Entertainment Industry

Category: Second Thoughts

Mary McNamara: Watching TV, a job with regrets

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar's critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in a series of occasional articles.

Second_thought_220 When you watch television for a living, the pleasures are many. I was able to watch the entire season of "In Treatment" before the first episode aired, and I spent weeks immersing myself in "Battlestar Galactica" to refresh the old memory before the final season premiered.

But there are, of course, disappointments, even regrets.

Although I can't really think of a review that I would have done differently, I do wish the rest of NBC's “Bionic Woman” had been as good as the pilot and that they had given Katee Sackhoff the lead. In fact, it would be nice if the networks sent out more than the pilot for review; sometimes it's difficult to tell which way things are going to go from just one episode.

I wish someone else could have reviewed "John Adams," because I knew people would hate me for not loving it (I still get the occasional irate e-mail), but I really didn't, so what else could I say?

I wish I understood why so many people watched the new "Knight Rider," which was terrible, while so few watched “In Treatment,” which was wonderful. (Actually I really don't want to know because it would probably be too upsetting.)

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On Second Thought: 'Einstein on the Beach'

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in a series of occasional articles.

Second_thought_220 Since 1976, I have enjoyed the music of Philip Glass. Before then, I did not. “Einstein on the Beach” changed everything.

Experiencing the five-hour opera with its repetitious score performed without a break, no real text and a staging by Robert Wilson full of unforgettable images may not have been the full-blown religious conversion for me that it had been to some. But thanks to “Einstein,” I did, so to speak, see the light. And, more importantly, hear the light.

This was a dogmatic time in music. Power was in the hands of Modernists who believed that music should never repeat, that it should provide ever-fresh experiences, that it should change as fast as the world was. The young Minimalists demanded a beat and a groove.

I was committed to change. I was enthusiastic about such Minimalists as Steve Reich and Terry Riley who could create fascinating, unpredictable results from copious amounts of repetition. But not Glass. His performances were for me intolerably loud and mind-numbing. The unkind word that I loudly trumpeted back then for this work was “fascistic.” I felt Glass went beyond intriguing the mind — he messed with it.

“Einstein on the Beach” was not, for Glass, a radical break from his past. His music evolved from its mathematically hard-core cyclic modules of the ’60s to something that made room for the ingratiating melody, harmonic invention and lyricism that gradually entered into his style after “Einstein.” But Wilson’s theater, and particularly his inspired lighting, literally opened my ears. It was as if he turned on the light switch, and I could, for the first time, hear.

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On Second Thought: Carina Chocano on the doubts that rise while critiquing films

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in a series of occasional articles.

Second_thought_220_3 This is a question that comes up a lot when you review films for a living, and, like the dreaded “What’s your favorite movie?” it never fails to incite violent fantasies. Not because I have or haven’t ever revisited a movie and entertained second thoughts (though not exactly in the way I think the question implies, but more on that later) but because of what the question says about the way we think now about movies, critics, reading, writing and cultural discourse.

Of course, I’m probably reading too much into it. You would too if you were accused of being “out of touch” with audiences every time you found yourself underwhelmed by some overhyped tent pole. I see a lot of overhyped tent poles, and, believe me, sometimes an actual tent pole would be more fun to watch.

During the last year, for instance, I found myself going back and forth a little on “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” both of which contained elements I admired and elements I didn’t. I tried to express both feelings in my reviews but wondered later if I’d tilted too much to one side. It’s not that I changed my mind about the movies so much as I waffled on the function of the review: I tend to see them not as recommendations or warnings but more as part of a conversation with readers about what the pop culture we produce says about the times we live in. But the trend lately leans toward the former.

That’s why there’s a small part of me that’s relieved when it doesn’t fall to me to review a movie such as, say, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which arrived in theaters so shrouded in reverence it’s a wonder we didn’t all choke to death while waiting for the smoke to clear and dust to settle. As critics, it’s our job to see through the smoke and dust, but it isn’t always easy to trust your gut when marketing, pedigree and expectation obscure the view so thoroughly, creating the illusion of success and popularity before a movie has been released. It works the other way around too. Some movies get hit with a backlash before they even premiere, so that praising them can feel like going out on a dangerous limb.

Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

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On Second Thought: A rave! But, er, wrong

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there were any reviews they regretted. One in a series of occasional articles.

Second_thought_220 I’ve been a book critic for 20 years, which means I’ve written a lot of reviews — more than 500, by my own unscientific count.

In that time, I’ve shanked my share: Dale Peck’s 1998 novel “Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye,” for instance, which I read in the midst of a fever and recall as if it were a hallucination, a book whose surreal charms, as I then saw them, were almost certainly a creation of my overheated mind. (One of the main characters is named Justin Time. Just in time. Need I say more?) Or Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain,” which, I now think, I overpraised when I reviewed it in 2000.

But my biggest regret as a critic has to do with a book I didn’t so much mis-review as entirely misread. In the fall of 1993, when I was book editor of the late, lamented Los Angeles Reader, I reviewed Annie Ernaux’s splendid little memoir “Simple Passion,” the story of an obsessive love and its effect on the author/narrator — and I flat out got it wrong.
When I say I got “Simple Passion” wrong, I’m not talking about how much I did or did not like the book; as it happens, my review was a rave. But it was a rave for the wrong reasons, for reasons that had more to do with me than with what Ernaux set down on the page.

It is inevitable that we read — that we do anything, frankly — through the filter of our experiences, our biases, our preconceptions of the world. And yet, it’s also essential that, as reviewers, we remain aware of these external influences, that we test their boundaries, that we try, to the extent that it is possible, to reckon with a book on its own terms.

