The Critics Obligation in Refabrication (Part One)
I chose the word critic to lend that signifier’s haughtier air to my meaning. However, it should be noted that a critic is nothing more than a specialized instance of the general category “audience member”. What I would like to do by encouraging every audience member to think of herself as a critic is to change the expectations that have calcified around what it means to witness a piece of Art.
Whenever I have more time I will try and trace the etymology of the current means of consuming art in a rigorous way. For now, I will content myself with saying that, although I’m not sure exactly when it became fashionable to treat art as primarily a commodity, it strikes me as highly likely that the advent of radio, television, and movies bear a substantial amount of the etymological burden.
Before we rail on these media too much, we have to keep in mind that Art had always been partially a commodity, and partially a Marxian scheme to opiatize the masses. [For Western Artists a third component was added to that color wheel: the possibility of the lionization of the individual.] It can’t be denied, however, that [in spite of these defects] it was only in the 20th Century that Art became Big Business.
There developed a class of “critic” whose job it was to prune through the works of a mass of starving artists to find the ones that held the greatest commercial promise. As the century wore on, this ability to parse “the demographic appeal” of a piece of Art came to be more highly prized than the ability to parse the truth and beauty of a piece of Art.
The job of a critic had been transformed into counting potential dollars.
But, like any process based on contingent principles, this commodification of Art is reversible. We writers have been bent to the will of this small class of Accountant-like Critics. They are a small percentage of the overall category of critics and they should not have such an outsized effect on the artistic products we consume.
For my money, The Art of the Bean Counters is encapsulated in any one of the Transformers movies. These movies made billions. Is there anyone out there who wants to argue that they deserved to earn those billions? Or, can we all just agree that the success of the Transformers franchise is a symptom of letting accountants determine what we will view as Art?
Think about it like this [if you’re inclined to stick up for Transformers]: If a race of [non-metallic] super-smart Aliens arrived on Earth and threatened us with extinction unless we were able to show them what we were capable of in terms of our best storytelling, would anyone sit them down for a Transformers marathon? You will just be being contrary for the sake of being contrary if you say you would. Probably the only thing you could get large numbers of humans to agree on [in my Alien extinction scenario] is NOT to show anything from the Transformers series.
I believe this reversal is already under way. The defeat of the Accountant-Critic is at hand. Think about how tetchy people get about the SEO theory guys on the internet. We have finally realized that the bean counters are trying to manipulate us and we are rebelling. Each NEW internet fad lasts until the moment the bean counters try and exploit it, and then it dies. I imagine you could derive a formula from this if you tried hard enough. Something like the amount of influence a website has to motivate people to do an action is inversely proportional to the number of advertisers who use the website as a platform to motivate people to do an action.
Internet Influence = 1/#of advertisers.
I’ll call this Joel’s Law. The model tops out with a high score of one. This score is equivalent to a state of message purity. If there is only one “advertisement” speaking, then the chances of convincing someone to take the action that “advertisement” recommends is high. This isn’t the full picture, of course, because it leaves out an explanation for what causes someone to choose to take the recommended action, but it suffices to make the point I want to make:
The days of Bean Counter Artistry are numbered.
The combinatorial power of the internet exceeds the ability of algorithms to predict. Simply put, there are too many places to get information for the Bean Counters to control them all. On top of this, each time a site becomes contaminated by The Principles of Bean Counters, it begins to lose its relevance. (126) We are approaching a cultural epoch in which we will be free [for the first time] to choose our Artistic Fate. The very thing that gave the Bean Counters their advantage [they knew how to wield the combinatorial power of mathematics to gather information about our desires without our knowledge] has undone them [after a certain point there are no more shortcuts available, the amount of informational outlets available is ungovernable in real time]. They would have to limit the places you can post information in order to effectively govern it. (127) [There is a backwards proof of this in the effectiveness of television advertising in (for instance) 1953 versus the effectiveness of television advertising in 2013. I have not done this research, but I admit that it constitutes a dramatic support (or blow) to my entire argument in this section.]
