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The Praise Fascists

by 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.

The Praise Fascists

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.

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RESPONSES (5)
  1. Kiss says:

    This is so true…remember DRUM with that American guy Taye Diggs…Just ruined the movie, I could not even finish the movie

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  2. Chris Roper says:

    How the hell can you not like The Otherwise? That’s like not liking hot buttered rolls. Jeez, Roger.

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  3. Sean says:

    Dunno about the corporations bit, Roger, but like your riff about,”Cultural comment serves to show that independent thought is not only a right but actually completely normal”. Incidentally, a friend emailed me this from the NY Times:

    Pop Goes the Critic

    In the Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz—the magazine’s movie critic—lashes
    out at professional movie critics and argues that it’s a good thing that so
    many of them—of us—have lost jobs, and that the role of critics is now being
    filled, and better, by bloggers (whom he mistakenly assumes are not, or
    hardly, paid):

    This deprofessionalization is probably the best thing that could have
    happened to the field. Film criticism requires nothing but an interesting
    sensibility. The more self-consciously educated one is in the field—by which
    I mean the more obscure the storehouse of cinematic knowledge a critic
    has—the less likely it is that one will have anything interesting to say to
    an ordinary person who isn’t all that interested in the condition of Finnish
    cinema.

    Of course, he’s wrong: an interesting sensibility is necessary but not
    sufficient to being a good film critic. But that last phrase is his kicker:
    for some reason, Podhoretz wants critics to write about what he assumes “an
    ordinary person” would be interested in, rather than also helping to inform
    readers about, and guide them to, movies that they might indeed find very
    interesting (Finnish or otherwise) but might not come upon without a little
    heads-up. But Podhoretz is, after all, writing for the Weekly Standard, with
    its cult of business; so of course he inveighs against those of us who
    bother to write about movies that don’t do big business, or that come from
    such countries as Finland, which, horror of horrors, offer government
    subsidies to movie-making.

    Here’s his last sentence:

    Amateurism in the best sense will lead to some very interesting work by
    people whose primary motivation is simply to express themselves in relation
    to the work they’re seeing—a purer critical impulse than the one that comes
    with collecting a paycheck along the way.

    Replace the words “seeing” with “doing” and “critical” with “artistic” and
    it becomes even more obvious how ridiculous his argument is. How many movies
    by amateur directors and producers and actors does Podhoretz write about?

    Richard Brody

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  4. Roger Young says:

    I maybe should have gone into more details about the corporate agenda. There really isn’t one, other than – whatever makes more money – from management to – whatevers easier – from the workforce. I wouldn’t say it’s a conscious thing, it’s just what happens.

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  5. Graeme Feltham says:

    I could just concur with Roger Young’s insight into the facile needs of the Praise Fascists. But he seems to have covered the topic pretty extensively. Instead I have chosen to add a blog I wrote for City Press whichadds , in minimal fashion, to open up furhter discusson to the discourse.

    MAKING A MEAL OF IT

    Opportunism will gnaw our authentic creativity to death

    Never attribute to Devil-worshipping what opportunism, emotional instability and religious bigotry are sufficient to explain.
    Shawn Carlson

    Leon Schuster casts a black pall over our society. Let no bones be made of it. His stuff is the stuff of a nightmarish take on that to which South Africans still woefully lie in thrall. His stuff is the stuff of the biggest grossing local entertainment in local cinema . . . and that is unfortunate. But as unfortunate as that is, that is not the bone I have to pick with his stuff. Rather the bone of contention lies in the fact that the legacy of a past that still passes as normalcy lingers in his stuff.

    First a backtrack: Just two of headlines from the Star and Business Day concerning Mr Bones 2 – BONES HAS NOT MEAT ON IT and NO FUNNY BONES. No more needs be said. It’s just slapstick twaddle that doesn’t come near to Charlie Chaplin or Earth forbid Robin Williams – both of which he rates, the latter as the funniest man on Earth. Still, Leon Schuster has tapped into something that sells locally. Which means . . . absolutely squat. Googling upon googling Schuster’s work one comes up with so-called realistic film authorities playing the same soundtrack: “The snobby critics don’t like Schuster but the public do.” (That’s the basic gist of it.) And one has to ask: Why?

    It is true that SA audiences over the entire demographic spectrum are responsible for his popularity. I know one black philosophy graduate – who shows otherwise considerable insight into SA’s sociopolitical strata – who loves Mr Bones. And he is not alone, quite the opposite. And I could say that tastes differ and so what but it’s not so what. How did this come to be?

    Was it because black filmmakers for the largest part were not funded by state or related or private sector enterprises for . . . well, as long up to ’94 at least and continuing until today? (Googling upon googling I found that regarding Schuster’s first Mr Bones offering for which the esteemed Anant Singh organised R33 million, Schuster was told that if all the money was lost, they would just go ahead and make another. So sang Singh.)
    And of course Mr Bones 1 is the biggest grossest grossing film in SA cinematic history, overgrossing even the Titanic.

    Yes, that is true.

    As true as the fact that people can only love that to which they have been exposed. A simple truth that brooks no dissent. Blame the socio-industrial media complex and its attendant parents.

    But my real beef with Leon’s spawn relates to going to see one of the candid camera-type You Must Be Joking’s as a student in the 80s. On screen was a rural black woman too scared to climb in a lift because she had never been in one, never mind seen one. And the audience responded with great mirth cloaked in good ol’ laughter – and everyone knows laughter is good for you.
    And then there was another or the same woman – I forget – who was too startled and too freaked to pick up a ringing phone. Commensurate with the earlier sequence: A ringing in her ears to which she was totally unaccustomed. And in ’86 or ’87 the entire audience, mostly white then, laughed uproariously but not quite loud enough to lift the roof or the lid off of this travesty. Just imagine.
    Making fun is sommer maar innocent fun, isn’t it. Of course it is for Verwoerd’s children and it appears his Other “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

    Reminds me of that good ol’ arch global capitalist Sol Kerzner – who “donated” much to the then-in-power National Party for casino rights in Homelandia – and suddenly switched to “donating” R3 million to the ANC (when it was obvious which way the wind was blowing). Both those in the new and the old ANC made no bones about this “donation” at the time. And what does that say?

    It speaks of the power of opportunism invariably wrapped in money. Shuckster reaps blood-soaked and drenched pounds of heaving and laughing flesh – as though it’s the most natural thing in the world when a funny ou having a Zulu on his doorstep is next transformed into the same white ou being more black than any black ou. Which is just a boot-polished lie. Just imagine.

    And so it comes to pass in a world dedicated to Capital: Opportunism backed by money will overcome. Overcome even those who sing: “We shall overcome.” And you can believe that because it is true. Opportunism will gnaw our authenticity to death every time. Just imagine that or just think it through all the way to the end if you can

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