Entry #28: Be Nice to Everyone on Set

I wrote this for another blog as a guest blogger, then they changed what they wanted me to write for them (frustrating).  I felt this was valuable so I decided to post it on here instead:

My name is Jason Michael Brescia and at the moment of writing this I’m the writer and director of two feature films. My most recent film, Bridge and Tunnel has toured the country throughout 2014 on the regional film festival circuit, and in September we had a theatrical run in Los Angeles. Our soundtrack will be released digitally on October 21st, on vinyl December 30th, and the movie itself will go on sale on Election Day. It’s been an incredible run thus far, but none of it would have been possible without the lessons that I learned while constructing my first feature film, The Newest Pledge.
The Newest Pledge is a comedy about a fraternity that pledges a baby they find on their doorstep. It’s pretty easy to track down and watch if you ever get the thirst for something that conceptually absurd. I’m really proud of it, I’m proud of the team that helped me make it, and proud of how it all came to be.
Now before I dive deeper into my story, let me give you some background on the feudal culture of film sets; On most sets, actors, directors, and producers are treated like royalty, while the key crew can range anywhere from nobles to knights (if you’re the latter don’t you dare talk to the “royalty”), and the production assistants and background talent, otherwise known as “extras,” are your peasants and serfs (and don’t you dare look at the royalty). In some cases there are union rules that prohibit higher-up crew members from associating with those who would file under the “peasant” umbrella.
Here’s something you should know about me: I’ve never given a hoot about social hierarchies. Not in high school, not in college, not in my professional life. I don’t care who you think is uncool and I don’t care who you think is cool. I’ll acquaint myself with the company I choose because I’m a better judge of who I like to be around than you are.
Moving on…
The first day of shooting The Newest Pledge was March 18th, 2010. We shot two scenes at Orange Coast College in Orange County, California and neither ended up making the final cut of the movie. The reason that the scenes didn’t make it into the movie vary, I put that on myself, but my producers did a prodigious job setting that day up, and one tasks they excelled at was getting enough extras to make the campus seem full of life.
The first scene we shot took place at an outdoor cafeteria and the premise was that four of the fraternity brothers were eating lunch while discussing what life after college would be like (though the scene got cut, the notion of the dialogue would become the premise for Bridge and Tunnel). We had lots of background talent on set filling up shots, the scene looked great, the cast and crew were fluid for a first day, and despite a few imperfections, I was feeling pretty good about what we were doing.
For those of you who aren’t aware, Orange Coast College is minutes away from John Wayne Airport. This created sound nightmares every half hour or so, and during one “hold for plane” break, despite all taboos, I walked up to one of the background actors and started talking. The background extra told me he had been doing background work here and there, that he was pretty much just looking for something do that day, and that he aspired to be an actor. He introduced himself as Renato and I asked if he wanted to come back to set on Saturday. He said “sure” and I told myself that if he actually showed up I’d write-in a roll for him.
Saturday rolled around; we were once again on campus at Orange Coast College, and ten minutes before call time Renato showed up. Similar to the first day of set, the scene we shot that day didn’t make the final cut, this time it had more to do with an erratic performance by the baby, but on set that day Renato began to bond with the other cast members and he began to carve a place for himself within the culture of our set.
As time progressed, Renato became an indispensable figure on The Newest Pledge set; as his role grew my producers and I began to notice that he strengthened every scene he participated in, often adding humor to moments that needed it and enhancing scenes just by being in the room. There are even a few moments in the film where he stole the show. His most memorable moment comes towards the end of the film when he breaks into a dance, another great moment he had was in a scene with President Dumerville, played by Mindy Sterling of Austin Powers franchise fame.
Renato also lead by example amongst his fellow cast members. Things weren’t always as smooth as they could have been on The Newest Pledge set, I wasn’t the most experienced director and much of our crew was still in college, but Renato always served as a calming presence for his fellow cast members, and at times even the crew. He was always willing to lend a hand, he was never at the center of any tension, and he was constantly prepared. Had I not foreseen the devotion that Renato would bring to set, perhaps other cast members may have lost impetus during some of the more exasperating moments in producing the movie.
I passionately believe that Renato’s addition to the cast made The Newest Pledge a better movie, and that is because in my professional life, which emulates my personal life, I’m always willing to modify the script and write in new characters, and I never fear going off-page if I believe the consequences of doing so will lead to a stronger product. Our lives are always an interaction away from being more complete, and the background talent we cross paths with everyday are just the principle cast members we’ve yet to audition.

