Criticism versus Constructive Criticism (Part 2)

What I mean to say…

In my last couple of posts (A Film or a Movie? What Makes Great Cinema?) and (Canadian Movies and TV Aren’t Made for Me – Part 1) I was launching into a series of posts expounding on a certain theme. But before we continue I figured I should clarify a point.

I sometimes do that: post an essay…and after the fact realize I may have failed to articulate just what was the point behind it. Which, y’know, is presumably why I self-post on a blog rather than enjoy a cushy, respected position at a real publication — well, that, and my exorbitant and non-negotiable salary demands which involve fresh fruit and custom bunny slippers.

Anyway…last time I was writing about how movies and TV aren’t made for my specific tastes, and my opinions are only my opinions. Which is pretty obvious. But the reason I felt a need to make that point is because that often seems to get lost in discussions about Canadian film and TV.

You see, unlike discussions about Hollywood productions, and some other film and TV industries (though I’m sure it’s a discussion shared among smaller national production centres) a recurring theme is about the industry as a whole: where’s it going, how’s it getting there, and is the trip worth it? Should quotas be expanded…or abolished? Should tax payer dollars be used to bolster what, after all, is merely entertainment? Discussions about Canadian film and TV invariably are weighed down by a myriad of side issues and political and philosophical agendas.

And often in these discussions, the commentators tend to lose track of the fact that there’s a difference between their opinion…and any objective reality.

So people will angrily denounce the entire industry, insist it should be shut down and all the artists put out of work because all it produces is unforgivable crap…when they are writing about some show that, in fact, is quite popular and brings in good ratings. Or conversely they will insist all resources and efforts should be channelled into supporting a particular filmmaker — or oeuvre — that they think is brilliant and has elevated Canadian cinema to new plateaus of excellence…when, in fact, that filmmaker’s movies tend to bomb and not do well with the mainstream public.

There’s nothing wrong with arguing these points, as long as you recognize that it is just, y’know, an opinion.

Nor can you entirely divorce political and ideological biases from the debate. I’ve written before — and I realize I’m probably offending some by this generalization — that right wingers and conservatives tend to be the most opposed to Canadian film & TV. Not simply opposed to using tax payers dollars to support it (which I can understand as conservatives tend to advocate for fiscal restraint) but because they fundamentally object to the very idea of Canadian entertainment presenting and fostering Canadian culture and identity (in many cases because they like to think of Canada as the 51st State in the United States).

I freely admit that my dream is a successful Canadian film and TV industry. Beyond that, the whys and the hows, are more open. But to a lot of other people, their agenda is the opposite. They aren’t wondering how things can be improved…they want the whole thing shut down, period, even in the cases of successful productions.

As an example of what I mean about people allowing their personal biases to override logic (and reality) I came upon a recent message board discussion relating to, I believe, a National Post article critical (of course) of Canadian entertainment. Now, as I say, the commentators seemed to be pretty right wing in general (just based on other comments they made and their idea of acceptable slurs and euphemisms). Anyway, it was an attack on the publicly funded CBC (which is often labelled as a “state” or “government” network which, as others have pointed out, is a misnomer…as conservatives are equally quick to denounce it for its supposed hostility to the government!) But anyway, the point is, it was a series of comments attacking the CBC, denouncing it as communist, and a purveyor of crap.

Which then led a number of commentators to start attacking the long cancelled sitcom Corner Gas as a further example of what’s wrong with Canadian entertainment, being as it was (to them) an unfunny failure foisted on the public, and designed by and for “elitists”.

So I think we can see where the logic stars to ride rocky and, eventually, lose a few wheels. The commentators are attacking the CBC and its supposedly socialist, state sponsored programming (despite the “state” — ie: the government — being notoriously unhappy with the CBC). Which then segues into an attack on Corner Gas as an example…when Corner Gas aired on CTV, not the CBC. It was the first Canadian series in years to bring in big, American style ratings (in other words, not a failure) and it was a comedy about small town, working class folks — hardly an “elitist” demographic. (And though I can only go by anecdotal evidence of people I know and talked to, my impression was the lion’s share of its audience was…working class, rural folk, not big city academics).

But “elitist” is one of those catch words bandied about whenever someone wants to dismiss someone else, intended to evoke a kneejerk response…reflecting an arrogance that the commentator assumes they are “normal” and anyone with different attitudes is necessarily “elitist” (I knew someone who was sneered at for being an elitest snob because he failed to understand the distinction between “supper” and “dinner”…while one could equally argue the person who makes such a distinction is being elitest).

Again, right wingers and conservatives tend to bandy about the “elitest” accusation a lot, because they see their target demographic as being rural and “salt of the earth”…even as they themselves are pretty elitist and their comments make no sense. Like attacking the CBC for being too elitest and Toronto-centric…then equally attacking it for its regional programming like Republic of Doyle (Newfoundland), Little Mosque on the Prairie (Saskatchewan) and Arctic Air (The NWT). Suggesting it is an affront to decent working folk…even as in some areas, CBC TV and radio signals are the only media service they get, because the private broadcasters can’t be bothered servicing low income regions. And so on. So who’s the “elitest” in those situations?

But the point is: that’s all fine, and all a reasonable addition to the discourse. If you don’t like Corner Gas, and didn’t like its particular brand of comedy — it’s fair to say so. But don’t lie about it to make a point. Don’t claim it did badly when it didn’t, or that it only appealed to elitist snobs when that wasn’t the case. (Or that it is an example of what’s wrong with the CBC when it wasn’t on the CBC!)

Too often discussions/debates about Canadian film & TV are driven by agendas and ideology. Despite having been an industry for years, it’s still seen as a business in search of direction (and a winning formula) and, as such, too many people are invested in shaping it into whatever suits their fancy. Those in the biz who enjoy its current production model say nothing’s wrong, save their films need better distribution, while people who don’t like what’s being made are quick to denounce everything — even stuff that is successful! And there are quite a few commentators and essayists whose goal is to shut it down entirely — successes be damned. Often because that’s their (hidden) agenda. Other times because they aren’t able to step outside themselves and accept that their tastes don’t speak for everyone, and just because they don’t like something doesn’t mean some one else might.

A lot of postings are just negative — period. All about saying what’s wrong, and not about what’s right…or how to make it right. Basically it’s a kind of arrested adolescence of debating — where it’s not “cool” to admit something is good, and instead everything is “stupid” and “lame”. People who will argue black if someone else says white…and will just as happily turn around and argue white if someone else says black. Their goal is to be contrary…not consistent, or coherent. Regular columnists whose main theme is simply to attack whatever’s going.

I’m critical in my posts — a lot. But I try to balance that with the positive. I’m arguing for something as much as I’m arguing against something. And even when I criticize something, I try to balance that with an acknowledgement of the other side: TV series I criticize…but I acknowledge get good ratings; filmmakers I deride…but I admit enjoy critical acclaim.

A good argument has to acknowledge all sides. It’s not a good argument if the only way it holds up is by deliberately distorting or ignoring anything contrary to it.

Here’s some convenient definitions:

Criticism is saying: “I don’t like your hairdo. Shave it off. You’re hopeless!”

Constructive Criticism is saying: “I don’t like your hairdo. I think a shorter cut brings out your features better.”

Honest Constructive Criticism is saying: “I don’t like your hairdo. But I do know someone who complimented it. However I still think a shorter cut would be more flattering. What do you think?”

Discussions about Canadian film and TV need to move away from criticism and get into constructive criticism.

With all that said: next time…I get critical…

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