When film critic Roger Ebert died April 4, he was lauded for many things – his versatility, longevity, savvy, wit. But one virtue in particular stood out. As Chicago photographer Art Shay put it, “Even with movies he panned, he invariably found something worth going to see in them.”
Take his review of a film that regularly made his “worst films” lists: Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy. Ebert called Sandler’s character “insufferable,” described the plot as an “exhausted wheeze of a sports movie formula,” and gave the film one star.
Nevertheless, he praised the performance of actress Kathy Bates, writing that she “makes her character work as a comic creation, and knows the line between parody and wretched excess.” And he resisted the urge to hurl insults at Sandler. Instead, he wrote, “I suggest he (Sandler) is making a tactical error when he creates a character whose manner and voice has the effect of fingernails on a blackboard, and then expects us to hang in there for a whole movie.”
What Ebert demonstrated in that review and countless others is what the critic Judith Crist called mutual regard, and she included it as one of her four essential elements of any good work of criticism. (The other three are passion, frankness, and specificity.)
Mutual regard, she said, is showing respect for the creator of any work you’re evaluating, as well as respect for your readers.
When Crist talked of mutual regard, you never suspected the notoriously acerbic critic was trying to tell other would-be reviewers, “You kids play nice.” Rather, she cautioned writers to balance their obligation to be honest, even blunt, about a work’s quality with their obligation to acknowledge the effort, and struggle, invested in it by fellow artists.
In her famous review panning the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film Cleopatra, Crist identified a litany of its failures: The script: “a mélange of clichés and pompous banalities.” The sets: “Cardboard and paint.” Liz Taylor: “Fishwife.”
But even though the movie was a four-hour epic that she called an “extravagant exercise in tedium,” she still found much to praise: the “lilting speech of Richard Burton;” the “fine performances” in minor roles by Roddy McDowell and Rex Harrison; the costumes that were “nothing short of sensational.”
And she conceded some moviegoers would enjoy the film. “Certainly,” she wrote, “if you want to devote the best part of four hours to looking at Elizabeth Taylor in all her draped and undraped physical splendor, surrounded by elaborate and exotic costumes and sets, all in the loveliest of colors, this is your movie.”
Though we don’t always identify it as such, mutual regard is something Gotham teachers train our students to use. When Gotham students are workshopping something, they must open their comments by identifying one thing that works in the piece they are reviewing. We don’t require this solely to put writers at ease in our classrooms, nor because writers often struggle to identify what works in their own writing, though both of those are true. We require it because mutual regard is essential to editing one’s own work, to reading the work of others, and to becoming a successful writer.
Mutual regard shows that you recognize the inherent merit in creating a work of art. It gives readers a sense of where your standards lie, as it allows them to compare your evaluations of what works against your evaluations of what does not. And it lends you authority, by demonstrating that you have put thought into your evaluations, and weighed things fairly.
We live in an age of ever-more criticism – a cursory search for reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, for example, yielded 40,900 results, and that doesn’t count the opinions we’ll hear on Facebook or Twitter or out to dinner with friends. Writers who manage to rise above the noise, as Crist and Ebert did, understand that mutual regard is key, because ultimately it cultivates between writer and reader something crucial – trust.
Associate Dean of Faculty
Gotham Writers’ Workshop