Homage to the Gadflies

Late last week I was perusing the pages of a New York opera site, and I discovered an article that was a review of a book about the art and critics of the New York opera scene. What surprised me (but probably shouldn’t have, was the sheer volume and heat of the anger at critics. All the old saws were there: only failures are critics; critics never added any value to anything, and one particularly harsh missive that argued that any critic who was unable to perform at the level of the artist he critiqued had no credibility.

Which, of course, is so much rot.

Now, I can’t paint, draw, sculpt, make a movie, write a song, or design a building. But I do write, and I have taken no shortage of verbal double-ought buckshot for my writing from people who cannot themselves assemble a coherent sentence. What is in question, though, is not their ability to write, but their ability to read, and if someone can read, he can critique a writer. If they could not (or did not) read, they’re disqualified, but only then.

The same, I would argue, applies to any art.

So while some critics can be insufferable (and some artists can be divas,) to suggest that one must be an artist or have an artist’s talent in order to critique art is so much elitist hogwash. It delegitimizes the opinion of everyone but a closed coterie of talented specialists who (I would argue) are more likely to engage in critical back-scratching (“if I go easy on him, he’ll go easy on me”) than someone without that kind of skin in the game.

What is more, that sort of intellectual snobbery seems somewhat antithetical to a democratic nation, one whose society is built on the presumption that everyone’s choice – and by extension, opinion – is of equal value, if not of equal merit. And don’t get me started on the importance of some undefined level of expertise: it was a child that pointed out that the emperor was naked, not a fashion designer.

Finally, I think we need to admit that critics have a great value if we both recognize their strengths and their limits. Critics have been instrumental (pardon the pun) to my musical growth and appreciation – I would be much more of a tyro than I am today without them. If there is one message we must comport to noobs and aficionados alike, it is this: a critic is entitled to his or her opinion, but he is not entitled to yours. Read, learn, then go listen/look/watch with an open mind.

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A Screenwriter, Act Two

Screenwriting
Screenwriting (Photo credit: pietroizzo)

“A Three Act Journey In The Land Of The Screenwriting Gurus
Jonathan Zimmerman
Los Angeles Review of Books
November 21, 2012

For those of us who love movies and fancy ourselves as “writers,” there is something mysteriously alluring about screenwriting. Essays are hard. History is harder. Novels are a stone bitch. But what can be so difficult about the mechanics of plot, dialogue, and stage direction? “Surely,” one thinks, “I could write a better script than half of the idiots doing so for a living.”

Obligingly, a small industry has emerged designed to help the cinephile scribe get his scriptwriting thing on. For those of us hovering on the edge of writing our first treatment, Jonathan Zimmerman offers a warning that is at once delightful and foreboding: don’t even go there.

Leaving aside the possibility that Mr. Zimmerman is simply trying to limit his potential competition, there is something that rings true in his gently recounted frustration with the modest-sized shelf of books he has devoured about the screenwriting craft. This is not a success story – yet. Mr. Zimmerman is still writing “spec” scripts, cranked out in the hopes that someone will buy them or, seeing a talent in the words, hire him for some paid work.

I am pulling for Mr. Zimmerman to succeed. Even though it is a fickle business and the screenwriter is as dumped on by the literary establishment as by everyone else in the Hollywood food chain (from the studio heads all the way down to craft service), the work is underrated. My favorite films are the well-written ones, and I have a gut feeling that Hollywood’s competitive future depends more on great writing than anything else.

What I am not sure is that certificate programs at UCLA, seminars at The Writer’s Store, Final Draft 8, and a shelf of how-to books are going to get us there. We need something more.

The question is “what?”

Meanwhile, I’m back to work on my treatment of a Miami Vice-meets-China pilot.