Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 18, No. 2, 2019
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Chris Barry
Don Dewey
Howard Richler
Gary Olson
Lynda Renée
Oslavi Linares
Jordan Adler
Andrew Hlavacek
Daniel Charchuk
  Music Editors
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward





Donald Dewey has published some 40 books of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent are the series of memoir-essays Mosquitoes and Tortoises: Flights and Crawls on the Fringes of the Media and the thriller novel Red Herrings.

There seems to be a consensus that professional critical opinion isn’t as influential with the mass entertainment public as it once was. Nobody I know has demonstrated this by contrasting Critical Influence graphs today with those of, say, 1977, but neither have I seen hard statistical data for the sense that “Shit!” and “Are you okay?” have replaced “Let’s get outta here!” as the trendiest line of movie dialogue. Some things just have to be absorbed through the pores, and one of them would appear to be the slackened faith in venerable holders of opinion.

Count the factors -- the film studio tactic of blanket Friday openings for creating a weekend box office ‘event’ you’re either with or aren’t with before reviews are out; the theater party ticket plan insurance taken out on plays months before official openings; the usurpative role of book chains and Internet vassals for determining publishing’s best sellers; the loosened hold of daily newspapers with staff reviewers; the degeneration of the third pages of tabloids into undeclared advertising for new motion pictures and television shows; the sprouting of happy-happy reviewers on any television channel with a camera and every radio station with a microphone; self-styled national ‘entertainment reporters’ who assume any media production is a profound commentary on the times because they can show clips for it; the even more self-important successors to Roger Ebert; the ‘binge’ watching of TV series that makes critical observation as productive as an AA convert in a saloon; etc. All these air-borne particles have attested to the weakening of a critical ozone layer, justifying doubt about what is so authoritative about authoritative opinion. Even the most conspicuously lambasted works of the last few years -- the Battlefield Earth similars -- were consigned to public contempt and box office bankruptcy by gossip columnists before being unwrapped, leaving critics merely to notarize bad word-of-mouth. Isn’t it time for these people to admit they have been outflanked and that nobody is weeping over the fact? If they still want attention, why not organize an annual awards show on HBO and hand out golden Solomons?

I had such questions long before media marketing visionaries hatched their schemes for preempting the significance of critical pontifications. Back in the mists of time, the intellectual fracas raised by Last Year at Marienbad propelled me to boycott all plotless Alain Resnais pictures that featured a matchstick game. Only when the floorboards in my head no longer creaked over the Meaning of It All did I dare venture into a revival house to see the film. At other times, Harold Pinter plays, David Wallace books and Alanis Morissette videos have seemed to require further brewing than the Instant Folgers views being spooned out. I didn’t begrudge the professionals their opinions, just the attendant addiction for having the discussion defined by those opinions. What did it say about the depths of our vicarious existences when the point of reference became responses to a piece of work rather than the work itself?

This is the shadow play that has also sent Sony, the Nederlanders and Barnes & Noble into action to defend their treasuries. Who had ever elected those opinion-shapers pope in the first place? Why should the hundreds, if not thousands, of workers with livelihoods invested in a project have to rely for their next paycheck on the verdict of some New York Times drone who might have an imminent appointment for a root canal? That this broadsheet should have attained the power it had, especially in the theater, was already sad confirmation of the lemming instinct in the entertainment world and its public. Better a Tower of Babel than the Times Tower. Who could object to every local TV station installing its own correspondent for show business as a voice-of-the-people corrective for elitist tradition? What made Charlene the Channel 6 Culture Chick less of an expert than the Pauline Kael clones when it came to recommending Hot Makeout Flicks? If the WWOW man on the aisle decided Cats was more tuneful than T. S. Eliot riffs on hollow men, he wasn’t speaking only for himself. And appearances notwithstanding, the Washington Post didn’t hold a patent on 1,500-word analyses of 1,500-page books about the building of canals; other opinion was readily available at the websites www. whatIthink and www. whatIthinkwhenI’mnotthinking. When did democracy have to stop at the door of independent thinking?

But that said, this pushback makes me uneasy. It bothers me, for one thing, that outside our agreement on this topic, I have no common interests with Sony, the Nederlanders or Barnes & Noble. This leaves me feeling as though I’m allied with Godzilla just because we have a couple of the same letters in our names; i.e., not enough reason to savour vindication watching him swat his tail around the Ginza. I know why Sony, the Nederlanders, and Barnes & Noble want to eliminate or at least diminish all the standing critics they can: They’re underfoot, blocking access to the cash register. But how is that putting any money in my pocket?

