07 December 2006

Freak Hand of Judgement

I feel like I would be remiss not to weigh in this morning (as other folks are doing) on this week's Time Out NY cover story, in which they rank, rate, and judge the city's critics. (The rankings were done by an outside panel, not TONY's resident critics.) Thing is, yesterday we finally got the last disc of Alias season 3 from Netflix (I'm up to the middle of season 5, but Kate's catching up), so my reading was a little distracted, as there was much shit going down (for the imaginary people on the TV). So I was a little more concerned with David Anders and the season 3 bloopers reel (are you gonna hurt me?) than with a thorough read of the magazine. We'll see what I can cobble together.

The top two scoring theatre critics are Messrs Isherwood and Brantley of the Times. (David Cote of Time Out and NY1 actually scored higher, but in the interest of impartiality, the Time Out critics weren't part of the ordered ranking.) Isaac explains a possible flaw in the rubric:

...they are ranked by overall score, and that overall score includes ranking in the category "influence". So Isherwood and Brantley, simply for the fact of writing for the Times, have boosted scores. Ditto AO Scott and Manohla Dargis. In fact, if you take "Influence" out of the equation, Brantley's [average] score drops from 4.12 to 3.8, while a really great reviewer whom no one reads like John Heilpern gets his lower score of 3.68 boosted to a solid 4.
I'm not sure I agree with the argument [clarified in the comments to this post] Isaac goes on to lay out, that influence shouldn't be counted as part of a reviewers overall quality. (But maybe I do agree - it would have been nice to just be shown who the great reviewers are, so we can start reading them. If that's what we even want to do - more on that in a bit.) If you want more reasons to doubt the whole project, read on here.

The thing is, though, I really don't care. I mean, of course I do, but just for what influences my own theatregoing, I'm getting very close to not listening to critics at all. I don't mean that I'm approaching some higher state of being, the Zen ideal of picking out shows. There have just been enough times that a critic's take on something has been so drastically different from my own that it's as if we haven't seen the same play. There's a lot of room for different people liking different things, but the range is just too vast to be able to trust anyone's taste. Beyond close friends who have a good sense of how I respond to things, there's no one whose reactions and opinions are in any way a reliable predictor for my own.

Of course, there's value in reviews other than just to find out if something is good. James often agrees with everything Isherwood says, but then disagrees with whether those aspects are good or bad. And reviews are often at least good for finding out about a show - strip away the value judgements and there's usually, unless you're Jason Zinoman reviewing Gutenberg!, some descriptive sense of what's going on. Whether it's panned or lauded, if I read about a creepy goth marionette show, I'm likely to be intrigued. I like puppets.

Where reviews become more important, unfortunately, is in the big world picture of things, in the way that a word from Isherwood or Brantley can (does) make or break a show. To have one person wield so much power is just unhealthy for theatre. Even if people still followed reviewers like sheep, but read many different reviewers, we'd be better off. Jason Grote interrogates his problems with Isherwood here (a must-read if there ever was one). Part of it's a problem with what Isherwood does, specifically, but the problematic way he reviews theatre wouldn't be so troubling if his reviews didn't matter so incredibly much.

I did find it interesting that, back to TONY, in the Zagat's-style commentary that followed each critic's numerical scores, Isherwood and Brantley were both given mostly negative comments. Isherwood, I agree, is smart, but that seems to be the only thing they think he's got going for him:
"Smart, very smart, and knows his stuff. However, he pretty much hates everything, which is tough when his paper still holds the bulk of power."…"A smart and experienced critic whose reviews have become oddly jokey since his move from Variety to the Times. An example is the review written from the point of view of his cat: Did that tell anyone whether or not the show was worth spending money on?"
And for Brantley:
"Always highly readable. Sacrifices seriousness for style. Excels at play-by-play."…"His writing is very self-conscious and fussy. In both his less generous as well as his giddy columns, he seems like a 'maiden aunt. I wish he were more ambitious in his thinking."…"Boring, boring, boring. I cannot get through his reviews. And he is a starfucker. For the most part, he will review a celebrity positively."

(The 'maiden aunt' thing is dead-on, something I've been noticing for a while, and I'm glad someone put it into words.)

