Am I a film critic? A TV critic? A music critic? A pop culture critic? An entertainment critic? A journalist?
I don’t know. I certainly have an appetite for writing in those modes, as evidenced by the content on this blog. And I certainly have an appetite for reading work by people who can use those titles in the professional sense. I don’t really know at what point a person crosses over from “fan” to “critic.” Roger Ebert once said that the best way to become a critic is to call yourself one. I’d like to think that much of my writing is critical, at the very least.
But enough about my existential crisis. The purpose of this blog post, and many more like it, is to provide with you some context about my inspirations and idol in the field I’m currently pursuing as a potential career. Twenty years ago, this list would have been confined to writers who worked in print publications that I had access to or television programs I watched, but the Internet has opened the doors for hundreds of smart, thoughtful writers to contribute to our ever-expanding exploration of pop culture and its impact on our lives.
Some people say the Internet killed pop culture criticism. With so many voices out there, everyone’s a critic, and that’s not necessarily a path we want to go down. To quote Syndrome from Pixar’s The Incredibles, “If everyone’s special, no one is.” But I think the Internet has saved pop culture criticism. Yes, we have so many options that it’s easy to suffer from decision fatigue, but if we latch on to the writers we admire and expand our network to include those writers’ favorites and so on, we can pick and choose the work we choose to consider.
For the people who say that pop culture is dead, I wonder what they expect from criticism. If they expect a definitive “yes” or “no” verdict (the simple “thumbs up” that Siskel and Ebert so reluctantly employed on their show), I see what they mean when they say that there are too many forums for people to establish their “opinions.” But if pop culture criticism is an ongoing dialogue that inspires us to think carefully about the pop culture we consume, to connect the “what it’s about” (as Ebert put it) to the “how it’s about it,” to recognize that our tastes and perceptions shape the way we think about every movie we watch, every album we listen to, every book we read, I say the more the merrier.
With that in mind, here’s are three critics I admire.
As you can tell from my introduction above, no discussion of film criticism, or criticism of any kind, can begin without the towering wisdom of the late, great Roger Ebert. There are so many things to admire about Ebert’s reviews; I could write a whole book and never scratch the surface. Ebert established the benchmark for film criticism that catered but never pandered to a mass audience. His reviews are concise, direct and plainly written (1). They reveal a vast knowledge and deep affection for the power of movie to awaken feelings within ourselves we didn’t know we had (2). They often reflect Ebert’s personal sensibilities; he saw himself not as a tastemaker, but a taste-reporter, commenting on the emotional connections he made with films and inviting readrs to make their own connections (3).
And his reviews are never clinical or cold, but funny, funny, funny (4)! In his review of Rob Reiner’s 1994 comedy North, Ebert wrote:
“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”
And yet, he never resulted to cruel insults or diminishments of talent. Ebert concluded that review not with another withering barb or final death blow, but with a note of sympathy and regard for the movie’s well-respected director, Rob Reiner.
“I hold it as an item of faith that Rob Reiner is a gifted filmmaker; among his credits are “This Is Spinal Tap,” “The Sure Thing,” “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” and “Misery.” I list those titles as an incantation against this one. “North” is a bad film – one of the worst movies ever made. But it is not by a bad filmmaker, and must represent some sort of lapse from which Reiner will recover – possibly sooner than I will.”
It’s that generosity of spirit that makes Roger Ebert an icon of American culture, right alongside the movies he rightly celebrated.
And now, just a few of those reviews to show you the man’s genius.
1. The Descendants: “”The Descendants” has a happy ending. Therefore, technically, it’s a comedy. It takes place in the paradise of Hawaii. It stars George Clooney. That may lead you to expect a pleasant good time, but this film is so much more than that.”
2. The Tree of Life: “I wrote earlier about the many ways this film evoked my own memories of such time and place. About wide lawns. About a town that somehow, in memory, is always seen with a wide-angle lens. About houses that are never locked. About mothers looking out windows to check on their children. About the summer heat and ennui of church services, and the unpredictable theater of the dinner table, and the troubling sounds of an argument between parents, half-heard through an open window.”
3. Blue Velvet: “”Blue Velvet” contains scenes of such raw emotional energy that it’s easy to understand why some critics have hailed it as a masterpiece. A film this painful and wounding has to be given special consideration. And yet those very scenes of stark sexual despair are the tipoff to what’s wrong with the movie.”
4. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: “”Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys.”
