The Christmas Near Misses: Del Toro on Art


(Guillermo Del Toro poses in Beverly Hills, California, in this December 18, 2006 file photo. The filmmaker who was directing two movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” has stepped down after two years on the project amid studio delays and schedule conflicts. REUTERS/Chris Pizzello/Files (UNITED STATES – Tags: ENTERTAINMENT PROFILE)

There’s a Guillermo Del Toro quote doing the rounds this week. Del Toro was a critic before he was a film director and he’s very much a student of his field as well as one of its leaders. The quote is this:

‘I think that the only times I felt really useful were when I was helping people understand a work of art.’

If I was a human-sized stick of rock, that message would be written all the way through me. I don’t describe myself as a critic, I describe myself as an analyst. This is partially to get away from the ever-present Statler and Waldorf of Roger Ebert and Barry Norman, the two people that most folks in the west assume critics are emulating. I defined myself as inclusive in the way Norman often wasn’t a very long time ago and Ebert was one of those distant lights on the horizon for me during my formative years so neither quite apply.

It’s mostly because that’s what I do. Because any piece of art, any film, any comic, any image, any song, any game has layers of nuance and context and intent that work in wildly different ways to wildly different levels of success. Most creative ventures are, after all, a team sport. A movie can have terrible acting and great writing. A game can have horribly broken collision detection but brilliant concepts. A comic can have great art making up for bad writing. Almost nothing is bad all the way through. Almost nothing is good all the way through. Nothing is without worth, or at least without interest.

And far too often that interest is obfuscated. Sometimes we do it to ourselves, letting our biases, good and bad, get in the way. Sometimes it’s done for us as something is hyped to the point of annoyance. Sometimes we simply meet the right piece of art at the wrong time. 10 year old me HATED Blade Runner. 18 year old wanted to live inside it.

Art is a puzzle that changes every time we interact with it. We never find a universal solution but we all find solutions that are perfect for us at the time. My job, and the job of every good critic on the planet, is to help you find those solutions a little faster. Or perhaps, trying something you’d never have thought of.

We’re tour guides. We’re translators. We’re canaries. And the beautiful thing about the job is that the more you do it, the more you learn and the better you get. I love my job but sometimes I forget why. The industries I work in and around drown in snark and
perpetual disappointment. I remember, years ago, realizing that one day I might get burnt out. I might become the critic who sweeps in smelling like peach schnapps and doing the barest possible minimum.

I’m not there yet. I don’t know if I ever will be. I do know I love my job and this week, Guillermo Del Toro helped me understand why. Thanks, Totoro-San.

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