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Entry #27: Ten Early Observations from the US Film Festival Circuit

Part of the strategy that my producers and I developed to help get Bridge and Tunnel in front of audiences was to try and get into as many film festivals in the world as we could.  We felt as though with every laurel wreath we’d be adding a sense of legitimacy to the project, and that it would be a great way to get word of the film out there in different markets.

Thus far we’ve been pretty successful and fulfilling this strategy.  Right now we’re at a 33% success rate, which means we’ve gotten into one in every three festivals that we’ve submitted to.  That may not sound like a great percentage, but when you take into account that we’ve often submitted a “work in progress” cut and that some of these festivals get literally thousands of submissions, I’d say we’re off to a decent start.  If this were baseball we’d be well on our way to an All Star Game appearance.

We began our festival run a little over a month ago, and in six weeks we’ve had six festival screenings, and we have another one coming up this weekend before we get a couple of weeks off before our next big wave.  In this time span I’ve began to take note of some patterns I’ve noticed in the festival submission process, in the festival acceptance process, and in the actual festival screening process.  I figured I would use this forum to share this info with anybody who cares:

1. Strategize! – Festivals are expensive to submit to. If you spend too much money submitting to festivals you won’t have any money left over to actually attend them.  Map out where your film would do well and find all the festivals in those areas.  Then choose the ones that you think you have the best chance to get into and move on from there.  By the time you submit, create a press kit, and mail stuff, you’ll be surprised how much you spent.

2. Be Gracious – Nobody owes you anything.  Whether the crowd is one person or fifty people, just be thankful that there is someone there to watch the movie that you made.

3. There are No Guarantees – There’s no such thing as a festival that you will automatically get into unless you’re on the acceptance committee.  Every festival has its own standards and more importantly their own agenda and there is nothing you can do about that. Even if you know the programmer, don’t expect them to bend their business practices to accommodate you.

4. There’s A Lot You Can Tell From a Website – Check out a festivals website before you submit.  If they don’t have a website then don’t submit.  If the website has last years program, check it out and see if they program films like yours.  If not, then don’t submit!  They’re likely not going to change their style.

5. Avoid the Big Brand Festivals – You’re not going to get in unless you have A list talent in your film.  By A list I mean real A list.  Sundance, TriBeCa, Cannes, Toronto, even South By Southwest, they’re all run by sponsors who want eyes on their product and pictures of the girl from Twilight on the red carpet are gonna get a lot more traction in US Weekly than pictures of that guy you went to High School with on the red carpet, unless the guy you went to High School with is in the background of the picture of the girl from Twilight. The truth is that movies like Bridge and Tunnel may actually be better than what was programmed at the “major” festivals this past year, but ultimately we weren’t what was best for business.  It’s nothing to be bitter about, it’s part of the game.

6. Always Bring a Backup Screener – When attending a festival always make sure you bring with you backup screeners in multiple formats; You never know what can go wrong.

7. Promote! – If you want to screen to an audience the only surefire way to do so is to do most of the promotion yourself.  The festival has a lot of movies to worry about as well as all sorts of other Pony Show events.  You can’t expect them to get anyone in the audience besides their volunteers and tech people.  If you want an audience get to the town where the festival is early and promote.

8. Physical Mail is Still King – We live in an era where it’s definitely easier to just submit everything online but that takes the personal aspect out of it.  If a festival gives you the option to send a physical press kit to them, do so! It’s simply a different experience to hold a poster, post card, or booklet in your hand then it is to click open a few .pdf’s.  If you’re worried about nature and litter, just get your stuff printed on recycled paper.

9. Start Local – You have a better chance of getting into festivals close to where you filmed than anywhere else in the world.  This is because the festival will see dollar signs because you can likely sell more tickets than films from further away because of friend and family interest.  Sucks, but it’s the truth.  That said – if you can get butts in the seats in local festivals it creates the opportunity to get press and photos that can assist you in getting into other festivals around the country.

