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I am a retired writer, although a writer never really retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

In the six years since I left The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., I have written 532 blog posts and another 35 monthly essays for the Spirit of the Senses salon group there (link here). That works out to just under two blog entries per week since I stopped getting paid. That is not many fewer than my weekly average while working. 

I have also taken and published countless photographs, usually in series, mostly in my blog. (One advantage of writing for the Web instead of for print, is that I can run as many images as I need. At the paper, I was frequently frustrated by the lack of space for photos along with my writing. Unlike most reporters, I usually took my own photographs.)

In 25 years in Phoenix, I wrote more than two-and-a-half million words and had four exhibitions of my photographs (catalog of the most recent: Link here) and produced 14 self-published books of my photographs (link here).  

I just can’t seem to stop working. Huff, puff. 

Yet, I have always had one nagging fear: that I am lazy. That I am just not doing enough. I have proof that I have been productive, but underneath, it always feels as if I’m slacking. I blame the PWE — the Protestant Work Ethic. It is something I don’t believe in, but it is so deeply buried in there, that it simply doesn’t matter if I believe in it or not. 

It is a disease, like an STD or PTSD; the dreaded PWE. It makes it a moral failing if I don’t match my self-imposed quota of productivity. Even a vacation is just another opportunity to create new stuff.

I am reminded of William Blake’s mythical deity, Los. Blake’s poetic universe is filled with mythic beings, each a projection of some psychological state. Los is a blacksmith (among other things — Blake is hardly consistent) and he is pictured as eternally forging a chain, one link after another. It is not clear there is any reason for the chain, but that doesn’t stop Los. It is his metaphorical job to produce. It is creativity unlinked to any other purpose. Make, make, make. 

So it is, during a time of Hurricane Florence, I was visiting my brother- and sister-in-law in Reidsville, in central North Carolina, and made yet another series of photographs. These.

I usually work in series. I cannot count the number of them I have made; I often think of them as “books,” that is, a group of photographs that work together as a single statement. I have photographed dozens of gardens, public and private, that way, with anywhere from a dozen to 40 images intended to be seen together. 

These are not meant to be seen as records of places I have been, but for their own esthetic pleasure. I have done clouds above Phoenix (link here), the interior of a house in Maine (link here), and the view from an airplane window seat (link here). On an earlier visit to Reidsville, I found a trove of abstract patterns in little things (link here). 

This time, I looked at the ceiling, and then, the floor. Humble subjects, without much intrinsic interest, but with shapes, shadows and subtle colors in which I found a visual tickle. 

Make no mistake, I do not present these with any pretense that they are important, or even that they might count as art. They are more like simple exercises in seeing. I believe they are of sufficient interest to award a quick gaze. 

But I didn’t make them because I wanted to add to my “ouevre” — my “corpus” — but because if I am sitting around not doing anything, I feel I am being insufficiently productive. That damned PWE infection that I can’t seem to shake. 

That is also why I keep making these blogs. Please accept my apologies. 

Click on any image to enlarge

It Stinks

Wall Street Journal writer Charles Passy recently wrote a piece describing “10 Things Movie Critics Won’t Tell You.” Some of those things were certainly true: “We’re not as powerful as we once were;” “My Top 10 List is Full of Movies Nobody’s Seen.” But one of his observations made me cringe: “We’re Not in Tune with the Public’s Taste.”

To ordinary moviegoers, critics seem often to project a snobbish attitude to movies the ticket-buyers most enjoy. Critics love to dump on Michael Bay, for instance, even as theater lines extend around the block. The public (or at least the part of the public that is the demographic for most current blockbuster movies) loves to see things blow up real good. The critics? Not so much. It seems they would much rather see a film in Hungarian shot on poorly lit video in which a lonely widow starves slowly to death in real time.

Passy is not a film critic, and he cannot possibly understand one of the basic dynamics of the career he criticizes. But I’ve seen it in action.

He complains: “How to explain this gap between critics and the public? Some filmgoers see it as elitism at its worst: ‘Most critics are trying to impress the public (and other critics) by flaunting their perceived affluent taste and intelligence,’ one movie fan wrote on a Yahoo message board about the issue.”