By now, it is clear that I am very dissatisfied with the way Art is consumed in our current culture. I want to alter this process and I believe that change starts with an important acknowledgement:
Big Business is telling you lies about Art.
You know that most of these movies that are coming out every summer aren’t any good. You know most of the movies in your local Red Box aren’t any good either. Big Business has conditioned you to opiatize yourself with Art that isn’t worth watching. (128) You don’t have to watch it. You can turn off your screens from time to time and wait for something good to come up.
The next revolution in Art begins with a broken circuit.
What I am asking for is that we recognize that it takes time to write a good story. You cannot dash off 22 episodes of a 50 page drama every four months and expect that there is a story worth telling being told. You cannot hire a couple of writers to stitch together a workable story around transforming alien robots, including a set piece that lasts half an hour in which an entire city gets razed, in a couple of weeks, and expect that the end result will hold up story-wise 50 [or even 5] years from now. It won’t. Yet the writers write it because they know if they don’t someone else will, the gig pays millions of dollars, and, dammit, people must not mind too much because the first two installments made over a billion dollars. These writers convince themselves they’re just giving “the market” what “the market” wants.
Everyone, from writer to director to studio to audience member is lying. No one, other than a few teenage boys in Toledo, wants to see a movie with a geek, a hot chic, and a freaking tractor trailer that doubles as a nearly omniscient alien being. Yet, Paramount/Dreamworks spent 195 million dollars making the adolescent fantasy of a couple of teenage boys in Toledo into the biggest action movie of 2011. This movie went on to make 1.1 billion dollars worldwide and singlehandedly justified the jobs of Bean Counters everywhere for another decade. You can hear them high fiving each other still, in their luxury board rooms all over Hollywood. “You see”, they say, “a geek, a hot girl, and a razed city always sells”.
I’m not even opposed to letting them do it if they want. They are the ones who have to live with the fact that they spent 195 million dollars to make a movie about an 80’s [corny] kids television show. What we can do, though, is stop going to see these movies when they come out. We can demand more than, more gore, and more action, and moremoremoremoremore of everything… except story. The next time you want to see a movie and you have to deal with the fact that your local cinema has reserved four different theatres for the latest 3D sequel with a quarter of a billion dollar budget, walk away. Don’t send the bean counters kids to Harvard on an admission status they paid for instead of earned. Those guys don’t even see you as a person. To them, you are a demographic checklist soaked in a predictable combinatorial soup. They don’t think you have the courage not to watch.
The Critic’s Obligation in Refabrication (Part Two)
I went through that [and was a bit harsh I think] because it is important to understand that unless we demand worthy examples of art with our dollars, we will not be given worthy examples of art. It’s far easier to make something easy than it is to make something good. There is always someone willing to make an inferior product, and then you tell that someone you’re going to make them one of the highest paid professionals in the world for making that inferior product… Where else do you think you’re going to get that kind of treatment? When have you ever gone in for a job interview and the hiring manager ended her presentation with, “Come work for me. I’ll pay you way too much money and you can do a crappy job.”
Being a proper critic begins with choosing an example of art worth consuming.
And, if you still think I’m being tough on the summer’s popcorn flicks, then at least send me an email that explains why a movie can’t have spectacle and quality storytelling at the same time. Seriously, why can’t it have both? Does anyone out there really want to argue that having a well-told story means that a movie can’t make money? For some reason, that position strikes me as far more insulting than asking for a side of story to go with my heaping helpings of summer spectacle.
So, the first responsibility of being a critic is to realize that if a movie looks like it’s not going to make any sense, it probably isn’t going to make any sense. We should try as much as is possible, not to support bad story-telling. You can vote for the kind of world you want in the ballot box of commerce—it’s always open. (129)
The second [and far more important] responsibility of being a good critic is to go beyond the usual designations of “liked it” or “didn’t like it” to wonder if it was, objectively speaking, good or bad. This is why I spent so much time going over the reviewing questions. Before I began to use them, I would read someone’s script and I would say things like, the dialogue felt authentic or… the dialogue felt wooden. There is very little that is helpful in that kind of praise or that kind of criticism. Now, if I tell someone that their characters never says anything laden with subtext, or the subtext between the mother and daughter, in which the mother continues to infantilize her adult daughter is brilliant, then I have told those authors something worth hearing. By bringing objectivity to the work and evaluating it in terms of what we would want in any great script we can cause authors to fill scripts with subtext. We can cause authors to write great scripts.
