Dr. Toon continues his advice about becoming a competent animation critic.
Last month we discussed two specific intangibles that every aspiring animation critic needs. There is one more major intangible left to discuss, but that's for later in the series. In this installment, I will be discussing some solid, practical tools you will need before you are reviewing animated works on a serious basis. It can be argued that the following tool is present early in life; this may be true, but it's a gift that can (and should) be enhanced by practice, experimentation, and study. Let's call it:
In its most colloquial definition, style is "having a way with words." I consider it more a matter of developing your own critical voice. Style is the way in which your unique point of view is communicated. The more sophisticated your style, the more able you are to convey your opinions in a cogent, thoughtful manner. Like Joe Flaherty and the late John Candy, you could limit your opinions to whether things in a cartoon "blowed up real good!" but that's after you've mastered your style and can let yourself have a little fun.
How is this developed? To begin with, build your vocabulary, especially in the areas of film and animation. There has long been a streak of anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism in our culture, and those who are erudite or "use big words" are often derided. Ignore that. A good critic both has and uses an expansive vocabulary.
Follow the rules of structure and grammar, even when something is blowed up real good. Remember, your spellchecker won't differentiate between "there" and "their." At the risk of sounding like your pedantic English professor, that's all I'll say on that topic.
The second step to take is to seek out those film critics who are fully practiced in their art. To put it simply, Read work by people who write better than you do. Learn from them;gain a sense of what a developed and practiced voice sounds like, how opinions are viably expressed. Find a favorite. Be an acolyte for awhile. Let a bit of influence shade into your own writing here and there. This is one of the most valuable gifts available to aspiring critics, and the cost is no less than some good books and the time spent reading and enjoying them.
Then practice. Watch an animated film and write down your impressions, even if they seem simple or even incoherent. You can always reflect on the film and refine your work later. Review short films. Review commercials. Review stupid videos on YouTube. Review great films. Review masterpieces of animation and everyday TV sitcom episodes. Then rewrite them. Then rewrite them again. If you practice enough, an amazing thing will begin to happen, and this is one of the sole guarantees I am willing to give you: Your voice will emerge, and it will sound like that of a critic. And you will be wowed.
Audit a couple of courses in film theory and criticism. If you can't, start reading about it. There is a vast difference between live-action and animated films, but some of the conventions do cross over. A quick example: It would be very difficult to discuss the animation career of Frank Tashlin if you are unfamiliar with live-action film techniques. Understand what an animation director, as opposed to a live-action director, does. Study how live action and animated films are staged. In fact, study everything. You will be so much the better for it.
We're going to get a bit controversial with this discussion, but allow me to simplify. Taste is nothing more than the ability to discriminate between the fine and the dross. This critical quality will distinguish you from those of common, lay opinion. Taste is, in fact, an elitist concept. Don't let that stand in your way if you truly want to be an influential animation critic.
First, the good news: It may not be innate, but taste can be learned, acquired, and continually refined. Now the bad news: it takes time, effort, and a wide-open mind to develop it properly. Then you need the courage to communicate what you truly believe. It will not always be consensual or popular, but please, don't let that deter you.
There are several internet "sensations" who gained fame by becoming film critics at the ages of 10 or 11. Admittedly, some are rather precocious. When you listen to them, however, they are merely engaging kids with preternatural speaking skills. They have developed the mannerisms and personalities of film critics, but not nearly the full substance. Not one of them I have listened to has studied enough. None has evidenced depth in understanding films, nor have they developed sufficient taste at such young ages. They are novelties, and that is not what you are aiming for.
Taste is the culmination of education, conviction, and solid opinion. Without taste you will never achieve the critic's goal of telling That Which is Good from That Which Sucks, nor will you be able to analyze the great in-between (where you realize that 'Sucks' might have been 'Good' if only they had…). Worse, you will not be able to credibly express these insights to readers or listeners.
