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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 personal honesty.

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 Don't Cry.

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 one.

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