A Criticism Of New York Criticism
You Just Knew That Someday It Would Come To This
I’ve lived in New York for more than thirty years and while most of the time I can’t imagine living anywhere else, I’m also not blind to the reasons that people who don’t live here (the rest of the country) consider residents elitist snobs. There are many reasons to think that but I think that the historical impression comes down to two particular factors: The Yankees and New York magazine and newspaper critics. I complete sympathize with those who hate the former (which again, pretty much the entire country does regardless how badly they’ve done in recent years) and I kind of understand why so many people hate the latter. Because as a critic, they’re generally everything we accuse of them of being.
For all the time I’ve lived in New York, I have almost never read The Times. Part of this was literally childish: at the time we moved, I couldn’t respect any paper that didn’t have a comics section. But even more frequent has been the utter condescension that fills every aspect of the Arts section, particularly when it comes to film and TV. When I occasionally read it as a teenager — before the utter proliferation of the comic book film, in other words — there was always an almost always visible hostility towards almost every film that was made, including a lot of the ones that were actually quality. I’ll admit part of my frustration was, unlike other publications, the Times has never deemed to give a star rating, saying you have to read as many as two pages to get the idea if they actually like the film you’re watching. I’ve never been a fan of ambiguity when it comes to criticism, and that’s almost entirely what the Times reviewers are about. Of course, in the era of blockbuster movies, they’ve become even more stultified when it comes to any film that is out. They want to make the argument that films were better before when they did produce to the lowest common denominator. The fact that going back to Bosley Crowther’s utter condemnation of films like Bonnie and Clyde — a film now considered a groundbreaker — Times reviewers don’t seem to like any new films doesn’t matter to them.
I see a similar strain of elitism in The New Yorker. Now I should be clear; I really like The New Yorker particularly their arts section. And that seems to be based on the idea that most of the critics there seem to like their jobs and the art they’re reviewing. The Broadway critics like Broadway, the pop music critics like pop music and so on. Indeed, the television criticism section — which I remember back far enough to know that they would review TV once a month if that often — has now become one of the best sources for criticism in the country. Critics like Emily Nussbaum and Doreen St. Felix are very engaging and intelligent their approach, they’re willing to look back at certain series over the passage of time, and even if you don’t agree with their hostility towards certain shows — Nussbaum detests The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and St. Felix bares a similar hostility towards the equally delightful Ted Lasso — they’ve built up enough of a reputation and are intelligent enough in their dissents that you can respect the reasons why.
I have never once sensed this in any of the film critics for The New Yorker. It’s not just that they hate, almost by decree, any blockbuster movie that comes out but also most of the movies that are up for awards contention just for that reason. In more than twenty years of reading New Yorker film reviews, the only films they ever seem to real like are: a) foreign films that you can barely find even in New York, b) documentary films that are even harder to find, c) low-budget independent films that often really do deserve the praise but are usually harder to find that films in either a or be or, d) a revival of a film from forty or fifty years ago most of us have never heard of. In other words, they’re the kind of films you can only find in New York. And at that point you realize who critics for The Times and New Yorker are writing for: themselves.
It’s no wonder I’ve historically found it far more worthwhile to read reviews of film and television from the ‘tabloids’ such as Newsday, The Daily News and even The Post. Generally the reviewers are more willing to engage with the readers and people like me who admire film and television. They make it more accessible for the average reader to understand and while you may not agree with how they get there, at the very least they express it in terms that the average citizen can understand.
I have a feeling that the reason that the majority of people hate critics in general and New York media critics in particular. The sole qualification for so many of their livelihoods seems to be to utter detest the field their reviewing. The entire history of Broadway — basically a New York industry — is based on the idea that the critics are eternally out of touch with what the people want. During the late Stephen Sondheim’s heyday, critics like Clive Barnes seem to delight in poisoning the well against classics like Company and Follies. Now that he’s safely a legend, the new generation of critics can say how brilliant he truly is and was.
