“What has to happen in someone’s life for them to end up becoming a critic?” asks Michael Keaton’s desperate, contemptuous Riggan Thomson in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 2014 film Birdman. As a critic myself, I naturally laughed at the line, then felt offended. Is the act of criticism really that abhorrent and antisocial to the contemporary mind? Are the critic’s motivations perceived as so perverse that to try to locate them would necessitate some psychotherapeutic journey into a dark, formative trauma?
Birdman’s critique of critics hasn’t prevented it from receiving raves (it currently has a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). This is likely because the film itself – about a fading superhero-franchise actor who tries to resuscitate his career through a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver – appears to uphold criticism as a sensibility. Birdman is certainly critical of Hollywood, and of method acting, mainly through the character of Mike, played entertainingly by Edward Norton. As a jumping-off point for critic Mark Harris’s provocative recent essay for Grantland, “The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchises changed movies forever in 2014,” Birdman seemed a film of rare conviction, having, in Harris’s words, “made decent money,” and likely to “win a bunch of awards” but, in the end, separate from “what the movie industry is about.”
Birdman’s converse depiction of critics is hardly as friendly. Thomson’s frustrated question in the film is addressed to its fictional critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), who takes a regular spot near the end of a Broadway bar, slouching, sipping and scribbling. She has provoked Thomson with a cruel promise to “turn in the worst review anyone has ever read” of his play, even before seeing it. She hates him and everything he stands for, calling him “entitled, spoiled, selfish … blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to even attempt real art.”
Thomson can’t shake it off. Earlier in the film, we are told by his alter ego, the titular avian superhero, that it was critics who made him quit the franchise. He fears Dickinson, approaching her as the Goliath to his David. And so does Birdman: despite its parodic attitude towards so much else, it takes the critic conspicuously seriously. Indeed, Dickinson does not resemble the lighter cinematic stereotypes that precede her, such as those in classic Hollywood films like Laura and All About Eve, the latter’s Addison DeWitt the consummate wielder of the poison pen. Dickinson is without DeWitt’s, well, wit. He is a dandy, his villainy its own performative artwork. She is a troll, lacking his profile, influence, and attendant power to effect financial success. Both destroy artists’ faith in their craft, but in Birdman, the critic’s power to break is personal, sadistic.
Dickinson ultimately ends up writing a rave of Thomson’s Carver adaptation despite herself. This is because [spoiler alert] Thomson attempts and fails suicide onstage, an act materializing Dickinson’s rage and, likely, signaling for her a salient end to his risible career. Her review, read to a bandaged Thomson in his hospital room, precipitates his real suicide (or, maybe, resurrection) – a literal flight out the window to escape critics and public alike. Dickinson’s review becomes a Red Shoes-like curse. The only way Thomson can please her is to destroy himself.
Birdman’s takeaway is not so much that criticism is ethically suspect, but that it’s the artist, not the critic, who is capable of superior critique – who most nobly and humanely represents the kinds of risks demanded by cultural and personal inquiry. The deeper implication, missed by so many enamoured critics, is that Iñárritu’s film, not Thomson’s attempt at his Carver adaptation, is supposed to be the ideal. Birdman humorlessly antagonizes critics in service of itself. Its interpretation of Dickinson suggests an acutely pompous, and anxious, positioning on the part of Iñárritu. Here, a fraught contemporary intimacy: the narrative artist, afraid not of public disdain or of financial loss due to bad criticism but of intellectual failure, expropriates the critic’s power through caricature.
Another 2014 film, Mr. Turner, a biopic of British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, reflects similar neuroses of its creator, director Mike Leigh. Its critic, John Ruskin, is so ludicrous and crudely drawn that he threatens to derail what is otherwise a masterful film. Ruskin, of course, was a famous champion of Turner’s works, his writing a triumphant example of the alliance between artist and critic, in which the latter puts forceful yet sensitive articulation to the artist’s forward-thinking images, acting as fierce intellectual advocate, with the public, foremost, in mind. There is none of this in Leigh’s Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire as a spoiled, effete milquetoast. The Guardian’s Philip Hoare has written in depth on the inaccuracies of Leigh’s depiction, but for the purposes of this essay I am most intrigued by Leigh’s revisionist insistence on portraying Ruskin as a foil for, or rather as a complete opposite of, Turner.