-- David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Review Editor

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On Second Thought: Rubins' sculpture more memorable than he said it would be

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar's critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in a series of occasional articles.

Second_thought_220 When "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art shortly after New Year's in 1992, the show marked a cultural turning point. An unprecedented boom in the art market had hit the skids, and suddenly the conflation of vital new artists and a strong institutional base, both of which had been building in the city throughout the 1980s, galvanized attention around art's value, rather than its price. Something crystallized in the zeitgeist. Los Angeles, long a second city, moved squarely into the international top tier for contemporary art.

I was enthusiastic in print. "Perhaps the greatest achievement of this large and ambitious show is simply the vigor with which it acknowledges important art being made here," I wrote. That feeling was widespread -- not least among the more than 5,000 people who jammed the opening night party at Little Tokyo's Geffen Contemporary but also among the generally favorable reviews the show garnered. Word traveled fast that something big was up.

The glaring exception was the New York Times. The Manhattan art world had been coming to terms with the 1980s' return to prominence of European contemporary art, headquartered in Germany, a full generation after the ruination brought by World War II. For nearly half a century, New York pretty much had the territory to itself. Perhaps sensing that its postwar rank as America's sole major center for new art was also at an end, the New York Times huffed, "The disappointment of the exhibition is less its attention-grabbing sensationalism than the pretense that this sensationalism amounts to something substantial and challenging." "Helter Skelter" got slammed.

Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic

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On Second Thought: Robert Lloyd's review copy got ‘Lost’ yet comes in under the ‘Wire’

Second_thought_220 Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in an occasional series.

The fact is there is just too much television. Too much to watch, too much to write about, too much to find room for in the newspaper. That means you have to prioritize, which means you have to make necessarily prejudicial decisions — as in, “I don’t think I’ll like that” — and that means that you miss shows. You prioritize them right out of your mind.

Sometimes you just miss them because you’re looking the other way, or because the press material or screeners wind up on the bottom of a pile, beneath a stack of papers, under a jumble of laundry.

You try not to let this happen, of course.

The fact that there is just too much television also means that some shows I never review at all because they’re reviewed by a colleague — we share the burden, or the pleasure. And not reviewing a show can become an excuse to put off watching it, because there are always more to watch. (I have been putting off watching “The Wire” for years now, and don’t think I’m not embarrassed about that, but it just got harder to catch up with every additional season.)

-- Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

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On Second Thought: Kenneth Turan on how a film critic can't go wrong

Second_thought_220_2 Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar's critics whether there were any reviews they regretted. First in a series.

I am not now nor have I ever been mistaken in my judgment about a film.

Now that I've gotten your attention with that bit of unwise bravado, let me explain why I feel that asking critics about what they got wrong, or for that matter what they got right, is to fundamentally misunderstand what it is we do and how we do it.

Let's start with some history. When Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" came out in 1958, critics were almost unanimously dismissive, with the New Yorker speaking for the fraternity by saying "the director has never before indulged in such far-fetched nonsense."

Cut to 44 years later, to the prestigious poll of international critics that the British magazine Sight & Sound conducts every 10 years to determine the best film ever made. "Vertigo" not only finished second, it came within a hair of unseating the perennial champion, "Citizen Kane."

What happened? Were those critics back in 1958 hopeless fools? To say that would be to arrogantly assume that today's practitioners have reached some ultimate pinnacle of knowledge that neither past nor future generations can hope to equal.

The reality is that critics are creatures of their particular time and place, that even the most rarefied criticism is at its core opinion shaped by all the personal and societal forces that shape anyone's taste.

Just as you can't be wrong or right if you prefer Italian food to Chinese, it's hard to be right or wrong about what we like in a film, no matter how much we think we can.

What criticism offers, ideally, is informed, thoughtful, well-written opinion, an expression of personal taste based on knowledge, experience and insight that helps readers both decide what to see and understand what they have seen. And the closest I've come to making a mistake has been when I haven't trusted my own instincts about a film.

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On Second Thought: Charles McNulty on the drama after deadline

Second_thought_220_3 Much as one would like to join Edith Piaf in a duet of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," a critic can't help having occasional regrets after passing instantaneous verdicts on scores of plays and musicals, usually in the space of a few morning hours after a deadline-spoiled night's sleep.

Not having had the opportunity to shoot down an Ibsen, as many of the most powerful London theater critics attempted to do when the great Norwegian emerged on their stages, I can't say I'm drowning in remorse for having trashed a major talent. Yes, I have often found the plays of Martin McDonagh and Neil LaBute to be manipulative, I don't always think Tony Kushner is dramatically up to the task of his unfailingly big ideas, and I'm on record as saying it's premature to induct Tracy Letts into the pantheon for "August: Osage County."

But these writers are too good not to be challenged. And as my loyalty lies with the art form, not with institutions or individuals, it's my job to swim against the tidal surges of hype and provide honest reflection, although at times it may seem defiant, disagreeable or just plain dyspeptic.

Harder for a critic to cope with are the failures of language that are an inevitable byproduct of rapid-fire daily journalism. In a morning skirmish with adjectives, as my review of "Curtains" at the Ahmanson Theatre was already past deadline, I concluded by saying that for all its faults, the musical has a delirious showbiz quality that's "irresistible." That final word, blurbed as it inevitably was in newspaper ads, overstated my feelings. What I meant to say was "hard to resist" -- and the distinction, hairsplitting though it may sound, was a source of purgatorial torment to me.

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