10. Make it Personal – Build a personal relationship with the audience, fellow filmmakers, and festival programmers.  Just because you have a movie doesn’t mean you’re a big shot. Learn names. Become facebook friends. You’re in film festivals because you’re not at a point where you are a name brand, nor are you working with name brand talent.  But if you can create fans and friends who will continue to support you on future projects every little bit makes a huge difference.

Jason Michael Brescia

June 17, 2014 6:10 P.M EST

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Entry #26: Answering “Dumb” Questions

One of the most common questions I get after a screening of one of my films is “what films were you watching you made this?”  I also get “who is your favorite director” a lot.  The worst question is “what’s your favorite movie?” I refuse to answer that question and be locked into a “favorite movie” for the rest of my life.

But “what was I watching” when I developed a certain project is, in my opinion, a much more helpful question for aspiring filmmakers and fans of a certain project.  A while back I wrote about the films that helped influence The Newest Pledge; the answer was basically Revenge of the Nerds and slew of other mainstream and college comedies. Truth is that I was 22 years old when I began developing that project and college-life is what I knew. The idea of me being an adult seemed as anomalous as a fraternity raising a baby.

Bridge and Tunnel continued my struggle to come to terms with the notion of adulthood, but instead of setting this story on a college campus I set the story in Long Island, where I grew up. Once again, it was what I knew so I went with it. That’s just what I do.  If I knew what it was like to live in Prussia or on the Moon then maybe the story would take place in one of those places.

My goal while writing Bridge and Tunnel was to show life, or at least my own, how it really is: exasperating, comical, dejected, happy, relaxed, apprehensive, and at times absurd. I think we can all relate. Nobody I know has a life with only one tone, so why should a piece of art that I make set in my version of the real world?

I tried not to draw influence or style from other film’s or filmmaker’s because most of the film is based on my own life one way or another.  Some events happened to me, while others occurred in my head. Some events also happened to people I know well enough to write about but were told from my own psychological perspective to give the film continuity in its voice.

That said, I didn’t reinvent the wheel while making this thing, and I didn’t lock myself in a monastery while writing it either.  I studied all of Whit Stillman’s filmography because of its common theme of life in your twenties; I went as far as to cast Ryan Metcalf as one of the main characters in this film because I saw him in Stillman’s 2012 release, Damsels in Distress. I’ve always like Richard Linklater movies, and SubUrbia was the sort of project that I watched to study what he did while depicting similar themes, but I didn’t cast anyone from that film.  I also watched more of NBC’s Friends than I ever had growing up because of the earlier episodes ensemble portrayal of life in your twenties.  If I could have cast someone from that show I’m not sure who I would have gone with. Maybe Ross’ dad. I saw him in something recently, but I can’t remember what. I think it was something I saw on Netflix.

But anyway…

I also watched a lot more French New Wave films than I had while preparing for projects past.  Before this comes off as sounding pretentious, I’m not lumping Bridge and Tunnel into the same category as films from the French New Wave movement, but if you’re wondering what I was watching while developing this project I’d be dishonest if I didn’t mention Hiroshima Mon Amour. One of my goals for Bridge and Tunnel was to have it shift in tone the way the best French New Wave films did, almost as if you’re pulling a Muhammad Ali “rope a dope” on your audience (if you don’t know what that means then you’re either a film geek or a lady with little interest in sports and you need to google it pronto). 

Finally, I did watch other independent films shot on Long Island. My favorite film of this group is Steve Buscemi’s 1996 directorial debut, Trees Lounge, which was also shot in  Valley Stream, New York, where I attended elementary school and lived from 1988 (age two) to 1999 (age twelve). What I particularly liked about Trees Lounge and Edward Burns’ 1998 film No Looking Back was how Long Island was portrayed as both beautiful and weathered. Both films are a lot like Bruce Springsteen songs; I think Bridge and Tunnel has a lot of Darkness on the Edge of Town in it, but it’s probably more The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle. With No Looking Back I think Burns tried to make a visual Born to Run. Jon Bon Jovi was in it, so maybe he was going for a visual Slippery When Wet though with the whole waitress and car guy angle.

