The Praise Fascistsby Roger Young / 14.05.2009
Why, it has to be asked, do film critics in this country take delight in shooting down American films if they are bad, but universally praise all South African fare? Why are the radio waves permeated by mediocrities? Because it’s easier that way. You don’t bump into American film makers in Newtown, but you will find Leon Schuster at the Gateway. If you dispute the genius of (no names please, I don’t want to hurt his feelings) a certain technical guitar master, his friends will scream at you in bars, for hurting his feelings.
There is a band called The Otherwise, I’ve seen them live once and didn’t like them, I said so in the press. When I saw them out, they bought me drinks. Sometimes we hang out, I still don’t like their music and will continue to not like it in the press. The Otherwise do not care, they are totally happy with what they are doing and it gives them joy. The Otherwise are a new band and not yet a commercial success. However when I wrote about Watershed on the same level, I was called a “sad little man” on their facebook page (not being little, I feel, they may not have done their research), they also called my editor and, I believe, tried to have the article pulled. This climate exists amongst many established working musicians and artists of any medium in this country. A mentality of, ‘praise us or you are not worthy’. Strangely enough, there are musicians and filmmakers and other creative people who are so satisfied in their work, they don’t care what the critics say, because really, what does it matter?
Indeed movie audiences feel this way. According to cinema managers, local films are still shunned on the basis of being local. People do not read critical opinion because generally most South African films are universally praised. After seeing two praised films that suck, this tends to lead the average film goer to not trust criticism in general. When, finally, an excellent film comes out, no-one watches it until it wins an Oscar and is available as a bootleg on the side of the road.
Everybody suffers here. If it’s a prerequisite of criticism to give Patricia Lewis as much praise as Yesterday’s Pupil than how is anyone meant to be able to form their own opinion based on what is written. You do not have to like or agree with the critic but if the viewpoint is clear you may glean from it how you will feel about the film, band or play you are interested in seeing.
To praise universally would mean having to find a way (to stretch an argument) to praising the genocide in Rwanda. I’m pretty sure the killers in that situation thought that what they were doing was right, too. As right as Goldfish fans feel, I’m sure, when they are worshipping at that altar. I hope that, in ten years time, those fans will look back in regret as one can only hope the killers of Rwanda do.
Cultural comment serves to show that independent thought is not only a right but actually completely normal. I love nothing more than a valid criticism of my work, even rabid, vitriolic ones. Praise me and really, honestly, I get a bit bored. I want to know where I’m going wrong, so that I can improve. But don’t tell a critic that someone’s feelings are hurt, all that indicates to me is that a nerve has been touched.
Radio stations in this country follow a similar line. Playlists are based on what is easy. Local bands that sound vaguely like other bands are put on a pedestal and rewarded. Anybody exploring new territory is deemed “too difficult on the ear”. DJ’s have to play set playlists, they cannot introduce any new music that they like. On certain radio stations, DJ’s are scripted. Local quotas are filled up by playing the same universally sounding mediocrities repeatedly until they become hits. I even heard a song announced that way on 94.7 about three years ago, it was on the breakfast show and Mansfield announced the second James Blunt song by saying, “You may not like it now, but we’ll play it again and again until you do”. Whatever happened to public requests, or diversity? But the failure in this regard is a critical one, because of the small nature of our recording and entertainment industries, the producers of the arts and those that comment on them are in such proximity, in fact they rely on each other so heavily, that those that comment are afraid to speak their minds for of fear of social and financial ostracisation. So we praise. And radio stations can use that praise to justify playing the most derivative music imaginable.
Because of this people are losing faith in local music and in local film. It is becoming harder and harder for film makers and musicians to survive, because they are local. Even being from your own town can count against you. Because no one from there can be any good.
It’s a cultural fascism in a way determined by corporate greed. On one level those that work you to death for their own profit really don’t want you to think for yourself. On another those mediocrities that have been thrust into the limelight to be uninspirational, stunted by continual praise just don’t understand what an opinion is. It is not a call to stop making music, it is a call to grow, to explore, to not stagnate. Because if you have been given the power to influence then surely you should be comfortable with what you are doing and not attack when somebody touches a nerve.
The essential problem is that everybody needs to pay rent. And corporations will use that necessity to co-opt anything that serves their agenda. You cannot trust radio stations or TV or even web pages to inform you of what is going on in music or film in this country. Because they have to keep it under wraps, they have to stop you from thinking and keep you clicking buttons. There are geniuses out there who live quiet lives of desperation because they were not willing to sell out to short term greed. These are the people to watch, these are the people who make beautiful music, you won’t find them on the radio. You will find them in the small venues, playing awesome music and totally comfortable with who they are.
If we are to grow as our own culture and not sink into another franchise of the “first” world then we need to foster our talents in a non partisan way. A national 100% local music radio station is necessary. Government sponsored and free of advertising, this station should allow DJ’s to play what they want and allow them to base what they want to play on audience requests, phoned in through a freecall number. The benefits of this will be far reaching and long term, both culturally and economically. In short, it will free music from the stranglehold of corporate politics. As to the other arts, how would we go forward? I suggest in a similar manner, because unless expression is free then the people of this country are still in chains.
Expression in any art can reach unpalatable extremes. So too can opinion, but what is unpalatable to some may be a delight to others. The purpose of published opinion is to inform, it is necessary that we approach this information with open minds, so that we can see if it is relevant to us or not. For a critic to mention how little regard he has for a film, is to give credence to that film’s status, the dislike, even vitriolic dislike means that this film is being watched. All press is good press because it points to cultural existence and therefore relevance.
If an opinion is expressed that does not sit right with the reader, it should be questioned. No praise or damnation is meant to be taken as gospel, it is merely another persons opinion. But it is through our opinions and references that we engage with culture, how we find expression. So then without exposure to all aspects of our own culture and honest criticism of it we are stranded in a culturally becalmed zone, adrift on the sea of praise, press releases and mediocrity. Any musician, film maker or artist not comfortable with this is not comfortable with themselves, this points to a kind of dishonesty, which generally make the work less accessible, generally because it is devoid of exploration. These are the types of expression that corporations want you to listen to. All of this is glaringly obvious. It all folds in on itself. It needn’t. In the search for our identity, the search which can never end, we must not be timid.