A representative scene takes place in the drawing room of Ruskin’s parents. Turner has been invited for tea along with fellow painters Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, George Jones, and David Roberts. Ruskin begins by abetting his parents in a tedious conversation about gooseberries, and then proceeds, in the manner of a swishy Roman emperor provoking gladiators, to rouse his guests by initiating a contentious discussion of seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. “I find his wendewing of the sea wather insipid, dull, and uninspiwing,” he says, his speech impediment suggesting coddled underdevelopment.
Ruskin is pleased to put forth this outrageous statement about Lorrain because in Leigh’s eyes he is rhetorical, wordy, tedious. Turner, played by the lumbering Timothy Spall, sits across from him. Where Ruskin simpers, Turner sneers; where he holds forth, Turner grunts; where he sits upright, Turner slouches. Most troubling is the implicit connection Leigh makes between straight masculinity and artistry. Ruskin, alongside the character of Benjamin Robert Hayden, a failed, pedantic contemporary of Turner’s, lacks the proverbial balls to really create. Spall’s Turner mixes spit with his paint; he phallically fingers a vermillion daub on one of his canvases at the Royal Academy, dramatically cleaning up half of it with a dirty cloth to create an expressionist buoy.
Near the end of the film, Turner views pretty Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Academy, those famously championed by Ruskin, and seems disgusted. Emasculated art, driven by the emasculated critic, has triumphed. Compare with Birdman, in which the critic is a castrating woman who plays delighted audience to Thomson’s self-mutilation. The critic is lambasted in these films not because of her alliance with the public, but because of her ability to vivisect the artist.
Tim Burton’s latest film Big Eyes is a weaker, less assured film than Mr. Turner or Birdman, but its critic, for all his overdrawn flamboyance, is preferable. Big Eyes is a biopic of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose paintings of big-eyed children were mass-produced and very successful in the 1960s and 1970s, but were, for a long time, credited to her husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a matter solved by a bizarre court case in which the two were asked by the judge to have a paint-off.
Big Eyes’s critic is John Canaday, senior art critic for the New York Times in the 1960s. He is played in the film by Terence Stamp, who, recalling Addison DeWitt, fumes like a Scooby Doo villain every time Keane has a success (“He’s like a hula hoop – he just won’t go away!”) Given Canaday’s depiction in the film, we might assume that he despises the Keane paintings because they’re figurative and not abstract. (At one point he calls them kitsch, a word that at the time would recall Clement Greenberg’s essay positioning it against the avant-garde.)
Yet Canaday was a generalist, with the layperson’s experience of art in mind. In the film he indirectly guides Margaret – who is not receiving credit or payment for her work – and fights her fight, attacking her husband in the name of aesthetic standards but also relaying a personal message: she is liked for the wrong reasons. Margaret is in a rut, painting meaningless, multiple paintings, ones whose young subjects represent the creative stunting that Walter, increasingly behaving like an abductor in a melodrama, imposes. A different style of elongated, Modigliani-eqsque, pseudo-feminist portraiture emerges as Margaret makes her career as a divorcee, less beholden to public demands. In this period of the film, Canaday disappears from screen, like a fairy whose work here is done.
The mediocre artist’s triumph in Big Eyes seems odd next to the existential failure of the artist in Birdman, or the weighty legend of the artist in Mr. Turner. Margaret Keane’s desire to make art becomes a search for autonomy, not for acceptance or popularity, the latter of which contaminates and ensnares her. Canaday’s responsibility is to respond to what people get crazy about; Keane’s is to herself. It’s a placid view of the artist-critic dynamic that seems quaintly out of time. Yet it’s also refreshingly resonant for a contemporary artworld in which a critic’s audience has become a dangerously demanding majority of aspiring artists and curators. It’s probably silly for critics to look to artists, directors or otherwise, for heroic depictions. But it’s just as silly for artists to look at bad reviews as outright assassinations.