Criticism is Like Cancer

Ken Woolridge (AND)Cancer Sucks

Criticism, like cancer, grows rather naturally and is fully dependent on its host. It’s growth is predicated upon a relatively healthy host and a benign environment in which it can grow unimpeded.

Lest we spend too long developing that story, the important way that criticism is like cancer is that it comes in two varieties: benign and malignant. Like cancer, both types of criticism can cause mental pain and anguish, but the benign form is not harmful. Malignant forms, on the other hand, are an undesired scourge which is never helpful and hard to live with.

For the purposes of this analogy, we will leave completely positive criticism aside. Like a false positive, it offers nothing worthy of either concern or time of the creator, but it may, at times, distract from the task. A kind word from a friend or stranger about your creation gives little or no insight into the success or failure of your effort.

Malignant criticism, to be clear, seems to have proliferated recently with ever more outlets available for nearly everyone to become a critic. A few years ago, I kept a blog full of quotidian concerns and grand ambitions. It was a very minor affair that was notable to myself and probably three other people. Yet some stranger found it and offered some decidedly malignant criticism. And it hurt. And that was all it did. I tell this story in part because I like to talk about myself, but mostly because it’s a good window into malignant criticism.

Malignant criticism, in short, negates all possible positives of a work and instead aims solely to eviscerate both the creator and the creation. It asserts that the creation is not only flawed, but completely without merit. It says “This is stupid, deluded, foolish, and naive. It’s only purpose is for me to ridicule it.” (That by the way, is about the content of the strangers “review” of my old site.)

This kind of criticism is tantamount to bullying. And just as your parents probably told you, bullies have to tear someone down to make themselves feel good. Malignant criticism is, in general, nothing more than an ego trip.

Benign criticism is almost never that simple. Though it doesn’t shirk acknowledgment of the flaws of the creation, it tends to recognize that a flawed work is not a valueless one. The words “constructive criticism” are often used to encourage this benign form.

Benign criticism tells the creator (and the audience at large) what the creator set out to do, how far she got toward accomplishing that goal, and how she failed to live up to the potential that the work had. This sounds straightforward, but most amateur reviewer (like myself) often fail to do this.

Benign criticism is much harder to compile than the malignant variety. Consider “snark,” the internet created shorthand for “snide remark” that is, at base, the height of malignant criticism. One can, with a single line of “snark,” express all that is generally seen to be wrong about criticism. A dismissive “Look how bad this story is” or “See how pretentious this guy is” often passes for criticism on the internet. And though it may be criticism, it’s hardly something anyone wants to–or should have to–spend time with.

I guess that brings us back to the top. Like cancer, criticism is often confused with its malignant form. But it’s a mistake to think that all criticism is malignant, benign criticism is one of the most important features of a vibrant culture and when it’s available can not and should not be dismissed out of hand.


Review: The Bugle (Podcast)

TimesOnlineComedians John Oliver and Andy Zalzman

With the Writers Guild of America still on strike, the absence of late-night commentary on politics has been missed. Though the quality of the commentary was rarely exceptionally high, late night comedians did provide a useful and informative diversion for those less tempted to read the papers (like myself, most of the times).

So while looking for new podcasts–something I do habitually–I noticed a a picture of The Daily Show‘s John Oliver, attached to a podcast called The Bugle, which calls itself “An audio newspaper for a visual world.”

Because it’s associated with The (London) Times, one of Rupert Murdoch’s many media properties, I was moderately fearful that The Bugle a would suffer from the same awkwardly conservative bent that doomed Fox New’s The 1/2 Hour News Hour to a lukewarm death.

Alas, such concerns were unmerited. The Bugle is a usually delightful, witty, and deadpan satire that has, since I discovered it, softened the blow caused by the absence of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert from the airwaves. The transatlantic chat show, with The Daily Show‘s John Oliver in New York and the new-to-America Andy Zaltzman from England, ranges all sorts of topics and is frequently full of biting dry wit that is unequaled in my recent memory.

As just one example Mr. Oliver, the Englishman living in America, ridicules Mr. Murdoch’s Fox News Channel saying about the recent California wildfires:

Now Fox News has speculated that there may even have been a terrorist link to this. You can now officially blame the terrorists for anything. Now I burnt my toast this morning, and I think that’s the terrorists at work. They must have broken into my apartment and turned the setting up half a notch. There’s no other explanation for this.

If you viewers have had anything happen to you that you’d like to blame on terrorism, please do email that in.