Getting back on track…

That should answer the questions of “what I was watching” while making this particular film. Hopefully it’s nothing like any of those movies and completely different. Either way I hope you give it a chance and I hope something about it sticks with you.

And remember, there is no such thing as a stupid question, just cranky people like me who don’t get enough sleep.

Jason Michael Brescia

January 28, 2014 9:52 P.M EST

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Entry #25: Oneirophobia (Sleep is For the Weak)

This upcoming Friday Bridge and Tunnel will be unveiled to supporters of the film at Cinema Village in New York City. Two days later the film will screen on Long Island at Bellmore Movies, not far from where a bulk of the picture was shot.

The concept of these screenings is terrifying.

I’m not scared of how people will feel about the film; it is what it is. I can’t go back and change its limitations, and I’m really proud of what my team and I accomplished. It’s a really personal project, but it also means a great deal to many different people, and in that regard I know this movie is the paramount achievement of my 27 years of life. Not everyone will like it, but if mass appeasement concerned me I probably would have taken on a different art form – perhaps something along the lines of juggling or beat boxing. Not as lucrative long term, but definitely something that could bring a wealth of joy to diverse audiences.

Am I alarmed that the making of Bridge and Tunnel is over? It’s been my passion since late 2010 and it would be entirely feasible to assume I’m just apprehensive about starting the next chapter of my life? That’s scary, right? “The great unknown” as someone who likes to spew hackneyed expressions might say.

But that doesn’t worry me at all. In fact, I feel as though the so called “next chapter of my life” can’t begin soon enough!

So what am I afraid of?!?! Am I just nervous? Anxious to just get it over with?

That can’t be it. I don’t really get nervous except on report card day in middle school and when talking to girls I’ve just met, but even then it’s in a very limited manner. I’m a relatively composed person in high pressure situations.

What frightens me about these screenings is that I’m seeing my determination, hard work, and resolve come to fruition. As odd as it may sound, that’s kind of eerie. This is what I’ve wanted to do my entire life and at least for now I’m actually doing it. I’m doing exactly what I always told myself I’d be doing. I’m making actual movies that people are going to watch, and think about, and maybe even tell other people about.

And yeah I’ve certainly pushed myself in ways that some might define as “detrimental to my health” in order to get this project made, but now in a few days a seed in my brain becomes something real; Something that people are going to actually experience as a community inside of a theater, late at night, in the city that defines the era of humanity in which we live. That concept alone is so worth every second of fatigue, every instance of agony, and every drop of dejection that comes with taking on an endeavor like this.

When the movie begins on Friday night there’s nothing left for me to do but accept that I put it out there. I can’t turn back, I can’t turn the movie off, I won’t make excuses. I made another movie, one that’s essential to me. For 90 minutes, a few hundred people are going to bear witness as the past three years of my life come to fruition in front of their eyes.

I’m scared this might not be real.

Jason Michael Brescia

December 9, 2013 1:18 A.M EST

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Entry 24: How the Cast of My Second Feature was Built

My last post was in May, a lot has happened since. Most significantly production on Bridge and Tunnel has wrapped. A project that began brewing in my mind in the Summer of 2010, and finally came to completion in the Summer of 2013. By far the most personal endeavor I’ve taken on in my creative career, and the project part of my life that I’m most proud of thus far.

When I completed The Newest Pledge in 2010 I was proud of what I had just accomplished, but I had no idea what would happen next. I was 23 and just completed my first feature film. I was confident that the movie would go somewhere, but the two years that followed were a crash course in the highs and lows of independent filmmaking and prepared me for almost everything that I encountered during the production of Bridge and Tunnel.

One thing I learned while making The Newest Pledge was to never underestimate how important a talented cast is towards creating the best film possible.

Overall I’m very happy with the cast that I got to work with on Bridge and Tunnel. I was privileged to pick a few actors from movies and television shows that I enjoyed, tell my producers I wanted to try and get them in the film, and actually get them to agree to sign on. This is something that Bob Burton, Bryson Pintard, and I didn’t even think about when we were casting The Newest Pledge. At that point in time we didn’t know you could call an agent and they’d listen to you if they thought the project was worthwhile and most importantly paid right. Eventually our Producer Renee Mignosa brought that philosophy to the team when she got Mindy Sterling (Austin Powers) and Kevin Nash (WWF Champion) to sign on.

