Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Them Bleedin' Critics...

[Author's Note: This piece, inspired by a comment in last week's Irish Times, is rather long, so be warned if you plan on reading it all in one sitting. I thought it was amusing to write an immensely lengthy article about a throwaway comment of only four sentences. If you agree or disagree with anything I say, please let me know.]

"Film critics (1) tend to be (2) a tad stuffy (3) about adaptations of video games. It is, they like to say (4), no wonder the movies are so dreadful when they are derived from such trivial diversions (5). Surely, directors would be better off making films out of Greek tragedies (6) or Byzantine icons (7). You (8) know how these rants (9) go." Donald Clarke, reviewing Max Payne in The Ticket section of The Irish Times last week.

1) "Film critics" Is Donald Clarke not a film critic? Come to think of it, isn't anyone who emerges blinking from a cinema and says "that was good/bad/the greatest experience of my life/worse than a foamy weekend with Kevin Myers/a profoundly moving examination of interpersonal relationships disguised as a tale about gun-toting local TDs taking on a irradiated 50-foot-high Willie O'Dea moustache" or whatever, essentially a film critic? Surely, giving any form of opinion on anything at all means that you're engaging in some form of criticism (even if you're the guy from The Fast Show who thinks everything is "brill-yaaaaaaaant!")? This is not, however, what Mr. Clarke is implying here.
You see, "film critics" is being used here in a pejorative sense, in the same way that the Plain People of Ireland will use the phrase "media", "liberal", "environmentalist" or "feminist"; it is referring to an imaginary group which the disapproving speaker is not a part of (even when he is, as is the case here, similar to when Eoghan Harris or John Waters castigate the "media" in a newspaper column or on th'telly (why doesn't Clarke write "we film critics"? Or "certain film critics" if he's deliberately excluding himself?)). The description is of course deliberately vague, but is pretty easy to decode: what he means by "film critics" is essentially "snooty, joyless, boring elitists who sneer down from their ivory tower at anyone who dares to watch films that aren't ten-hour-long black-and-white epics about Norwegians living in swamps and having existential crises". It is an excellent defensive tactic when you (meaning the hypothetical Irish Everyman reading the paper) come up against someone whose values seriously question yours: slap on a label which identifies them as different and therefore excludes them from “just reg’lar folk” like yourself, and then you can cheerfully disregard everything they say from that point on (“ah, but you’re one of them liberals/eco-warriors/feminists/lefties/critics/Druids, aren’t you?”). Some friends of mine have a tendency to say to me, when talking about a film or whatever, that "of course, it probably won't meet your high standards..." in a tone which suggests that having standards is something similar to scabies, to which I reply that, well, yes, I do believe that the majority of contemporary mass culture is basically worthless, not because I go out of my way to pick fault, but because no matter how I try, I cannot bring myself to enjoy the bland, pandering, unimaginative drivel which passes for entertainment these days. And while the purpose of a good critic is firstly (and most importantly) to praise the worthwhile, it also falls to him to excoriate the innumerable talentless, empty hucksters who spew out vapid garbage, and to point out that standards of excellence should be applied to all forms of communication.
A personal digression: a few years ago I was living in England and only crossed the channel back to the ould sod on rare occasions, and on one such I stayed with an old friend of mine in Dublin before heading west to visit my family. After dinner and a few drinks she went to bed while I stayed up watching TV as I couldn't sleep. At about 12.30 her flatmate, who I'd never met before but who I knew from others was a Drunken Oaf, came stumbling in. He asked me what I was doing in England, and I said that I was working, but that I wrote a bit of film criticism on the side. He instantly responded: "Film critic? So you think your opinion's better than mine, eh?" Being naturally polite and diplomatic, I pointed out that this was not the case, that I was only interested in expanding my knowledge, that everyone's entitled to their own opinion, no one opinion is "better" than another, and so forth. But he kept banging on and on insistently, no matter how I tried to argue the point, about how I must think myself superior, how dare I rate my opinion above his, blah blah blah, until (after half an hour of this horseshit) I told him quite bluntly that we were wasting our time with this conversation and that I wanted to get some sleep, at which he became all offended and left me alone.
It was the most blatant example of another attitude I have repeatedly come up against while living in Ireland: that if you profess to have standards which differ from those of the masses, especially if they question the quality of popular taste, you are only doing it out of intellectual snobbery, because you want to mark yourself as superior to the hoi-polloi, and that, when all alone, you toss your copy of Persona or Last Year in Marienbad on the fire and snuggle up with Podge and Rodge’s Christmas Special (or some such horror). Now this holier-than-thou attitude does exist in Ireland (the Catholic Church practically invented it), especially as we as a people are obsessively elitist and cliquish in most aspects of life, but it's never one that I've shared. I've spent the last twenty-five years of my life trying to hone my critical faculties in order to better appreciate great art (in any form), and it would bring joy to my blackened little heart if more people shared my enthusiasm for same, if only because it would mean that there would be somebody to talk to (aside from my partner, whose passion for art matches mine) about the things I care about. But I have found that the majority of people that I have met in Ireland simply don't care about such matters, which is fair enough - it's not compulsory - but they will react with outright hostility (usually hidden behind a mask of insouciant mockery, the dismissal I spoke about above) towards anyone who dares to even suggest that perhaps, for example, Killinaskully might not be quite as hilarious as they make it out to be, or that No Country For Old Men might be a heap of pretentious twaddle, a B-movie masquerading as high art. Of course, the main benefactors from a public perception which decries criticism are those who slurry out shoddy, lazy, mindless junk (Epic Movie, anyone?), because the lower the bar is set the more successful they're likely to be.
Now I’m sure Mr. Clarke, judging by his reviews, knows the difference between a good film and a bad one (and in fairness he does give Max Payne (one can accurately rate that film based on its title alone) a good thrashing), but all to often he seems to make his judgements based on the trendiness of the subjects under discussion rather than their objective merits, looking fearfully over his shoulder and thinking “If I’m too critical too often, especially about stuff that’s popular, I’ll probably get fired,” and writing his reviews accordingly. Which is understandable – I’m sure he has a mortgage and such – but I occasionally find myself wondering if he (in his heart of hearts) really thought Dark Knight (to give one example) was actually worth five stars, or if he was terrified that the hip young things who love it would march on Dublin and tear him limb from limb. Who knows?

