The Reader's Representative: The fine art of criticism is real work

  • Article by: Kate Parry
  • Star Tribune Reader's Representative
  • September 8, 2007 - 11:42 PM

They dine at the finest Twin Cities restaurants. They see the latest movies and attend openings of plays at the toniest theaters. They spend hours listening to music or gazing at art.

All on company time. On the company dime.

Ah, the life of a critic.

But before asking where to sign up for this cushy duty, it's worth considering that, as with most dream jobs, there are parts of these jobs that aren't so dreamy. Restaurants that don't cut the mustard. Lousy movies and dull plays that a critic can't duck out of early.

Then there's the reality behind the old saying that everyone is a critic. Readers contact me each week questioning the taste or sanity of the critics.

"Sometimes people say 'I can't believe I saw the same movie,'" said movie reviewer Colin Covert. "I tell them I saw it through my eyes and you saw it through yours." He said his goal is to write entertaining reviews that recreate the experience of being at the movie.

Covert didn't pull punches in a late August review. "There's a phantom stalking Rob Zombie's "Halloween," and it's not the hulking guy in the white rubber mask," Covert wrote. "It's the memory of John Carpenter's sublime 1978 shocker. Thirty years on, it still haunts the memory with nagging dread, overshadowing Zombie's effort to revive the story and make it his own."

Sara Campbell saw the movie and landed a counterpunch -- at Covert's critique. She e-mailed me last week to complain: "How dare Colin Covert say that Rob Zombie's Halloween is basically garbage and how Mr. Rob Zombie dragged the Halloween name through the dirt. Mr. Zombie's Halloween is a very well directed, acted and made horror movie."A fan pays his or her money and goes to have a good time. I don't go to have a good time. I go to evaluate the performance," said Jon Bream, the longtime pop-music critic.

He wrote in an early July review of a concert by the Police at Xcel Energy Center, "Sting, this is all I have to say to you: Why was the Police's much-ballyhooed reunion concert so underwhelming?" Droves of irate Police fans descended.

"People have passion for music. There is no right or wrong opinion," Bream said. "I have a very, very thick skin. I'm glad they take the time to voice their opinions."

But reviews are about more than provoking a boisterous back-and-forth with readers. "The best reviews offer cultural context and perspective," said Christine Ledbetter, the features editor whose staff includes the critics.

"He or she provides a local voice in the same manner as the Twins sports columnist or the editorial page, since the critic lives in the community and reflects and understands its values and mores. A critic is necessarily devoted to the art form, and sometimes champions it so that an artist as great as Prince or a film as fine as 'Little Miss Sunshine' is discovered. And when the art doesn't measure up, it is up to the critic to hold the artists and art providers accountable," she added.

For Graydon Royce, one of the theater critics, this is an intensely personal act. "We live and work with these people, and theater is perhaps the central defining aspect of cultural life in this town. If I criticize an actor, a director, a designer, there is a high likelihood that I will run into that person in the coming months. ... If their work on stage is bad, I say it is bad. But that can be done with a measure of respect and, more importantly, a clear demonstration that I have understood the work. I am here to serve the art and the audience, not my own desires for ripping off a caustic, witty phrase."

Working so intimately with the theater community is "definitely a lot of fun, but people would be surprised that it's really work," said Rohan Preston, also a theater critic. "You fret about balancing things that are negative and things that are redemptive and meritorious in a production," he said. "You have to maintain some distance, even if actors are some of your favorite people."

Rick Nelson slips discreetly into restaurants. He wants no fuss, no special service. He wants normal, whether that is deliciously creative or stale bread and bad service.

"Your ultimate responsibility is to the reader, not the restaurant owner. We're not the chamber of commerce," said the paper's restaurant critic.

Nelson guards his identity by using a credit card that's not in his name and making reservations in someone else's name. He doesn't send unsatisfactory food back or complain about bad service, which might raise suspicions.

Occasionally, when someone finds out what Nelson does for a living, they're surprised. "People say 'you're so thin!' even though I'm 20 pounds heavier than I was nine years ago. I don't eat more than other people, I just do it in restaurants. But people expect me to be 500 pounds -- some kind of Burl Ives figure."

A restaurant review is successful in Nelson's eyes if it "illuminates for readers the experience of going to the restaurant beyond the food and the physical setting. What is the history? Where does the restaurant fit into this community?" He pays great attention to service, which he called "a huge issue today."

Nelson eats out three to five times a week -- more if he's working on a roundup of certain restaurants.

"I have a great job, but there are days when I'd much rather be at home with a bowl of Cheerios," he admitted.

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