Thursday, March 29, 2007

Engines Doth Make Fools Of Us All

Is anyone happy with the results of the Amazon recommendation engine? Every time I visit their site I hope to be greeted by Ian McKellen’s dulcet declaration, “Finally, a man of quality!” Instead I’m confronted with collateral evidence of my mediocrity.

For months, the engine was sure I’d enjoy David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. As a matter of fact I did not enjoy A History of Violence, but no matter how I varied my Amazon purchases (kidlit, rock & roll, comparative religion, shore-up-the-fences religion, existentialism, absurdism, smutty limericks, 1001 Crafts With Cheesies & Lint) the engine remained adamant: YOU MIGHT ENJOY A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.

Fed up, I finally cut-and-pasted my blog review to Amazon and awarded this trifling film a single star out of a possible five. A day later I checked to see if my review had been posted. It had, and already “0 out of 1 customers” found my review to be “helpful”. Then I spotted another button: see all my reviews. Was there more than one? I clicked and re-discovered that some years back I’d actually written two others, and that one of those was yet another one-star stinker. This time the product in question was a CD by a group of young rockers. I now regret that nasty review. If I were to dish out solitary stars for every callow act that didn’t scratch my rock itch, I’d be throwing them about like confetti at a wedding.

Intent on bringing a measure of considered yin to balance my injudicious yang, I quickly awarded five stars to Tommy Womack’s There, I Said It! and Peter DeVries’ Blood of the Lamb. I haven’t checked to see if either of my raves have proven any more “helpful” than my pans, but the act served to salve my tender conscience.

It also got me wondering where the status of the Official Review is headed. My guess, based on a conversation about newspapers with my aunt, is: into the tar pits. We were lamenting the overall decline of newspaper columnists, and tried to name the ones we kept track of. She, a lifelong and spirited arts buff, said the only columnists she made a point of reading any more were in the finance pages. I’ve mulled this over and compared it to my own newspaper habits, and I have to submit to the logic of her choice. The columnists in the arts and culture and even the politics pages no longer seem to matter. The finance pages, on the other hand, clearly do. Is this good? Bad? Irrelevant? All of the above? Perhaps a little parsing is in order.

Good: a friend of mine used to be the dance & theatre critic for the city’s pre-eminent newspaper. We’d meet over dinner and have lengthy conversations about his role as critic. His biggest beef, he said, was with readers who wrote in and decried his reviews as “just one man’s opinion.” He held to a Platonic ideal toward which every artist and critic mutually aspired.

I could see how this premise helped him with his job, but I had my doubts. Also, I had friends in the theater world who were bending my other ear. They attested to just how nerve-wracking an opening night could be when he was spotted in the audience. A bad review had a direct effect on ticket-sales, and the season's budget allowed for only so much wiggle-room. i.e., one too many bad reviews could sink the ship.

That seemed like too much power for my friend to be wielding, particularly as he and I sparred over a given project. Why should one person hold so much sway? Why not open up the field and hear/read what other articulate people think?

Amazon has made it so. Contrast my customer review of A History of Violence with the others on the same page and decide for yourself where the truth of the film’s experience lies. There are a few well-spoken people who think the world of A History of Violence, yet there I am resolutely standing by my one star. Now compare that one star with some of my raves. I hate, hate, hate A History of Violence, yet love, love, love Gidget — sorta tells you something, dunnit? You now have two points in a matrix of information you can use to make an emotionally rewarding choice.

Back when my friend reigned as critic, I often wished our cultural discussions were public discussions. These days there are well-designed websites that perform that very function by taking the condescending sound and fury of individual critics and putting them in some context: metacritic and rottentomatoes being two of the better examples. That covers movies, television, books, rock music and video games. Now, how about similar forums for architecture and urban development?

Bad: when my friend the critic made a compelling case for his opinion, it was truly eye-opening. What the rest of us were vaguely groping for was now suddenly explicit. It was a revelation — almost a religious experience, the way the best art can be. Criticism can and should be an art, and an ideal society would give both art and criticism its proper place. We’re all seeking transformation, aren’t we? Aren’t we?