My first attempt at targeting a cast member came a little over a year ago when I sat down to watch Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Instantly I was drawn to the fraternity character Frank. He made me laugh out loud. I hit pause on the DVD, signed on to IMDb pro, and looked up his contact information. I was pleased to find out that the actor who played him, Ryan Metcalf, was a New York local hire. I contacted his manager and sent the script over. He agreed to a meeting at Gregory’s Coffee in Midtown, and we ended our meeting with Ryan agreeing to play the role of Sal Lodato.

Ryan’s “signing on” to Bridge and Tunnel lead to the signing of Natalie Knepp, another local actress who had appeared on many television shows and recently landed a role in the Anna Kendrick film The Next 5 Years, and with the addition of Natalie we were connected to Arjun Gupta, who played the role of Sam on the TV series Nurse Jackie.

At this point in my life I’ve seen close to a thousand different people read in auditions. I was never more impressed with someone’s read than Arjun’s. That’s not to slam anyone else who has ever read for me, but Arjun came into the room and I immediately knew that he had the sort of talent to take the project to the next level. I guess the only comparison I could draw is when Joseph Booton auditioned for The Newest Pledge in LA. Joseph had auditioned for a role that eventually got cut from the script but ended up leaving that role with an offer to play Rico, the main antagonist in the film.

Part of what made Bridge and Tunnel an ambitious film to take on was that it was going to be shot over the course of a year. The script demanded that the seasons change. We set out to shoot a third of the film in December, we developed chemistry, and moved on to a long winter hiatus.

During the hiatus I received my first lessons in crowd-sourced fund raising when we successfully bugged and begged our loved ones and acquaintances to donate $10,000 to us. Granted we offered cool incentives, but the generosity of our peers gave us enough momentum to shoot in the spring.

During the spring shoot I was pleased to reunite with Mary Kate Wiles. I remember in 2007 when Mary Kate auditioned for the role of “Brenda” in my senior thesis Ridiculously Emo. I thought she was a solid, dedicated, professional actress back then, and we worked together again on The Newest Pledge. Unfortunately all but a shot of her role in TNP ended up on the cutting room floor by no fault but my own, and I never liked that. Fortunately, I wrote a role specifically for her in Bridge and Tunnel, a role that she agreed to take, and a role that she did very well in. For those of you who might not know Mary Kate, google her! She’s got an online presence that sets the standard for the internet age!

A “dream come true” moment came for me in May when Kenneth Kimmins, who played the role of “Athletic Director Howard Burleigh” in the TV series Coach agreed to play the role of “Dr. Pullman” in Bridge and Tunnel. Ken is a legend who has been in the industry for over forty years. He was in Network, he was on Dallas, he was in Lois and Clark, save me the time and just IMDb him. It was a pleasure to work with Ken, who was the most delightful person to be around. He requested that I bring my Minnesota State Screaming Eagles Starter jacket to set (I got it off of eBay a few years ago), and he got a kick out of it. I really enjoyed talking Coach with him in between takes.

The spring shoot really went as smoothly as it could have. It was during this shoot that we really found our groove as a unit. Trevor Wineman, who was the cinematographer on The Newest Pledge is the hardest working person who I’ve ever worked with. He really does the jobs of seven or eight different people.

As we prepared for our summer shoot we began to wrap up the cast. We added Annet Mahendru from the FX Show The Americans in a role I wrote specifically for her. Like Mary Kate, she was flawless in performance, and a professional on set. It’s great to see young, up and coming, talented actresses with credits to their name behave so selflessly on a set that was far from the most professional set they’ve ever been on. But they both took initiate, befriended the crew, and immersed themselves in the project. You can really tell when you watch the film that they’re having fun. Stuff like that is what makes directing a little less stressful.