This is funny, but not The Bugle at its best. They easily venture into inanities discussed with a delightful seriousness. Mr. Zaltzman on the same topic:

But I think George W. Bush has to take a lot of blame for this because he’s been very weak with the environment this year. Now, traditionally, he’s always been heroically strong in the face of the threat the environment poses to the world, saying that we must stand up to the environment, we can’t negotiate with it because that would make us appear weak. But even he, this year, has given into the environment. He signed up to the G8’s non-binding verbal agreement to think about the environment at least once a week from now on. He does now have a picture of a tree on his desk, so it does appear that the leopard is now starting to show its spots. And it’s a snow leopord, so the joke stands.

As with all comedy (and especially satire), The Bugle is hit and miss. Some of their jokes are over-written, others feel like they would have been better if they’d been written at all. They repeat jokes to the point of meaninglessness. Their “audio cryptic crossword” is just one example of an interesting idea that has already gotten old over the mere five shows they’ve recorded.

They also seem to stretch the transatlantic connection a little past its breaking point. Their recurring–if chronically delayed–“Ask an American” segment isn’t without humor, but it tacks too close to stereotypes and sacrifices some great jokes in the process. Another of their favorite bits is to run down a current–but not well-known–event in British politics, and then ask the self-evident question “is it known in America?”

On the whole though, The Bugle is an admirable stand-in for those suffering from satire-about-current-events withdrawal. It is certainly funnier than any satire I’m either watching or not watching during the strike.

american society, religion, review

Review: Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp is a documentary that examines the Evangelical movement in the United States. It does this by following a few Evangelicals (I believe they’re mostly Pentecostal) for a time. And on the whole, it does a fairly even-handed job of this, not seeming to judge its subjects, merely to present them.

This may be because the directors felt no need; the film’s chief evangelist (Becky Fischer) is herself somewhat reactionary and off-putting. Her essential claim, stated very early in the film, is that America’s children need to mobilized for Jesus because Muslims around the world are fervently converting their children and arming them for a coming conflict.

To overtly critique the film’s subject, the directors have relied on a single liberal Christian radio talk show host, shown making his own show about the dangers of the evangelical movement and his view that it’s essentially missing the message of Christ.

Visually, the film is very stark. But the subjects are generally lively enough to compensate. The most important players in the drama are children: there’s Levi, 12, who is aspiring to be a preacher. Rachel, 9, who feels moved to tell a twenty-something in a bowling ally that God loves her and is thinking of her, is also particularly memorable.

Overall, the movie paints a pretty useful, if somewhat frightening, portrait of the movement. It seems to gloss over certain aspects of motives and aspirations. The characters feel slightly underdeveloped, all getting enough time on camera, but none really probed or examined in any meaningful way. That is, we see these kids at church and at camp, but with little explanation of their motives for being there.

None the less, we are given a good look at what does occur at such camps. In one striking example, Becky Fischer tells weeping young children that there are fakers among them, and that they need to admit and cease their lying because “there can be no fakers in God’s army.”

This scene and others raise some interesting questions about the most radical elements of the movement. Levi, in some ways the film’s star, is home schooled by his mother in the ways of Creationist science. His book asks him, a middle-school aged child, to explain how global warming is clearly not a real problem.

Perhaps more jarring, is the scene in which a man speaks to the children at camp about abortion. I was shocked, not least of all because most of the children at this camp were between the ages of 8 and 13. This left the man on shaky ground, teaching children who probably don’t even know the biology of reproduction what abortion is and how it is bad.

Regardless of all of this, I couldn’t stop wondering about the future of these people. Repeatedly throughout the film, adults are telling these children that they are the most important generation, and that they can win back America for God. Most of the children shown seem enthused with this idea. I was left wondering how many of the children at this camp actually felt that way. How long those shown would continue to feel that way. Would they all, if revisited in 5 or 10 years time, still be a fervent in their beliefs, or would some become cynical.

Regardless of these questions, there is no denying that Jesus Camp tells some compelling stories, and in a fairly even-handed way. If you’re curious about evangelism (especially its extremes), Jesus Camp makes a good introduction.


Review: Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger than Fiction is a rare movie. It seems to break all the well-establish rules. But it doesn’t gloat about the way its breaking the rules. Instead it breaks them in a way that makes you wonder why there are rules in the first place. And why others have to break them so boldly and without reason.

The films main character, Harold Crick, is introduced with voice over that I was hooked by. It was the kind of loving voice (beautifully done by Emma Thompson) that you can’t help but be taken by. Can’t help but agree with. And it is this voice that guides us through Harold’s morning. That is, until, Harold notices the voice.

Harold, played brilliantly by Will Farrell, breaks the rules by noticing the voice. And he becomes increasingly annoyed as the voice explains how he dresses, how he brushes his teeth, and how he gets to the bus in the morning.

