Criticising the critics

Lee ZachariahIn a piece that first appeared in Encore, Lee Zachariah says that critics and film-makers both have a job to do and like it or not, they need to coexist.

When author Alain de Botton decided to tear apart a reviewer the way the reviewer had torn apart de Botton’s latest book, he was breaking an unspoken rule between artist and critic.

“I will hate you ’til the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude,” de Botton posted on the critic’s website.

It’s always been a fragile relationship and it’s fair to say some people respond to negative criticism better than others.

As a recovering film critic, my sympathies tend to lie with the artists. In a world-first review of a big Hollywood movie, I suggested in the headline the film contained the worst performance by an A-lister in recorded history. Another time, I disliked a film so intensely that I looked down the barrel of a TV camera and informed the director that I hated him. Years later, I discovered the director had seen the clip.

These are not moments that I am remotely proud of. But neither the director in question nor the big Hollywood actor — okay, fine, it was Russell Crowe — used whatever power they had to smack me back down. Which they could very easily have done.

There’s an implicit relationship between artists and critics. One creates a piece of work, and the other explains why it’s terrible, and everyone goes home satisfied. It may seem a bit lopsided, but then gazelles probably think it’s a bit lopsided when they’re being chased by a lion. My point is that it’s all part of a food chain.

With years of practice, Baz Luhrmann’s got it down to a fine art. Regardless of whether you loved or hated The Great Gatsby, it’s impossible to deny that critics with an intolerance of Luhrmann’s directorial style bristled at the idea of him adapting Gatsby, and were determined to scuttle the film before it reached cinemas. The art of the film-maker’s response lies not in discrediting the critic, but allowing the critic to discredit themselves. “Fitzgerald was horrendously criticised when the book came out,” Luhrmann said in Cannes. “I saw Dial M For Murder,” he told Encore last month. “And I was really struck by how immersive drama can be in 3D.” The message is flawlessly executed: if you criticise me, you’re criticising Fitzgerald and Hitchcock.

When Movie 43 received its own fierce reviews, producer/director Peter Farrelly responded: “To the critics: you always complain that Hollywood never gives you new stuff, and then when you get it, you flip out.”

It’s too defensive. Taking a page from Luhrmann’s playbook, Farrelly should have instead reframed the argument thus: “Yeah, a lot of people didn’t like Chaplin at the time, either. Their loss.”

Ultimately, it’s an unfair situation for both parties. On one hand, critics get the final word. On the other, artists create something of worth that lives through the ages. Once we settle into these roles, we should live in symbiotic harmony forever more.

You may think I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that Dorothy Parker and Gertrude Stein made similar arguments, and you wouldn’t want to be seen disagreeing with them, would you?

Lee Zachariah is a writer and critic best known for ABC comedy program The Bazura Project and the film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates.

Encore issue 20This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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