Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Critic as Reader

Last January, I was part of a small group of professional critics who thought up the idea of doing this website. Over the year, we also managed to woo a number of writers to its cause, all of whom were excited about the possibility of doing intelligent arts criticism. Although I was one of those writers who contributed to Critics at Large, I also became an avid reader of the site. What I read from this motley group of passionate scribes helped me affirm my belief that one could retain a love of discussing a world of ideas despite pressures from an industry that endorsed and rewarded consumerism over criticism. As a way to thank those writers, whose hard work and sharp powers of observation inspired my own writing this year, I prepared a list of my favourite pieces from our archives. While each of these writers might argue that the work I've chosen isn't necessarily their best, I believe it highlights with clarity the sensibility of the critic who wrote it. These posts, in no particular order, are the ones that most mattered to me. For those readers who came late to Critics at Large, or simply missed the original post, I invite you to look back at some of the best work we did last year.

1)  David Churchill: Pernicious Pacifism: Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke and Julian Assange's WikiLeaks

While I've known David for many years as both a great friend and a solid film critic, I discovered during this past year that his range of interests was much broader than I could have imagined. Whether he was writing about 'petrolheads,' the 2010 World Cup, or recently composing a fascinating overview of thriller novels, David showed an uncanny ability to effortlessly combine memoir and critical observation into a style of criticism that was neither solipsistic or abstract. (Just read his contemplative assessment of The Lovely Bones.) But no piece did this better for me that his retort to Nicholas Baker's Human Smoke which lead David right into a timely critique of Julian Assange's Wikileaks.

2) Shlomo Schwartzberg: Buyer Beware! TIFF Cinematheque's so – called Best of the Decade

What makes Shlomo such an essential part of Critics at Large is his fearless embrace of critical standards. Never one to succumb to trends, accept received wisdom, or curry favour on any side of the political fence, Shlomo Schwartzberg wakes you up if you start snoozing. Ironically, he was perhaps the most conflicted writer on the website because he so passionately believes in old-school journalism. He sometimes felt like a traitor contributing to the new school. No matter. His pieces celebrating Israeli and French cinema, or praising Elvis Costello's dynamic early music only to be betrayed by the artist when he boycotted his concert in Israel, were better than anything old-school that I came across this year. But just when almost every other critic meekly accepted the Toronto Cinematheque's cerebral and snobbish Best of the Decade list, Shlomo (with his unbridled love of both art-house and commercial cinema) tore through the pack mentality with the precision of a scalpel.

3) John Corcelli: Enigma: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009)

When John came on board, I knew we were getting a good music reviewer. What I forgot about John was that his taste in music was far more eclectic than anyone I knew. Often publications have separate critics for each genre, John covers the gamut. What John also does so well is use his enthusiasm as a true music fan as his means to articulating how and why an album works or not. Whether it was his precise analysis of the appealing pop hooks in Small Sins' Pot Calls Kettle Black, or his fascinating appraisal of John Mellencamp's use of mono on No Better Than This, John takes the reader inside the grooves of the music as it plays inside his head. Perhaps, for that reason, he wrote a terrific and thoughtful consideration of Robin D.G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, a biography that John sensed didn't get far enough inside those grooves.

4) Susan Green: Doing The Right Thing: New Orleans Five Years Later

When Susan agreed to write for Critics at Large, I knew we were going to have a good year. Being a long time friend and admirer of her work, Susan is that rarity of critics. Her passion for political justice and transparency never clouds her critical faculties (just observe her appraisal of The Kids Are Alright for a perfect example). If anything, her insights carry the full weight of a lifetime of activism which has always asked honest questions in pursuit of the truth. Yet, like David, Susan also beautifully blends memoir into her analysis of an artist's work. Whether she vividly evoked the rastaman vibration of Bob Marley, uncovered the ultimately lethal depression of Spalding Gray, or took us back to Gerde's Folk City in the sixties, Susan Green treats history and culture as a living, breathing organism, of which, she, too, is a participant in the story. If there was one post that brought out both her urgent sense of political commitment and what constitutes artistic achievement, her piece on Spike Lee's documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans delivered it to me.

5) Mark Clamen:  The Walking Dead: Zombies Matter Here

If Shlomo could spend an inordinate amount of time complaining that we were contributing to the death knell of print journalism, he also brought us one of our best writers: Mark Clamen. I knew nothing of Mark, but when I read his first piece on HBO's True Blood, I realized that we had found a smart TV critic. What I love most about Mark's work is the intelligent way he blends context and criticism. And he does it with the zeal of someone who can't contain his enthusiasm for great television. Some critics know lots of information but have little insight; others have plenty of opinions but no convincing means of backing up those opinions. With Mark, he opens up the TV program, even daring the reader to discover the same gold mine that he has (as he did in his post on Breaking Bad, a show I had given up on). His piece on the BBC series Sherlock was a superbly crafted examination of why Sherlock Holmes continues to inhabit our imagination. Besides his critical skills, Mark has also been our technical guy. He's been instrumental in helping Critics at Large develop its webpage design, our audience measurement and our Most Popular Posts column. His role, shall I add, is invaluable to us. The piece where Mark takes the familiar and makes it seem totally new is his post on AMC's The Walking Dead.

6) Andrew Dupuis:  The Killing Joke: Censorship in South Park

When Andrew Dupuis joined up, I saw an intelligent, young film critic emerging who had a true yen for film genre -- and he didn't turn into a film fetishist with a habit. He could size up the hype (as he did in his first post on the remake of The Wolf Man) as much as he could cleverly reappraise films most people had already forgotten (read his highly original take on Clue: The Movie). Andrew just seemed to be getting better and better when he announced that he needed to take a hiatus from the site. Our loss. But before he departed, he gave us this sober, thoughtful and highly readable examination of the insanity of censorship.

Critics will write whether people comment or not. But if you like what you're reading (or don't), please feel free to let us know. Do subscribe (for free) if you haven't already because we'll be happy to send you, via e-mail, our daily musings.

That's a wrap for 2010!       

  Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011,Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto..


  1. Kevin, what a wonderful little operation you've got going here. Keep writing and I'll keep reading it and posting my favorite reviews for new potential readers. Good luck in 2011

  2. Kevin Courrier replies to Los: Thanks Los. We appreciate both your interest and the responses to our pieces. We're hoping to encourage more readers to do likewise. Have a Happy 2011.