It is Harold’s interaction with the voice that is crucial and innovative in Stranger Than Fiction. In Harold’s recognition of the voice, he becomes far more interesting than he had been at the start. He becomes conscious of his life, his choices, and who he has become.

Stranger than Fiction is the kind of movie that invites us in on a little secret. And it does so consciously and without remorse. We know before Harold does what his fate is, how he will end up. But this tragic irony is not just used. It is made conscious. It makes a giant self-referential show of itself. And that is the magic.

The interaction between the character and the narrator is crucial, and fascinating. It is magical realism that seems perfectly reasonable, in just the way that magical realism should.

But because of this magical realism, the film can be disliked. Either because it is unrealistic, or because it doesn’t take the whole thing far enough. For people in love with Charlie Kaufman’s opaque brand of magical realism, this may be too straight-forward, too easy.

I think that criticism is misplaced, as Stranger Than Fiction is both an incredibly complex and simple movie. At it’s best, it encourages us to grow along with its protagonist. To question along with its protagonist.

It’s full of the simple questions and the simple joys that make each day different from the other.

And for making us aware of this simple difference that we all too often ignore, this movie is brilliant.


Review: The News from Lake Wobegon (Podcast)

First, you should probably know that beyond knowing who Garrison Keillor was, and having once or twice heard snippets of A Prairie Home Companion, I knew little before I decided to give this podcast a listen. It may also interest you that I’d never really liked NPR a lot, though I also didn’t hate it.

Having said that, I think that “The News from Lake Wobegon” (available here, free of course), a segment from A Praire Home Companion, is a great 10 to 15 minutes of radio. It’s good enough that I’m beginning to resent the fact that American Public Media doesn’t offer the entire show as a podcast. They do offer it online, and of course over traditional radio, but I desire the absolute convenience of the podcast.

Regardless, the magic of “The News from Lake Wobegon” is that it is soaked in the myth of the small town. The town, “out there on the edge of the prairie,” doesn’t actually exist, which allows Keillor all the freedom to fill it with dozens of interesting people and their stories.

The stories are as simple as they are quintessentially human. In a particularly memorable episode, for Memorial Day, Keillor tells us the story of the greatest speech ever given at Lake Wobegon’s Memorial Day festivities. But before he gets there, he tells us about the weather, the weekend, past Memorial Days and finally the story. This diversion doesn’t feel like it stalls too much or is heinously artificial, but rather that it is a natural and necessary to the fabric of the story. Don’t think that you’ll never wish it would hurry, but sometimes you think the same things in normal conversation.

The story of Clarence Bunson’s speech honoring the fallen dead begins with his words:

If there were a time when words were inappropriate, when silence was the most articulate speech, it would be here and now. Better than any oratory, better than any speech or poem for you and I to stand two minutes in silence and look out at those whom we know and those whom we do not know and think of all that they did for us.

The story ends with a revelation, at which you can guess, but would never have expected at the start.

The monologue is alway filled with magnificent stories of the average. The best kind of average that anyone can enjoy. The kind of average that constantly reminds us that we need not be famous or good looking to be interesting. To be real. To be human.

If you only listen to one podcast your whole life… no that’s too arbitrary a criteria. If you’re looking for a good podcast, I would offer that you should give this one a chance.

politics, review

Review: An Unreasonable Man

Before we begin, you should know that I have long harbored some affection for Ralph Nader. In 2004, when I was just starting to get seriously interested in politics, I saw him speak. Nader seemed to me to be the best candidate for President. He cared about and talked about issues that the other two well-known candidates weren’t. For further illustration of my enamorment (the best made-up word yet actually, that appears to be a word), notice the rhetoric of the two major parties being equally bad in this letter. That’s exactly like Nader.

To explain its title, the documentary begins with a quote from George Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

In these two sentences, the film’s thesis is clear: Mr. Nader is both unreasonable and, more importantly, progressive. As the filmmakers tell the story, Ralph Nader is not unlike Frank Capra’s Jefferson Smith come to life: an idealistic reformer unwilling to yield to the status quo.

On the possibility that Mr. Nader was a misguided reformer, the film is ominously silent. There are no memorable opponents to his landmark reforms of the 1960s and 1970s shown on the screen. The only opponents the filmmakers do show seem rather absurd anyway.

The most memorable opponent, and also most likely to lead us to like Mr. Nader, is the misguided men of GM. During the years that Nader crusaded for safety reforms for cars, they had him tailed by both private eyes and seducers. And not only did they not get any dirt they could use in a smear campaign, they were also embarrassed publicly and forced to pay damages of almost half a million dollars.

