David Bruce: Critics Anecdotes

When the movie The Bourne Ultimatum premiered in 2007, nearly all established movie critics rushed to praise it. For a while, the only negative review appearing on movie-review website <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/movies/&gt; was written by Washington Post movie reviewer Stephen Hunter. Someone wrote movie critic Roger Ebert to ask if he felt that Mr. Hunter was embarrassed at being the only movie critic on Rotten Tomatoes to pan the movie, but Mr. Ebert wrote back, “I think it’s a badge of honor for Stephen Hunter. When only one review disagrees, read it. I did, and understand his point, even if I disagree.” Mr. Ebert did ask Mr. Hunter about being the only movie critic on Rotten Tomatoes panning the movie, and Mr. Hunter replied, “I’m far too shallow to have doubts.” (Of course, a few other movie critics eventually wrote negative reviews of The Bourne Ultimatum , so Mr. Hunter was the first rather than the only movie critic on Rotten Tomatoes to pan the movie.)

Yiddish actor Fyvush Finkel has worked both in Yiddish theater and in mainstream theater. When he was doing Yiddish theater, a critic who hated him wrote that he should stop being an actor and instead become a circus clown. This made Mr. Finkel angry, so he decided to visit the critic and let his feeling be known—physically. However, to get to the critic’s office, he had to pass his father’s store. His father saw him and called him into the store. His father said, “I know where you’re going. You’re gonna hit him, aren’t you?” Mr. Finkel acknowledged the fact. However, his father advised him, “You’ll make a big man out of him—leave it alone. Tomorrow people will forget about it—the audience loves you. Come stay, have coffee.” They had coffee, and his father thought for a moment, then said, “And then again, y’know—a clown in the circus is a good, steady job!” Today, Mr. Finkel is known as “Fyvush Finkel—a face that launched a thousand shticks!”

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, delivered the Commencement address at Stanford University on June 17, 2007. He deplored the coarsening of culture in the United States, pointing out that so much of what is valued there is celebrity rather than culture. He pointed out that much of what Americans see on TV talk shows consists basically of people flogging products, whether CDs, live performances, movies, or books. Creating a memorable image, he said, “I have a recurring nightmare. I am in Rome visiting the Sistine Chapel. I look up at Michelangelo’s incomparable fresco of the ‘Creation of Man.’ I see God stretching out his arm to touch the reclining Adam’s finger. And then I notice in the other hand Adam is holding a Diet Pepsi.”

Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet, was also a critic. If he disliked what he heard at a poetry reading, he would climb on a table behind the poet and urinate on the poet’s poems. Rimbaud is a favorite of punk poet Patti Smith—who faced her own critics. She was so disliked by the female factory employees with whom she worked early in her life that they once pushed her head into a urine-filled toilet bowl—an event she wrote and sang about in what many people consider the very first punk record: “P*ss Factory.” She discovered Rimbaud while looking in a bookstore near the factory. Unfortunately, the other female factory employees thought that Rimbaud must be a Communist because he wrote in a language other than English.

Clint Black has been a popular country musician for years, and he keeps working to find ways to make good music. In 2007, he was working on an album to be released in early 2008. The album would include a 2007 single titled “The Strong One” and a duet titled “You Still Get to Me” with his wife, Lisa Hartman-Black. Of course, he works hard on his music, and he has a few ways to tell whether an album will be any good. Mr. Black says, “I have to keep inventing ways to make myself make a different, albeit better or worse, record. This one happens to be very, very good, according to me. And the guys who played on it, and the record company who sells it, and … my dad.”

When she was very little, granddaughter Kaulini was the best-ever critic of children’s book author and illustrator Thomas Locker. Whenever he showed her a painting he had created, she would look at it and say, “Oh, wow!” And whenever he showed her a book he had created, she would look at it and say, “Oh, wow!” By the way, you can see photographs of Thomas Locker and his best-ever critic in Mr. Locker’s short autobiography—written for children—The Man Who Paints Nature.

Critic Edmund Wilson did not do a lot of things that more recent intellectuals do. In fact, as Mr. Wilson’s fame and requests for his time and creativity grew, he created a postcard on which he listed (and checked as a reply to a request he would not satisfy) the things that he would not do. These things included giving interviews, appearing on television, participating in symposia, writing articles or books on order, and writing forewords or introductions.

Actors react differently to critics’ reviews. After appearing in a play together, Charlton Heston and Sir Laurence Olivier received good and bad reviews. Mr. Heston said, “Well, I guess you’ve just got to forget the bad reviews.” Sir Laurence replied, “No, you’ve got to forget the good ones.” (Children’s book author Avi sometimes tells this anecdote; he is of course aware that authors get good and bad reviews.)

Giuseppe de Stefano sang the high-B note at the end of Celeste Aida exactly the way that Verdi wanted it—softly—instead of the way his Catania, Sicily, audience wanted it—loudly. When the audience whistled in derision, Mr. de Stefano told them, “That’s the way Verdi wrote it!” A know-it-all shouted back, “Verdi made a mistake!”

Artist/writer Edward Gorey was a man of wit and intelligence. Edmund Wilson once criticized Mr. Gorey’s prose, so Mr. Gorey dedicated his next book to the eminent critic. The book consisted of illustrations only—it had no prose at all.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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