BY KENNETH TURAN
While I can’t honestly say that some of my best friends are directors, I’ve invariably enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had to talk shop in either a professional or social context and I feel nothing but respect and admiration for the work they do. That feeling hasn’t always been mutual. One director famously wrote a long open letter to my newspaper strongly suggesting I be fired. Others have ostentatiously avoided me in group situations both public and private. One wrote a piece in a prominent British newspaper about a dream he had about pummeling me into submission. Yet another led an attack on my house. Really. On one level, of course, that kind of hostility comes with the territory to a certain extent. I’ve been on enough sets and have enough friends in the business to know how difficult, not to say agonizing, the process of making films is; as the child of a fellow critic once put it, “don’t you understand, you’re murdering their babies.”
As the author of books that have not always been favorably reviewed, I know exactly how painful a snarky notice can be. When I visited Prague several years ago and read about a venerable restaurant that still had the special alcove constructed for the town’s 17th century executioner because no one wanted to eat in the same room with him, I understood the dynamic completely.
Yet on another level, I think this attitude stems from a fundamental misunderstanding about the critic’s role, a lack of awareness about who he or she is writing for and what the intention of that commentary is. Directors–and, for that matter, actors, writers, cinematographers et. al.–frankly, should not be reading reviews of their own work. It’s not intended for them and can only lead, as the examples above clearly indicate, to the hardest of feelings.
This idea was first and most eloquently expressed to me by Clive Barnes, who I interviewed several years ago about his legendary run-ins with New York theatrical impresario Joe Papp during Barnes’ time as the theater critic for The New York Times.
“A review,” Barnes told me in no uncertain terms, “is a dialogue between the critic and the reader which creative people can eavesdrop on, but only with the understanding that the conversation is not intended for them.”
One reason for the misunderstanding about reviews is the perception that critics are frustrated moviemakers, eager to backbite those who’ve succeeded where they themselves have faltered and failed.
Though I can’t speak for other critics, I’ve never had the slightest interest in directing, never written so much as a treatment, let alone a screenplay. It would be presumptuous of me to feel I should be advising filmmakers, and I don’t. More than that, I believe creative people do what they do as a result of the kinds of inner drives and directives that tend to be completely impervious to counsel from anyone, especially critics.
What I am, though, is a frustrated audience member and when I talk about how a filmmaker’s traits and tendencies have affected me, I am speaking to my fellow moviegoers who I know from letters, e-mails, phone calls and personal conversations are every bit as frustrated as I am.
For though I’ve yet to meet a filmmaker who didn’t feel that every American who can afford the price of admission should see his or her film, the practicalities of life force potential viewers to be choosier. They’re initially faced with tens of millions of dollars spent to convince them to attend the studio flavor of the moment. Then there are the welter of print ads for the up-to-a-dozen smaller films that can open in a given week. This flood of product is joined to the recognition that the days when an independent or a foreign language film was a guarantee of quality are long gone–if they ever existed.
As a result, audiences are simply desperate for the kind of advice about what is worth their time and money that critics are in the business of providing. When critics write about matters of style and execution, it is not intended as guidance to filmmakers but as a kind of “you know how he gets” reference that friends who speak the same language and have the same goal–in this case, seeing satisfying movies–freely share with each other.
Ironically, directors, busy as they tend to be with their own projects, likely need the help of a critic when it comes to deciding what to see on their rare night off. The great pleasure of reviewing, the reason most critics get into this line of work, is not to be negative but to spread the joyous good news about the films we love. When directors become audience members, I’m delighted to welcome them as readers. When it comes to what I’ve written about their own work, they should do themselves and me a favor and read something–anything–else.
Kenneth Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times.