Geoff Pevere: The Consummate Critic’s Criteria for Criticism

A number of years ago, I was witness to an altercation that rattled me to the bones. It happened after a preview screening of Carlito’s Way. I was walking out with a filmmaker buddy of mine, and we were chewing over what we thought had worked and not worked in the movie. In the flow of exiting people, I ran into someone I did regular movie discussions with on CBC Radio, and he was as big a Brian de Palma fan as anyone short of the man’s mother.

He was in the midst of a vigorous defence of the movie when, from behind, a shout went up. “Hey! Hey!,” I remember hearing just before I swung around. “What do you think of de Palma now? Where’s your genius now?”

It was yet another critic, a ‘friend’ to my CBC Radio partner, and he was on fire. “That was a piece of shit! How could you possibly defend that piece of shit! Admit it, de Palma’s a hack!”

This was not, of course, something my Brian de Palma-loving acquaintance was remotely prepared to admit, and so he pivoted and returned the volley in kind: “He’s not a hack! Just because you can’t see what he’s doing doesn’t make him a hack!”

“Oh, I can see what he’s doing, all right! He’s making shitty movies, and you’re the one who can’t see it!”

By now, people were either standing mortified by the spectacle or quietly slinking down the street and into the night. I nudged my director buddy in the same direction, and after looking back once more at the continuing brouhaha he turned to me. “Jesus,” he said. “Does this happen to you movie critics all the time?”

“No,” I think I said a little sheepishly. “Not all the time.”

I get the passion. I understand that popular culture in all its forms depends on intemperate enthusiasms for survival, and I also believe that the primary point of access for those things that move us is emotional. Long before we are able to formulate any kind of reasoned intellectual account of why we like what we like or hate what we don’t, we feel it.

That’s why we go – or why we listen or read or otherwise engage in the endless pursuit of amusement. We want to be made to feel something, and we can become quite testy when what we feel isn’t shared by others, is challenged by others, or isn’t the feeling we’d hoped for. It isn’t rational but it is real: when somebody tells you your feelings are wrong, you get pissed. It doesn’t get any more personal than that.

(I once received a very threatening anonymous e-mail after I’d written something critical – constructively so, I hope – of a Canadian movie. The reader was convinced that I was a traitor to the national interest, and he suggested I’d be better off not existing than existing with such seditious tendencies. And the movie was a mostly obscure little release that probably hadn’t been seen by more than a few dozen people outside of the media, production company and filmmaker’s family and friends. Imagine if I’d taken a shot at Wayne Gretzky.)

My own path to becoming a paid pop cultural commentator was prompted by curiosity about my feelings. I knew that I had powerful responses to movies, books, TV shows and movies, easily some of the most powerful responses I’d ever experienced. What I wanted to know was why and how? Why did some things move me as profoundly as they did, and how did they do that? And so I was led to reading as much about the stuff I obsessed over as I could, and in reading I learned a thing or two about critical analysis: how to break something down into its component parts and see how they fit together, to get a sense of how the machine works because of the way it’s assembled.

I did this because I wanted to understand how something could have such power. I never saw my feelings as anything other than the end result of a process, and my drive was to understand that process and maybe therefore better understand myself. Criticism was ultimately always very personal: you began with your own feelings about something and then worked backward through the factors that generated those feelings. In the process, you were also offering an argument: identifying what the specific things were that made you feel the way you did, and either launching a reasoned defence or reasoned rebuttal of the object that generated your response. The feelings themselves were meaningless unless you could communicate what created them.

But it’s just your opinion, isn’t it? This may be the criticism of criticism that I’ve heard more than any other over the years and, once again, I entirely understand where it comes from. The speaker has usually felt that the critic has attacked something that has been emotionally pleasurable or engaging to them, and they want to assert that their response is just as reasonable and valid as anyone else’s. And it is, up to a point, and that point is where the good critic gets to work. Yes, we’re all entitled to our opinions. It’s just that mine have to be accounted for. You’ve got to understand why I felt the way that I did, and what it was that prompted those feelings in the first place. Otherwise, why would you care what I think? If there’s one thing that’s distressed me as a professional opinionator over the years, it’s the spectacle of people – many of whom were and are far more prominent than I — passing their unsubstantiated gut reactions off as criticism. As soon as anyone calling themselves a critic or reviewer lets their thumbs do the talking, I get to walking. Who cares?

By the way, those two guys whom we left shrieking at each other on the sidewalk after Carlito’s Way all those years ago remain, as I understand it, pretty good friends. It wasn’t personal after all.

We now have an email where all of us here at Don’t Believe A Word I Say can be contacted dbawis@rogers.com. Please use it to ask questions, tell us what you would like to read about, links you would like to share, and, let’s hear what you have to say.

Geoff Pevere has been writing, teaching and broadcasting about media, pop culture and movies for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

One Response to “Geoff Pevere: The Consummate Critic’s Criteria for Criticism”

  1. Thanks, Mr. Pevere. Will most certainly be posting this link to my students this week.

    “I’m entitled to my opinion.”

    “But if no one shares it, and/or you can’t defend it, what’s the point in having one?”

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