I’ve always mistrusted critics.
Truth be known, there’s a part of me that subscribes to the old saw that those who can’t, criticize.
I was, however, forced to reconsider all of this when my son—my own son—proved himself a gifted critic!
It was a completely unexpected development.
He had, after all, begun his adult life as a stuntman, dying conspicuously in a number of Steven Segal films—most memorably when Segal threw him backwards through a window in what became the signature image of the movie.
He was, in other words…how shall I put it?
He leaned more heavily toward the physical than the intellectual, and his interest in the arts was best described as minimal.
Let’s be honest.
It was non-existent.
And so it was that his wife decided to civilize him.
By dragging him (kicking and screaming, I’m sure) to L.A.’s MOMA and exposing him to resplendent examples of contemporary art.
It was in a gallery dedicated to installation art that his talent first manifested itself.
The installation in question, which I myself was never privileged to view, sat on the floor.
Steven studied it carefully.
Then stood over it.
And began to grunt and groan like someone suffering terminal constipation.
His wife was, for reasons that will forever elude me, mortified.
I, however, when I learned of the incident, swelled with pride—genuinely dazzled by his critical insight.
I had a critic in the family!
Henceforth, I did my best to banish my memory of such things as the L.A. Times art critic’s commentary on “Rusty Pipe.”
It, like the piece Steven reviewed, was an installation at L.A.’s MOMA—in this case, a length of rusty pipe removed from a demolition site and suspended from the ceiling of an alcove in one of the museum’s galleries.
The Times critic was so impressed with it that he wrote two full pages of analysis, employing words and concepts far beyond my humble capacity to understand.
To be honest, I have to admit that everything in me cried out, “It’s just a piece of pipe, for God’s sake.”
In fact, I felt the commentary deserved much the same response as my son gave that other piece of sh…
I meant to say, that other piece of installation art.
I have to admit that the “Rusty Pipe” review sorely tested my resolve to admire critics now that my son was one of them.
But I persisted until just the other day when I stumbled upon another Times reviewer and his evaluation of Terence Malick’s Song to Song, which recently debuted at Austin’s SXSW Festival.
Now, you should know that I was blown away by Malick’s first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven—both examples of stunning poetic realism, both examinations of characters driven by forces they can neither understand nor control.
I was not alone.
Hollywood was abuzz with talk of this remarkable new filmmaker.
Michael Eisner, my boss at Paramount, had done more than just talk about him–he had given him a generous contract, renewing it year after year even though Malick had disappeared and delivered nothing for years on end.
It is, I’m convinced, unwise to declare any artist a genius.
The danger is, of course, that he or she will believe what people are saying, take it so completely to heart that they lapse into total self-indulgence.
When, after twenty years, Malick finally reappeared on the scene, the artist in him had gone missing in action, replaced by a poseur— pretentious, contemptuous of the members of his audience, uninterested in entertaining them or telling them a coherent story or creating compelling characters they could care about.
…when I came across Justin Chang’s rapturous review of Malick’s latest effort—a review that refers to the writer-director’s incoherent, uninvolving The Tree of Life as a “masterwork” and even manages to praise his deliberate disregard of the rules of linear storytelling, his inability to write dialogue that sounds anything like real speech, and his reduction of the ever so distinctive Austin, Texas to a familiar “Malickian landscape…
…I wanted to criy out, “Horseshit!”
But that would have been unfair both to horses and to the fragrant deposits they are known to make.
I remain faithful to my son and proud of his insight, his remarkable critical intuition, but I have to say that I’ve once again lost faith in critics in general.
Time after time, they look upon a naked, fat, flabby old man and praise his new clothes.
Time after time, they look upon an empty landscape and miraculously discover a breathtaking skyline.
Number me with the little girl who tugged at her mother’s sleeve to protest the emperor’s lack of clothes and with Gertrude Stein who looked at the Oakland of her day and clearly saw that there was no there there.