Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dying Breed

Last month the New York Times published an article titled "Now on the Endangered Species List: Movie Critics in Print". It points out that with all the online coverage, both by publications and bloggers, there is increasingly little need for a film review in a newspaper. Indeed, many publications no longer have reviews of new movies, or they get theirs from the wire. The fact is that good critical success doesn't often add up to commercial one at the box office. Readers want fresh opinions, not those of the old fuddy-duddies whose taste is quite different from the younger crowd. Yes, sometimes there is an insightful review of a beautiful movie that one knows isn't going to shatter any records and the reader is grateful to be introduced to it. This is especially true to foreign films which are amazingly scarce in this country. Perhaps with Americans becoming more and more illiterate, reading subtitles is too much of an effort. Understanding them in French, German or Italian would be too much to ask. Luckily one can import DVDs from overseas markets and play them on a region-free player or on a computer with proper software.

A more important question is should arts be "reviewed" at all. There was a time when a paper would give its stamp of approval or disapproval on something an individual on their payroll wrote up. Often these critics had their personal agendas and preferences they tried to force upon the reader. I can't say that the average person has become smarter but since there is so much variety of opinion on the internet, who can blame a person from wanting to hear another side to the story. A painting or a sculpture may receive glowing reviews in the newspaper, especially if the writer and the artist are friends, yet someone on a successful blog can negate all that by exposing it as trash. People hardly agree on basic things such as food and drink, so it is easy to understand the vastly different opinions on literature, theater, music and yes, movies. It is amazing to read restaurant reviews as some patrons find the food and service disgusting and yet others praise it to high heavens. Word of mouth, both good and bad, is even more effective than anything online. After a satisfactory movie or tasty meal, it is easy to reach for the omnipresent cell phone and let your friends know about it. There is no need to even talk as texting will do the job. News like that spreads fast and the restaurant may find a full house the next night or the movie theater a long line at the ticket office.

In music, critics shouldn't really exist. Only someone highly educated with literary talent, and a performer or composer, should be allowed to express an opinion and even then, it should be made clear in the text that this is only one person's, not the paper's view. In a city or town where there is basically one organization responsible for musical entertainment and just one critic who writes reviews, the situation becomes unhealthy in no time. When a judge befriends a prosecutor and/or a defense attorney, impartiality is history. Sometimes these reporters have stayed with the publication for decades and are in close social contact with the local big machers. At other times there is a romantic involvement, real or imagined. In a nearby city there was a music critic who would publish reviews of a community orchestra's concerts in a suburb some fifteen minutes away. The conductor was always praised in a manner that could be best described as love letters. The critic had a first name that wasn't gender-specific and most of us thought it was a woman who had the hots for the conductor. We were quite shocked to find out that she was a he, as people didn't think of the conductor as gay. Well, the critic suddenly died and the paper decided to cease publishing classical reviews entirely. A similar decision supposedly has taken place in this town as the main paper's classical specialist received her severance package recently. I don't know the reasons behind it all, but perhaps the paper had to downsize and the least valuable people had to go. It has been great many years since I had read anything written by this critic. I remember an orchestra violinist once getting raves from her and carrying enlarged copies of the review with him, showing them to everyone ad nauseam. Some locals have lost their bullhorn, that's for sure. All I know is that during her Running Start program at the Seattle Central Community College my daughter's English professor used said critic's texts as an example how not to write. Great program that Running Start, although high schools don't like it as it robs them of funds. My Anna is getting her double BA degree in Political Science and Spanish next month at the age of 20.

I believe reviewing the arts should be restricted to only a few first rate newspapers, in cities where there is a lot offered. New York obviously comes to mind and a writer of classical music for the Times can stay plenty busy never setting foot in the local orchestra's offerings. Multiple noteworthy recitals take place daily, with fresh new faces. Art galleries are everywhere and play productions are numerous on any given day. Los Angeles is becoming another center and the greater metropolitan area has a lot to offer, so I would include the L.A. Times on the list. Critic-performer fraternizing should be outlawed and any reporter guilty of that should immediately be let go. Neutrality must be the rule of the land in the media.

In my childhood the local paper had a critic who was an alcoholic and some kind of a music teacher for adults. His mission in life was to make fun of my father and his quite excellent orchestra. Once the critic got fired, an amateur viola player continued in the same fashion, in spite of having sat in the very orchestra. This man played with his mouth always wide open and I often had an urge to stick an apple in it. When I performed the glorious Glazounov concerto, he wrote how it was too bad that I had to play such rotten Kreisler concertos. My opinion about critics didn't improve any when in my teens a Finnish well-known gay critic tried to get me drunk and to his hotel room while I was studying with Heifetz in Los Angeles. He then had the nerve to complain to my father that I didn't know what was best for me nor how to take care of PR. My dear old man was naïve and totally clueless and tried to inquire what I had done wrong to insult the critic. Although I have known great writers of music, most others have been failures in life. The good ones continue to be successful, and I don't feel sorry for any others whose jobs are threatened.

An incompetent critic's defense is "You don't have to be a cow to tell that the milk is sour". True, but sour could as well mean delicious yogurt, sour cream or even Havarti cheese. All of those beat non-fat milk, don't they?