The Los Angeles Times posted pieces from Kenneth Turan and Charles McNulty, their stud film and theater critics, respectively. It’s part of an “ongoing series” (which is newspaper-ese for “slow news day”), but the conceit is great.
Each critic was asked if there was a review that they regretted writing. The question itself is the job-interview analog of “So what’s your biggest weakness?” It’s a tough question to ask anyone and get an honest answer. The answer isn’t going to be an honest sharing, instead, it’s a carefully chosen anecdote that makes the respondant look wiser and provides a platform for sharing a worldly lesson.
The good news is that one critic offers a very insightful look into the role of the critic and the pitfalls they face. Turan’s piece is like his reviews – mildly informative and tepid.
What criticism offers, ideally, is informed, thoughtful, well-written opinion, an expression of personal taste based on knowledge, experience
Yawn. That’s what he teaches in a USC class, and it’s almost as interesting as an amateur lecturer holding forth before a class of bored and over-privileged film students.
Charles McNulty’s piece knocks the answer out of the park. It’s mostly about theater, but the take on criticism in general is enlightening.
Yes, I have often found the plays of Martin McDonagh and Neil LaBute to be manipulative, I don’t always think Tony Kushner is dramatically up to the task of his unfailingly big ideas, and I’m on record as saying it’s premature to induct Tracy Letts into the pantheon for “August: Osage County.” But these writers are too good not to be challenged. And as my loyalty lies with the art form, not with institutions or individuals…
That concept – that loyalty lies to the art form – is the real key to being a successful critic. Any critic who offers a free pass because of a name, a studio, or a budget, isn’t worth the ink they waste.
McNulty’s ‘regret’ anecdote is terrific, and shows the care and precision that big-league critics must use when crafting their reviews. Small shades of nuance can make a big difference on a theater’s marquee. And as he writes at the close of his piece:
…criticism survives because each of these remarkable writers understood that there was something of greater value to their theater writing than fallible opinion. With implacable style, they allow us to observe a mind wrestling with itself, then dare us to join them in the fray.