Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Critics Still At Large: Five Years On

During the late fall of 2009, when Shlomo Schwartzberg, the late David Churchill and myself sat down in Made in China, a restaurant in downtown Toronto, to create Critics at Large, we had no idea whether we would last five months, let alone five years. But here we are five years later and with more writers than we started with. At that time, we created the site with a chip on our shoulder. Two of us had been seasoned journalists, who were quickly finding ourselves out of season, and being left with nowhere to work. So there was a defiance in not going down quietly. Critics at Large was to be our weapon. But we were also venturing into the world of social media which many believed to be the harbinger of the death of print. So we made the decision to lower our swords, and see ourselves more as part of a pioneering effort, where we hoped we could bring the values we learned from the traditions of the analogue world and apply them to the digital one. The only thing to be decided was whether we had anything interesting to say. Time took care of that.

While I wouldn't be so bold as to say that we accomplished the goal of standing out from the pack, I think the question of what that meant was on everybody's mind who came on board. We all read each other and we knew that the bar could be raised (or dropped) in a heartbeat. Yet when I look back through our archive, I see a strong body of work that's versatile, filled with temperament and sometimes risky. The question of what constituted criticism remained a consistent quest and something we felt in the process of defining. Not all of our writers, for example, were comfortable with the idea of making harsh comments about things they didn't like. As I've come to discover (especially on Facebook), the profession isn't very well understood, or respected today, which makes writers more vulnerable than in any period I can recall. In some areas, critics are even hated, as if our goal is to deprive people of pleasure. (One Facebook 'friend' described what I did as 'parasitic.') So rather than impose a sense of what we should stand for, we became more organic in our approach. That is, we allowed people the freedom to find their true voices and their critical edge in their own time. This decision naturally took the edge off that chip we placed on our shoulder. What became more important, over time, was bringing a self-respect and integrity to what we did on a daily basis.

Speaking of daily, right from the start, David and I insisted that we post every day. We knew that there were thousands of magazines online, so the mere sight of inactivity could have us just as easily losing readers as gaining new ones. We sensed in our bones, too, that if we made excuses to take a pass on one day, we'd find reasons to take more days off when the going got rough. This was maybe the only area where we didn't (and wouldn't) budge. At the start, that appeared to be a dubious decision because there were only three of us and committing to each day was a huge challenge. But we persevered and in short time drew many others to the fold to help bring us to where we are today.

I can't say enough about the gratitude I personally feel about our writers and how they have all contributed to the inquiring publication we've become. If in the beginning, it was the vision of three writers that lay the foundations, it was our writers that furnished the house. Critics at Large has perhaps today become something of a huge, friendly rooming house where people stay for long stretches and continue to help with the chores and provide the groceries, some make periodic visits like relatives we love to see, others came for a time, and then found good reasons to depart and move on to other things. We never had a fixed idea of everyone having the same priorities. If we were to allow people the freedom to discover their own voices, and use them, we also had to let them decide when they needed a different residence to go to. Yet I want to reiterate the debt we owe everyone who has left a part of themselves in this home. We relish the permanent decorations that they've left behind.

Kevin, Shlomo and David at Made in China, 2009.

As editor-in-chief of the magazine, I'm not just one of its contributing writers. I'm also a reader and I enjoy reading the writers we've housed the last five years. But rather than go back over those years to pick favourites today, I'm going to restrict myself to this past year where I think we firmed the foundations. Having said that, I don't think we would have gotten this far in our foundation building without Mark Clamen. He not only stepped in with his words, but also with a vision for how we could present ourselves. His passion and dedication in designing, and through social media communicating, our presence has given us a stronger heart. From the outset, Shlomo Schwartzberg has been a relentless supporter of the site even when I know it grates on his love of the traditional world of journalism that is passing away before his eyes. As for the loss of David Churchill, his passing was (and continues to be) incalculable. I still can't stop myself from reaching for the phone with a question, or a thought, that I know he can no longer answer. But I still feel him everyday in our pages even when he can no longer provide the words to remind us.

We once wrote in our very first post that "the spirit of democracy in the arts is something we strongly cherish." I still believe that's true. But I also think we have learned, especially in this past year, how one has to fight to both honour and realize that spirit. I can't wait to see what the next five years brings us.

As for my favourite pieces from each writer this year, they are not in any particular order of preference:

1) Steve Vineberg – "Orson Welles: Modernist and Elegist" (August 22/14). I could point to the sheer volume and quality of Steve's work which includes reviews of theatre, film, books and television to illustrate his true value to Critics at Large. But it's also his determined quest and ability to comprehend our bottomless love of the dramatic arts that fuels his writing time and time again. Something he shares with his subject here.

2) Shlomo Schwartzberg – "Art vs Propaganda: Bethlehem and Omar" (April 11/14). Part of what makes Shlomo's work so valuable is that he refuses to be pigeonholed. He'll risk saying things that some people don't want to hear. In his best work, as in this piece, he gets under your skin because he understands that criticism is not about being agreeable, or about finding partisan agreement from readers, but it's about making us think for ourselves.

3) John Corcelli – "A Sharp-Looking Gentleman of Music – Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington" (March 1/14). Although John has music tastes that are broad and unfettered, he adores jazz and has written about it often in Critics at Large. At times, when I read John, he makes me think of the way I used to love the late Ralph J. Gleason's writing because of the way he made the most complex music seem so effortless to embrace. His piece on the new Duke Ellington biography brings out not only John's love for jazz, but the way we actually listen to the music. If you have the grooves of a piece running in your head as you read him, that's no accident. John has a way of spinning discs in his own head as he weaves the words that tell you what he found there while listening.

