of people who don’t like it. The important question is So What? So what if you don’t like a movie? Why should that mean you need to go after those who do? If you think you can convince them to dislike the movie, let me assure you that’s not going to happen. The idea that you can somehow persuade someone to dislike something they admire or like something they hate by giving them your own detailed hatchet job is sort of ludicrous.

Believe it or not, I don’t much like The Sound of Music, and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in that opinion. Does that make The Sound of Music a bad movie? Nope. It just makes it a movie I don’t like very much. You are within your rights to like or dislike anything. But that doesn’t mean you get to make that decision for everybody else, or to make fun of those who don’t share your opinion. That’s not being a critic, that’s being a crank. And Lord knows we already have more than enough of those!

So if you haven’t seen Love, Actually, I invite you to check it out. And make up your own mind. It really doesn’t matter which critics like it and dislike it. What matters is your opinion. In the end, in fact, when it comes to choosing what film to see, that’s all that really does matter.


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Hilton Als hates Nathan Lane. And right now you’re probably saying “Who?” To clarify, Hilton Als is one of the theatre critics for The New Yorker. Nathan Lane is the actor, probably best known for playing Max in The Producers and Albert in the movie version of The Birdcage. Lane has also appeared in lots of television shows like Modern Family and 30 Rock. But every time he appears on stage, Als torpedoes him.

Lane’s latest role is the lead in The Iceman Cometh, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Although Als likes the production and heaps praise on everybody else in the play, he claims that Lane is incapable of performing the central role and comes off as a male Ethel Merman. It’s an extremely harsh review, but it’s not the first time Als has gone after Lane. He called his performance as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo superficial and also accused him of ruining a production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs by rewriting it to match “his monstrous ego.” Basically, anything Lane does, Als will despise. He simply doesn’t like the man.

To me, this raises a larger question: If Als despises everything Lane does, should Als go on reviewing Lane’s performances? Is that fair to Lane? Is it fair to the other people in the plays where Lane takes the lead? If a critic absolutely can’t stand an artist, should that critic go on reviewing the artist’s work?

This question has a larger application than Als and Lane. I’ve heard authors moan that certain reviewers always slam their books. One friend wondered why a particular reviewer went on reading her stuff since said reviewer had never liked anything she’d written. There’s more than authorial sour grapes in that observation. While I can understand a reviewer disliking one book by an author and then trying another to see if the author does a better job, after several books it should be obvious that the reviewer and the author simply aren’t a good fit. Should the critic go on reviewing the author or move on to somebody else?

After a certain point, a review can become little more than an ego trip. A reviewer who, say, listens to the latest Miley Cyrus album for the sole purpose of writing a snarky review about how lame Miley Cyrus is really needs to find a better use for her time. She’s not trying to give an honest evaluation of Cyrus’s music, she’s having a good time at Cyrus’s expense.

I guess the bottom line here is the question of how a critic should approach an artist’s work. If a critic goes into a book or a play or a movie knowing only too well that she’s going to hate it, that’s not only unfair, it’s silly. As consumers, most of us will avoid artists whose work we know we dislike. Shouldn’t critics behave in the same way?

It’s one thing to give an artist a second chance. It’s another to write a review with the intention of slapping an artist around because you don’t like him. All of which is to say the next time Nathan Lane has a production opening on Broadway, I hope Hilton Als will take the night off.

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