2) "tend to be" Why not "are"? I personally would have said "Discerning film critics are, unsurprisingly", but that's just elitist old me. I think that "tend to be" is used because it's a little more relative, in that it suggests that, rather than being a point of principle, it's simply an affectation, put on in order to seem superior. Again, although I'm tweezing bits out to examine individually, the overall tone of the paragraph also suggests this interpretation.

3) "a tad stuffy" I love this phrasing! Let us go back to our snooty, joyless, boring elitist, sneering down from his ivory tower; isn't this description just so apt for him? It is being used here with our hypothetical Irish Everyman in mind; like any self-respecting son of the soil, he imagines himself to be good "craic", a bit of laugh, unpretentious, easygoing, et cetera, and the last word he would ever use to describe himself or his chums is "stuffy", which brings to mind crusty old professors, librarians, and accountants. This is one implication of the phrase; the other, of course, is that it suggests that our "film critics" dislike adaptations of vidjo games not because of any well-thought-out argument, or as the result of an intellectual process (in which case stronger, more judgemental phrases like "dismissive" or even "contemptuous" could be used), but because they are simply too dry and fusty to be "down" with "the kids", being the sort of desiccated old prunes who wouldn't know fun if it jammed a funnel into their mouths and poured a litre of Blue WKD down it.

4) "It is, they like to say" Again: why not just "they say"? Or, better still, "they argue"? But, as pointed out in previous points, this phrasing is strengthening the idea that these "film critics" have adopted their attitude as an affectation to prove their superiority rather than as an intelligently thought-out argument (which, Heaven forfend, would suggest that a defender of such entertainments would have to argue back, using such examples as Silent Hill, Resident Evil, or Mortal Kombat).

5) "trivial diversions" This is the nub of the matter, isn't it? And all this talk about stuffiness and tending to say can't get away from the central fact that, unfortunately for Mr. Clarke, video games are entirely trivial. They are essentially a way for (I would guess primarily male) teenagers and college students to pass their time in fantasy-based problem-solving shoot-'em-ups rather than doing anything useful with it. They may have a level of sophistication and intelligence far removed from the Space Invaders of my youth, but any adverts that I have seen (I don't, and never have, played video games) suggest that behind it all is still the childish fantasy of some big guy with a big gun blowing stuff up. A stronger, and more persuasive, argument that our stuffy old film critic could make is that the entire point of a video game is its interactivity; the player controls the central character and therefore "creates" the narrative as he goes along (within the confines of the game's overall structure), and such interactivity cannot be translated to a cinema screen (and is suffocatingly boring for anyone not playing; I lived with a video-game fan for a while and can tell you that watching someone else play (which seemed to consist of wandering around a lot of virtual corridors for hours searching for clues to the next level) is about as exciting as watching security camera footage in an empty office block at 3am). This could be seen as the reason why so many video game adaptations, deprived of this one-on-one interaction, have to rely solely on their hackneyed plots and come across as bad science fiction or horror. Case in point: last night I watched a bit of Resident Evil: Extinction, which, aside from its obvious deficiencies in plot and acting, and its ludicrously improbable and unpleasant fight scenes, came across as a blatant rip-off of Day of the Dead and the Mad Max movies (and, in an entirely unrelated digression, where do they get all that petrol in their post-apocalyptic future? Do Shell and BP hire the Walking Dead to pilot their tankers?) And no matter how much that gamers go on that the source material for these movies is really deep and intelligent (y’know), in order to appreciate its nuances (if any) I have to buy a gaming console, learn to use it, and then spend hours of my life actually playing the bloody thing (which, with my hand-to-eye coordination, means I’ll still be at it in 2010). To be honest, I’d rather use the time to read a book.

