Cutting On The Bias
I was wondering if, as critics, there were any bands/filmmakers that you are unable to objectively review simply because you have a blind, unquestioning love for what they make?
Several writers wanted to comment on this one, starting with Noel Murray:
There's a bit of a false premise in this question, Aaron, because I wouldn't say we "objectively" review anything. We try to write in an objective voice, but what we see and hear can't help but be subjective. We all bring our experiences and understanding to bear on our analysis.
That said, some of us are more into certain directors and musicians than others, and in general, we try to give the fans first crack at the review, unless they have a personal or professional relationship with the people in question. (A couple of our writers are such good friends with the members of some bands that they wouldn't want to review their records.) Personally, just as a reader, I think this is a good policy. I'd almost rather read the opinion of an articulate devotee rather than someone who'll write, "Ho-hum, just another Morrissey record." One of the things I like about All Music Guide—or did, until AMG started crashing my web browser routinely—is that their reviews of older albums are usually written by people with a deep understanding of what those musicians are trying to do, and an ability to explain it. (The downside to this approach is that I'll look on AMG for some factual info about, say, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and leave thinking that I need to buy two or three of their albums right away.)
As for my own biases, I'd say that I'm always going to be inclined to take a distinct, not always communicable pleasure from the films of Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Wes Anderson, because their sensibilities and styles just click with me, and I have faith that they know what they're doing, even when it doesn't "work." I could also add Steven Spielberg to that list. I distrusted Spielberg for years, and then around the time of A.I., I had a revelation about what his movies are really about—arrogance, programmatic emotion, and disorder, essentially—and since then, I've found even his failures fascinating. (Yes, even The Terminal.)
When it comes to music, there aren't too many acts that would get anything like an automatic pass from me. If anything, I might be tougher on some of my favorites when they aren't at the top of their game. (The Flaming Lips' At War With The Mystics was a particularly stinging disappointment last year, even though it's really not that bad of a record.) But I confess that some bands are more in my wheelhouse than others, and when, say, Steven Malkmus or Spoon or Yo La Tengo makes a good album, I might praise it more highly than it merits. Though "merit" is also a strange word to use when it comes to criticism. But that's a topic for another time.
Jason Heller adds:
For better or worse, I think I have more of the music dweeb left in me than Noel does. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I give any band (in Noel's words) "an automatic pass" or (in your words, Aaron) "blind, unquestioning love"—but there are certain artists that I'm much more willing to forgive if they stray. What's funny is, I'm still oddly selective about it. Neil Young is my favorite songwriter (if I had to choose), but I have a love-hate relationship with every record he's put out since 1980. I've worshipped The Clash since I was 15, but I walked out of a Joe Strummer show a few years back. As much as I love those artists, I don't think I ever intimately, obsessively connected with their work as a whole. Giving unrealistic consideration to a band is like giving unrealistic consideration to a member of your family: You relate to them deeply, and they feel like a part of your soul, not just as artists, but as people. In that sense, I'd have to say that Morrissey, Jonathan Richman, and Lungfish (psychoanalyze away!) are the only acts whose every release I will buy and enjoy till the day I die. Is it coincidental that all three are known for never straying far from a certain formula? Hard to say—but there is something comforting about that, too, I suppose.
When it comes to reviewing such artists, I'm split. On one hand, I'm unfit to give anything resembling an evenhanded opinion when it comes to The Moz, Jojo, or Lungfish (sorry, no cloying fanboy nickname for those guys). On the other hand, I think I'm totally qualified to note the often-imperceptible differences between their albums. Noel, of course, is totally right about the false premise of objectivity, and there's nothing worse than reading a review by someone who couldn't care less about their subject. Criticism requires an investment. How deep that investment should be is a matter of debate, though. Besides my Big Three, there are a host of musicians (Young, Paul Weller, Ian MacKaye, Neurosis, Jay Farrar, Joan Of Arc/Make Believe) that I'm heavily partial to—just not to such an extreme. That's my favorite stuff to review: I know enough about it to dig deep, but I'm not so starry-eyed that it's going to significantly skew my outlook. And let's not even get onto the topic of bands that you're friends with… That's a whole other kettle of fish.
Steven Hyden adds:
To me, the "objectivity" issue cuts both ways. If anything, I'm tougher on artists I really love and admire because I expect more from them, and I feel a more palpable sense of disappointment if they don't live up to my standard. (How dare they?!) One of my favorite bands of all time is Guided By Voices, and I've written some fairly critical things about Robert Pollard's recent solo albums because (to my ears) he's too often coasting with subpar material that his devoted cult unconditionally loves. Remember—this ain't journalism. This is a passionate, deeply felt attempt to express an inarticulate reaction to art. It shouldn't be "objective." It should be emotional, compelling, and occasionally infuriating.