He points out that Rotten Tomatoes, a film website that gives scores to movies based on a survey of reviews from as many as 200 critics, gives Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman a 15 percent approval rating, while in the audience rating section of the website, Diary received an 88 percent approval. How can critics and audiences be at such odds?

Passy quotes Leslie Gray Streeter, a film writer with The Palm Beach Post, who observed: “The most objectionable reviews are disturbingly dismissive of the movie’s audience and its presumably simplistic religious or cultural attitudes. They read like ‘Who is this Tyler Perry fellow and who does he think he is?’”

Surely, the movie audience reacts, the critics must be snobs, showing off their “superior” taste and cinematic knowledge. Cries of elitism abound.

Yet, as I say, I have seen the true dynamic at work. It has nothing to do with showing off, or any feeling of cultural superiority (except perhaps for John Simon: There is no excuse for John Simon).

When I wrote for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., the old movie critic moved on to greener pastures, and the paper’s management decided to replace him with an “Everyman” reviewer. Exactly the kind of critic who would see movies through the eyes of the ordinary film goer. They fixed on  Bill Muller, an award-winning former investigative and political reporter, full of extroverted bonhomie and a regular guy if ever there was one. Not only was he someone you would like to have a beer with, he was someone you, in fact, did have a beer with.

Muller

When Muller arrived in the Features department, he professed to having no knowledge of movies at all. He didn’t know a DP from a grip from a Foley artist. It wasn’t that he was proud of his ignorance; in fact, he immediately set to learning his new field. He asked questions constantly of those around him who were movie buffs. Muller was ignorant of movies, but he was incredibly intelligent. Hungrily curious.

His first reviews were just what his bosses were looking for: true appreciation of movies in which things blew up real good. For the first year of his tenure, he continued to be the voice of the common man.

The problem is, that if you see one movie where things blow up real good, you can really enjoy the fireworks. If you see 10 such movies, you begin to rate which of them does the blowing up better than the others. If you see 100 of them, you really cannot avoid developing what can only be called “taste.” The more movies you see, the higher rises your taste level. It is inevitable. Critics see a lot of movies.

The monotony of fireballs and car crashes eventually become wearing. At some point, you have simply seen enough.

When Muller first began writing about movies, he avoided Foreign Films. Like most Americans, he hated subtitles. I was the beneficiary of his aversion: He passed on most foreign language films to me to review. I got to see scores of great films that he just wasn’t interested in. I was in pig heaven.

The result, for me, was that seeing so many French films, made me realize that not all foreign films are masterpieces. I began to recognize the dross (at a lower percentage than Muller and Hollywood: Americans get to see only a preselected group of foreign films. Most French films never see the light of Dayton, Ohio).

But, as I say, Muller’s taste level unavoidably began to rise as he realized one blowing-up movie was pretty much like another. And after a few years, he began looking forward to the so-called “art films” he had once tossed aside.

He never became a hoity-toity snob. There was nothing preventing him from enjoying a popular movie that was well made and original. It wasn’t a movie’s popularity that interested him. But having seen thousands of movies over that time made him able to distinguish between movies that tackled something real and worthy, and those that just fed fodder into the studio machine and spit out unimaginative clones.

And so, some readers began to complain about Muller, calling him an elitist and a snob. It was unfortunate. If you see only a few movies a year, like most people, most of them seem exciting; if you see hundreds, like a professional movie critic, the dreck stands out by contrast. I’m talking to you, Michael Bay.

By the time of his untimely death, in 2007, Bill Muller had become one of the best movie critics in the country. Nobody was less elitist than Muller, but he could never be less than honest about his judgement.

This is an affliction that visits anyone, like Muller, who sees that many films.

The solution, obviously, is for newspapers to change film critics at least once a year. That way, the critic is always in the unlearned state of the beginner. We should pluck him out of his desk the moment he begins to say nice things about Pedro Almodovar or has his first qualms about “Spiderman 5: The Regurgitation.”

Of course, this has already happened, in its way. As newspapers spiral down the drain of historical insignificance, their place is taken by an infinite number of bloggers (mea culpa) who cannot afford to see a film a day, sometimes two, and have their tastes involuntarily elevated.

These happy many, writing online, can pour forth panegyrics about the latest Adam Sandler film, or find the virtues in Tyler Perry, or conversely, complain about the casting of the latest Star Trek feature.

Every man his own critic. And nothing rises to converge.

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