we have met the enemy, and he is us: on amateur criticism

We are living in a golden age for art criticism. After a century of elitist theories, put forward by intellectuals like Dwight MacDonald, that the “common man” (whoever that is) isn’t interested in (respectable) critical opinions, the Internet is proving exactly the opposite. People love criticism. They recognize its value. They check Yelp for restaurant reviews, Amazon for product reviews, and the App Store for app reviews. At this point, there are very few things I’m willing to buy if I can’t get access to professional reviews of the product, or else Web 2.0 amateur ones. (I even buy the brand of dish soap rated highest by Consumer Reports.) Consumers are also very savvy about comparing reviews and about crowdsourcing. Everyone knows what kind of Yelp reviews to ignore, and what the “Tomato-Meter” at RottenTomatoes.com represents.

Consumers are not merely taking advantage of their newly expanded access to criticism — they’re turning critic themselves. On the most basic level, anybody who reads Yelp probably also posts to it, at least every once in a while. More importantly, though, there’s a vastly expanded audience for amateur criticism, such as today’s Exhibit A, one post out of thousands of cultural reviews posted by writers known for other things. (I’m not talking about YouTube or Metacritic commenters here, who are completely unpredictable. Some are incoherent, while others churn out humongous, articulate paragraphs, even though the site formatting makes these nearly impossible to read.)

Writing a movie review seems down-to-earth. It’s a handy way of appearing more tolerant, approachable, and smart. It makes a political blogger seem well-rounded, and it makes a mommy blogger seem fun. A good review can even make a tech journalist seem less nerdy and less stuffy. It doesn’t have to be movies. Television or the Bon Iver record will do just as well.

At the same time, we’ve got to be tough on these amateurs. The only alternative is promoting a wasteland of conflicting, inarticulate, thoughtless opinions.

I’m an amateur myself — hello, and welcome back to my blog! — but I’m still trying to write like the pros: Greil Marcus, Chuck Klosterman, John Jeremiah Sullivan. That standard is an ever-fixed, objective mark. It doesn’t matter in the least if I, personally, never attain it. The standard is the same for everyone and always applies. In the long run, the binary structure of taste is neither interesting nor useful: most films get mixed reviews, and the best critics often vote the wrong way when asked to give a thumbs up or thumbs down. That’s less problematic than it sounds. Even if Zadie Smith is totally wrong about the quality of a film, as was the case with her dismissive review of The Social Network, she’s still coming up with page after page of valuable, arguable analysis.

My claim is that we ought to put style first, and we should embrace stylistic diversity. Right now, there’s actually a dearth of different types of criticism. The style of professional critics trickles down from a handful of publications (especially The New Yorker and The Atlantic) and websites (PopMatters, Pitchfork). Amateurs, in turn, produce unintentional parodies of professional writing. I’m about to look at a review of the new John Carter movie, and I may seem to be treating it mean. I’ll admit that I was both delighted and unsurprised when the author turned out to be an Obama-hating, right-wing political blogger. That said, I only encountered him because Mike Godwin (a liberal) tweeted his review, calling it “dead-on.” My goal is not to make Ed Morrissey look bad, but to advocate for an approach that de-emphasizes who liked what how much. If we base our reactions to critics on content alone, we’ll all end up shopping for reviews that we already agree with.

Let’s get to it: What was that movie with the cowboys and the aliens?

This was a mistake, pure and simple. Morrissey meant to write Cowboys and Aliens, but instead he wrote Cowboys Vs. Aliens. He corrected this later on, but the mistake is still meaningful. Morrissey didn’t hear the title’s riff on the familiar phrase “Cowboys and Indians.” He didn’t hear it because he wasn’t thinking about it all that much — instead, he changed it to a title worthy of the Bush Doctrine…despite the fact that he reviewed Cowboys and Aliens on his blog. The ironic thing about kids playing “cowboys and Indians” is that although the cowboys and Indians war against each other, they also inhabit the same land, a fact that’s right smack dab in the title. The title Cowboys and Aliens suggests numerous things: that history is as strange as outer space, that “illegals” are the new “Indians,” and that once again it is a matter of one territory supporting diverse populations. Clearly, from Morrissey’s perspective, all this is pretty insignificant.

That’s why he’s a political blogger, not a movie critic getting the film “dead on.”

I’ve made plenty of mistakes like this. I included the same Houellebecq novel twice in my list of 200 great books. Why? Well, because I thought I was pretty cool for knowing so much about Houllebecq, and I was eager for everyone else to know that about me. Two weeks ago, I used the word “celibate” twice when I meant “chaste.” Why? Because, despite some study, I know fairly little about Christianity and am not Christian. I’ve never had to seriously consider being either one. The mistakes aren’t significant, in and of themselves, but the causes are.