"Oh, yeah?" you say, "Prove it, you big-mouthed elitist egghead!" Fair enough. Go to the website www.rotten tomatoes.com There you will find a "Tomatometer" that calculates the percentage of positive reviews for a given film thusly:
1. A community of professional critics and reviewers
2. A community of "top critics" who have earned their chops
I used the date at which I was working on this column (Jan. 25) for an example. The following movies currently in release are up for appraisal. See if anything jumps out at you from the following set of statistics:
Movie Critics Top Critics Audiences
No Strings Attached 49% 52% 72%
Green Hornet 46% 20% 61%
The Dilemma 22% 31% 48%
Little Fokkers 10% 4% 49%
Yogi Bear 15 % 18% 43%
Tron: Legacy 49% 29% 69%
There are, as you can see, whopping differences in the way general audiences see a film and the way professional critics see a film. This is not because critics are more brilliant than anyone else is (they aren't) or because the critics are more mean-spirited that the rest of us (also not true). When we look at the scores for the highly acclaimed films The King's Speech, True Grit and Black Swan, the public and the critics are pretty darn close, up in the 90% range.
This appears to indicate that general audiences appreciate a good film but aren't nearly as critical of poor ones. In sum, about half of audiences (or more) are content with whatever studios toss in front of them regardless of quality. Why? They're not ignorant by any means, merely unschooled (and thus have underdeveloped tastes). That, my readers, is why I am so insistent on you developing a sense of taste.
Many audiences, for example, seem to base their reviews on whether a movie makes them "feel good" or not. I saw Megamindand freely admit that the film made me feel good. That does not distract from the fact that there were major plot holes in the movie that stopped it from being, in my consideration, a truly good animated film. Your emotions, while important, are not a consistent basis from which to evaluate a film.
Think you're finally ready to tackle the job of animation critic? We are much closer, but we're not there yet. It's not enough to love animation; you need to study its:
HistoryAbsolutely no backing off on this one. If you are not familiar with the history of animation, its producers, the studios, the directors, the production methods, and the films and shorts themselves, you have no grounding for becoming an animation critic. Your understanding of how cartoons evolved into what they are today will be less than that of a scientist looking at a pigeon and trying to imagine its evolution from a dinosaur. It is no coincidence that some of the most influential animation critics today, such as John Canemaker, Jerry Beck, Leonard Maltin and Michael Barrier are also prominent animation historians.
It is not enough to watch animated films of every era. You must understand who a given director, writer and animator is, and what sort of production house generated a short or film. Further, you must extend this knowledge from 1890 to 2011. An example: those unfamiliar with animation history can enjoy Who Framed Roger Rabbit. However, they cannot appreciate the film on the same level as an expert on animation history. They would be even less qualified to critique the film in a meaningful manner. Fortunately, studying animation history is a joyful and fascinating undertaking, especially when a true expert does the teaching or writing.
These are your tools, and it is worth taking the time to develop them all. This concludes the nuts-and-bolts section of our journey. Next month, we will begin to apply these marvelous tools in the construction of an animation critic's career. Prepare to dirty your hands with ink and paint, and let's get to work. See you then.
Style and Taste:
These books are only a start; there are many great film critics past and present. You won't always agree with these reviewers, but you will admit they've got game.
John Simon, Reverse Angle (1976)
John Simon, John Simon on Film: Criticisms 1982-2001 (2005)
Roger Ebert, Your Movie Sucks (2007)
Anthony Lane, Nobody's Perfect (2002)
Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live (2005) (I especially call your attention to pgs. 197-200 for his evaluation of Led Zeppelin. It may not refer to animation, but it's the essence of what I'm talking about.)
Study: This is highly recommended for the beginning critic, a great jumping-off point.
Louis Giannetti, Understanding Movies (12th ed.) (2010)
History:Actually, there about 40 books you should have, but this is the Great Troika of animation history.
Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Cartoons (Revised and Updated) (1987)
Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, (1999)
Giannalberto Bedazzi, One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation (1995)
Dot Your "I" and Cross Your "T": Get the bugs out of your writing with this indispensible guide.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Ed.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.