It's a little frightening, or indicative of major flaws in the ranking system, that the top two critics received such negative comments. So they're smart and write well, but negative and obnoxious? We're in great hands. David Cote, technically the top scorer, fared much better:
"When he likes something, he gets utterly behind it. His passion for the art form is evident."…"If anything, he can be too generous to work that really deserves a beat-down, but that’s probably for the best."…"Knows what he’s covering, which is a rarity these days. Also writes clearly and smartly. A savvy take on pop culture."

I haven't been reading his reviews for as long as the Times guys', but these evaluations seem accurate. Isherwood and Brantley just seem like fuckers. Even though I do sometimes disagree with Cote (did no one see the mess of Shining City that James and I saw?), he seems thoughtful, generous, and open-minded. (And, okay, I've emailed with him a little and like his blog. There's your full disclosure.) The two most influential theatre critics in New York City do not seem to approach work with such... humility. Read Cote's blog post on Eurydice - he's not sure what to make of the play, and isn't afraid to write that out. (Granted, I don't think he wrote any official reviews of the show, and I'm not sure he'd have included his ambivalence in a more formal forum.) If reviewers more often explained their reactions to shows rather than making Official Judgements of Quality, we all might be much better off.


parabasis said...


Good stuff. I just wanted to add that you, as a relative insider, have no need of good reviewers. It's easy for you to say fuck this noise because you don't need the press to find out about shows you might be interested in. You can find it out with relative easy.

The non-theater-insider-audience-member, on the other hand has a lot more difficultly finding sources to help him or her make up his or her mind. So there's a certain degree to which while this whole thing don't matter much to you (or, to a lesser extent, myself) other than from a business perspective, to a lot of audience members, whether or not the top two critics at the Times are any good is a big issue.

TONY's answer is that they are, even though there's little to no evidence (as you point out) to prove that.

And to back up the influence point I made briefly:

My point was that influence actually measures who the critic works for not who the critic is, and therefore in a discussion of how good/not good a critic is, it's functionally irrelevant. A cheese sandwich that wrote for the NYTimes would have an influence score about 4.00 simply by benefit of writing there.

Now let's all envision a cheese sandwich writing for the NYtimes for a moment...

blogless joe said...

i, for one, would vastly prefer the insights of the cheese sandwich. perhaps isherwood would consider writing from the pov of one?

Jaime said...

Isaac, blogger ate my response to you that I (thought I) posted yesterday. To try to recreate - you're right that I'm (we're) rare (and, I think, lucky) in not having to rely on critics. But that's why I think they need to be BETTER. Less snide, more thoughtful. (It's also why it would be so amazing to not have one paper be all that really matters.) And amen to the cheese sandwich theorem. Joe, I think it's only a matter of time.

parabasis said...

blogless joe is my new hero. Sorry, Jaime. Your title has been claimed by someone else.

Jaime said...

Hey, I'll settle for "Isaac's Old Hero." Good enough for me.

blogless joe said...

i have to ask, sir parabasis... why "cheese sandwich" and not say "huckster poseur" or "lactose-challenged weed whacker"? my hypotheses follow:

1) you were hungry and hadn't yet eaten lunch; only natural to have a potential lunch item on the brain at 1:28 pm.

2) a cheese sandwich possesses even less agency than other inanimate objects in that it is cheesy. cheese just *feels* dumber than, say, a book.

3) brantley and isherwood are the two slices of bread surrounding the gooey cheese* that is most theater.

* (i.e., many supposedly "good"/ "important" plays, most musicals - even the "prestigious" ones are often chock full of cheese (e.g., the american girl isn't the only thing retarded in light in the piazza)

ps- uh, clearly, i either have nothing better to do or am killing job-time and neglecting my duties here at homeland security. either scenario is alarming.

pps- sorry, still hated the internationalist.

parabasis said...

Blogless Joe,

You work for homeland security?

Actually... it was (I hate to say this) a riff on a Law Order thing. Adam Schiff, the former DA was fond of saying you can get a cheese sandwich indicted, and George Hunka and I found it hilarious.

As for The Internationalist... hey, it's just taste in art, you are entitled to dislike it. My beef with Isherwood was his ridiculous reason for not liking it-- that it didn't have an easily digestible point that was spoon fed to him but instead asked him to work. Some people dislike it for other reasons. Some people love it. Etc. etc. and so forth.

anna said...

If reviewers more often explained their reactions to shows rather than making Official Judgements of Quality, we all might be much better off.

can we extend this to cover literary translations? oh, and literature? art?