Friday, September 25, 2015

Criticism Concepts: Part 2: Critiquing on the right side of the brain


I made a post a few months back outlining what I see as the basic consideration every would-be critic should give when examining a work’s merit - namely, how it affects one on an emotional level.  While the details of our first impressions can get lost in the fog of our mind’s forgotten moments, the emotional impact they have on our thinking usually transcends plain old awareness, so long as the impression is sufficiently strong (and if it isn’t sufficiently strong, well, there you go).  But you’d be wise to ask what, exactly, you’re supposed to do with this new understanding.  You’ve sculpted your gut reactions into something coherent and, dare I say, intelligible; but how do you know what you’re saying is actually accurate in any way?

This is the second pitfall set up to entrap the would-be critic, and it can be the trickiest to avoid. Recognizing it for what it is requires not just a certain degree of work on your part, but also a different perspective than we’re accustomed to using in everyday life.  Let’s say that you’ve just watched the latest blockbuster this weekend, and after two brutal hours, it’s left you colder than a corpse on ice. So, heeding my advice from before, you decide to expand you’re chilly dislike into a solid critique; the film, you now say, is crippled by poor acting, terrible pacing, and a distinct lack of direction.  

So far, so good.  But what does that even mean?  What was it about the acting that made it so poor?  Was the movie paced too quickly, or too slowly?  And if it “lacked direction,” where, exactly, was it supposed to go?  These are legitimate questions, and any director or screenwriter serious about his or her own growth has a right to ask them.  Unfortunately, the answers, even from professional critics, are often vague and discourteous, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of ambitious creators and doing little to adjust the negative opinion most have of critics in general.

It’s not that critics necessarily mean to be tight on the constructive criticism; while there are a few jerks out there who thrive on negativity for its own sake, most critics, in their minds, are simply cutting the chaff to make room for the wheat.  But critics and creators (as well as consumers) see and interpret a work of art in completely different ways. The critic, more often than not, takes the approach of the analyst; their conclusions stem from a process of textual distillation, which can often read like an accountant’s business report.  By about how many degrees of plausibility does this character deviate from “the norm?”  Was this a “proper” setting for the story, or not?  

There’s nothing innately wrong with this, mind you, but the critic should always remember that doing this effectively splinters the work into discrete, measurable quantities that are then evaluated as if they had no connection to one another.  This is completely at odds with how the creator’s vision usually works.  While the creative process may vary among artists and their mediums, “holism” is the one constant through it all; the characters, setting, and other details all swirl together in a tangle that can be very hard to extricate.  The downsides of this are well know, as attested by anyone who’s tried to tell a writer about a pressing weakness in his story he’s just too close to notice.  However, embracing a work holistically enables you to see and measure each segment and each theme with a view towards the bigger picture.  By foregoing needle-point analysis, you gain clarity on how story elements interconnect and simply experience it in a way that touches something beyond the checklist of “proper” story elements.

This is the reason why critics, while often right in their play-by-play assessments, can also be spectacularly wrong on so many fronts.  Quick question: what do Moby Dick, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Big Lebowski all have in common?  They were all originally panned - or at least ambivalently received - by critics at the time of their creation.  If I may paraphrase the great Anton Ego, critics have a tremendous blind spot when it comes to anything new - in large part because “the new,” however it’s defined, cannot be easily analyzed.  Some things can only be experienced, which often involve time and an openness that borders on vulnerability.  It's hard, and takes practice, but your efforts will pave the way for more accurate - and more comprehending - reviews.

So where does the critic go from here?  Keep your analysis at hand, to be sure; but once you get your initial reactions in check, try to step back and piece them together into what you took away from the film as an experienced whole.  A second or third viewing may be desirable, but not necessary; even a first-time blush can offer a wealth of information and kaleidoscopic impressions.  Granted, the movie may still be an absolute stinker regardless of how you look at it, but in placing your analysis in the context of the intended experience, you now understand, at least, where the creator was coming from - and, more importantly, where they may need to go in order to get on the right track.  At the end of the day, the critic’s mission is to illuminate, not pontificate, and setting tentative creators straight should employ more than scornful smugness and a cold, unengaged analysis.

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