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Jim Sikora’s The Critics

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Jim Sikora’s <em>The Critics</em>

Adapted from a scathingly self-reflective stage play by novelist and former Chicago Reader staff writer Adam Langer, The Critics is an icily witty exercise in Windy City rancor. Structured petulantly around the proving of the titular characters’ static buffoonery, the multi-layered plot doesn’t so much burn Langer’s vocational bridges as intimately dismantle them. With the begrudging coverage the film has received from Langer’s prior employers especially, one expects the script to feel like an elaborate indulgence—an intricate, if ultimately masturbatory, pressure valve for a fed-up aesthete. But the extent to which Langer was exasperated with theater in the late 90’s (a period during which, not coincidentally, Broadway arguably underwent a corporate candy coating) facilitated a far more deliberate and introspective attack than that glossing would suggest.

Set entirely during a single protracted staff meeting within the low-rent offices of a fictional alternative weekly, the New Void, the film centers around five theater critics who’ve confused vices of misanthropy and conceit for a culturally informed livelihood. Each writer represents a hyperbolic type of sorts: Dennis (Jim Donovan) is the plosive-popping, scene-chewing veteran queen of the magazine; Sheila (Juliet Schaefer) is the token anal-retentive female; Arthur (Mark Vanasse) is the balding, bespectacled nebbish with writer’s block; Hecht (James Joseph) is an aggressively mopey, failed entrepreneur; Blair (Maht Wells) is a younger proto-hipster with a thin performance portfolio and a penchant for autobiographical asides. And then there’s a bitchily harried editor, Jill (Mary Beth McMahon), who’d gladly watch her Rome incinerate while steadily gripping a cocktail in her left hand.

During The Critics’s late-’90s stage run in Chicago, local director Jim Sikora (Bullet on a Wire) offered to shoot the production cheaply on an improvised set; principal photography, completed on the 3CCD Sony cameras that were then new, was completed over a weekend. Sikora then shelved the footage, lacking the money for digital editing. He’s explained that revisiting the material now requires patience; while today’s audiences have become accustomed to Hi-Def’s clarity, there are moments in The Critics that are hindered by miniDV glitches and sound mix inconsistencies. But the conservative production values and fuzzy black-and-white visuals, aside from a achieving a DIY pluckiness, seem appropriate here: Do critics of this caliber deserve anything more?

The drama opens with the bitterly middle-aged Dennis riding an L train into the New Void offices behind the main titles to fulfill a staff-wide summons. Upon arrival, he bitches and moans with his cohorts about personal problems and, more importantly, what’s been identified as evidence of personal weakness in one another’s coverage. But the situation quickly deteriorates from ugly to rancid: The editor, Jill, presents the crew with an acerbic, anonymously authored play, Before Swine, set to open that evening and apparently based with excruciating detail on the New Void’s theater critics. She demands to know who penned the script while reading aloud from it with plodding spite.

Dennis, in an attempt to biliously navigate us through these ever-expanding dimensions of irony, immediately pooh-poohs the notion of “critics who write.” This observation smarts even more than whatever vendettas against the Reader Langer—himself a “critic who writes”—and Sikora may have been clandestinely resolving with the film. The aside is meant as comic reaction formation, of course; Dennis himself, we eventually learn, once tried his hand at original musical theater. But taken along with the scenario’s complexities, the assessment is also a perplexingly incisive meditation on the adage that the best critics are unsuccessful actors, authors, producers, et al. The analytical essay will always, in some sense, reside in the realm of “those who cannot do.”

Throughout our descent into the script’s reflexive fictional realities (we see an abridged version of Before Swine reenacted by the six central characters as the movie’s climax) the border between criticism and creativity is treated as a fickle, semi-permeable membrane. Most of the New Void’s writers have no trouble unleashing 600 words of fetid hostility toward “an updated Major Barbara” or “some shitty improv thing,” but when it comes to inventing their own dialogue, they stare at blank pages for eons. Implicit in this scenario is a truism few of us want to admit—that the critical impulse, while deeply personal, is more reactive and adaptive than “creative,” per se. (Paul Schrader came close to a definitive statement on these “separate but equal” arts when he claimed that his critical voice often disapproves of the choices of his directorial one.)

But in concocting this group of hack-y wordsmiths, Langer’s also allowed more than a few fantasies to be realized. Critics who have no trouble criticizing? I personally swoon at the thought of dissecting art with such confidence and ease; if nothing else, I’d appreciate the personal time such skill would free up. (How many hours have I lost sitting glazed-eyed before a vacant word processing file, trying to determine something as simple as whether or not I liked a performance?) This convenience on the part of Langer’s characters, however, is made possible by their entrenchment in formula, a point made most indelibly in the grand finale to the play-within-the-play Before Swine. Each of the theater critics’ fictional counterparts successfully writes a play, and the group is then assigned to review one another’s productions. They discover, startlingly, not only that they’ve all written identical dramas, to the comma, but identical critiques of the same that appear side-by-side in the next morning’s New Void.

Masterfully on Langer’s part, no social repercussions follow this phenomenon, and this implicit accusation of interchangeability takes a backseat in The Critics’s third act to the interpersonal pettiness of the New Void staff. Yet like the best examples of magical realism, this configuration borders on realism: Along with the ho-hum formula that pervades most popular theater and—to make an obvious extrapolation—film, our national intelligence has debatably suffered few blows of late as severe as the steady stylistic homogenization in alternative weekly press throughout the late ’90s and early aughts. Once bastions for offbeat thought on an exhaustive range of topics with tangibly local orientations, the delocalizing effect of the Internet—as well as more than a few absorbing buyouts by publications that will remain nameless—has smoothed many of the alt weekly’s endearingly risky edges and facilitated the birth of a new intellectual mainstream for the sharp, well-informed, and unimaginative.

The Critics luckily ends on a leavening note (with the faith that the passionate will preserve the theater’s integrity), but it’s difficult not to leave the film feeling the onus of rejuvenation. Screening the movie at the Siskel Center in Chicago, I brought up this observation in the following Q&A with Sikora and Langer, noting that one of my greatest professional anxieties is to be caught espousing the same interpretation as another critic. “You’re turning into one of the characters,” Sikora told me. Indeed, if released nationally, the press will likely pick apart the movie’s moments of clumsiness out of defensiveness. (Not that these moments don’t deserve to be lightly scolded: A close up of a blinking stage light, for example, awkwardly punctuates some scenes, the dialog features unneeded, anti-Mamet allusive tics, and the identity of the play within the play’s anonymous author is aggressively foreshadowed.) But the sheer lack of amusement in the Chicago Reader’s blurb, which fails to find real-world correlations for the movie’s types, is a real victory for Langer. Critics are so vain that they’re going to think this is about them personally. Langer doesn’t parody us directly because he knows he doesn’t need to; our satire resides far too often within our own selves.

The Critics just completed a weekend engagement at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago, where it will play again in the near future.