Also added to the summer shoot was Wass Stevens as Uncle Sean. Wass’ resume includes roles in The Wrestler, World Trade Center, and Brooklyn‘s Finest, three films that I own on DVD, as well as a recurring spot on Ugly Betty, my guilty pleasure; but Wass caught my eye for his role as union boss Paul Capra in the Netflix original series House of Cards. Like with Ryan Metcalf back in October of 2012, I hopped on IMDb, searched for Wass, and was pleased to find out he was a New York local. We made an offer, Wass looked over the part, and next thing you know he was signed on. Working with him was great, and I can honestly say it’s a better movie because he’s in it. I knew that would be the case the second I saw him on House of Cards.

Another cool moment came when Joe Murphy, who plays Nate, ran into former WWE superstar Virgil in Grand Central Station. Joe and I had read an article on the internet that Virgil wasn’t doing so well and we joked about casting him. Well, less than a month later Joe ran into Virgil while coming home for his grandmother’s wake. Joe pitched the film to Virgil, Virgril agreed, and for the second straight feature film I have a WWE superstar from the 1990’s in a contributing role. On set Virgil (Mike Jones) was a delight to be around. He would stop to talk to everyone and made everyone around him smile. I’ve read some negative things about Mike on the internet, but I saw none of that in person and have no clue where it comes from. Some people on the internet can be mean spirited and bitter, two qualities I didn’t see in Mike. At all.

We wrapped production for Bridge and Tunnel in August. The last scene was a scene between Ryan Metcalf and another actress, Brianne Berkson, who played his wife Meghan. The scene was shot in Long Beach, NY in a place that had changed so much since we began shooting. Another cast member, Chris Viemeister, who I had been grooming for this project for about a year, stopped by to be a part of the wrap. It was a cool moment.

I’ll probably write a few more posts about this film, but I figured the first one I’d write after I wrapped would be about casting. I had some good producers in Doug Torres and Adam Lawrence who played a great part in communicating with agents, managers, actors, and the screen actors guild. They did the unsung work, I just made the suggestions for the most part.

It was a fun casting process, I learned a lot, and I look forward to casting my next project with a lot of these same names.

Jason Michael Brescia

September 1, 2013 10:00 PM EST

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Entry 23: It’s Not a Fashion Show!

One thing about New York is that on a daily basis you hear your fair share of inappropriate language. At the deli you’ll hear about “fucking A-Rod.” At the barber you’ll hear about various “bitches” and “sluts.” Driving on the Cross Island you’ll be called an “asshole” or a “cunt.” On the subway you’ll hear someone with tourettes call out about “fags” and “niggers.” To be honest, as unfortunate and embarrassing as it may sound, it’s part of the culture here.

I’ve tried to naturally incorporate this vernacular into Bridge and Tunnel. I don’t like to lace my work with profanity, I really don’t. There were a couple moments in The Newest Pledge (not counting Haitian Creole), but none in my student work, but those films are all in a different genre, geared towards a different audience than Bridge and Tunnel. With this motion picture I’m trying to accurately project my generation, in this place at this time, into a story. To do so it needs to have dirty language.

And there’s a decent amount of profanity, only used naturally, in the right context.  But that’s New York and that’s what Bridge and Tunnel was meant to be. It’s not charming like an episode of Friends, it’s not as innocent as How I Met Your Mother, it’s not as quirky as Girls, and it’s not as sophisticated as a Woody Allen or Whit Stillman movie. In fact, the purpose of this project was to create a counter-film to all of those portrayals of the region, and to instead show my vision of the real New York.

The real New York isn’t the fashion show that New Yorkers wish it was. The real New York is not Paris (it’s better). Perhaps successful designers live and work here, but hop on a subway at any hour of the day and you’ll find that the real New York doesn’t dress as well as they wish they did. The real New York wears more sweatpants than the movies would allow you to believe, the real New York is chubbier than Sex and the City would want you to see (or way too skinny).

The real New York is a bunch of working class people, from blue collar backgrounds, sitting around, eating, drinking, watching TV, being loud, getting in verbal fights, and simultaneously enjoying life while finding new ways consider yourself miserable. In a metropolitan area of 22 million people, this is what the lives of 21.9 million of them are like.