Whether or not we’re actively pursuing it, transformation in cultural terms is certainly taking place, and for those of us who remember the world before the web it’s hard not to get just a little worried about the overall direction. Overwhelmingly, the web’s chief byproduct is distraction: outside of porno, the most-viewed production of this past winter was a staged clip of a bride who shaved her head in a fit of pique. And what eventually usurped this video’s popularity? Footage of a troubled celebrity doing the same.

The Cultural Middle in America isn’t “disappearing”: as its prolonged adolescence grows ever longer in the tooth, it’s sinking, and it’s taking High Culture with it. There was something rather comforting about our sturdy Reviewers and their smarter, wealthier progenitors The Critics defending the cultural ramparts from uppity barbarian newcomers. One had to be incredibly vigorous and attentive to make it over the top; often the artist's only hope was in some sort of recognition taking place after death. How noble! How romantic! How deluded!! These days if you want “in” all you’ve got to do is make sure the handy-cam is on, then lose your knickers and get on with it.

There are crucial moments in a person’s life when high, middle and low are useful distinctions to make; I’m at the point where I’m sorely missing the first two categories.

Irrelevant: human beings produce. Human beings parse. It happens, and if you’re after the artistic Big Moment, you will find it. You just will.

I’ve invested energy in all these answers. On any given day you can expect me to fall into any one of these camps. I’m young enough to think a general leveling of the critical playing field is a good thing. But I’m also old enough to be increasingly concerned over our culture’s ... oh, I’ll go on and make it universal: humanity’s appetite for distraction.

Did fine art ever make us better people? It’s a difficult case to make, but I doubt I’d have trouble arguing that too much distraction makes us worse. At some point I hope I and the rest of my species can roll up our collective sleeves and do what needs to be done to pay back not just the interest but the principle of the future we’ve “borrowed” from our children. If nothing else, artistic expression and experience returns us to the common concern of our mortality — a point of view that I, for one, find “helpful”.


dan h. said...

Wow... at first I was going to give you kudos for the "didn't scratch my rock itch" line... but by the time I got to "pay back not just the interest but the principle of the future we’ve “borrowed” from our children"... I was convicted. Thumbs up.

Yahmdallah said...

Great post.

As far as criticism and the identification of good/high art, I think it all levels out in the end.

For instance, the list of the movies that have become classics doesn't match the list previous Oscar winners, or even comes close. Do you know anyone who didn't see it in its theatrical release that has since watched "Kramer vs. Kramer," for instance?

Bet you know a few people who have seen "John Carpenter's The Thing" though, which was critically reviled and even sorta flopped at the box office.

Still, I totally agree with your yearning for good criticism. The hole left by Roger Ebert will remain unfilled, as far as I'm concerned. He was the ONLY professional critic I really listened to. (I still read blog opinions, like yours, and use them as guides.) The only professional critic I'm aware of that has anything close to my sensibilities in film is Lisa Schwarzbaum of "Entertainment Weekly." And even with her, I will only respond to her positive reviews and ignore her negative ones. The other critic at EW, Owen Gleiberman, is so consistently off-base with my views of movies, if I read his reviews at all, it's for entertainment value in how wrong he usually is.

Yes, the Amazon auto-recommend "feature" sucks hot glass. And, even though they supposedly give you the power to turn it off, it never stays off. Even worse, it gives you the option to clear your history, and even though I've done so several times, things I looked at three years ago still pop up. I'm sure that their marketing dept. has all sorts of cute charts and graphs that show how effective it is, and thus it will never be shut off no matter how much customers complain. It's kinda the same reason telemarketing exists, there are still some suckers out there who bite.

I, too, hated "A History of Violence." I thought it was contrived and shallow.

DarkoV said...

I'm with you on the Amazon reviews. I stopped writing anything a while back as I (finally) realized that if you panned a book or cd, you tended to get a "Did not help" vote.
Me? I thought if a review was negative or positive was beside the point as far as helpfulness was concerned. If the review intelligently presented its point of view and helped me make a decision whether as to order or not order, the review was helpful.
But maybe that's only what people want is agree-ability in the Amazon reviews. If I read a negative well-written review now on Amazon, I purposely give it an affirmative vote, even if I don't agree with the writer's opinion.

As far as that Amazon match search thingy goes...I find it amusing. If a company with the R&D power of Amazon can still not come close to predicting what I may like after years of purchases from them, I congratulate myself for being a complex and unpredicatble Darwinian upgrade from an amoeba.