Critics have a shelf life. [On The Contrary] Sep21

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Critics have a shelf life. [On The Contrary]

There is nothing quite so bittersweet as seeing time wear down the virility and effectiveness of the people we look up to in our lives. We see our grandparents and then our parents slow with age, and go from towering, irreproachable figures of strength in our lives to, well, human beings. This happens much more quickly in the world of sports, where the top athletes usually have about a decade of dominance before they face the inevitable decline that the physical toll of any professional sport takes on the body. We thrill to the brilliant performances of Mario Lemieux, Michael Jordan, or (gag) Brett Favre, but inevitably we have to see their abilities decline in their last years before they retire from their respective sports, often staying longer than they should and somewhat tainting our memories of their younger brilliance.

This isn’t news. Everybody gets old, everybody burns out, everybody fades. But one place we never seem to acknowledge it is in the realm of critics. Movie critics, theater critics, literary critics, and music critics might have more in common with professional athletes than it might seem. Ryan Dixon’s review of Roger Ebert’s autobiography got me thinking about this, and how Roger, who was once such a towering figure and whose opinions greatly influenced my film consumption has become someone whose reviews I have a hard time reading these days.

Let’s start with early career. A young athlete will come into their league hungry, bursting with talent, but not yet seasoned through experience. A critic will come in the same way—hungry to establish esteem among readers, or at least to stand out from the pack of film studies or philosophy majors desperately trying to make a living with their degrees. Younger critics are not yet trustworthy, but they might be willing to take outrageous stances on issues to drum up attention, just as a young football running back might try to juke and dance for more yards to make an ESPN highlight reel. We as an audience don’t quite trust these newbies—they might be exciting, but they are unpredictable and haven’t earned our investment through consistent success (winning games or suggesting winning material to consume). You’re likely to find these critics writing for your city’s alternative weekly newspaper (you know, the free one with all of the ads in the back for hooker…I mean escorts).

Next comes the prime. This is fairly obvious in pro athletes—it’s when they have established experience to have a certain wisdom about playing the game while at the same time retaining the physical explosiveness of youth. In critics, it’s about an accumulated body of work, developing a consistent voice (and audience of readers), yet still retaining that sense of wonder at the art form they review. Every once in a while, you’ll still see them get excited beyond all proportion about a movie and champion small films that prompt you to say, “That was it?” when they finally open in your city. These are the critics you’ll find writing for established papers and magazines, like A.O. Scott at the New York Times.

The prime for a critic lasts much longer than that of a pro-athlete. It can span decades. But over the years, an athlete’s body starts to fail from all of the punishment it must take. A critic takes a different kind of punishment, but its effect is virtually the same—wearing down the virility of the opinions, if not the polish of the writing. The reviews can be overly dismissive, or too referential to other works. When you read them, you just get a sense from the tone that a lot of tired sighs accompanied a review’s drafting. This isn’t to say that the critic can’t still be helpful and find interesting things to say, but the necessary vitality that was once there will have slipped from them at this stage. Though it pains me to say it, I think Roger Ebert has reached this stage. He was an important part in drawing many people of my generation and before into a love of movies, but I can’t remember the last time I have felt the need to consult his opinion.

It’s been pointed out to me that some of this can be attributed to audience burnout as much as critical burnout. After you’ve read someone for years, you get a sense of their tastes as well as style, and can anticipate their reactions to things. Of course when a writer ceases to be able to surprise the reader, the writer has become obsolete. But I still think there is a point at which a critic has consumed so much material from his or her chosen field that it simply becomes impossible to drum up the passion necessary to write great criticism.

The nice thing we have today is the ability to mix our consumption of all three types of critics at once with sites like Rotten Tomatoes. It can be very interesting to read reviews from critics at each level about the same subject, and see how differently they might approach it (and the fact that we live in a world of one-minute reviews means the time demands are minimal). We will always need to have some kind of arbiters of taste for the same reason we need professional athletes and sports writers—we need to have something to argue about that is subjective, frivolous, and not political. It’s just good to keep in mind that even the most eloquent of critics won’t be around for ever, and over time their opinions can become as tired as Kerry Collins’ arm.

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featured image credit: Kate Tomlinson