The answer, of course, is that it isn’t. In the long run it will cost me since, as any quality control supervisor at any Hanes plant in Taiwan can attest, every negligence of attention now will only insure an embarrassing draft later. The real problem is to what degree do we trust ourselves to exercise the quality control, under what precise circumstances do we not, and where do we go when we do not. Even within the shadow of the Tower of Babel favored by Sony, the Nederlanders and Barnes & Noble, it seems imperative that we come up with answers to those questions.


As mentioned apropos Last Year at Marienbad, I’ve never found it easy acceding credibility to a critic. Even when Horace was going on in his Ars Poetica about how poetry had to be sweet and useful, I took the instinctively contrarian view that no, it had to be bitter and useless. That conviction lasted only until cultural schools emerged many centuries later to agree that the only poetry worth creating was that spat out regardless of practical consequence. At that point I had to rethink my perspective for a new criterion that would neither elevate nor depress, but, like some faded gold key in a drawer, suggest usefulness without actually being good for anything. This brought tremendous intellectual turmoil and insecurity for a long time. Every critic I came across seemed at best to convey only ‘part’ of what I felt about a given work, habitually overlooking something that I deemed fundamental. This in itself, obviously, was already a telltale sign that beneath my posturings I was taking it for granted that some critic out there should have been anticipating my thoughts perfectly, that somewhere along the line I had tacitly agreed to entrust my responses to someone who could express them as an authoritative professional. If I had been a house cat, I would have been all arrogance and independence -- until meal time.

But give even the house cat its due: It trusts some feeders more than others. The critics I trusted? None completely (they were still other people, weren’t they?), but they rated a second sniff if they seemed open to the idea that there was more to the world than their salaried beat part of it, if they didn’t comment on their subjects from their knees, if they didn’t write as if instructing their audience how to read, if they had historical knowledge of their field, if they conceded (as a humourless politician once told me) that “humor has its place in human affairs,” and if, whatever their opinions of David Lynch, Jonathan Franzen, and Patti Smith, they liked the New York Mets, Ennio Morricone, Robert Ryan, and maple walnut ice cream. Correct: It was all very personal.

Sheer quantity made it necessary to delegate. I couldn’t see ‘all’ the movies and plays, read ‘all’ the books and government manuals. Living in a modern metropolitan center carried a stiffer price than that concocted by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. It also carried a clear distinction in the ‘yins’ and ‘yangs’ who exposed themselves to somebody’s work in order to share impressions about it.

My first sharer-hero dated back to when Cue magazine, then still in business as an independent New York weekly, had a film reviewer who took his job so seriously that daily press screenings were the least of it. When it was necessary, this intrepid soul braved the boroughs bordering Manhattan on Saturday mornings to take in Grade D westerns that would have insulted the Empire State Building and that were filling out a double bill in Jackson Heights or Flatbush. Not even the crudely produced sexploitation pictures confined to the Times Square area or fund-raising documentaries targeted for a church hall in the Bronx escaped his notice. His dedication permitted Cue to claim that it provided three-line capsule reviews of absolutely every feature playing in a New York City building. Not counting his second looks at films he was especially taken with and his busman’s holidays to foreign festivals, this added up (by his estimate) to seeing more than 600 movies a year. Don't ask if he had a TV set at home.

Where the reviews themselves were concerned, the man’s astounding energies broke down into hearty approval, vague irritability, and a profound dissatisfaction. When he was particularly enthusiastic about a picture, he invariably praised it as “compelling and masterly.” When he left a theater with little to show for his time but two completed circles of his watch, his rendered judgment was that the film in question had “not been especially compelling or masterly.” And when he hated something altogether, he was prone to dismissing it as “the very opposite of compelling and masterly.” All of which should have prepared me for his answer when I once asked him how he could be so tireless in ferreting out every piece of celluloid to emerge from a film editor’s workbench. “You never know when you’ll be surprised by something compelling and masterly,” he said with a straight face. “I like to think my readers will be grateful for that information.”

Ever since the Cue gentleman I’ve thought of reviewers as those in search of the compelling and masterly. Influenced by the same gentleman and his employer, I’ve also regarded them as integral parts of the tourist industry -- advertising copywriters who tell people where to go, where to get the best bargains, what cons to avoid etc. If they were covering hotel rooms instead of movies, they would have a grading system based on four (excellent), three (good), two (mediocre), or one (bedbugs) piece of bed pillow chocolate. I know I’m not alone seeing them in this light because the notion of reviewer has traditionally evoked images of unripe apples, muddy boots and drab Chevrolets while a succulent Golden Delicious, gleaming Wellingtons, and a shimmering Mercedes-Benz presumed, by contrast, to identify a critic. The yins and yangs of the business.

