Notes on a Critic — Going Nuts, Not Falling Over

by Gabriel Valdez

I’ve had a number of people over the last several months ask me about writing or criticism – how to, advice, that sort of thing. I don’t want to pretend I’m any sort of guru in a field that’s becoming increasingly freelance, but I suppose I’ve assembled a team of writers and developed a reputation for being very critical of mainstream criticism. I also write more than most, and that’s what a lot of the questions are about – how to stay fresh without burning out.

So after some pushing, I thought it wouldn’t hurt (probably) to compile some notes – not on “how to be a critic” or “how to write” but just on what’s important to me as a critic and a writer, how I go about things.

The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams

MASSIVE DISCLAIMER (REALLY MORE OF A CLAIMER)

I don’t want this to come off as self-help, because: bleughch! Maybe I’ve just had unlucky experiences, but all the people I’ve seen regularly push self-help have turned out to be, not to put too fine a point on it, sociopaths. It’s not bad to read self-help, not at all, but if you base your entire worldview on it…oh dear. Do not base your worldview on me. Please. That’s more burden than I want. A little altar in the corner of your room is fine. You don’t even have to pray to it every day.

The point of advice is to only take around half of it. Take too little, and you’re probably ignoring some important voices. Take too much and you’re not trusting your own ability to take risks.

So please, don’t treat this as self-help or how to. If I write something you connect with – AMAZING! If I write something you think is stupid and doesn’t fit you – SPECTACULAR! The best advice I’ve ever gotten is the kind I can tear down, retrofit, stick some afterburners on, spin it upside down, and go, “Thanks, that really helped.”

The most important thing to have as a writer is your own opinion, so treat these notes as something far more innocuous: my manifesto. Nobody evil ever wrote a manifesto, right? All kidding aside, it’s a set of theories – my set of theories – on the direction I’d like to see criticism take. They’re the rules I write by, which means it’s important for me to sometimes break them, too.

Who am I to say film (and music, and art, and theatre) criticism needs to change? I’m a critic. If you love what you do, you have opinions on it. You have a way that you want to do it that’s important to you personally. (And if you don’t love what you do, why are you doing it?)

So let’s start with the piece of advice every critic will give you:

A Clockwork Orange TV torture

WATCH EVERYTHING

The things you like, the things other critics recommend, crazy shitty 80s movies, your friends’ experimental mumblecore, even that weird-ass movie where Charles Bronson is a pissed off watermelon farmer out for revenge because gangsters shot his watermelons (seriously, it exists and it’s not half bad). You never know what you’re going to like for what reasons, or where you’re going to get that article no one else ever thought to write.

You also don’t know what you’re going to fall in love with until it’s staring you in the face. Everyone can write about how they love Jurassic Park or Star Wars, but you might be the only critic that connects with that crazy SubReddit audience that LOVES watermelon-based vengeance flicks.

It does two things – 1) it builds your taste and it makes your specific stable of knowledge more particular to you; 2) it makes your writing stand out to audiences as something different. Believe me, if you write regularly, it won’t be hard to find yourself being thirtieth in line to repeat a specific opinion. Embrace the times you’re the one crazy person in the crowd babbling about something unique.

When do I break this? Like in any other job, you can burn out. If you’re watching 15 movies a week, you’ve probably lost perspective. Go feed some ducks in the park or yell at neocons on Facebook. Shoot some watermelons even, whatever shakes you loose.

FIND THE ARTICLES NO ONE ELSE IS WRITING

This is essentially a compulsion for me. I’m wary of writing articles that already exist. If I find someone else has already made the point I want to make, I’ll ask myself a question: did they do it better than I will?

Sometimes the answer is no, so I’ll cite them and write my own take.

Sometimes the answer is yes, so I’ll cite them, and take it as a challenge to extrapolate even further and find a place in the writing they didn’t.

And sometimes the answer is yes and I’ll just share what they wrote. I never want to waste my time writing something that’s already been written when I can simply tell others, “Go read this other person!”

When do I break this? Pretty much never. I’m a little OCD about it and I really, honestly believe echoing someone else’s opinion when I can just feature and link them is a waste of my time as a writer. Which brings me to my next point:

NC Falling Over

SHARE (BUT DON’T FALL OVER)

If you love something, share it. Don’t steal someone else’s opinion as your own original thought. If you need to steal opinions, you won’t last long anyway. You can stand on other writers’ opinions, reference them and use them as the basis for further arguments, but if they’re not yours, they’re not yours.

Similarly, don’t hide someone else’s good work away because you’re afraid of sending your audience elsewhere. You may feel bad you didn’t write that article yourself, but the conversations that grow around what you share will be the ones that lead you to your best articles.

You also never know who you’ll get to talk to because you share. I enjoyed conversations with Vivian Kubrick and Anand Ghandi this last year because I shared others’ work, and one of the articles I shared sparked a back and forth series between Indiewire‘s Sam Adams, An Historian Goes to the Movies‘ A.E. Larsen, Threat Quality Press‘s Chris Braak, and myself. It even broadened my perspective as a critic.

When do I break this? All the time. There are only so many hours in a day and I always want to write my own articles first. This means I’ve got dozens upon dozens of articles and videos bookmarked to share, but by the time I write my own pieces and share one or two of someone else’s, it’s dinnertime, and dinner has food in it and I probably missed lunch, so it’s either that or fall over. So share as much as you can, but make sure you don’t fall over. It never hurts to have a backlog, and keep those bookmarks so that you can cite others when you need to. Never steal an opinion, though. You can make your argument just as well (even better, actually) with a citation as you can without it.

Empathize

EMPATHIZE

Ha, you were going to skip this part but then I put up a picture of a monkey and a pigeon or whatever the hell’s going on there. You’re stuck in now.

If you read me, you know I love collaborative criticism. I believe a critic never has “the right opinion,” they just have “an opinion.” I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here: what I say as a critic will never be as important as what your friend sitting next to you in the theater says, and that holds true for every critic.

In an age of social networking, where we can have friends sitting in the theater next to us half the world away, a critic’s responsibility isn’t to tell you what opinion to hold, it’s to open you up to more opinions, to ask you to consider perspectives you wouldn’t have before. On my best day, I haven’t convinced someone I’m right, I’ve convinced someone to be more empathetic or to look at a movie in a way they hadn’t considered. To do that, a critic has to practice it, too. A critic has to break down some of the things they’re sure of and rebuild their perspective further out, and they ought to do this regularly. To me, that’s often synonymous with the act of watching a movie. You have to be willing to let art break you down, or you’re not a critic, you’re a cynic.

Criticism has an opportunity to be a constantly evolving reflection on art, not just an obsolete rating system. Critics need to begin looking at themselves as artists of empathy, not as expert judges.

When do I break this? It’s OK to have opinions. It’s OK to fully believe in and fight for them. It’s OK to debate and argue. Just don’t end the day thinking you have sole ownership of being right, because you don’t, and learn to value what’s worth having the fight over and what isn’t.

Don’t worry whether your own voice will always be the most important one to you or whether it will come through enough. You’re kind of stuck with it. Trust that and go nuts.

There’ll be more entries in this feature down the road, especially if people are into it.

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