The Naked Critic


Over the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed recurring discussion, or blogging at least, about the changing face of media criticism. I suppose this article here was the first bit of the current wave that I read, and as you can see in the comment section, I thought it was a very well-considered piece about the direction online criticism is heading. In summary, the usual mainstream media outlets are cutting back or eliminating paid criticism while unpaid or freelance criticism is creeping back to feature length. This is cool for several reasons, top of which in mind is that for once there is evidence to suggest that the entirety of humanity isn’t getting stupider with every click of the trackpad.

Honestly, when I started posting my online reviews here I thought it was even more of windmill joust than posting poetry or fiction. I mean, who reads other people’s reviews online? You can forgive me for thinking the forces of “THIS SUCKS” or “the first one is soooo boring and old”were destined to dominate the comment fields and product reviews for the rest of our lifetimes. Ironically, the only intelligent conversations I can usually have are with my friends in real life, or occasionally via social media. Forget about hive intelligence, we’re dealing with cyber-herd consciousness on a daily basis.

Anyway, I’ve gotten good traffic on here. Nothing fantastic yet, but I’ve never really wanted it to be huge. Obviously, I didn’t start this because I thought people would actually read it. I started posting these reviews because I enjoy writing them and because it helps me sort out my own feelings in reaction to any given work. I know people are out there and reading, some of you regularly, and I hope you find some satisfaction or illumination between the lines. Because of this audience, I’ve had to think a little bit more about why I am saying things the way I am saying them. Regardless of what some writers might like to think, knowing that someone is reading your work does make you think about the work differently.

When I was writing film studies papers as an undergrad I made a conscious effort to not discuss whether or not a film was “good”. As a matter of art and culture, there is no real value outside of commerce for saying if a film is “good”. The word doesn’t mean anything because it is too relative. What is useful is deciphering what the filmmakers sought to do versus how that worked for any given critic. Comparing one film to another is fair in as far as they can reveal things in contrast which may be invisible in isolation. I guess I was ahead of the curve in some ways, because as this article points out, no one really reads published reviews as part of a purchasing decision anymore. People read reviews to understand, to put into context and to be entertained. My reviews have always been as much creative non-fiction as they are “considerations,” so I am pretty exited that this kind of criticism is gaining an audience out there in the interwebs.

If a friend asks me if a film is “good”, I will give them my abbreviated thoughts, like most normal people do. If a stranger asks me, I feel the need to qualify and put it into context, because they have no idea what my tastes are and also because I have no interest in convincing them I am right. I am not selling them tickets and this ain’t debate club, sunshine. The best of my opinion, allowed to take its full form in these “considerations”, is the ability to have someone understand, maybe feel, my perspective like you might in the original work itself. Anyway, the short version. I am thrilled that criticism in a broader world is starting to value this more subjective, but more rewarding, way of considering the flashing light you watched uninterrupted for two hours.
Tom Cruise Theory
As another example of this, here is an interesting article about Tom Cruise’s career. On one level it is about how the movie star has risen and fallen over the decades of working in what remains of the studio system. On a more interesting level, this is a look at how a modern critic constructs meaning out of a body of work. The writer, Amy Nicholson, has some great access to people who witnessed key points in Cruise’s public life. The implication of her article is that Cruise is a noble actor who has been defeated in part by loyalty, and in part by a lack of awareness about how this new media works. She’s constructed a counter argument to the prevailing narrative of “Tom Cruise the scientology crackpot who had a really good agent for a while.”

I can’t say I agree with her entirely, but I enjoyed and was very entertained by the way she constructed her case, her story about what Tom Cruise wanted to do and what actually happened. I don’t believe in the Hollywood that she does, and there is a vague hint of nostalgia for the machinery and madness of old Tinseltown in between her words. Tom Cruise is crafted to be a noble, but still tragic hero. There is every possibility the whole essay is a very clever bit of marketing on Cruise’s behalf, but it doesn’t matter because the case that is presented is interesting. Maybe Mr. Cruise wrote it himself?

This is also worth noting because it constructs a narrative across many of his films, it creates Tom Cruise the character as it disguises it as biography. The author also tells the story of marketing mainstream cinema, about the changing notions of what a blockbuster can be, and how the handsome leading man, the right profile, is becoming the very thing many of us believed it to be already. The leading man is a naked emperor, something we always thought we needed but really don’t. Tom Cruise will have to be an actor like every other actor, and all of us will be the better for it. Very soon big media film criticism will have a similar reckoning.