4) Susan Green – "Fare-Thee-Well Pete Seeger: A Folksinger Who Really Cared" (Jan. 29/14). Susan's roots as a writer, and as an activist, grow out of the Sixties rebellion. Not only do her strongest passions emanate from that period, but her strongest affections do as well – especially for those who matter to her most. When Pete Seeger died just as the New Year was being born, it was no secret that Susan would get the call. Besides being noted for her critical skills, Susan has extraordinary gifts for personal narrative where memoir captures both the temperament of the writer and so beautifully evokes the period of political struggle that she documents here.

5) Mark Clamen – "Veronica Mars: You Can Go Home Again" (March 23/14). Mark has an uncanny ability to not only seize the zeitgeist when it comes to television, but he also anticipates it as well. There are shows he writes about that sometimes don't fully hit me until weeks after he wrote about them. In the case of the Veronica Mars movie, based on the original TV show, his piece describes a feature film that its fans helped get made – and he writes as if the ball was just hit out of the park.

6) Phil Dyess-Nugent – "Magnolia: The Celluloid Ghosts of Mississippi" (June 26/14). I have to confess that it took me a little time to catch on to the rhythms of this very gifted critic. Phil's work wasn't about stating points, but instead, unravelling spools of thought where insights had been fermenting. I don't think there is anyone like him. I think this piece is not only his most personal, but one that can move you by its own elliptical quest for discovery.

7) David Kidney – "Movin' On: Rosanne Cash Live at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre" (Jan. 31/14). What makes David Kidney's work distinct is his ability to bring you into the ambience of the room when he writes about live performances. The fact that he's a musician, as well as a writer, might help him put across what it means to be at a good concert. His piece on a Rosanne Cash show from earlier in the year doesn't even make you feel bad when he tells you should have been there. When you read him, you feel that you have.

8) Deirdre Kelly – "Setting the Record Straight: Interview with Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn " (July 30/14). We were all thrilled when Deirdre won the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award in criticism for a piece she wrote for us on choreographer James Kudelka. Yet, as fine as that piece was (and many other works on dance and fashion have been), I want to single out her skills as an interviewer which are exemplary. Her interview Mark Lewisohn simply sparkles with both insight and ardour for the subject.

9) Bob Douglas – "How War Has Affected the Artist" (Nov. 11/14). I've known Bob since he was my teacher in high school, but I didn't know how he'd feel being a reviewer until I let him loose. I'm glad I followed my instincts. Besides being an author and historian, Bob would be missing a limb without the arts. I would say the arts represents one important key to his deepest enthusiasms. His passion is also tempered by his desire to know why art matters, even how life would be so impoverished without it.

10) Justin Cummings – "Morality Play: The Emergence of Ethics in Video Games" (June 2/14).
I'm not a huge connoisseur of video games, but when I read Justin writing on them, I'm always asking myself, why not? He not only writes from inside the pleasure that games give him, but also with a sure sense of how his love can be betrayed, or at least, not lived up to. Who would have even guessed that you could also get downright existential about them as he does here? Read and find out.

11) Nick Coccoma – "The Pride of the Yankees: Derek Jeter's Final Bow" (August 21/14). Sports are as much a part of culture, and as much an art form, as the movies. Nick agrees. When he writes about movies, music,or the meaning of Derek Jeter in his life it's out of a strong need to discover why these things are inseparable from his cherished spiritual pursuits in life. Reading Nick is like being invited into sharing a writer's most meditative moments.

12) Amanda Shubert – "Bildungsroman: The Criterion Collection Release of Blue is the Warmest Color" (March 30/14). I was so fortunate to have seen this film with Amanda. We both came out afterwards trying to find new words to best accommodate the depths of how we were moved. While I hungered to write about all that, I wanted to read her on the picture more. Once I did, I didn't regret my choice for an instant. I still don't.

13) Jack Kirchhoff – "Sleuthing in the Holidays" (Dec. 18/14). Jack is a retired writer and editor and so it's a whole new life now. He doesn't write for us often, but when he does, he brings a certain kind of relaxed charm that comes from having lots of time to read. No longer on deadline, Jack now takes however long needed to devour the book. Hopefully, we all read for pleasure, but Jack gives you the sense that there is no other good reason to be doing so.

14) Devin McKinney – "William Bradford Huie: The Accursed American" (Nov. 13/14). If there was one writer I wished dropped in more often, it is Devin. Besides his razor sharp gifts as a writer and critic, he also displays a true Renaissance sensibility. Whether he writes about The Beatles, Henry Fonda, Norman Mailer's films, or the complicated persona of William Bradford Huie, Devin is eclectic in his tastes and fearless in his insights.  

15) Jessica L. Radin – "A Streak of Light through Damascus: Samar Yazbek’s Cinnamon" (Oct. 12/14). When Jessica reviews a book, you not only feel her hunger for the subject, but also how important – and essential – knowledge is for her. I never went to graduate school, but Jessica gives me a good idea of what I missed. Luckily, I get to read her every second week which helps ease the regret. This piece even has a passport attached.

16) Sean Rasmussen – "Serial and the New Podcast Revolution" (Oct. 22/14). Sean drops in more rarely than Devin, but we're working on him. This piece from the fall maybe best reflects the sense of taking what was valuable from old analogue models and using them to map a digital future. Besides being our task in the next years, Sean gives us some bold new trails to follow.

  Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  Kevin is also the co-founder and proud Editor-in-Chief of Critics at Large.

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