My next pick actually has an Ebert connection. Matt Zoller Seitz is currently serving as the Editor-in-Chief for RogerEbert.com, curating wonderful film writing from all across the globe to extend Ebert’s legacy beyond his own work. He’s doing a terrific job so far, and I think I know why: he’s one of the smartest pop-culture writers of our time, with a rich knowledge of film history and conventions as well as valuable experience as a filmmaker and screenwriter. Better yet, just as Ebert occasionally dabbled in television criticism, Seitz doesn’t consider one medium to be above the other. In fact, his reviews often evaluate television shows based not on some lowered standards for small-screen productions, but on the standards of the best and most powerful art. He’s not afraid to be a contrarian, as with his 3.5-star review of After Earth and his love of the oft-reviled first season of American Horror Story. And he’s not afraid to draw parallels between high and low art, as when he compares ABC’s The Neighbors to Modern Family, Third Rock from the Sun and Alien Nation.
Even when I agree with him, as I do sometimes but not always, Seitz makes me think about entertainment in new and exciting ways. In his review of the sixth-season finale of Mad Men, he pointed out the accuracy of the show’s depiction of alcohol dependency, an aspect of the show I hadn’t even considered. According to his friend and colleague Todd VanDerWerff, Seitz once described Friday Night Lights as the television equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen song, and I agree with VanDerWerff: that’s the shortest and best compliment you can pay that show. And without his glowing review of the first season of Hannibal, I might never have seen his excellent summation of the reason why this show rises above other “gore-fests”:
The director Park Chan-Wook once said that the most important relationship in any film isn’t the relationship between any two characters, but the relationship between the film and its viewer. Hannibal quite intentionally gets at that, too. This is the goriest show on TV. In terms of lingered-on butchery, it’s far more explicit than Fox’s somewhat similar The Following, which drew many complaints of brutality. And yet somehow it doesn’t feel as violent as other less-bloody shows. Mad Men is more brutal in its conversations than this show is (for the most part) in its forensic scenes.
Seitz currently writes TV criticism for Vulture.com and movie criticism for RogerEbert.com, but his work has appeared everywhere from Salon and Slant to Indiewire and Village Voice. Seek it out. He’ll say what you were thinking – or he’ll make you wish you’d thought that way.
Seitz’s Vulture colleague Jody Rosen has quickly become one of my favorite music writers. (He previously worked as the music critic for Slate, but I didn’t read him much then.) Music criticism is a tricky business, and it’s been the toughest nut for me to crack on this blog. I often struggle to come up with reasons for liking or disliking music – maybe I don’t have the ear for detecting nuances in production or lyrical content, or maybe I’m just thinking too much and not letting my emotions do the work. Rosen’s pointing me in the direction, though.
I have to start with his review of Yeezus, Kanye West’s incredibly challenging and strange new album. I want to write a blog post about it, but I feel like the album has been designed to elude easy analysis. There’s certainly no way for me to tell you whether it’s “good” or not. I’m not even sure if I “liked” it or not. And I certainly wouldn’t know whether or not to recommend it to you. Rosen sidesteps those concerns effortlessly:
I’ve listened to “Blood on the Leaves” twenty times; I’m sure I’ll listen another hundred before the month is out. I can’t decide: Is it brilliantly tasteless? Or just plain tasteless? A cheap stunt? A tour de force? The worst song I’ve ever heard? The best? What other musician makes you ask such questions?
In the paragraph above that one, he talks about the dense musical content and the challenging lyrics without ever reaching a definitive conclusion on any of it. Nonetheless, by the end of the review, I felt I understood the album better because I had been freed of the obligation to render an objective verdict on it. Criticism is about honesty – just like The Washington Post, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. And that’s OK!
Criticism is also about making bold statements, and Rosen doesn’t shy away from them. “If he has a weakness as an artist,” Rosen writes of Kanye, “it’s his rapping, his stiff flow and sometimes awkward rhymes.” To many fans of Kanye the rapper, this sentence seems like sacrilege. But he’s right! Kanye doesn’t have the lyrical dexterity of an Eminem or even a T.I. That’s why he steers his records in a different direction altogether.
I also like that Rosen isn’t afraid to praise artists who might fall outside of the critical community’s favorites, as with his defense of Brad Paisley or his amusingly muted praise of Miley Cyrus. He doesn’t apologize for artists’ missteps, but he doesn’t pretend that they outweigh an artist’s strengths. I am greatly looking forward to more criticism for Rosen.
Obviously there are hundreds more critics I could have spotlighted here, and I plan to do so periodically. Observant readers will notice that all of three of these picks are white men. Trust me, I know, and I will correct for that narrow focus in later posts. In the meantime, I urge you to read those critics if you’re looking for someone to inspire your writing or thinking about pop culture. Two thumbs up to all three of them.