From Iceland — Should Critics Have Their Own Witness Protection Program?

Should Critics Have Their Own Witness Protection Program?

Published November 5, 2004

Should Critics Have Their Own Witness Protection Program?

“CRRITIC!” he growls.
Vladimir is completely thrown. How can he possibly top that? “Oh,” he says, falling into a defeated silence.
Why are critics so despised?
It’s a moment that must have caused quite a laugh on that opening night back in Paris in 1954. You can picture those French critics sportily chuckling in the audience, before nervously recoiling into the darkness of their seats. Poor critics, why are they so despised? Well, the answer to that question that is they’re not always, of course. In fact, to the vast majority of the public who like to be told what movies or plays they should or shouldn’t go to see, they are a guiding light. And unless they’re being praised, it’s really only the artists themselves—the authors, directors, and actors directly in the line of fire—who loathe them. Or at least feel threatened by them. And it’s hardly surprising; a bad notice from the notorious Broadway critics of yore could sometimes close a show down overnight, and even though they may not quite wield the same power today, there’s still no denying that while people do not always like a play or a movie because they are told that it’s good, they’ll often stay away from one if they are told that it’s bad. So yes, critics can, and often have, caused pain. But a good one, we are told, lives beyond these personal concerns, and like an impartial judge, delivers his or her verdict with equanimity and professional detachment.
Knowing your victims
Professional detachment? How’s that possible in a country the size of Iceland? It might be easy for critics to lose themselves in the anonymity of the crowd in a metropolis the size of New York, London or Paris, but what about a city on the scale of Reykjavik where everyone knows each other, and no-one, least of all a critic, can pass unnoticed? How can they live in such close proximity to their victims and live to tell the tale? As soon as a reviewer has published his piece, he has every chance of bumping into some of the people he has just written about the very next day on the street, in a café, or on a bus. He will live in perpetual fear of them crashing into his trolley in supermarkets or colliding with him under the shower in the local swimming pool. More suffocating still, the odds are that he probably already knows his victims. They could be anyone: a neighbour, a cousin, his dentist’s nephew, a colleague’s daughter…
So how then, one might wonder, do they survive? How do they sleep at night?
“Very well actually,” according to one Icelandic film buff I was talking to (It wasn´t me. Ed), “the movie critics at least.”
“And how’s that?” I ask.
“By writing lame reviews,” he claims. “Icelandic critics are fine when they’re reviewing foreign films,” he says, “but when it comes to writing about our own output it’s difficult to find someone who’ll have the guts to say what he really thinks. They’ll spend the first three quarters of the review summarising the story and giving you a list of all the people involved, and then throw in a coy little paragraph at the end that always leaves you trying to figure out whether they actually liked it or not.”
Is there more honesty in the theatre?
“And what about the theatre critics then?” I ask.
“They’re probably more honest,” he tells me, “because there’s much more of a steady output there, but when it comes to movies, most Icelandic films will start with a minimum credit of three stars, before the critic has even put pen to paper, to celebrate the sheer miracle that the film ever got made. And it’s understandable. Getting a movie off the ground is a mighty feat these days, particularly for a country like ours, so of course it deserves to be celebrated – but you can’t help wishing we’d be a little bit more self-critical sometimes.”
“You mean you don’t like Icelandic movies?” I ask.
“On the contrary,” he protests, “I love Icelandic movies! And I want to see more of them, especially if they’re as good as Dagur Kári’s “Nói Albinói” last year. But not everything we make is that good, and we should have the honesty to say so.”
“Maybe what you need is a critic protection program on a par with the Witness Protection Program in the States,” I suggest, “that way critics could write their pieces, and then get relocated to some other corner of Europe, where they would be given new identities and homes. They could even set up an exchange network that critics from other small nations might like to join: countries like Ireland, the Faeroes, Liechtenstein…
Isn’t there also a danger of going to the other extreme?” I add, “of being overly critical too?”
“Maybe,” he says, “but that’s something you’re more likely to come across in casual conversations like this than in print.”

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