A reader writes, apropos of last week’s posting on vicious critics, in which I argued that “sometimes it’s your duty–your responsibility–to drop the big one. But you shouldn’t enjoy it, not ever. And you should always make an effort to be modest when writing about people who can do something you can’t, even when you don’t think they do it very well.” He thinks otherwise:
Why not take pleasure in “dropping the big one” on works that are truly hateful? (I’m thinking of stuff like Ancient Evenings, the films of Ken Russell or Peter Greenaway, The Night Porter, Piss Christ.) These works present issues that go way beyond quality of execution. They are fundamentally anti-human, not to mention anti-art. As such, their infliction on the culture should evoke righteous anger and disgust from any critic with blood in his veins. As I see it, identifying the false, the mindless, or the pretentious (which so often are taken for the real thing) is no less important than heralding the beautiful and the wise–and should afford the critic no less satisfaction. Of course, I don’t have in mind here works that are bad in a trivial or routine way. I’m speaking of stuff that is importantly or dangerously bad.
I think this is a fair distinction, and I won’t deny that I smiled quietly as I piled up dynamite around, say, Franco Zeffirelli’s Metropolitan Opera production of Carmen, with which I dealt rather summarily in the New York Daily News a few years ago:
The Met chorus covered itself with glory, but the orchestra was out of sorts, and James Levine conducted as if his mind were elsewhere. I sympathize: Mine was, too. I kept thinking, “Has everybody at the Met forgotten that ‘Carmen’ is a French opera?” Evidently so: Thursday’s performance featured a German Carmen, a Spanish Don José, a Romanian Micaela, a Russian Escamillo and an Italian director. The results were as confused as the casting. Bizet’s elegant, deadly opera is a feather-light soufflé with a pinch of cyanide; this production is a Wiener Schnitzel smothered in red sauce. Too bad the Met can’t send it back to the kitchen.
That was fairly nasty, and we’re not even talking anti-human anti-art, just a piece of gold-plated junk. So sue me. (No, don’t.) But I will say this in my own defense: now that I mostly pick and choose my own assignments, I find I want to spend as little time as possible putting myself through hell on the aisle. I’ve come to feel that as a rule, the thing I do best is point people in the direction of that which and those whom I love. Let somebody else ice “Piss Christ.” I’d rather spend my remaining hours on earth telling you how beautiful “The Open Window” is, especially if you’ve never seen it before. In the long run, silence may be the most powerful form of negative criticism.
Incidentally, please don’t bother to remind me of what I just said the next time you catch me beating up on a bad play in The Wall Street Journal. I mean, you don’t have to sit through it, right?
P.S. For those youngsters who only know Randy Newman as a composer of sappy movie scores, he’s had his moments, as the title of this post recalls.