The Artist and the Critic: the Strangest Love Affair

I finally saw Star Wars: the Force Awakens – a few weeks ago actually – and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I’ve read countless reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and Imdb, blog posts and film magazines, national newspapers and fan boards. I can’t stop reading them. And I keep coming back to one phrase. The one I know I will hear if I were to say what I was thinking.

It’s just a film.

Just a film. And it is an entirely fair observation. I am not so pretentious as to suggest that this is an attack on our cultural heritage. Yes I grew up with star wars, wearing buns and staging light saber attacks any time I had anything remotely phallic to hand.. We’ll leave that there..

I am not offended on that level, this is not sacrilege. The original films stand as they stood, their legacy untouched, their entertainment level only marginally dented by a slight sense of repetition for the generation coming to them for the first time. I’ll even say that I agree with Alec Guiness, some of the dialogue was atrocious.

I am well aware and have no issue with the truth that this is at most, for many, simply a means of whiling away a couple of hours in a pleasant fashion. I don’t require film to be anything more. I’m not asking it to cure world issues, eradicate war or change the human condition.

So why does it pain me so? Is the terrifying truth that I am a hideous withered realisation of the cliché  – the failed writer who becomes the critic?

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who….. if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat  ~ Theodore Roosevelt.

Some would suggest as long as you are in the ring, you haven’t failed at all. Is my frustration, frustration for not getting back into the ring? For barely daring to let go of the ropes.

Equally is my fear of critique the fear of the artist? You cannot claim the right of criticism and then deny another when it’s your work in the frame. And I am not an easy critic. I strive to be fair, partly because I genuinely do not like being cruel, but my deep disquiet with assuming this role plays a large part in it. If I were – as I am sure many do – to give into my emotions, it’d look a lot like this.. only you know, a bit meaner…

hulk-smash-loki

The more I have observed of both sides –  or all sides – being consumer, friend, artist, submitter and rejecter, the more confused I feel. I cannot deny my dissatisfaction and how that plays in my head whenever I sit down to write, but equally I can see the impossibility of truly knowing, certainly through critique, whether or not you are doing it right. How to even define doing it right seems impossible. Some refuse point blank to consider sales, others refuse to consider literary awards and even those who might previously have considered awards valid can suddenly find their certainty shaken by one rising work, which they find they cannot merit on any level except bad muju..

Increasingly, I have come to the belief that the only judgement I can trust is mine. The only satisfaction you can use as yardstick is your own and reviews are best left for idle curiosity. Yet that belief is undermined all the time. And being the type to question, even my gut, I have to ask – is it true you can’t judge your own work? Do you mean spot our typos or are we talking in terms of story arc, character, pace and other vital elements?

Critics don’t bother me because if I do badly, I know I’m bad before they even write it. And it I’m good, I know I’m good. I know best about myself, so a critic doesn’t anger me. ~ Frank Sinatra

Does doing it right even matter? Is it just preference? There is a valid argument that any artist, consumed with their own vision, cannot fairly judge another. Yet the ability to critically dissect a work is frequently cited as one of the most crucial tools for any aspiring artist, even if it’s not explicitly stated as such.

 Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing ~ Stephen King

What is Leonard’s opinion on adverbs but criticism of those who went before? And lest we forget, the urge to Kill Kill Kill your darlings, isn’t King’s advice, its Quiller Couch’s, a literary critic, repeated in perpetuity by all writers since.

An ad for cigars appears in 100,000 newspapers; sales of that brand increase by 3% for a short time thereafter. A new play receives a viciously negative review in a theatrical journal that prints 500 copies; the playwright shoots himself. Who’s the better writer? ~ Jason Lutes

Does the critic have any merit at all, or is he just another opinion in a net of trolls? They are seen as somehow distinct from the masses and their tastes, yet at the same time exerting a displeasing (for the writer) amount of influence over any given work’s success. If we consider literary awards, surely this is the traditional province of critics? High art, excellence, informed criticism, while sales are the opinions of the masses. Yet winning an award is considered the best advertisement you can get if you want to sell through your literary piece, even perhaps sell the film rights. Oscars are so hotly contested not for the credit but the undoubted boost to sales a win garners.

Can we say the bestselling stats of King, Patterson, Brown et al are not the result of similar criticism? Is a Guardian thumbs up worth it? And if so what responsibility does that put on their pen? If the masses are willing to swallow anything they are told to, why would we even care for their opinions, does it in fact render any feedback, any praise, any value of our work null and void?

Is this why it bothers me so? Why do I need to settle this question? Am I just another writer looking for a certainty, a way to know I am good and no one can take that from me? Maybe.. maybe.. The question still feels bigger.

