Recognizing Your Critical Blind Spots

Over the weekend I went to see Book of Mormon, the musical from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys behind South Park and Team America: World Police. If you were to cook up in a lab a musical designed for me to love, love, LOVE, it would be this one. It is irreverent, funny, and slightly insane—the signature set pieces revolve around a "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" featuring anthropomorphic coffee cups and a retelling of Joseph Smith's/the religion's origin by a cadre of over-enthusiastic Africans who, well, don't have the facts quite right.*

I enjoyed the play. I laughed a couple of times. But it still left me feeling … kind of cold. I just couldn't get into it, turn myself over to the spirit of the music. I'm just going to have to accept it: musicals are my critical blind spot.

I'm not terribly surprised. I've never been a big fan of musicals and can count on one hand the few I truly enjoy.** They just do nothing for me. It's why I don't review them; I can't give them a fair accounting. I'm not as bad as the dreadful audiences in this Matt Zoller Seitz post, openly mocking Singing in the Rain and From Russia With Love and ruining it for everyone else. (That's not a critical blind spot; it's just rudeness.) But I suffer a similar affliction.

Frankly, I think more critics should acknowledge these weaknesses. For some it's genres—if I have to hear another critic complain about the "comic book movie" genre and how it's killing movies, I'll scream. For others it's directors: Nicholas Winding Refn inspires an odd amount of hatred from certain quarters. Actors (but more often, actresses) also come in for special hate on occasion.

I'm not saying critics should institute a blanket ban on reviewing material that falls within their blind spots, as I have  with musicals. In some cases, it's simply not feasible. Luckily for me, the musical is a moribund genre easily ignored; I imagine it'd be tougher to be a critic for a major newspaper or website and say "Well, I'm not reviewing any more of these goddamn comic book films."

But being aware of your blind spots (and making readers aware of your issues with the object of hate) is an important part of being a critic.

*I'm slightly ambivalent about the musical's choice of targets. On the one hand, mocking Mormons is kind of like drowning a bag of kittens—odds are they've done nothing to you and they're so cute! (The church actually bought out three or four full page ads in the Kennedy Center program: "You've seen the play, now read the book!" type things. Kind of genius, and just one more reason to love 'em.) On the other, I'm entirely unmoved by the whole "You'd never dare do this to Muslims!" set. Parker and Stone have not shied away from tackling the absurdity of Muslim extremism. The difference, of course, is that Muslim extremists kill you for mocking their faith. I can't imagine they'd go the "Let's wow 'em with humor and buy ads in the playbill!" strategy if Stone and Parker made The Koran.

**If we're not counting Disney cartoons, the list is remarkably short: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Enchanted and, um … The South Park movie?