Writing is two parts: thinking and setting pen to paper. Everyone assumes that writing begins the process; no, it is the end. Turning ideas over in your mind, seeing relationships, building webs in the mind, this is what makes the writing worth reading. Without this prior Thinking, the writing is dead.
This is a criticism of critics. Just a tiny bit of irony, in that!
I was reading Newsweek today, and found a review of war films, written by Caryn James. She is a well-known movie critic. I don't want to pick on her, she's probably a very nice woman, but she does serve up food for thought about all critics. She was reviewing the new series about World War II, by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. And she had nothing good to say about it. She also had little good to say about The Hurt Locker, the film which just cleaned up at the Oscars. She said that Kathryn Bigelow's dazzling filmmaking "doesn't pause to let you realize that suspense and bravery are everything here." I thought the film was about nothing else but. I went to watch it twice, because I was so entranced with her examination of the virtues and defects of such bravery. ("War is a drug.")
In many of the reviews I read daily, on a whole range of subjects besides filmmaking, I am so struck with the underlying view the critics seem to have about intelligence. Review after review bespeaks the idea of "look how intelligent I am, I can see – more than most – everything that's wrong with this." (Whatever the this may be.) I was raised with a very different view of intelligence: it valued "look how intelligent I am, I can see – more than most – all the things there are to appreciate, about this."
In our day, and perhaps in other days as well, it is a far rarer soul who makes appreciation the defining motif of his or her life, than those who make criticism their defining goal. Criticism is easy; it takes no brains to say what's wrong with something. Appreciation however, is difficult; you sometimes have to fight to see things to appreciate, digging for example beneath ugly surface impressions, to see some shining beauty underneath. That's why prejudice flourishes. It takes brains to see what there is to appreciate in every man and woman who was ever born. Which should be the goal of every intelligent man or woman. Civilization never decays or vanishes because of a lack of criticism in a society; it decays or vanishes because of a lack of appreciation in that society. As a direct consequence of this, that society tends to preserve the commonplace, while it casually throws away treasures. And criticism causes more meanness to be abroad, in the land.
Every critic begins with assumptions, usually unexamined, that they use to justify their hammering the thing they are examining. For example, Caryn James' assumption here, in reviewing historical war films like The Hurt Locker, is that such films must have "a cultural resonance today," and feel "relevant." She has no patience with "outdated ideas" that were dear, she says in the past, like "justice is on our side," or "warfare was about turf," or "platitudes about heroism." She criticizes The Hurt Locker for "ignoring the urgent question of whether the war
should be fought at all." In other words, if she had been making that film, she would have been sure it dealt with that question. Fortunately, no such obligation was laid upon Kathryn Bigelow. She was free to make her own film, not Caryn James'es.
In critics' articles or blogs, there's always just a little bit of "Ah, if I were king....(or queen) this is what I would have done." The one notable exception to this is Roger Ebert, whom I read devotedly, just because he looks for things to appreciate in films that other critics dismiss out of hand.
Now, about history: just because the past was different from the present, with different values and assumptions, doesn't mean it shouldn't be depicted. Our history is what defines people, and nations. Show me only a man's present circumstances, and I may be bewildered by his actions. But tell me that man's history and I will understand him much more completely, and find much to appreciate in him. Our past is important, and so are nations' pasts. We didn't just come into this world fully-hatched, and fully-born. We came into a context, a family, a community, a country, with traditions and values that were important to them, then; and therefore important to us now. In a word, show us our past, and make us really feel our history vividly, and then we will find much more to appreciate about the present. That is what the producers of The Pacific have done, and that is what Kathryn's The Hurt Locker has done, magnificently.
There's no way around it: we need more "appreciators" in our society: men and women who, from the beginning, set out to make their lives all about appreciating others, even if it requires some hard thinking. And who think it takes more brains to appreciate than it does to criticize. We need more men and women to make appreciation the goal of their whole career. These are men and women to admire.
As the great composer of beautiful music, Jean Sibelius, famously said, "No one ever erected a statue to a critic."