Sunday, February 26, 2006

On pop culture criticism

What did we learn from Saturday's RadioNation with Laura Flanders? A great deal. As always. But we're going to focus on a disappointing guest. Why?

A number of reasons. First of all, it proves Kat can call 'em:

You know who else has that kind of patience and tact? Laura Flanders. You can tell is just by listening. She believes strongly in her opinions but, short of someone making a jerk of his/herself, you can tell that she really takes care to respect people's feelings. (And you really have to make the ultimate jerk of yourself to tick Laura off.)

Flanders never lost her patience or tact. Us, we were groaning everytime the guest piped up.

Which is reason number two. C.I.'s stated, many times, a preference to the arts coverage in The Progressive as opposed to The Nation. Stated publicly. Ava's indicated her own similar feelings in their reviews and in passing remarks in conversations. We couldn't figure it out. Occassionally, we'll find a film review in the magazine and mention it to Ava and C.I. and, whether they agree with or disagree with the opinions, they'll agree it's well written and worth reading. The same with the book coverage. ("Forget the music coverage," says Kat who hasn't forgotten the "expert" who got all the basics wrong on Courtney Love's music.)

So what was the problem with The Nation's art coverage?

Richard Goldstein was a guest in Flanders' third hour. That's the problem, we quickly realized. His writing doesn't appear in the arts section but up front. A showy place for someone so confused.

One thing about his writing, everything in any form of entertainment, tends to get lumped into "Hollywood." It's an elastic definition that allows him to spew scattershot on any topic from rap music to films to talk radio to . . . You get the idea.

Tonight he spoke about the Oscars (causing intense groans from Ava and C.I.) without seeming to grasp much of what he was speaking of. Brokeback Mountain wasn't a hit. That's what Goldstein said. Causing Ava and C.I. to yell out, "By whose standards?" As of this past Thursday, the film, with a production budget of thirteen million, had grossed seventy-three million dollars domestically. It's made over five times its production budget. Sounds like a hit.

Or, as Laura Flanders pointed out, in Salt Lake City it was playing on five screens. Has there been a film with two male characters in love with another that's done better? Forget Philadelphia which was a "disease of the week"/legal drama film that kept any private moments (sexual or otherwise) between lead Tom Hanks and cameo actor Antonio Banderas offscreen. Until now, the closest moneymaker to Brokeback Mountain would be the comedy In & Out. In & Out grossedd just over 63 million (domestic) at movie theaters.

Exactly how is Brokeback Mountain not a hit? If he's arguing "blockbuster," we can point out the obvious, most blockbusters don't get nominated. (Where's the noms for The Wedding Crashers, huh?) He never defined his terms, which were highly elastic depending upon his mood apparently, but felt the need to offer that Brokeback Mountain was a hit in Europe. (Was that an attempt to riff on a joke from Cameron Crowe's Singles?) Brokeback Mountain has made approximately thirty-three million overseas (which is what we're assuming Goldstein's calling "Europe" -- possibly he has an actual monetary breakdown, but we doubt it). Crash? It's made almost twenty-nine million overseas.

In the midst of what could have been a discussion on pop culture and society, which was where Flanders was going, Goldstein attempts to weigh in on "voters" (he meant "the Academy" -- Oscar voters). Most of us were lost listening to his scattershot approach. Ava and C.I. helpfully explained that the Oscars a) go for uplifting due to the message of the industry that's attempted to be sent out both to this country and worldwide and that, in fact, this is why the Oscars were created; and b) the voting membership always trends older so you get "safer" selections. Goldstein seemed to be trying to argue that the Academy voted with an eye to fundamentalist America.

As Goldstein pooh-pahed signs of progess that Flanders attempted to explore, he seemed focused on fundamentalist America. We hope that was a joke about S&M desires among the 'vangical voters. Hey, we're smart asses all the time. We'll defend Goldstein if he was taking the smart ass approach there. But his grip on the facts was so loose that we're not sure whether that was an attempt at humor or just another example that his approach appears to be "we make it up as we go along" (hat tip to Tori Amos' "Gold Dust" on the CD Scarlet's Walk).