To be clear many critics aren’t and weren’t like that. One of my writing idols until his untimely passing was Roger Ebert. Ebert was like a lot of critics in that he tended to prefer foreign films and independent films. The key difference was he was willing to open his heart and eyes to well-made blockbusters. And to be clear, sometimes his mind was too open. He’s the only major critic of any kind I know who wrote close to a rave for Episodes I and III of the Star Wars series and actually saw Attack of the Clones twice to see if his initial pan of it was merited. He was also one of the few critics who seemed to approve of the modern comic book movie, including Christopher’s Nolan’s Batman trilogy and almost the entire Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (I’m still relatively certain the only reason he disliked Thor so much was because he thought director Kenneth Brannagh was slumming.) I’ve often wondered, if Ebert was still alive, what he would have thought of the next two Phases of Marvel and the final Star Wars trilogy.
And unlike so many critics, he clearly was willing to be open-minded to fans. He was willing to listen to people who didn’t agree with his opinion and occasionally hear them out. He held festivals for the fans where he would go shot-by-shot through films he admired. He was willing to change his mind over time about films: he admitted he had been too harsh on Godfather II and too kind to The Graduate. Among all critics, he was willing to admit that movies should be accessible to the moviegoer. And as a result he and his fellow critic Gene Siskel took a huge amount of derision and abuse from his fellow critics. How dare they reduce the art of criticism to the simple pointing of a thumb?
At its core that has been the center of so much debate between so many critics: who is it for? So many critics seem to really believe that criticism should be truly for scholar and artists and not the masses. They will openly berate publications like TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly because they try to make their criticism accessible to the people who might actually want to go to movies, watch TV and listen to music. Ebert and his school believed it should be for the people. Critics like Pauline Kael believed it should be for critics, and damn if the artist should get their feelings hurt. In a recent documentary about Kael, David Lean was invited to a lunch after the premiere of Ryan’s Daughter (admittedly a mediocre film) and was publicly castigated by New York critics including Kael saying that the man who directed Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia was a hack. Lean was so wounded by the remarks he only made one more film for the remaining twenty years of his life. I imagine Kael and her ilk probably thought ‘Good’.
I realize as well as anybody that trying to critique anything — particularly today when anybody can be a critic — is a high-wire act on the best of days. And I’m willing to admit that to an extent I can be as closed-minded as many of my fellow critics were and are. But the difference between them and me is that I am willing to admit my flaws and that there are some shows on television that I’m never going to appreciate the way so many other people love. Millions of Americans loved Game of Thrones and Scandal; I thought they were misguided, but I was willing to acknowledge that there are some things I’m never going to get. Too many critics (particularly in New York) think that if they don’t get something or appreciate, not only is it not worth getting, but the people who get it are deluded and not worthy of their time. You want to see The Matrix: Revolutions? All right. It’s not for me; I’d rather see the Coen Brothers new adaptation of Macbeth, but I understand why some, maybe most, ticket buyers would rather see the former this Christmas. The Times Critics will no doubt say that making any of The Matrix films was a waste of time and energy; that the sequel is unnecessary (like basically any movie in a franchise) and that the people who buy the tickets do not have the necessary IQ points to understand great cinema. They say all this with the assuredness that these people won’t read these reviews in the first place, and if they do, so what: Their jobs are safe.
So as a New York Critic, I end my piece with a plea. Try not to judge all critics by these really sour apples. We’re not all like that. Some of us are grateful that you read our reviews at all, particularly now. You don’t have to agree with me about shows like Succession (which I hate) or Reservation Dogs (which I love). If you read my review, and the end of it you think I’m an idiot or an elitist, that’s fine. We’re all entitled to our opinion. That’s the reason I got into this job in the first place.
So drop me a line. Tell me yours. I may not be able to make music with my hind legs, but I’m not worthless. (Yes I close with Mel Brooks’ opinion on critics. I couldn’t resist.)