We can, as critics, participate in the refabrication of a work of art.
Eventually, this process would be self-replicating. Because critics were expecting subtext, scripts would fill up with subtext. If critics looked for a theme which was connected to the protagonist’s flaw, than the connection between themes and flaws would be at the forefront of an author’s mind as she designed and executed her story and, by necessity, the critic would discover that connection when she consumed the story.
What I am describing amounts to little more than a conspiracy between the author and the critic. The critic expects the author’s work to contain the hallmarks of a great instance of the type, so the author makes sure to write a script that meets those expectations.
The Obligation of the Critic in Refabrication (Part Three)
The next most important duty of a critic is to champion a story whenever it does meet our expectations.
There is no marketing campaign or wicked set piece that can draw people into a theatre better than great word of mouth. The same principle ought to apply [but seldom seems to] at the screenplay blueprint stage. In order to be produced, a modestly budgeted script is likely to have to impress a line of reader’s 10 to 15 people long [possibly even more]. What chance does it have to do this if the first reader thinks to herself, ‘yeah, this is really good, but I’m not sticking my neck out for this person—she’s a whole lot more of a nobody than me’? This screenplay, which we are assuming was actually good, never had a chance.
The Obligation of the Critic in Refabrication (Part Four)
Of all the responsibilities of a critic, this one is the most important. If you don’t fulfill this obligation than you have wasted your time and the author’s time.
Your primary job as a critic is to locate and analyze the pinch point in the Venturi Tube of the story you are reading.
My use of the term Ventrui Tube with relation to story theory is an adaptation of another scientific principle to this literary endeavor. (130) I’ll begin the explication with a diagram:
You should think of the red arrows in the diagram as the plot points. They are all funneling toward a pinch point in the story, after which they emerge on the other side. The picture can’t demonstrate this, but the added benefit to appropriating this principle is that the arrows on the right side of the diagram are now moving faster than the arrows on the left. By passing through the pinch point in a Venturi Tube, a fluid [in real life science] picks up speed. Similarly:
By passing through the pinch point in a story’s Venturi Tube, plot points pick up speed.
And I assure you that even the most half formed story has a pinch point. Our goal as critics is to isolate this pinch point and use it to draw out the theme, the reason the main character’s flaw accentuates that theme and, even, the subtextual payoffs to all the subtextual setups.
The pinch point is the location, in storyland topography, where the mind of the author and the mind of the critic merge. It is, in other words, the origin point of refabrication.
Of course, then, it is our primary duty as a responsible member of the audience to look for this pinch point. It is there as the ontological reason stories exist, to bring us together as a community. I write your story so that you can write mine.
Algorithm 12: A Critical Inquiry
1. Choose to consume art objects which are worthy of consumption.
2. Conspire with the author by expecting objective marks of good writing.
3. Champion good stories when you find them.
4. Find the pinch point in the Venturi Tube of every story.
There it is.
126 Look at how hard totalitarian regimes have to struggle to control the access to information in The Information Age. This is empirical proof of what I am saying in terms of Art. The fact that this implies we are living under a totalitarian economics is not lost on me. It is, however, far beyond the scope of the present book.
127 The similarity to totalitarian regimes is, again, uncanny. If you ever hear that the number of domains has been limited by the government then you know the jig is up. The Bean Counters will have begun to suppress the revolution. Also notice that the suppression would be [if it happened] carried out by accountants, not soldiers.
128 I feel the same way about the publishing houses too. It would be delicious irony if one of them ever made an offer to publish this book.
129 So, yes, if we keep supporting adolescent male fantasy movies to the tune of 1.1 billion dollars, our world will be, in some respects, an adolescent male fantasy.
130 I’ll note, with more than a fair amount of humor, that a Derridean analysis of my analysis, would have a field day with my mechanistic metaphors.