STOP BEING CRITICAL!

Poe, God of Entertainment:  “he who pleases, is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs…”

Please inspect my plane before I fly on it.  Please inspect my food before I eat it.  Please inspect my building before I work or live in it.  Be critical!  Thanks!

But films and books and poetry and art?  Why do we have to be critical about that?  Let the audience be the critic.  When it comes to what is essentially entertainment, “the critics” can go to hell.  Hey, critic!  Write your own book!  Make your own movie!

The default critical response is sales. 

Time Warner is one of the gigantic corporations that wants to restrict internet activity.

No one reads Time Warner’s magazine, Entertainment Weekly, for its reviews, although it does have them, and the magazine does occasionally attempt wit and intelligence, in the ‘what-all-the-politically-correct-i-love-sex-but-i-hate-religion-cool-people-are-saying’ department.  

Here’s how Entertainment Weekly (Jan 27, 2012)  introduces their big, splashy article on the new TV show, Revenge [caps are theirs]:

Summer in the Hamptons may be over, but things are about to get a lot HOTTER on ABC’s addictive hit drama. From a KILLER engagement party to twisted SCHEMES—and maybe even some STEAMY love-triangle action—the DRAMA at the beach is just getting started. Read on for all the SECRETS to what’s ahead.

Steven Tyler writes in the same Entertainment Weekly issue in a piece entitled, “Steven Tyler’s Top 5 Reasons Why You Should Watch Idol:

There are really sad, sad tears, but the tears of joy are most outrageous. A lot of people were fainting because of nerves. So I got to hug every girl. I like female energy! Was I kissing contestants? Well, yes, I’m very passionate.  …one of the best things is that you get to see them coming off the truck, all down and dirty before they’re superstars…You know what? There’s sex in songs. If you don’t put it in there, you ain’t gonna get listened to. You know [that Dean Martin line] ‘The object of my affection can change my complexion from white to rosy red?’ All songs need that. And I bring that sexuality to the table. …Oh, and two more things…You know what sticks out most this season compared to last season?  J. Lo’s breasts.

So you get the idea.  The entertainment industry spends big bucks to promote their product. 

Promote: the opposite of be critical.  This plane has not been inspected!  But you’ll have a great time crashing into the ocean!

How much do reviews (criticism) influence movies people go and see?  The big-budget films don’t care about reviews—they have already aimed at, and advertised to, a certain audience.  If the movie is good, more people will go see it; if a movie is bad, word-of-mouth kills it.  This is a perfectly rationale system, if you think about it, and why should even intelligent critics begrudge it?

Another key point is this: by ‘good,’ when it comes to movies, it very often means, ‘well-made;’ movie-goers will appreciate a ‘well-made’ movie, even if it isn’t ‘good.’ 

This, too, is a reasonable part of the entertainment industry—why should we begrudge those who appreciate the ‘well-made’ movie, even if it doesn’t happen to be ‘good?’ 

After all, it’s enough that our planes, buildings, and food are ‘well-made,’ right?  We want these things to be ‘put together in an expert fashion;’ we want them to be ‘well-made;’ we don’t need nuance and depth and moral shadings.  The well-made will suffice, and, in fact, all those other factors which go into what we mean when we say ‘good,’ as in: that film was not only well-made, it was good, are not really necessary and might even get in the way.

Because well-made really, really matters.  We can argue all day about how much seasoning to put in our dish, but when it comes to feeding billions of people every day, we need to be critical about safety, and let the niceties of aesthetic cuisine and the mad experiments of a great chef take a distant second-place.

The well-made is not just invisible, like a well-tuned engine hidden under the hood, it’s highly popular—it’s what we see and celebrate.

Entertainment Weekly is great for charts and ratings: Just looking at “The Top 50 Movies of 2011″ can tell us more about ourselves than thousands of reviews and moral, finger-wagging, articles by expert critics.  As one scans the top-grossing box office numbers (which is how EW’s ‘top 50′ are calculated—and why not?) one is struck by an odd fact: the vast majority of the movies are for kids and teens—even though we are an aging population.  Harry Potter, Transformers, super heroes, cowboys & aliens, cartoons, and comedies-with-adults-acting-like-adolescents. 

Daniel Radcliffe, in his recent opening monologue on Saturday Night Live, joked:

To the children who loved Harry Potter, I want to say your enthusiasm was the real magic. I so enjoyed being on the journey with you. And to the adults who bought the Harry Potter books and devoured them, I just want to say those books were for children.

Only one ‘drama’ made it in the top 50 films of 2011: The Help, a movie about black maids—with white, college educated writers and New York book-publishers as heroes and a one-dimensional, racist, white southern woman as the villain.

You can bet that the one drama and the 49 ‘pure entertainment’ films that were the most successful at the box office last year all have this in common: they are well-made.

Audiences cannot make well-made films, but they immediately know one when they see one, and they don’t need a critic to explain any of these movies to them.

Is this what Edgar Poe was talking about when he said poetry was 99% mathematical and that a book that pleases is more important than a book that instructs?

Yup, pretty much.

What do most poets today think about all this?  They hate it, of course. 

Poetry has been stuck in an unpopular rut for over 50 years, and for one very simple reason:

Poetry—not all at once, but gradually—has turned its back on the well-made: the beautiful stanza, the beautiful line and the beautiful phrase cross-harmonizing in musical language to express beautiful ideas—recognized as such immediately.

Poetry, in a strategic move, threw in its lot with flat prose, and has ridden that particular angel for all its worth—right into the ground; prose has many advantages; it can be multi-faceted, it can be clever, it can be wild, it can be naughty, it can be crazy, it can be expansive, it can be good, it can be smart, it can be instructive—but it cannot be well-made.

Ah, but now we are being too critical, and so we will shut up at once.

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