And it’s how I want Bridge and Tunnel to play. No, the film is not a fashion show. It’s more like a visual mid-70’s Bruce Springsteen song; only more simultaneously content and miserable.

And with more profanity.

Jason Michael Brescia

May 20, 2013 7:11 P.M EST

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Entry 22: My Critique on Critics of the Arts

In my first film class, before I’d ever made anything, I got in a debate with my professor about the usefulness of film critics, and critics of the arts in general. My professor’s background was in live TV news production, and she had done a few infomercials. She believed that critics were valuable because it provided the public with a buffer as to how to use their time.

My argument wasn’t the most unique; essentially I stood firm that it’s impossible to judge art without sitting down with the artist, asking what their ambition was, and then sitting down with a large, diverse group of people, and anonymously polling them as to whether or not said goal was achieved. Critics, as far as I know, don’t do that.

I also questioned her as to “who becomes a critic?” It may have come off as condescending to the profession; especially coming from a 120 pound eighteen year old wearing a Pearl Jam t-shirt, but it was an honest question. Somewhere in my brain it didn’t click that someone could “professionally” judge someone’s art. Were these people void of taste preferences? If not, how could they “review” art within different genres without bias? If so, how could they critique art?

I used to really follow the music review website Allmusic.com. There was a period of time in which before I would go to Tower Records I would verify with allmusic that the album had received four or more stars. Then, as time went on, my discomfort with the website grew. There was no method to the ratings system and the reviewers wore their hearts on their sleeves. This wasn’t a professional examination of a piece of art, which a recorded music album is, instead it was one person who works for a popular website’s opinion on the album.The reviewer did not inquire with the artist about their motivations, did not seek an audience reaction, and instead decided to rate this unique album against other artists albums.

For example, in the early 1980’s legendary Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne sought to create a rock opera driven by various keyboards and synthesizers, about a fellow who gets transported from 1980 to the year 2095. This was before Back to the Future made time travel a niche of decade, and the synthesizer was just beginning to take over popular music. The album was called Time, and in my opinion it is entertaining, catchy, and paints a fantastic image of a technologically driven future.

Allmusic.com gave this album a “two star” rating, and in their four sentence review cited a lack of cohesion and originality as the reasons. At the time of writing this, 54 allmusic.com users have rated this album, giving it the average score of “4.5” out of “5.”

Myself, and the average of 54 other people who took the time to register and vote on the website, were all moved by this album. Jeff Lynne’s imaginative idea of a piece of music about time travel resonated with us. But because an allmusic reviewer named James Chrispell thinks the album is only worthy of “2 stars,” his review will serve as a “buffer,” as my professor put it, preventing someone from listening to this album, instead directing them towards something with a more prosperous rating, perhaps Britney Spears’ 2000 album Oops I Did It Again which received a 4 star review.

Rolling Stone magazine was at one point a relevant publication that reviewed releases in music, literature, and cinema. In 1996 they listed the Weezer album Pinkerton as one of their “Worst Albums of the Year,” likely “buffering” plenty of people from listening to it. Over the next several years that album took on a cult identity, becoming one of the more  significant albums of the 90’s. In fact, less than ten years after it was one of the “Worst Albums of the Year” it was inducted into the meaningless “Rolling Stone Magazine Hall of Fame” (and yes, it even retroactively received a “5 star” review from allmusic, but don’t fret, a separate Weezer album, 2009’s Raditude was initially given a 4.5 rating, but was demoted to a 3.5 in early 2013. I supposed the track “I Can’t Stop Partying” became less relevant over time to the reviewer, and was no longer worthy of the lofty 4.5 rating).

Another popular art rating website is Pitchfork.com. Unlike allmusic.com, Pitchfork does not attempt to be an unprejudiced measurement of music. Pitchfork tends to reward counterculture, while becoming grossly offended with anything mainstream, unless said mainstream act has been around long enough to become a nostalgia act to the websites writers and following. Though they don’t try to hide it, Pitchfork.com and it’s writers serve as the shepherds for countless sheep who got picked last in gym class, and therefore can’t listen to the same music and like the same movies as the kid who got picked first… or second… or fourteenth. Pitchfork is the uniform for those who want to be different.

