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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Saturday, December 30, 2006

entry arrow2:41 AM | On Criticism

The words were nothing more than an honest description of the moment, but something in the lilt of my friend's voice suggested more. We were talking about recent books we managed to have time to read. He had just read my old, old copy of James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy. I had adjudged it as a childish New Age salvation babble for the emotionally lost, and his words tumbled out to me with a peculiar smirky ring, "Talking as a critic again, Ian?" -- in a tone reserved only when people talk about vile lawyers or corrupt politicians.

Now, criticism for me has always been an outlet for that constant searching for the "better" in things. I have this notion that criticism can sometimes (if not often) help in somehow eliminating any chance of prolonged mediocrity of things when the otherwise is a good possibility. Give me a book or a movie, and almost always there is something there that is in need of some constructive criticism, of some impetus for growing.

Critical thinking, old as time itself, has always been ideally about deciding for ourselves what is good for us and what is not. Criticism offers a chance for people to consider their way of doing things (e.g. political activists critical against a tyrannical Marcos machinery), or viewing a certain kind of existence (e.g. Michael Tolkin satirizing emotionally bankrupt socialites in his film The New Age), or help readers benefit from certain things like a good read. It is a slow foundation-building towards a personal standard; if writers were never critical of their own writing, they might still write like they did in high school ("What is love? Love is the strange emotion that one person feels..." Now that is horror). An inching toward a kind of maturity is another good way of describing criticism.

To some, however, criticism is good only when it justifies what is popular. It is considered quite severe when it dares to upset the cart -- forgivable when there is an envisioned possibility of rounding up the critics in an isolated island and blowing it up. When one writes a movie criticism, for example, one gets crucified by taunting suggestions of "setting one's standards too high for anyone to reach." Criticism in all honesty is good exercise, only made to seem ridiculous or superfluous by some people's unfortunate misconception about it.

Movie critic Roger Ebert once wrote a compelling argument about critical writing in his very revealing "A Memo to Myself and Certain Other Film Critics":

There is a gulf between people who go to the movies (the public) and people whose lives revolve around them (critics, movie buffs, academics, people in the business). For most people with [twenty-five] bucks in their pocket and an evening free, there is only one question about a movie that is relevant: Will I have a good time?

That is a problem. Movie criticism helps by putting perspective on the film. When Quentin Tarantino writes that Top Gun is homoerotic, it puts a certain spin about the way we view it. It also helps by telling the reader he might not have the time of his life watching it. I once told a friend not to watch the miserably unfunny Spy Hard. He did. And he came out of the theater miserable for wasting forty bucks.

A good analogy to criticism is that of a weed puller which gives a chance for the real thing to grow. In a society besieged all too often by the mediocre, criticism nurtures what is best by giving due recognition, and by pointing out flaws in something with the ultimate desire to correct it. A film critic feels the need to tell the public that The Queen stands aside from other current movies such as The Island or Deja Vu Day because, as Ebert writes, "it is made by someone with an instinctive mastery of the medium." Hey, even God is a critic: you must either be good or be damned to hell. The extreme to good criticism is simplistic populism, its apotheosis being that of people inquiring how a movie goes, not in the hopes of learning something new, but in the expectation of being told what they already know. Ebert calls this a "form of living death."

Ebert further writes,

Writing film criticisms is a balancing act between the bottom line and the higher reaches, between the answers to the questions (1) Is this movie worth my money? and (2) Does this movie expand or devalue my information about human nature? Critics who write so everybody can understand everything are actually engaging in a kind of ventriloquism --- working as their own dummies. They are pretending to know less than they do.

There are many possibilities in reviewing a book, a music album, a movie, an art exhibition, or a play. Critical writing may be directed at a reader with no previous knowledge of the work. It basically answers the question, "Is it worth my time?" Or it may be for somebody who has seen the work but needs to put his thoughts and opinions about it in perspective. Or a criticism may be just an honest idea broker for the reader to form his own opinion about a certain thing. Or works further by trying to actively shape those opinions -- to provide ways of setting standards of judging things.

And why am I saying all these? Well, the Metro Manila Film Festival is upon us again. Be prepared to slug through the turkeys ahead.

I heard Joel Lamangan's adaptation of ZsaZsa Zaturnnah is really, really bad. Then again, what can we expect from this overrated hack?

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