Depth of Field: A Critical Misstep

Jay Leno may be a lot of things -- a middling talk show host, a rabid car collector -- but the one thing he is most definitely not is a film critic. The same goes for writer/director Kevin Smith. Certainly, his View Askew universe is comprised of a fanboy fascination with the ins and outs of everything movies, but the creator of Clerks and Chasing Amy is not, by trade, a critic. So it comes as something of a surprise that both men will substitute for Roger Ebert on his long running movie review series while the famed journalist continues to recover from complications centering around his recent cancer surgery. Ever since his relapse a few weeks ago, speculation has been rampant about what Touchstone will do with that aging ‘At the Movies’ artifact. With Richard Roeper safely stuck in the second seat, a decision was recently reached -- a revolving set of guest hosts will sit in for Ebert on the weekly TV show. Leno will appear 4, August, while Smith fills in on the 11th.

Now, the notion of non-professionals taking up the challenge of cinematic deconstruction may raise a few eyebrows, but it’s really not all that unusual -- especially with our current perception of post-modern journalism. Big name papers like the LA and New York Times have been lamenting the “blogging” of cinema scholarship as of late, arguing that it downgrades the ‘legitimate’ (read: print) media. Besides, non-insiders like Henry Rollins have used this tactic to deliver outsider takes on the artform. As part of his original IFC talk show, he brought on individuals like Rob Zombie, or a guy who occasionally works on his plumbing, and after some minor chitchat, the duo would get down to discussing the flaws in the latest Hollywood or Indie release. Always passionate, Rollins’ insights were passable at best. With an Internet overflowing with such similarly fervent recreational academics, an implied level of acceptable amateurism has been reached.

But there’s a flaw in this ‘anyone can do it’ concept, something that, not surprisingly few outside the field feel the need to address. Film fandom does not necessarily translate into film knowledge. Just because you enjoy movies doesn’t mean you have the contextual wherewithal to comment upon them. Sure, ever since Gene Siskel left for the big box office in the sky, the duo’s original concept has been reduced to a trademarked stamp of pure consumer advocacy. But when did a lowest common denominator approach (which Leno surely represents) become the appropriate substitute for a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who’s poured his life into his craft? Seems rather disingenuous to both the writer and his readership.

Even worse, a clear commercial conflict on interest should surely be avoided at all costs. Nothing destroys the sense of fairness quicker than the appearance of an agenda-based impropriety. Inviting Smith on to discuss the Superman debacle would be wise. He’s an insider (he worked on one of the many Man of Steel projects along the way) and he’s great at turning anecdotes and observations into big picture pronouncements. But is it fair to allow him to rag on, or recommend, a competitor’s product? Wouldn’t it be like asking an ABC spokesman to review NBC’s fall lineup? More importantly, do filmmakers that Smith stomped on get an on-air chance to retaliate? If, hypothetically, he dismisses World Trade Center, does Oliver Stone get the opportunity for rebuttal, and is Smith’s entire oeuvre up for grabs at that point?

Perhaps for the outsider, the audience member looking in, all of this seems like smoke from a foundationless fire. After all, a public pissing match between so-called professionals is usually a scandalous slice of schadenfreude fun. But with the legitimate media downplaying the importance of online journalism at every turn, do we really need famous faces fighting among themselves to further denigrate the importance of real film criticism?

Sure, some critics -- even famous, respected ones -- can be self-important snobs who tend to treat each movie like an opportunity to show how well they studied their thesaurus, and many are so disconnected from the concept of actual entertainment that they miss the populace appeal of standard popcorn fare. But buffering a bad situation (here’s hoping Ebert a speedy and full recovery) with what amounts to stunt casting seems antithetical to the needs of the medium, the message and most importantly, the messenger. Certainly it will spike ratings (who isn’t interested in seeing Smith put the smackdown on the regularly rote Roeper) and act as a stopgap until a long-term solution is found -- if and when one is deemed necessary. In our ‘hurry up and gimme’ culture of instant gratification and access to information, there may technically no longer be a need for such in-depth analysis of motion pictures. But something about this decision feels like the final nail in criticism’s coffin.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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