In a recent speech at the South By Southwest arts festival, Dave Grohl, the drummer of Nirvana, one of the most artistically influential groups in American history, and the leader of the Foo Fighters, one of the most popular music acts of the past twenty years, had this to say about judging art;

Fuck guilty pleasure, how about just pleasure? I can truthfully say out loud the “Gangnam Style” is one of my favorite fucking songs of the past decade. Is it any better or any worse than the latest Atoms for Peace record? Hmm. If only we had a celebrity panel of judges to determine that for us. What would J-Lo do? Paging Pitchfork. Come in, come in. Pitchfork. We need you to determine the value of a song. Who fucking cares? Who’s to say what’s a good voice and what’s not a good voice… The Voice? Imagine Bob Dylan standing there singing “Blowing in the Wind” in front of Christina Aguilera? [Mimicking her voice] Mmm I think you sound a little nasally and sharp. [Returning to his normal voice] It’s your voice, cherish it, respect it, nurture it, challenge it, stretch it, scream it until it’s fucking gone, because everyone is blessed with at least that. And who knows how long it’s going to last.

As social media has evolved, so has the ability of any geek with a laptop to call themselves a critic. Most of these people wish they could be artists like the ones they are judging, but often lack the talent or guts to become artists themselves. Instead they diligently punch buttons on their keyboards until they eventually regurgitate thoughts they’ve read on other people’s art. Whether positive or negative, these thoughts are usually based on some expectation of what other artists have done before the piece of art that they’re judging was made. Some of these people went to school to be journalists, some of these people just watch a lot of television. Some of these people write for newspapers and magazines that have subscribers, others create their own blog and pass it off as a way to get credentials at album release shows or movie premieres. And then record labels and movie studios give them passes with the hope that these people will be so happy to be there that they’ll behave nicely and feed into the cash cow.

The one thing all of these people have in common is that they’re not artists, and the ones who attempted to become artists often gave up. Sometimes because they lack talent, most often because they can’t comprehend how much guts and devotion it actually takes to acquire talent.

The debate between my professor and I took place over eight years ago. I don’t even remember her name, but in that time span I’ve gotten my first glimpses into the real world of critics, and I’ve come to the conclusion that most of them are even less worthy of your attention than I’d even thought. I’d be more bold but I like to keep this blog as tasteful as possible. What I’ll offer is this:

Remember when you were in junior high and you thought all your teachers were so smart? Then you got older and saw which of your peers were actually becoming teachers and thought to yourself, “man, that girl was really dumb and sort of a slut, no way I’d ever let her teach my kid!” And then you realized that that’s exactly the sort of person who educated you, as well. It’s the same way with art critics. These people were the least artistic, most unimaginative people you grew up with. These were the people who sat in the lunchroom eating poptarts while talking about who would win in a fight between Conan the Barbarian and He-Man as the drama kids put on shows, the band kids practiced their Sousa, and the punks through rocks at their teachers cars. You didn’t take those people’s advice on what to do with your life then, why would you take it now?

Listen to what you want to listen to. Enjoy the movies and TV shows that make you happy. Buy the painting that you want to see every day. It’s your life! Art isn’t baseball. If you ask me “does Ryan Braun deserve the NL MVP award?” there are countless stats I could look at to make a rational decision, and various questions I could ask myself to draw a definitive yes or no answer. Did he lead the NL in RBI, OBP or fielding percentage? Is his team going to the playoffs? Who else had a great season?

But if you ask me what was better, On The Waterfront or Movie 43, I’ll reply “better at what?” On The Waterfront made me think more, and I enjoy the timeless flow, but Movie 43 made me laugh more. Better at what?

I love Picasso but I have a painting of me with a giant head that I got from Six Flags in my room.

Rick James makes me want to dance but I find myself listening to Tom Petty, who never makes me want to dance, a lot more.

So the next time you think about reading what a critic writes, ask yourself, “what was really the goal of GI Joe?” “Am I in the mood to feel the emotion that the goal of this film is trying to convey?” And then answer “yes” or “no.”

That’s really all the “buffer” that you need.

Jason Michael Brescia

April 4, 2013 5:39 P.M EST

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