Throughout, the film shows Mr. Nader to be a hardworking man doing what he thinks is best, and with a group of young and reverent helpers. The notable exception is the great deal of screen time given to two men convinced that Mr. Nader’s run for President in 2000 and 2004 was not only the cause of the Democratic candidates’ defeat, but also the insane plans of an egomaniac.

In the end I have the feeling that this movie may be disliked by some. The conclusion that at least I took away from the film was that there is a very really possibility that Ralph Nader is, as Bill Murray said during his 2000 campaign, “the best American I know.”

Whether or not you agree with that statement, or are at least willing to let the film try to sway you to that conclusion, will probably determine how you feel about the film. I, for one, think everyone should give it a chance.

big ideas, metablogging, retroview, review

Retroviews, An Introduction

A REtroVIEW (or simply retroview) is an idea I have been kicking around for some time. It is, at the lowest-level, a review of something old.

More importantly, it is a review of something old which has long-standing personal importance. That is, it’s a review of a book you always loved, a movie you always hated, or a thing that scared you when you were seven years old.

What makes the composition of a retroview different from that of a review is that a retroview both acknowledges and utilizes the personal meaning of the object in question.

Where in a review you are to make a judgment on the value of the work alone: how it exists in itself, without any attached emotional or personal significance; in a retroview you are freed from any such pretension. By acknowledging upfront that you have prejudices about the material, you are freer to discuss it honestly and less likely to come off sounding unjust.

Personally, one of the first books that I ever really loved intensely was The Little Prince. And as a blogger I may want to bring attention to said book by reviewing it, despite its age. Thus, I can write a retroview about the book acknowledging, both implicitly in my header and explicitly in my text, it’s past and continuing significance for me.

Retroviews are often done, but without acknowledgment of this inherent nostalgia. They are usually given other, but less useful, guises: as reviews of the new DVD release or the 40th anniversary edition. I’m not accusing such labellings of dishonesty, but rather an extreme lack of creativity in its titles.

If you doubt the substantial biases of retroviews, look at any reviews written of Citizen Kane, or a similarly old movie, written in recent time. You will certainly find in these reviews an undue tenderness for the review’s subject. One that is perhaps undue and certainly different from an initial or more immediate reaction to such a film.

Citizen Kane got notoriously bad reviews (especially, but not exclusively, from the papers of William Randolph Hearst) when it was released in 1941. Orsen Welles, the boy genius, had failed to live up to his own hype.

Yet reviewing this movie today no one, not even one working at a former Hearst newspaper, would dare to say a single bad thing about it. It would be bad for their reputation as a critic (the consensus is too well established), and to their fond memories of their first discovery of the film.

So whether or not you chose to use this moniker on your own REtroVIEWs is your own decision. But for me, that’s what they’ll always be.

And do expect the first one to come soon.

metablogging, review

Non-Review: The Departed

We were about to watch The Departed. “This is a great excuse to review something,” I said to myself. And so that’s what I was going to do.

But when it was over I said to myself, “What am I supposed to write?”

The movie is too recent for it to be socially acceptable to spoil the ending. To do that I would say we have to wait at least two years after theatrical release. And that’s only the special exception that you make for your friend who has to tell you how the movie goes because otherwise you just can’t make her stop talking about it.

But without being able to discuss intimate plot details, all I’ve got is a superficial discussion of the movies “tautness” and how “well-acted” it is. I suppose such reviews don’t feel so awkward and out of place before the majority of the country is convinced that it is a good movie, but afterward they ring hollow.

To use a metaphor not too out of place in the context of this review, it’s as if I’m arriving at the funeral and pronouncing the man dead. There’s already a consensus on this topic, and restating it would give no one any benefit.

Perhaps I could disagree heartily with the consensus. That consensus, to quote Rotten Tomatoes is that:

The Departed is a thoroughly engrossing gangster drama with the gritty authenticity and soupy morality that has infused director Martin Scorcese’s past triumphs. Featuring outstanding work from an excellent cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matt Damon, some critics say the film even tops its source material (the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs). The Departed marks a triumphant return to form for Scorsese; it’s his best-reviewed film since GoodFellas.

But to disagree with that is to fundamentally go against my personal opinion. Surely some aspects of that statement are far beyond anything I would think to say on the issue.

The fact that it was an adaptation: completely lost on me. As good as GoodFellas? Been a long time since I saw that one.

But in general I do agree with it. I might add that I was shocked when, at two hours in, I realized I hadn’t realized I was two hours into a 150 minute movie.

Thus, my review comes down to this single sentence. And though this sentence lashes the flourishes or typical reviews, it gets the job done.

And so finally, here is my review: This is good.