Rocky Building High
I remember as a small child watching a B-grade horror movie about rocks that grew when they got wet. So as it rained, they would grow vertically until they were skyscraper-sized black crystals, then topple over and break into thousands of pieces. Each of those pieces would then start growing their own skyscraper. In this manner, the rocks traveled across the countryside causing all sorts of mayhem, chaos, and destruction. I think it was from the late '50s or early '60s and was in black and white. It's also in the movie Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It appears on a TV in the background during a scene in Richard Dreyfuss' house. I've tried scanning the credits and have had no luck in finding the title. What was it?
Jason Heller gets his rocks off:
You're looking for The Monolith Monsters, a 1957 science-fiction/horror film written by Jack Arnold, better known for directing classics like Creature From The Black Lagoon, It Came From Outer Space, and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Why hasn't The Monolith Monsters proved as enduring? Well, it's awfully hard to get scared by a bunch of rocks, menacing though they may be.
One of the reasons you may have had difficulty tracking Monolith down is the fact that, as far as I can tell, it doesn't actually appear in Close Encounters—even if it seems like it'd be a great, wink-wink analogue of Richard Dreyfuss' visions of The Devil's Tower. I rented Close Encounters and went over it with a fine-tooth comb: There are plenty of TVs flickering in the background, featuring scenes from The Ten Commandments, a Looney Tunes Marvin The Martian cartoon, a Budweiser commercial, an old cowboy movie, and a '70s detective show, but there's nothing even vaguely resembling The Monolith Monsters. If you (or anyone else) can point out where in Close Encounters the film pops up, we'd love to be corrected. (And for the truly curious, Monolith is available as part of one of those cheap DVD anthologies you see at Virgin all the time—this one's titled The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection.)
Joe The Hunted
This has bothered me for years. I recall a television show that I saw in the late '70s or early '80s that featured (I'm pretty sure) a German shepherd that went from town to town, Bill-Bixby-Hulk style, helping children in trouble. Dog would roll into town, befriend (and be named—in one case possibly "Snapshot") by child, get in adventure, and then leave. Of course, this guaranteed that every episode would have a sad ending and I think the theme music was consistent with this. I'm pretty sure I saw a couple episodes of this, but the Internet has turned up zero for me, so I turn to you. Thanks.
Donna Bowman is happy to help a reader in trouble:
You and I must be of a certain age, Chris. Most of the TV shows we get asked to ID come from the '80s, but this one was smack-dab in the heart of the '70s. NBC aired Run, Joe, Run for two seasons (26 episodes) between 1974 and 1976. The reason it might have eluded you on the Internet is that it was a Saturday-morning kiddie show, not a prime-time series.
The producer's dog (really) played a military German shepherd who was falsely accused of attacking his trainer, and ordered destroyed. (Naturally, like all misunderstood mutts, Joe was only trying to help him.) Joe had to flee the base, and subsequently wandered from town to town, protecting the innocent and becoming even more misunderstood in the process. Sgt. Corey, meanwhile, stayed in hot pursuit throughout season one, trying to bring Joe back and cleanse his reputation. In season two, Sgt. Corey disappeared from the series (called back to active duty, according to the show's opener), and Joe took up with a nomadic teenager named Chad. Together, they lived some sort of Robert Pirsig version of the great American dream, while still of course wandering from town to town, protecting the innocent and whatnot. The second-season opening and closing credits are on YouTube.
Good call on the similarity to The Incredible Hulk, but Joe is more of an older cousin or forgotten sibling than a Hulk retread. Both shows ultimately trace their premises to The Fugitive, the seminal '60s series where a one-armed man pursues Dr. Richard Kimble, wrongly accused of murder. Like Hulk a couple of years later, though, Run, Joe, Run had that air of loneliness and melancholy about it that so defined '70s heroism in television, movies, and comics. The outsider to society's conformist notions of justice is the only one who is truly just. That's a heavy message to digest along with your Super Sugar Smacks, but ultimately, that's what's going on in Joe. By the way, you've misremembered the tone of the theme music, which is pure Fugitive adventure with a slightly military air. But it's easy to conflate it with the yearning, restless sounds we associate with Hulk and the other wandering heroes who followed him, including my favorite (and the subject of an early ATAVC answer), 1982's The Phoenix.
Next week: Parents + art films = weird memories. Also, in search of a traveling dirigible show. Send your questions to email@example.com.