6) “Greek tragedies” I’m sorry, Mr. Clarke, but this is pure philistinism. Obviously, referring to Greek tragedy brings us back to the image of the stuffy, joyless, boring elitist, harrumphing his disapproval at these youthful inanities before burying his head in his Sophocles (no doubt while dust softly covers him like a snowfall). But firstly, how many films have actually been made of Greek tragedies? Are filmmakers lining up to make The Orestia or Oedipus Rex? And what’s wrong with Greek tragedies anyway? “They’re, like, so boring!” shouts the Voice of Youth. Well, they’ve only been around for a couple of thousand years and profoundly influenced the whole of Western culture, providing inspiration for generations of artists, writers, and anyone who cares even in the slightest about art or literature, but I guess we should toss them overboard because they just aren’t hip any more. They are, after all, seriously lacking such crucial elements as giant weapons, babes, car chases, and zombies, I suppose … But don’t video games, with their over-muscled heroes (and heroines) battling their way through hostile environments on life-saving quests have their roots in Greek myth? Isn’t the average quest game just a debased pop version of, say, Theseus battling the Minotaur or the Twelve Labours of Hercules? It’s food for thought (in fact, I’m sure someone’s done a thesis on the matter somewhere). Mr. Clarke is simply using them to bolster his dismissal of those stuffy old film critics; I personally feel his sentence would read better as thus: “Surely, directors would be better off making films out of challenging and stimulating subject matter, which reflects the real world and personal issues therein, rather than a bunch of adolescent fantasy shoot-’em-ups.” But that’s just me (again).
(You must forgive me for another personal digression, but a few years back I was working as a waiter in a Dublin restaurant and serving a middle-aged Oaf and his wife. She was very pleasant, but he was a bearded, red-faced loudmouth who insisted on subjecting me to his witless banter. Like so many middle-aged Irish customers, he had an obsessive need to know where I was from (I don’t know why; I certainly didn’t care where he was from), so I told him that I hailed from the much-maligned and underrated city of Limerick. The moment he heard this, his face broke into a grin and he said “Bet you’re lookin’ forward to tomorrow, eh?” “Why?” I asked him. “Ah, c’mon!” he replied, clearly taken aback, as if I’d taken out an electric razor and started shaving onto his dinner plate. “You can’t tell me you don’t know about tomorrow!” “I’m sorry, but I don’t,” I confirmed, ever so politely. My ignorance seemed to turn his world upside-down. Eventually, after several repetitions of surprise, as if he thought I was feigning ignorance as a joke and if he kept asking me often enough I’d admit that I knew what was happening “tomorrow”, the Oaf relented and told me that Limerick were in some hurling final. “Oh, really? I don’t follow sport,” I told him. This provided more explosions of disbelief, as he simply couldn’t grasp that I had no knowledge of the upcoming event. “But you’re from Limerick!” he exclaimed, no doubt holding on to reason as his world crumbled from under him. “Are you from another planet?” I tried to explain that I never read the sports section of the paper, never listen to sport on the radio, and, to be honest, if someone had told me about the match ten minutes previously, I’d have forgotten it nine minutes previously (the fact that I come from Limerick doesn’t mean I give a toss about their sporting exploits in any field). Finally he sneered: “I suppose you’d prefer to read poetry or something!” Of course, if I wasn’t a waiter and therefore at risk of being fired for rudeness, I’d have called him an ignorant tosser, and explained (while pounding his head off the table) that I’d much rather explore the rich and beautiful world of poetry than watch a bunch of guys with sticks knock a ball around a field. (Also, he was considerably larger than me, another reason to bottle up my rage.) But the jokey way he delivered his coup de grace, hiding the real contempt he felt for anyone who’d rather read poetry than watch sport, was clear to see. The same attitude, bizarrely for a critic, seems to be at work in the above article. It probably wasn’t Mr. Clarke’s intention, but I can easily picture somebody in a pub, after hearing me give out about films like The Fast and the Furious (or whatever) snarling out the line about Greek tragedies.)

