Comerford on Criticism
by Jason Comerford
When I was just a young lad starting out, writing movie reviews for
the hell of it in longhand in a ratty Batman notebook, I was convinced
that I was always right. That, of course, is the prerogative of a teenager,
convincing the world that you're right about everything -- what better
way than to write movie reviews? After all, they were probably the only
thing that I was passionate about -- that, and books, but I had a much
easier time talking about movies. (A discussion about our society's rampant
illiteracy is another subject entirely.)
I remember seeing Forrest Gump, and, at the time, I thought it
was wonderful. I wrote a long-winded review of it in my handy little notebook,
using adjectives and long descriptive sentences that I thought were utterly
brilliant in their perceptiveness. No one ever read these reviews, of course
-- it was just a way for me to try and talk with some level of intelligence
and sophistication, so to speak, about an art form I was obsessed with.
But then, later that year, I bought the then-newest edition of Leonard
Maltin's Video and Movie Guide and read their capsule review of Forrest
Gump, fully expecting them to share my exultation.
Imagine my surprise when I read the review in the latest edition, which
included this sentence: "Either you accept Hanks in this part and go with
the movie's seriocomic sense of whimsy, or you don't (we didn't) -- either
way, it's a long journey, filled with digitized imagery that puts Forrest
Gump into a wide variety of backdrops and real-life events."
What? How dare they not agree with me! I was incensed with Maltin. How
could they not see the sheer brilliance of this movie? They must be wrong.
That was the first lesson I learned about criticism. There's no right
answer. Nor is there a wrong answer. There is only an opinion. And like
the saying goes, they're like assholes. Everyone has one.
I struggled with this notion for a time. Clashing opinions was nothing
new to me, but willingness to listen to everyone else's was something that
took time for me to understand how to do correctly. I might parrot another
critic's review, but when it came to having a thought of my own, I was
quite often like a beached fish, gasping for air. About halfway through
film school I learned to simply listen to my gut, to analyze my own feelings,
instead of parroting someone else's. And it was a whole new world from
that point on.
I've always maintained that criticism is the exploration of a personal
reaction. Bringing a personal point of view to a piece of critical writing,
to me, has always been essential -- the reader needs to understand that
it's my view on this film/score/book/whatever, and no one else's. Personal
experiences shape our opinions and viewpoints, and criticism should reflect
this. That's my theory, anyway.
Your personality, your tastes, your interests, your pursuits -- these
all feed into your opinions. Striking a chord with a reader more than likely
means you share the same passions. Getting feedback on criticism is probably
the most gratifying thing that can happen to a writer. Writing is such
a solitary pursuit that it's always a nice surprise to find that someone
shares your opinions, that they understand your points and encourage to
hear more of them. There's nothing quite like the feel you get when you
are told, "Man, you're so right. I never thought about it that way."
But here's the rub.
One of the things that becoming a reasonably mature and intelligent
adult has taught me is, there are many, many people in the world who are
going to disagree with you. Who are going to be angered by a different
opinion. Who are going to deride you for thinking the way you think. Some
more so than others. You can't please everyone. I wish I could, but there's
simply no way to accomplish that.
Hard lessons. And as a critical individual (it's at this point that
my roommate Mike will no doubt holler at the computer screen, "Critical!
Hell! He hates everything!"), the toughest part is finding the balance
point. And the greatest irony is, I make my living in the film business,
which is filled to the brim with people who simply hate to be criticized.
It's an awfully dangerous thing to speak your mind in Hollywood. Egos are
everywhere in this business, and they are very, very sensitive.
During my summer in LA, writing for Film Score Monthly, I heard, time
and again, stories of writers who, afraid of stepping on the wrong toes,
wrote under pseudonyms so that they could maintain professional relationships.
My youthful idealism kept making me ask, "What the hell? Can't we just
agree to disagree and get on with it?" But unfortunately, this is not the
case, nor will it ever be.
How do you be honest with yourself and with everyone else, and still
keep from stepping on toes? It's a tightrope act, to be sure. I try to
be honest with my opinions, but constructively so -- there's a fine line
between criticism and a personal attack, and a critic's integrity is made
or broken on that point. I may not have thought Almost Famous was
the wonderful extravaganza of cinema that many critics did, but I could
certainly relate to William Miller's central problem -- the line between
fraternization and journalistic integrity, between hero worship and blunt
Lukas Kendall, my editor, once said to me, "Criticize the score. The
inanimate object won't take offense." I've bounced back and forth on whether
or not I agree with that sentiment, despite the good sense of it. I've
always been interested in the artist's body of work, to look at the evolution
of his/her oeuvre and to see how it grows and reshapes and takes on new
life. But there's a danger in that. The French film critic Andre Bazin
warned against this very thing, cautioning the filmmakers of the French
New Wave that focusing on the artist instead of the art might create a
kind of intellectual blindness -- that if you looked at the filmmaker instead
of the film, you're taking something away from the work that they create.
A piece of art, Bazin argued, was as much a part of the filmmaker's body
of work as it was a product of the sociopolitical context in which the
filmmaker existed. The inherent danger was of missing the central flaws
of an artist's work, of ignoring works from other artists that deserve
just as much attention and credit.
When I got a little older, and further into my intrepid career as a
fledgling film critic, I discovered Pauline Kael. Kael influenced a lot
of people in her tenure as a film critic at The New Yorker, and not just
casual readers -- she made her mark on filmmakers and critics alike (her
followers were dubbed "Paulettes"). There was a time when I inhaled everything
by her that I could get my hands on, and spat it back out with the fervor
of a born-again follower -- I was a Paulette, through and through. I loved
her uncompromising, take-it-or-leave-it style, her ability to make me look
at movies I hadn't thought twice about in a new light, her capacity to
make me hate a movie I used to love.
After a while, though, I found myself disagreeing with her. And I think
that the moment that started to happen, that's when I started to truly
think for myself.
Our capacities depend on our abilities to do just that -- to think for
ourselves, to form opinions and thoughts. Sadly, many of us don't. Many
are content to let others do the thinking for them, to place their butts
in the movie seats for an hour or two and have their intelligence insulted
and often disregarded. I wish there was a way for me to rationalize and
explain that, but I can't. Then again, that's part of the human experience,
the experience of life. It took me a while to understand that there are
just some things that I'll never understand.
I still buy Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide. But I can't
quite trust critics who give higher ratings to Double Jeopardy and
The Bone Collector than they do to Fight Club and Boys
And every once in a while I'll steal Mike's copy of Forrest Gump
and turn it on, trying to figure out why I hate myself for liking it. Perhaps
that's yet another lesson that I have to learn -- that opinions can, and
do, change. But the journey has, and I hope always will be, an enlightening