A reviewer wears jeans and has pens in his shirt pocket; critics wear herring-bone jackets with ironed white handkerchiefs in the breast pocket. You always know where a reviewer stands, never know where a critic is hiding. If the task of the reviewer is to tell us which high school band was most in tune, which drum majorette cavorted with the most flair, and which city agency was the most disciplined marching along the boulevard, critics have taken it on themselves to tell us whether the parade should have been organized to begin with. There is also the difference that the subject bringing out the reviewer arouses the critic’s interest only incidentally. Critics would not exist without their agendas, and common to all of them, from reflecting a perennially absorbent ideology to galloping along on a hobby horse, is their own writing. The critic takes on his subject as a test of his creative powers; his true arena isn’t the novel, play or painting triggering reflection, but the inspiration at the source of that novel, play, and painting, how it is relevant to the critic’s concerns, and how it has been exploited by a parallel creator. While the reviewer seldom has the self-delusion of being as imaginative as the people whose work he has been called on to review, the critic feels no obligation to such modesty. For the critic the compelling and the masterly is not only what might or might not have been accomplished by somebody else, but what might or might not have been accomplished by someone else while he and his lively ambitions were asleep at the switch.

And one other measure of the difference. The reviewer often sounds as though he has a second job churning out copy for Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The performance he saw last night at the Longacre was “the greatest in living memory.” X-Men Meet Y-Women and Have Odd Children could be “the most epic film we will see in our lifetime.” He intimates comparisons even as he shows that he has no conception of time, what has transpired in it, or what has yet to transpire in it. Whatever was is amnesia, whatever will be is a down payment on it. His concern is less for conveying artistic weight than for underwriting blurb fluff because that is the one way to get his name in his periodical when he has a day off, as well as in publications that don’t pay him a cent. On the other hand, the critic is liable to start relating a John LeCarre novel to something by Graham Green, and who has given a damn about Graham Green since he played a Sioux in Dances with Wolves?

And so? Where do we stand with these critics?

The fact is I can be as stimulated by a reviewer’s musings on a Will Farrell laughfest as by a critic’s meditations on Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s impact on Henry Miller. Reviewers didn’t surrender their brains entirely in agreeing to indulge annual speculations on who deserved an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Streaming Tuesday Comedy; vice versa, critics didn’t acquire epochal wisdom for divining the precise moment Jack Donne turned into John Donne. Truth be told, I’m as interested in the difference between reviewers and critics as in that between the FBI and Homeland Security. The issue remains how many dirty tricks are being played in my name and how much better off would I be eliminating all of them altogether.

While temporizing, I’ve cast critics in various speculative roles. When I humanize them, I think of them as friends who have seen and read what I have yet to see and read. Their enthusiasm/disdain doesn’t necessarily count, but what always counts is how much they relate about the experience. If they say they don’t want to spoil it for me with too many details, I conclude they genuinely want to encourage me to have their experience or are possessed of retentive powers best suited for straining fettuccine. Other times I weaselize them. If they start off by talking about actors or a writing style or the recent 50thanniversary celebrations for Larry the music label’s sound engineer, I suspect they’re backing into their assignment in line with a directive to be as ‘positive’ as possible. On still other occasions I robotize them, imagining them tramping through a pre-programmed function with the discrimination of a Transformer, scaling the Alps or gauging the capacity of a coal bin as equally plausible objectives. None of these fantasies brings me the absolute answer I’m looking for any more than the seeming orderliness of a beads shop with its infinite number of shapes and colors and trays ever leads me directly to what I want: Why this blue pony heart instead of that yellow diamond head, what am I to do with it when I get it home, and why is it important even to figure out what to do with it? Nevertheless, I accept the intellectual browsing. More, I am usually left to concede, the browsing has been the objective from the beginning, hasn’t it? If we were all content just knowing what we wanted, not merely critics, but publicists, the ad industry, moralists, churches, psychiatrists, white supremacist groups and the Detroit Lions (just to name a few) would be out of business.

So it is that I have had to conclude that critics remain a necessary evil and that attempts to defuse their potential impact, including through a tactic of critical voice saturation, do indeed have only Godzilla designs. The trick is not to confuse all the friendly, weaselly, robotic chat with the compelling and the masterly.


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Also by Donald Dewey:
Words Not to Live By
Knowing the Killer
Racism to the Rescue
Punk Times
Not Playing It Safe
Meeting the Author
The Overwriting Syndrome
Writers As Ideas
Let Them Entertain Us
It's a Kindergarten Life
Being and Disconnectedness
History of Humour in the Cinema
Cartoon Power


Paul Finley Mysteries Book Two
A newly arrived Bolivian seaman is found murdered in a Manhattan roach hotel. An address book on the body lists three American contacts, one of whom is private investigator Paul Finley. The trouble is, Finley has never heard of the man or, for that matter, of anybody in Bolivia. Another trouble is that the other two people in the address book are dispatched in quick order and Finley finds himself enmeshed in an assassination plot against a Bolivian diplomat.

Trade Paperback - 6 x 9 x .7
164 Pages
FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Private Investigators











Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
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