Which brings me back to, it’s just a film.

Just a film.

Just a 200 million dollar budget

Just an 800 million profit (thus far)

Just a $4 billion deal for Disney

Just one man’s dream, thirty years and several thousand employees in the making.

Do you think George Lucas ever thought of it as just a film?

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy  ~  Stephen King

If technology, the internet and amazon, have put books in the hands of the people, is there a possibility it can do the same for film? We have a level of expectation that costs – as a starting mouthful – hundreds of thousands. Smith may have turned out Clerks for around 20 grand (more than I carry, but pennies in film finance) but it took around 200,000 to scrub it up for mass release. And as someone subject to countless amateur productions there is a genuine case for the belief that our suspension of disbelief is dependent on the post production effects, even on the most unaffected and seemingly simple piece. The rise of cheap as chips to produce reality tv has been matched only by the rise of super-financed superhero productions.

If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it ~ Toni Morrison

The internet has provided a platform for people who like to sing, people with shopping habits and people with dirty little secrets, yet to date it has failed to give people who love film an opportunity to impact the industry in any meaningful way. Despite the globalisation and dissemination of art it remains a singularly insular industry

“George Lucas was never a part of Hollywood, he was always an outlier who left for northern California as soon as he had a hit,” Sealey said….. He can’t imagine Disney would let Lucasfilm’s entities keep operating away from Disney’s home base in the Los Angeles area. “I don’t see how or why you keep any of this up in that area, it’ll all move down to Burbank,” he said ~ USA Today

Imdb film trivia reveals a hotbed of nepotistic backhanders – friend employing friend, employing next door neighbour; why give a struggling actor a go when someone has a gardener who is a fan..

Hollywood is a business, big business, and it conducts itself as such, which might seem like good reason for not employing friends, and yet it’s not, because the one thing big business can always be relied up on to do is make safe calls, stick to the known and avoid risk. Calling yourself an artist and, more importantly, conducting yourself as one, within that kind of environment, seems a peculiarly perverse form of torture. It’s a business that loses in box office revenue in the hope of picking up the fall-out from DVDs and TV licensing. Meaning, it needs you and everyone you know to want to see and see and see again, just a film.

Just a film it would seem doesn’t benefit any of us. But it seems we just can’t quite decide on how to measure this. The highest grossing films of all time, adjusted for inflation are mostly decades old, with only two in the top ten that were made in the last 20 years. Those were James Cameron’s well-known epics, Titanic and Avatar, and I would have to say most critics were kinder than many of us ordinary film goers. Ordinary film goers who still apparently happily shelled out to see and see and see again just those films.. Gone With the Wind sits in the top spot and for twenty five years was unchallenged, adjust for inflation and it remains unchallenged. Yet I don’t know anyone who has actually managed to sit through it and critics at the time were somewhat lacklustre,

The result is a film which is a major event in the history of the industry but only a minor achievement in motion-picture art ~ Franz Hoellering.

Film seems to be in an eternal struggle between technology, what we can achieve in terms of realism, allowing a visual representation of dreams that might not ever be seen, a way to turn our heads inside out, and the age old tradition –  some have posited elementary need –  to tell stories. More even than in books it seems what we demand from film is just a sliver to hang our imaginations on, 99% inspiration 1% perspiration. Likewise the one area we continually see advancement, even risk, and certainly money, appears to be in this. Perhaps because from its very inception it’s been the thing – overtly – that defined its appeal.

So where does that leave the critic? The only champion of the disgruntled viewer who wants just a film that actually entertains? There are no shortages of critics on the internet. If you hate something, you can find someone who hates it too. You don’t have to look far or hard. Fan boys and trolls dominate the film boards. I actually found one with a civil and lighthearted conversation and have been contemplating visiting the doctor and getting him to check I’m not hallucinating ever since. Madness is strong in my family… Breaking Joss Whedon seems to be our singular contribution to the industry. While you can’t swing a kindle without smacking an author (unintentionally, of course), film remains that last elusive province denied to the ordinary man, the entertainment of the masses provided by the elite few.

Mass communication–wonder as it may be technologically and something to be appreciated and valued–presents us wit a serious daner, the danger of conformism, due to the fact that we all view the same things at the same time in all the cities of the country ~ Rollo May

I don’t think any of us think of any of the original trilogy as just a film, even if we hated it and its unavoidable legacy. As for The Force Awakens, only time will tell. But if in the end it’s just a film, it’s probably the greatest criticism we could ever level at it.

 

 

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