But he was obsessed with the 'vangical voters. He has the idea that "Hollywood" is focused on them ("baffled and concerned" by them, according to Goldstein). Mel Gibson did well with a (really bad and really offensive) religious picture. That was his example. He had nothing else to back it up. Now maybe this was a case of "Hollywood" including other forms such as TV? If so, we'd remind him that the topic was film. But if he was going to go to The Three Wishes well, he should have said so. His terms, elastic, are never defined. Sometimes a "hit" is something that makes a little more than its production budget, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes overseas grosses are worth noting (Brokeback Mountain) and sometimes they aren't (Crash).

Flanders attempted to raise issues (and we're guessing add some terms) by noting that Crash, which Goldstein did all but call "reactionary," was alternative in the nonlinear manner in which the story was told. Goldstein wasn't interested in that or wasn't up to. (We personally think he would have freaked if Laura Flanders had referred to a "moasic narrative.")

We'll praise Flanders and the documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry (director of Street Fight) who attempted to explore the issues. What do the Oscar nominations mean culturally? Do they or recent films signify anything culturally? What is an alternative film and how should narrative approaches be evaluated?

Flanders had enough worthy topics for a full fledged discussion. Maybe Goldstein was just in a cranky mood? We might have thought that was it were it not for the running commentary from Ava and C.I. Afterwards, as we discussed the Goldstein issue, we were surprised when Ava said that they'd linked to Goldstein in at least one TV review. Their usual policy, Ava and C.I.'s, is not to name the "water cooler critics" they so often refer to. Goldstein is one of them. Though not named, he was linked to in their Desperate Housewives review because of his failure to recognize the very real accomplishments of Susan Harris, he tried even their patience.

He's also one of the water cooler critics waxing it on about Geena Davis' red lipstick in Commander-In-Chief. But mainly, he's the water cooler critic who often substitutes facts with conventional wisdom.

C.I. offered one example (which Dallas tracked down). In March of 2003, while weighing in on the state of entertainment (in his water cooler way), Goldstein wrote:

Then came Naomi Wolfe, whose effort to counsel Gore on color schemes was met with the same scorn that greeted Jimmy Carter when he got attacked by a rabbit.

We don't know the rabbit story. We do know the Naomi Wolfe story. And we know the facts. Naomi Wolfe did not "counsel Gore on color schemes." It's a conventional wisdom, but it's not factual. Furthermore, having been refuted publicly by many (including Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler) and by Wolfe herself, the lie is now a sexist slur.

C.I. went with that example because "It appears that no one fact checks Goldstein." (They don't fact check all the music reviews either, Kat adds.) In 2003, there's no excuse for a falsehood about Wolfe's role in the Gore campaign to make it into print. But it did. If Goldstein knew he was repeating a lie, we'd be surprised. But it's a lie none the less.

It's a sexist thing to accept the "conventional wisdom" that a woman must be advising a candidate on fashion. (Newsweek pulled the same stunt on Gloria Steinem during the George McGovern campaign -- falsely claiming her role in the campaign was to pick out McGovern's socks.)

That was the example C.I. went with and chose it because it is so glaring false and because Bob Somerby has often written of The Nation's failures in reporting on the Gore campaign and election 2000. We like The Nation. We read it (eight of us involved in this piece subscribe). But no one, including us, is perfect and that the lie made it into print is very disappointing. Ava and C.I. could offer many more factual problems with Goldstein's writing. Along with that, they note his inability to define any terms in a single piece. (Forget an overall framework.)

Water cooler talk belongs in Blender, not The Nation. It certainly shouldn't be upfront in the magazine's placement and it certainly should be fact checked.

Water cooler talk leads to statements such as this:

Men won't watch what women enjoy: That's been the golden rule of television for decades.

Really? Where's the supporting evidence? Which men? Which women? What are the figures? Which programs? Murder She Wrote? The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Dynasty? Cosby? Which shows are we talking about? Goldstein's not talking facts, he's talking conventional wisdom and readers of The Nation are degraded when they're misinformed so badly. Ava and C.I. have often noted that attitude (especially with regards to CBS) in their reviews, but they've never accepted it. Or endorsed it. Leave it to a water cooler critic to accept it at face value.

Flanders, on Crash, noted, of the non-linear narrative, "in terms of form, in terms of the unresolved . . . I like it for that alone." Goldstein wasn't up for heavy lifting. (His "critiques" tended to have no more "depth" than this statement: "It's not going to alienate the right.")

