Critics, battered but unbowed

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In "top Five," Chris Rock (with costar Rosario Dawson) is deply hurt by a movie critic.

Pity the poor critic.

This year at the movies, she or he is portrayed as being vindictive, grossly unfair, power-mad, and, in all likelihood, unqualified.

In Chris Rock's Top Five, a New York Times movie critic deeply wounds the psyche of comedian Andre Allen by equating the artistic failings of his Hammy the Bear franchise with the real-life crimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

In Alejandro González Iñárritu's Oscar contender, Birdman, a Times theater critic played by Lindsey Duncan vows to "destroy" the Broadway debut of Michael Keaton's Riggan Thompson. She doesn't need to see it; she's just offended that a fading action-hero movie star would have the temerity to believe that his adaptation of a Raymond Carver story could be taken seriously.

And in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, the biopic of 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner starring a grunting Timothy Spall, John Ruskin, the British cultural critic who praised Turner as the artist "who could most stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature," is depicted as a supercilious fop. The critic might be clever, but he's also a dweeb.

The bright side of all this is it means critics are still being paid attention to. At least by artists - and especially critically acclaimed artists so used to getting good reviews that it really stings when they don't. So much so that they can't resist the temptation to fire back by portraying professional reviewers as full-of-themselves jerks.

That's what Jon Favreau does in the now-on-Netflix food romance Chef, which includes a battle royal with a powerful blogger clueless about how a molten chocolate dessert is made. The faceoff brings to mind such poison-pen food critics as the Peter O'Toole-voiced Anton Ego in Pixar's Ratatouille, and - in T. Coraghessan Boyle's short story "Sorry Fugu" - tasteless food critic Willa Frank, who hates everything she eats.

So, writers and filmmakers and chefs and visual artists, it seems, do still pay heed to critics - at least when they feel they've been slighted or misunderstood. (They don't complain so much about being told they're awesome.) That would explain widely acclaimed Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri's huffy Huffington Post broadside, "How Food Journalism Got as Stale as Day-Old Bread," in part a response to Inquirer critic Craig LaBan's daring to take the New Jersey branch of his Italian eatery Osteria down a peg. Or, in this case, a bell.

But getting under the skin of creative types understandably sensitive to how their work is received is one thing. The bigger question is whether critics still have a relevant role to play and can get their voices heard in a digital era where the Internet has opened the discussion board to anyone with an enthusiasm to share or an ax to grind. Where, quite literally, everyone is a critic.

That's the challenge. In music journalism on the Web, it's much the same as with movies and TV and food, where the 25 hot whatevers and 57 sexiest fill-in-the-blanks are click-bait for brain-addled digital addicts like me craving one more distraction.

As Nicholas White of Daily Dot Media put it on PBS' News Hour the other night, we live in an era of "inexpert opinion." That News Hour segment demonstrated as much by interviewing an anonymous Yelp reviewer with a pixelated face who said he writes positive reviews for $8 a pop, often for companies he has never heard of.

In pop music, it's tricky because the music itself is also freely disseminated. Fans don't have to wait for alleged experts to tell them what a high-profile release sounds like - they can listen when it becomes available through illegal leak or surprise iTunes release, both of which happened in January with Bjork's Vulnicura, or simply stream it on Spotify or a site such as NPR Music that offers a try-before-you-buy experience.

So, is there still a significant role for music critics amid the digital free-for-all?

Yes, he said optimistically. For one not-small thing, the explosion of entertainment options in the popular arts makes for a scene that's impossible for even the most avid consumer of media to keep up with.

Someone has to impose order on chaos. Sure, there's more junk out there than ever. But there's also more music worth listening to, more TV series worth binge watching, and more taco shops worth trying than ever before.

I've always thought that the success of Pitchfork - the online music site that sets the critical agenda, as Rolling Stone did decades ago - lies in the way decimal points are used in scale-of-1-to-10 reviews. It makes the ratings seem scientific. You may never have heard of Havertown-reared indie songwriter Alex G before Pitchfork reviewed him last year, but once his album DSU got a 7.9, it meant attention must be paid.

The other reason criticism is still called for is that it's exactly that: criticism. So much entertainment journalism essentially amounts to advertising: When Kanye West and Paul McCartney surprise the world by letting loose their unlikely collaboration, "Only One," on New Year's Eve, the media are there to eagerly share the news, serving the megastars' digital business model, while hopefully taking the time to say something intelligent.

The pace at which information becomes available isn't about to slow down, but with so much instantly available, the urge to dig deeper only grows. Critics can add depth by putting culture into context and offering insight about what rates a thumbs up or thumbs down and why.

To demonstrate, let's go back to the movies, to one that actually portrays a critic in a flattering light: former Rolling Stone scribe Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (2000), in which the late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays critic Lester Bangs.

The important lesson Bangs provides for the teenage critic, played by Patrick Fugit, is that no matter how cool the people you cover are - be they rock stars or chefs or actors - you have to remember that you're not on the same side.

"These people are not your friends," he says. "They want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of rock stars, and they will ruin rock-and-roll and strangle everything we love about it because they are trying to buy responsibility for a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb."

It's a great speech that leads to essential advice that any critic would do well to tape above her or his computer screen: "You have to make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful." Meaning that, if critics do their jobs right covering people who are not friends, some of them will turn into enemies.

 



ddeluca@phillynews.com

215-854-5628 @delucadan