7) “Byzantine icons” Huh? How do you make a film out of an icon, even if you wanted to? Is Mr. Clarke alluding to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, a lengthy Russian epic about a medieval icon painter? Is he really suggesting that filmmakers should be taking their inspiration from Cannibal Death Warriors IV (Extreme Babe Version) and producing films based on that rather than working towards life-affirming masterpieces based on the experiences of a great artist? If this is the case, then I am compelled to call him an unholy arse. (There’s no holding back with this writer!)

8) “You” Obviously, Irish Everyman; and not a film critic, or anyone stuffy.

9) “rants” This is chosen rather than, say, “arguments” because ranting suggests that it’s simply an unreasoned diatribe by someone whose not fully in control of themselves rather than an intelligent point being made by someone who has actually considered the matter. After all, in the thesaurus “rant” is listed in the section “empty talk”, along with claptrap, guff, and prattle.

So, if you’ve made it this far, let’s take the points above and rewrite that paragraph!

“Discerning film critics are, unsurprisingly, dismissive of adaptations of video games. It is, they say, no wonder the movies are so dreadful when they are derived from such trivial diversions, especially seeing as the interactive nature of such games cannot be translated to the cinema screen. Surely, directors would be better off making films out of challenging and stimulating subject matter, which reflects the real world and personal issues therein, rather than a bunch of adolescent fantasy shoot-’em-ups. Or at least this is their argument.”

Now isn’t that a little better (if a little clunky)?

But there’s more, just a little more (I promise). At the end of The Ticket section there’s another little bout of critic-bashing, this time from Brian Boyd.
“It is de rigueur for music critics to sneer at Dido (and it's usually the sign of a bad one), a shibboleth that displays a fundamental ignorance of the power of melodic pop music. No, Dido isn't Iggy Pop and The Stooges or The Manic Street Preachers.”
Them bleedin’ critics, eh? And their bleedin’ shibboleths! This little comment also sent me into a frenzy of rage, largely because of its sweepingly patronising tone (“there’s no emoticon for what I’m feeling!” as Comic Book Guy once said). So you’re a bad critic if you sneer at Dido, eh? Why? Because, as Boyd states, she’s sold 22 million albums? Or that one in three Irish households (God help us) own one of her albums? So what? The Spice Girls’ first album sold over 23 million copies, and it’s musically worthless tosh. Hell, Los Del Rio’s ‘Macarena’, possibly the most insanely irritating slab of sing-a-long stupidity ever recorded, sold 11 million! But not only that: if you dislike Dido, it’s nothing to do with the fact that her music's as dull and functional as unvarnished pine, the tiresome puling of a startlingly uninteresting woman, but because you’ve “a fundamental ignorance of the power of melodic pop music”. Yeah, that must be it; I can’t appreciate Dido because I burned out my eardrums (and brain cells) at Napalm Death concerts! Well, I’d like to point out that, in addition to a wide selection of experimental noise, electronica, free jazz, and raucous rawk 'n' roll (including Iggy Pop (and The Stooges) (but not the Manics, who are pompous drones)), I also have the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Dionne Warwick, Laura Nyro, Duke Ellington, Beth Orton, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, a whole lot of Motown, Nanci Griffith, Hoagy Carmichael, Fats Waller, Astrid Gilberto, and loads more “melodic” music, quite a bit of which is “pop”. And I once spent a whole summer listening to Dido’s first album when I worked in a restaurant whose manager played it incessantly, and by the end I thought I’d stick my whole head in the deep fryer if I heard “and I-yi / want to thank you / for giving me the best daaay / of my li-iy-ife” once more. (By contrast, I never got tired of listening to Stevie Wonder...) So I think I know just a wee bit about the power of "melodic pop music"; I also know the musical difference between "mellow" and "lifeless".

Gosh, sometimes it just ain’t worth openin’ the paper… Anyway, here's something a little bit "melodic" for y'all...


Sean Jeating said...

In order to cut a com(pli)ment short: Chapeau!

A Doubtful Egg said...

Thanks! [After a quick scurry to the dictionary to find out what "chapeau" means; it's nice to get a com(pli)ment and learn a new word!]

darren said...

great rant egg-man!(but who is the walrus eh?).but did you stop to think that the afore mentioned critic used such tone and phrasing simply because its a 200ish word piece and just writing "Its a gobful of rat wank." on the back of a beer mat doesnt cut the mustard?hehe..rant on,rant on

A Doubtful Egg said...

The walrus was Paul...
Thanks for the comment. Accurate description of Max Payne, by the way!