Our Deformities

There’s a useful term that I’ve only seen in French – deformation professionel – and I don’t see why it would lose anything in English translation as “professional deformation.” It refers to the things that begin to separate us from the rest of the population as a result of our evolving according to the pattern of our different professions.

I thought about this as I read film critic after film critic include Lost in Translation among his or her top ten films of 2003. As someone who was tempted to leave half an hour into the film, and irritated, when it finally slithered to its pointless end, that I had bothered to stay, I searched for reasons to consider it one of the niftier things since sliced bread. They didn’t convince me. “Atmosphere” was one. And Sophia Coppola’s atmosphere was OK, but I couldn’t see that the film gained anything from being set in Japan aside from a couple of cheap, not very funny jokes about Japanese culture. The one that came closest to making sense was, and I paraphrase, “It’s rare to see a director show as much appreciation for an actor’s talent as Coppola does for Bill Murray.” And I thought, well, that sounds like a film critic’s reason to like a film. That’s his professional deformation. It sounds like someone who watches films virtually continuously, perennially gets annoyed by good actors who are underused, and as Lost in Translation wafts by right after The Return of the Ring and before Mona Lisa Smile, thinks, “Boy, Bill Murray got a lot of screen time.” But for someone like me, who watches maybe a film DVD a week and can spare time to go to the local bijou somewhat less often than once a month, the fact that Coppola appreciates Murray’s talent is slim compensation for the fact that the plot never comes to any point of fruition, that all obvious avenues of complication are simply sidestepped, that the wealth of cultural detail turns out to be gratuitous and never adds up to anything – not to mention the fact that Bill Murray only gets to deliver about 1/100th as many clever lines in Lost in Translation as he does in one of my favorite comedies, Groundhog Day. After all, I kind of thought it was my prerogative, as audience member, to appreciate the actor’s talent, not the director’s prerogative.

I also suspect that the fulsome praise given the film (since none of my friends are film critics, and few of them thought much of the film either) contains an elitist element of savoring the avoidance of the cliché. Romances are about people who get drawn into affairs, and if you watch eight romances a week among your dozens of action films, thrillers, goofball comedies, etc., it must be a refreshing reversal to see an obvious romance not turn into a romance, like easing up on an overused muscle. But films are not so much part of my daily routine that I can savor the avoidance of something. I’m happy to see a romance not turn into a romance if it becomes something else, but I don’t get any thrill, as professionals must, from seeing a director cleverly get a film through studio production without it ever achieving its painfully obvious goal.

So do I have a bee in my bonnet about film critics liking Lost in Translation? Nah, don’t listen to me, what do I know from film? Among my favorite flicks are Eraserhead and Greaser’s Palace, which gross all my friends out. The reason I bring it up is that the disconnect between me and the film critics makes me scared about my own professional deformation. After all, I live a weird life. My apartment is lined all round with brim-filled, floor-to-ceiling CD cabinets, and for various periods I’m listening to things almost continuously – a little of this, compare it with that, write down the lyrics from this, figure out a chord progression there, play two minutes of this old disc as a reminder, listen to this brand new disc already writing the review in my head as soon as the first sound blares out. It’s not a “normal” relationship to music. In music, I can appreciate a piece that does little more than avoid the predictable cliché. I can listen to La Monte Young sing raspily over a drone for an hour, and as long as he doesn’t hit an out-of-tune note, think, “Wow, that’s amazing.” I hear what happens in a piece, but perhaps I also too much hear every piece IN RELATION to every other piece in roughly the same genre. Music is never an isolated pleasure for me, but exists as a segment in a continuous web in which I spend nearly every waking moment wrapped, and rapt.

So I’m an expert. Everything I say about music is true, and insightful. But it doesn’t follow from that that you, assuming you can afford fifty bucks a month to blow at the CD store, should jump at my every recommendation. I read film critics for interesting insights, but I don’t automatically run to films they rave about, and the more prestigious their publication, the less, in a way, I trust them. It has struck me over the years that there are “critic’s composers,” composers who get rave reviews from critics for decades – Elodie Lauten and David Garland come to mind in the new-music world – without ever catching on with audiences. Of course, concert presenters and record producers have to be taken into account too, since they have their own professional deformations, and I’m always privately ranting about the perverse tastes of people who run record labels. We live in a world of specialists, and all things considered, it’s amazing we communicate as well as we do. We experts have to remember to look at our field from the outside, as a small part of everyone else’s cultural life, and offer our more esoteric insights not as pronouncements from on high, but as interesting examples of how to think – examples that may or may not expand the range of what non-music-experts can enjoy. We need to distinguish between perceptions that can be legitimately developed and deepened and those that are illusions of our professional deformation. (There are certainly movies I’ve learned to understand more deeply on repeated viewings, such as Greaser’s Palace, but I can’t imagine any “levels” I missed in Lost in Translation; the story sets you up to believe the two characters will have an affair, and, Ha ha! – they don’t. Fooled you.) And every now and then, I think critics should take a sabbatical from concerts and their CD collection, something I’ve never been able to afford to do.

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