When we started up The Third Estate Sunday Review, we reviewed a TV show right away. We've continued to do that. We've wisely turned them over to Ava and C.I. because they're doing a feminist critique that touches on a variety of issues and examines the show in a way you won't get in many other places. The overwhelming response to those reviews demonstrate that there is an audience to something beyond water cooler talk.

But in the first critique, we were just trying to fill space. And we did wonder whether there was a place for more infotainment talk in a world already saturated with it? There is. When it's done well, there is. Laura Flanders does it well. Ava and C.I. do it well. Water cooler talk doesn't serve anyone. Chasing down trends and offering up conventional wisdom as opposed to a real critique or real facts, doesn't serve anyone.

In many roundtables, Ava and C.I. have brought up Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times and then struck their remarks when it was time to post the feature. They don't often agree with Stanley's opinions, but they enjoy the passion with which she writes. (Ava feels Stanley's one of the few writers, of any genre, worth reading in the paper of record. C.I. says that there's little time to read the arts section but if her byline is spotted and "if she's not reviewing a program Ava and I are tackling that weekend, I always make a point to read it.") Our take on arts criticism in general is that bad criticism kills. It kills interest, it kills discussion. What's bad criticism? Water cooler talk. Rushing into praise whatever's gotten the bandwagon rolling. Bad criticism is also criticism that includes glaring factual errors. Alessandra Stanley getting the title of a Bob Dylan CD mentioned in a show wrong isn't a glaring factual error -- it's a mistake and they happen. Including a disproven falsehood about Naomi Wolfe, many years after it's been disproven, is a glaring factual error. Bad criticism is also turning arts coverage into stats. (Kat wrote about all of this at length in January of last year.)

Did you have a reaction to what you saw or heard? That's a criticism. That has value, even if some will disagree with your take. Hiding behind stats of falsehoods has no value and it's dishonest. Treating pop culture in a detached manner completely betrays the point of pop culture. (Yes, we're referring to the idiot with more hands than the average person who felt the need to "on the one hand, on the other hand, but still, and yet" it.)

Ava and C.I., who are familiar with Goldstein's writing, can cite paragraphs where he really seems to be coming to life. (We'll take their word for that.) We'd suggest that he and The Nation pursue those moments and ditch the water cooler aspects. Leave the "water cooler" to Newsweek and others who have turned discourse into horse race handicapping.

We'll echo Kat and applaud Laura Flanders for her tact. She had a the makings of a great discussion. When it was obvious that roadblocks were being tossed in the path repeatedly, she remained the Laura Flanders we all expect. She stayed on topic and did so politely (we'd say "In our dreams, we have her grace" but, honestly, we'd never give up our smart ass attitudes, couldn't if we tried). Which isn't to suggest that Flanders can't express outrage (listen to her on the wars). But week after week, she finds a way to talk to everyone and we admire her for it. Listen to her and you'll see why that is. This weekend, she's continuing the America is Purple tour (no "blue" states, no "red" states) and is South Dakota. Sunday?

Grassroots activists and the Democratic Party. From the Chicago suburbs, congressional candidate CHRISTINE CEGELIS on her-up-from-below primary campaign and JIM DEAN, of Democracy for America, on why the party needs the real thing, not astro-turf. And a media roundtable with New Orleanian JORDAN FLAHERTY and "Information Is Power" reporter TERRY ALLEN. All that and your calls.

We're noting RadioNation with Laura Flanders each week because we think it's a program worth noting and alternative media worth getting the word out on. We don't recap Saturday's three hour show (Saturdays & Sundays, 7-10pm ET on Air America Radio) but pull one aspect that stood out to us. And hope that it both raises your interest in the show and makes you think. This time, we hope you'll think about the state of arts criticism. Flanders can handle arts criticism (and handled it Saturday). So we hope you'll check her out (hopefully, you already are -- a number of readers have expressed that they're glad we're noting RadioNation with Laura Flanders each week because it's one of their favorite radio shows as well). We also hope you'll think about what arts and art criticism mean? What it means to your own life and the world around you?

Goldstein, at one point, offered on "Hollywood," riffing on Hustle & Flow, that "it's hard out here for a pimp." We don't think pimps, fluffers or hacks are needed. We think passionate criticism is.
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