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November 26, 2008

Old Saws Revisited, and Hence Made Older Still

The first old saw, as discussed in this fine blog, was whether critics should accept complimentary tickets. When I was in my first job, at the Oakland Tribune in 1969, my first Sunday think piece suggested that the entire practice of accepting freebies, be they tickets or books or LP's, was corrupt, and that the critic's employer should buy all that swag as necessary. The Tribune killed my piece.

Yes, in an ideal moral universe, freebies would be disallowed. But especially in today's tortured economy, get real: if the critic and his/her newspaper/online publication/blog site can get 'em, they'll take 'em.

Sometimes practices become so firmly established that the potential for conflict of interest, or even the dreaded appearance of a conflict of interest, pretty much fades away. At least until some cultural organization, in a swivet because of a negative review, attempts to bar a critic from its sacred precincts. Then the controversy flares up all over again.

My own old saw is blurbs. Not the complaints of critics that arts organizations unfairly rip a phrase from context ("Not in your wildest imagination could 'Turkey Shoot' be considered a great film" becomes... well, you get the idea).

My complaint is with reviewers whose hyperbolic verbiage is regularly deployed in ads to hype product, in particular films. This is not the same as the fly-by-night credits accorded raves from authors and organizations no one has ever heard of, and who may well be interns in the production companies' PR or marketing departments.

No, I am thinking of real critics, and particularly right now of Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. I have never met Travers. He may be a beacon of honesty, an insightful critic and an all-around great fellow. But his raves routinely adorn movies of varying quality, so much so that a reader begins to distrust his imprimatur and to start wondering about his incessant enthusiasm.

Just today we have an ad in the NY Times (and a hundred other papers, no doubt) for "Milk." Now, this is a film (which I haven't yet seen) that has been widely praised. But the ad confines itself to Travers's gush of excitement": "A TOTAL TRIUMPH!" in huge type. Then, in slightly smaller but still biggish type: "Brimming with humor and heart. If there's a better movie around this year, I haven't seen it." Then, in slightly more modest type, worshipful praise for most everyone involved in the film: Sean Penn "gives the performance of the year." Emile Hirsch is "sensational." Josh Brolin is "simply astounding." By this standard James Franco ("warmly funny"), Alison Pill ("excellent") and Diego Luna ("excels") must really tank. And so it goes. Finally, in big type again, "An American Classic!"

Did Travers actually use those exclamation points? If not, he and Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone should sue. But they won't: It's free advertising for them as well as for the gushed-over film du jour.

I'm all for constructive, supportive criticism. Critics should love the art form they review; otherwise it's just a job, and a tiresome one at that. But for his own reputation, the critic has to show some discrimination and, to my taste, rein in both the vitriol and the giddiness. Otherwise they become mere fodder for the quote machine, and Travers has, I'm afraid, become just that.

November 26, 2008 8:31 AM | | Comments (1)



I remember finding Rolling Stone in my (paid-for-by-my-newspaper) hotel room at a press junket for a Nicolas Cage movie -- even before that issue made it to the stands.

Peter's rave review was prominently displayed.


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