[A] literary foundation was given to it by Edgar Rice Burroughs, from whose novel “A Princess of Mars” the film was derived.

Tons of errors. Novels should be underlined or italicized, the whole thing’s in passive voice, and “literary foundation” is awkward. Again, the errors don’t matter on their own…but what do they reveal? Well, in conjunction with the repetition of “Edgar Rice Burroughs,” they reveal that Morrissey doesn’t know a lot about literature. He probably considers Burroughs a “classic” writer, because of Tarzan, and he further assumes that if one novel is good, everything else by the same author is also good. None of this is true. Tarzan was not even up to the level of H. Rider Haggard. A Princess of Mars isn’t as good as Tarzan. John Carter of Mars is a pulp movie based on an old pulp novel, not an exercise in literary adaptation. Morrissey writes “foundation,” but what he’s talking about is only a cynical patina of literary prestige.

A journal left behind for Edgar’s eyes only explains what John had been doing all those years, why he became fabulously wealthy — and why the stories he told his nephew as a little boy were actually true. And it might just be that Edgar, now a young man, has a role to play in John’s adventure still.

What is Morrissey writing here? Well, a review, but he forgets himself and starts writing ad copy (“and it might be…” etc). Morrissey also carefully elides the colonialist themes. You can vaguely tell that somebody back on Mars is angry about what John did there, and it’s implied that John may have passed along some ill-gotten gains, but that’s all hidden behind the shiny surface of stock phrases like “fabulously wealthy.” Believe me, I’m not trying to turn John Carter into a progressive fable about the dangers of colonialism. It’s a big dumb action movie, so that’s really not the problem. The problem is that Morrissey’s whitewashing occludes the very issues that are supposed to make the beginning suspenseful. It’s plot summary, and it’s bad plot summary at that.

Even after taking my seat with a healthy level of skepticism, it was impossible for me to not enjoy this film from almost the very beginning.

That does not sound like the confession of a skeptic. Morrissey likes to think of himself as skeptical, probably because he’s very credulous.

The visual presentation has a similar feel at times to Thor, and at other times to Dune, while the machinery resembles more the technological spirit of 2002′s The Time Machine.

A bunch of references, yet none are helpful. Of course this feels like Thor. Both films set monsters loose in dusty Western towns. Both have cardboard protagonists. Meanwhile, which Dune is he talking about? The David Lynch movie? Is he just listing all of the dustiest, sandiest movies he’s ever seen? Heck, why not include Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, and Wild Wild West? Peter O’Toole led a bunch of desert dwellers to freedom, too! The only interesting question here is whether Burroughs had anything in common with H. G. Wells, but we can’t answer that question because we don’t know if “technological spirit” refers to Wells’s novel or to special effects.

Some fans will recognize the two leads, Taylor Kitsch as John and Lynn Collins as the Mars princess Dejah Thoris, from their previous work in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Other fans — most fans, actually — will recognize Taylor Kitsch from the incredibly powerful television series Friday Night Lights. The fact that Morrissey doesn’t compare the two performances is ridiculous, or would be if he was a professional critic. I know some John Carter fans are trying to get away with saying “Friday Night what?”, but that dog won’t hunt. Kitsch landed this role because of the show, and Disney was praying that the “Tim Riggins” factor would improve box office sales and appease the highbrow crowd. It didn’t, because Kitsch is no Kyle Chandler. A good show makes some performances look more accomplished than they are; if you don’t believe me, check out Minka Kelly (wonderful as Lyla Garrity on FNL) in the reboot of Charlie’s Angels.

Interestingly, I recognized Ciarán Hinds and James Purefoy from their work on the brilliant miniseries Rome…

Not a miniseries. If you’re going to toss out stuff like this, you have to know what you’re talking about. HBO cancelled Rome due to low ratings and astronomical costs. The fact that Morrissey thinks it was a miniseries suggests that he doesn’t notice when big narrative arcs suddenly get crunched by a network decision. It also means he probably doesn’t read many industry publications. Fine, but in that case, Morrissey’s carelessness makes the whole paragraph look pretentious — which it is.

I wouldn’t take my oldest granddaughter to see it and she’s nearly 10 years old; I think it’s probably appropriate for teenagers, but I’d be leery about going any younger.

I already tweeted about the use of “leery” in this sentence, so let’s move on to bigger matters: this isn’t helpful because we have no idea why he wouldn’t take a 10-year old to this movie. Blood? Skimpiness of outfits? Do you add them together in some sort of equation? Morrissey’s not explaining himself to his readers. He’s merely thinking out loud.

I’ve never read the Burroughs novels, so I can’t judge how well the filmmakers adapted the source material.

Right. We know. Q. E. D.


You have no idea how much it pains me to say this, but Ed Morrissey should stick to making fun of Obama. Right here, right now, may be the first moment I’ve actually missed Christopher Hitchens.