Friday, January 18, 2013


I just completed a trifecta. Several years ago I read Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” all 500,000 words worth. In the nineties, Nancy and I saw the Broadway adaptation in New York. Then, over the holidays, we saw the film version.

I loved all three.

Last Sunday, like millions of others, Nancy and I watched the first episode of “Downton Abbey’s” third season. We loved it and are eagerly anticipating the upcoming episodes. I’m a John Bates junkie and I hope when all is said and done he’ll be a free man.

It’s a good thing I didn’t pay attention to the critics beforehand. According to “Rotten Tomatoes,” “Les Miserables” was about as much a miss as it was a hit. New Yorker’s Anthony Lane described it as “inflationary bombast.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Clint O’Connor called it “lumbering and drab.”

Downton Abbey didn’t fare much better with some critics. The Kansas City Star’s Sara Smith had this to say: “Those who accept it for what it is — a funny, manipulative soap that relies on historical upheaval to frame its scarce plots — should be happy to hear that “Downton’s” new season is better than its last.”

Well, silly me. I liked what I saw last season and I’m eagerly anticipating the necessary plot twists it will take to see John Bates breathing the sweet air of freedom by the time this season is done.

Reading the critics’ offerings makes me wonder what might have happened if Victor Hugo or Julian Fellowes had invited Rotten Tomatoes or the Kansas City Star into their creative processes. “Les Miserables” would have been 450,000 words shorter in order to accommodate the modern attention span. It would have been far less esoteric and far more “edgy.” There wouldn’t have been time or space to explore great themes like redemption, forgiveness in the face of fanatical legalism, mercy juxtaposed against cruelty, revolution, or whether or not God is involved and active in a fallen world.  And, I can only imagine what Downton Abbey might look like if Sara Smith had been involved in the creative process. We’d never have to worry about how or if Matthew’s principles and Mary’s worldly ways could produce marital bliss. There would be no room for Maggie Smith’s very entertaining dowager or the intra-servant intrigue and in-fighting going on in the bowels of the castle.

There’s something I find very gratifying in the fact those involved in the creative arts rarely, if ever, consult the critics before they do the creating.  Walt Disney didn’t build his entertainment empire on a foundation built by critics. He once said, “We’re not trying to entertain the critics. We’ll take our chances with the public.” Brendan Behan’s thinking was a bit spicier – “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”

I suspect if one were to dig into the heart of a critic he or she would find an unrequited soul. Think of it. How would you like to spend your days hopping from theatre to theatre, then dashing back to the office to grind out review after endless review. Where’s the social utility in that? It’s not being a trash-man riding on the back of a garbage truck, a nurse in an intensive care unit, a brain surgeon, a cop on the beat protecting the public, a teacher, a librarian, a cowboy, a ditch digger, a lawyer, or an accountant. About the only kindred spirits that come to mind when I think of critics are politicians taking bribes on the side or world renowned food critics pretending they can detect exotic spices in the food they review.

I’m also glad the public doesn’t pay much attention to the critics.

Yesterday I listened to a rendition of the old American classic “Shenandoah,” sung by Tom Waits and Keith Richards. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking right now. “No way!” Well, they did it and I really loved it. They were perfect together. There’s something magical about hearing Waits singing like his mouth is full of garbanzo beans, accompanied by an old rocker who moans like he’s been hit by a freight train. Some critics may not like them, but I don’t care. I love ‘em and that’s good enough for me.

I guess that critics will always maintain their habit of looking for nuance while the public keeps looking for a good laugh or a cry. There’s just a gap between the two that’s all but impossible to bridge. The critics’ view of things is from 30,000 feet. The public’s is more down to earth. I think that probably explains why “Les Miserables” is making millions, Downton Abbey is all the rage, and the critics are frustrated.

1 comment:

Knitwit said...

Here, here! The reviews of critics rarely matches my opinion. In fact, when something gets bad reviews it often peaks my interest.