Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ronin critic

Hi kids. This is your favorite critic speaking. I was raised by a critic. I eventually grew up, and turned into a critic. People paid me for it. I figured it was the natural order of things. My destiny. Nah.

First I was downsized. I hung in there as a freelancer. For boring reasons I won't get into, that doesn't work anymore. Basically, I could make more money competing with illegal farm workers picking tomatoes. Poor me. But let's cut to the chase.

As of now, I'm a Ronin critic. Which is to say, nobody's paying me to throw stones (or flowers) at plays and movies -- at least for now. No one is to blame. The Cold Equations of economics have spoken. The Invisible Hand has slapped me to the curb. I don't take it personally.

But, until the Invisible Hand changes its mind, I'm writing this stuff for free. Yep. Like a chump, dolt, poltroon, sap, feeb, chucklehead, I'm just giving it away. After I write the stuff somebody's still paying me for, of course.

OK. Seeing as how I've got nothing to lose, it's as good a time as any to regurgitate a statement of critical principles. (I'll stick to live theater, but most of this applies to film and TV.)

The script is the thing
Many critics approach live theatrical performances like judges at a figure skating contest. They hold up imaginary signs -- 10-9-3 — ranking the director, actors and technical people. The story behind the exercise is an afterthought, or no thought at all. This may be useful to theatergoers who don't want to waste their precious time, but it’s not my style.

To me, a play is a primarily a work of fiction. The actual performance is a delivery system for the script. I start with the script. I talk about the story.

See, I'm not just a lazy bastard cranking out plot summaries. I actually think the story's important.

I trust my own responses
If I love (or hate) the play when I'm watching it, I don't try to talk myself out of it when I write about it. My first response is my most honest response.

Screw the intentional fallacy
When I see a play, my natural tendency is to say, "OK, here's how I'd do it." I fight that tendency. I force myself to ask what the writer wanted to do. What were the goals? Did they succeed?

So, you can have a lousy idea and a brilliant execution, a great idea and a lousy script. You can also have an EVIL idea and a great or lousy script. (In the world of film, Leni Reifensthal comes to mind. She made brilliant movies promoting Nazism.)

If a script is fundamentally wrongheaded, the actors and directors can all hit a "10" and it's still a waste of time.

I judge the story first. Then I judge the performance.

That's pretty much it.