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Don't Critique a Critic
by jeanette   April 14, 2005
happily ever after

I was reading Salon the other day, the online magazine I love, and I saw there was a new French film coming out, Happily Ever After, that looked interesting. I proceeded to read critic Stephanie Zacharek's review, and one paragraph hit me the wrong way, a paragraph that focused solely on the female star's looks. So, I sent her an e-mail that was passionate, yes, probably too hard core, but I don't think it deserved the viciousness that Stephanie responded with in the end. Here - read for yourself.

First is the e-mail I sent her:

    In your review of "Happily Ever After" you feel compelled to write an ENTIRE paragraph about Gabrielle Gainsbourg's looks:

    "Gainsbourg is an arresting, unusual beauty: Her frame is lithe and willowy but hardly fragile, and she has dark, shaggy rock-star-luxe hair. Her profile is strong, but her features are soft: Her nose is a bit longer and wider than we're used to seeing in movie stars, and her mouth seems to turn down at the corners even when she laughs. She's as mighty and as unassuming as a tall lion cub. You'll see more conventionally beautiful actresses in the movies this year, but I challenge you to find one more captivating than Gainsbourg."

    WHY!? Jesus fucking christ. What do her looks have ANYTHING to do with whether or not she is a talented actress? Who cares if an actress is beautiful - you make NO comment on what any of the male characters look like. So why do you feel the need to comment on what the female actor looks like? Stop perpetuating the concept that actresses have to be talented and beautiful, or at least beautiful, whereas male actors can be old, fat and ugly but as long as they're talented, that is more than enough. In fact, RARELY are the appearances of male actors mentioned. A man can be just talented, but a woman must also be beautiful. This is the idea you are perpetuating, and as a woman, you need to stop it.

Her response:

    Dear Jeanette,

    Thanks for telling me what I, as a woman, need to do. Sorry I wasn't following the rulebook. I'll be sure to stay in lockstep next time.

    Sincerely,

    Stephanie Zacharek

I was surprised to get a response at all, let alone a pissy one! But in reading my e-mail again, I realized I was rough, so here's what I sent her next:

    I guess my choice of wording was a little harsh, and just after I'd make a little curtain speech this weekend about John Stuart Mill and how he said "truth can only be found through a clash of adverse ideas" (or something close to that) in the context of supporting arts and the theatre. But, seriously, I think you knew what I was trying to convey in my e-mail to you - no lockstep required!

There. I thought I was implicitly apologetic, a bit self-effacing, but at the very least, nice. Imagine my surprise when she replied with this:

    Dear Jeanette,

    I did know what you were trying to convey to me and, aside from being appalled by your hectoring tone, I thought your letter reeked of regurgitated theory more than actual thought. For one thing, you conveniently ignore the fact that I actually said, "Gainsbourg is the center of the movie" -- do I need to spell out for you that I think she's "talented" (a word I hardly ever use, because I think it has a thick, stupid, condescending quality)? You also wrote:

    "In fact, RARELY are the appearances of male actors mentioned."

    Really? Please don't lecture me about that, because I address it all the time. If you don't believe me, look at the last third of a piece that ran just two days earlier in Salon, where I spend several paragraphs talking about the way Charlton Heston and Richard Harris look, explaining how Sam Peckinpah is alive to masculine beauty in "Major Dundee":

    www.salon.com/ent/movies/review/2005/04/06/major_dundee/index.html

    I'm an equal-opportunity ogler. I'm supposed to pretend to be otherwise, as a moviegoer? I'm supposed to pretend that how these actors look (when I say "actors" I mean men and women) doesn't affect me? If you want that kind of dishonesty in criticism, then please don't read me, and please don't write to me: This is my life's work, I take it very seriously, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how a person's PRESENCE in a movie affects me. (And it doesn't always have to do with physical attractiveness, although in Gainsbourg's case, I'd be remiss if I called her anything but beautiful.) There are plenty of film theorists out there who write the sort of stuff you're looking for. If you need to have your views validated, please seek them out and read them, because they'll give you far more pleasure than I will.

    Sincerely,

    Stephanie Zacharek

Wow!! Was that a venomous personal attack toward me or what? I was just giving my opinion, albeit passionate, and even backpedaled with my second e-mail. Boy, Stephanie can spend all day critiquing everybody else, but when the tables are turned - I was critiquing the critic, and that wasn't even my intention. Seriously, what a bitch, saying that I "regurgitated theory" and thus implying I couldn't think on my own. Implying I was thick, stupid and condescending for using the word "talented." What's bad about calling someone talented? Maybe Stephanie has sour grapes because no one ever attributed that word to her. I don't know her credentials (certainly she must have trained in music composition and filmmaking somewhere!) and I could be wrong, but I think she reviews not only films but music as well. I'd love to read her screenplays, see the films she's directed and acted in, or hear all the songs she's composed. I'll try to Google them. The pathetic thing about Stephanie, in that she is a critic, is that her "life's work" is sadly reactive. She has to wait for other people to pour their heart and soul into creating a film or music. She has to wait for others to stick their neck out, take a risk and create - to be proactive. If she were in the Army, she would stand at the back, let others lead the attack and then judge whether it was good or bad. She's a passenger who won't plan the route, but is quick to judge the scenery. She wants to drive, but she can't.

Artists, no matter what kind, and no matter how talented, well, at least they have the balls to take a chance, a risk, to add something new to the artistic canon. All Stephanie Zacharek does is sit back and wait for others to DO, and then judge what they've done, good or bad. Her final response to me was extremely vicious and an unwarranted personal attack. I didn't attack her personally, her writing skills or her intellect. I brought up a valid point that unfortunately, if you ask any actress in the industry, is true for the most part. Maybe Stephanie wouldn't have spit her venom if I had said that "female OR male, if someone is a good actor, really, what does it matter what they look like?" But I think she would have anyway. Funny, a critic who can't take a little non-personal criticism herself. Sad how she can dish it out but she can't take it. She said, "This is my life's work, I take it very seriously." Hmm. I wonder if she cares that goes doubly true for the artists she reviews?

Everybody's a critic, especially Stephanie Zacharek.


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