Friday, September 3, 2010

Why I Am the Most Important Part of My Reviews

Last week I wrote a piece that, like maybe all the best ones do, began as a simple fluff piece and somewhere along the way found root in something specific and took flight. It started out about one sentence on Rotten Tomatoes and ended up being a discussion of film criticism. In the comments section a lot of people threw in their two cents. Some agreed with me that criticism at it's best isn't really about the movie, it's about the writer and is a reflection of their experience and some, notably Vancetastic of The Audient, said that no, the critic should stand back and take him/herself out of the piece as much as possible. Vance used an example of Roger Ebert panning a film for not presenting cancer in the kind of light he himself experienced it in (could he have been talking about The Bucket List, which, let's face it, was garbage whether you've had cancer or not?). Isn't that fair? Shouldn't the opinion of a cancer patient, after all, hold special interest over all others? Is it even possible or fair, I countered, to logically expect someone who has struggled with such an life changing ailment to reasonably disconnect themselves from it in order to simply tell if we should see a movie or not? The point is that all perception is based on a concept of self and all criticism, in one form or another, is perception. That's what makes it breathe. That's what makes it interesting. That's what we all, as people who write about films should strive to achieve, no? The truth is, and herein lies my overall viewpoint, that I couldn't care less if Vancetastic or Roger Ebert or whoever liked a movie or not. What I'm interested in is why these men liked it or not. What about them was it that triggered this reaction to this particular work? Everything else, in terms of writing reviews, is pure hearsay. Why, I may ask, settle for the opinion of, to repeat my example of Requiem for a Dream, some kid who writes reviews in his parent's basement when what's truly interesting wold be the viewpoint of a real heroin addict? Maybe they'd hate the film. That'd be interesting criticism. You see, to me, a white middle-class male from a small town who has never had any encounters with heroin, Requiem for a Dream presents a horrifying vision. It's also, for the film scholar in me, a great use of aesthetics in order to capture a mood because, after all, that's where the film's success lies for me. In my reality, it's the only truth on the subject I have: that I know film but not herion personally. That's my review. The movie is the jumping off point in order to express something about myself. To a heroin addict maybe the film is overblown; the drug use too extreme; the scenario unrealistic. I don't know. Haven't been there or done that. But he might be right because A) he's not considering the artistic concept of the Selby book, which is the destructive power of the American dream because B) the film is depicting something which to him, is a mirror of a reality he knows. His reaction to the film is as equally valid as mine because we are approaching the film from two different angles, on two different sets of terms, from two different backgrounds which have shaped two different sets of perceptions. Somewhere between his take and mine, there is a complete critical picture. This is what I'm talking about when I say that all criticism should not be a check list of the goods and bads but a reflection of the experience of the critic. Where I think some people misread me was with regards to the use of the first person in writing. I write from the first person because I like to make my pieces both as personal and as conversational as possible and try not to do so in any sort of overbearing, self-indulgent way. I fully agree that, when used by poor writers, the first person point-of-view is like nails on a chalkboard. I came across this passage today and although I have nothing against the writer, let's take a look: "I finally got around to seeing the new Julia Roberts movie. I was really looking forward to the movie, I really liked the book. Mostly I was really curious to see how they could make someone's personal inner journey come to life." When I read this I have three thoughts: 1) It's boring, 2) Me, me, me, me and 3) Who cares? If it was written engagingly and was building up to an overarching point about something profound, well then yes, but this is more like "My Personal Movie Journal" writing which, sadly, a lot of criticism, especially online, is. The first two words in this paragraph may as well have been "Dear Diary," My problem is I've studied film too much. I'm too quick to break films down into pieces and dissect them on an aesthetic level which, needless to say, is criticism but not really personal. I've ceased providing my experience of a movie and sharing why it worked for me and started preparing an argument for why it is a good film. There's a difference. The best critic is the one who studies everything but film. The person who knows everything about art, life, politics, theatre, literature, society, psychology, philosophy and so on. They've read the best books, seen the best plays, listened to the best music, done the best drugs, followed the most important world issues and so on. Ultimately they are completely in tune with themselves because they have reaped the knowledge of all this culture and can now use it as a tool to look within themselves . That's interesting criticism because it not only does the generic task of assessing a movie but it gives us a glimpse into the soul of the writer. I once told someone that if they ever read everything I ever wrote about movies they'd have a more compete a picture of me than ever has existed. Why would I want anything less? Note, although he may think to the contrary, I would place Vance into this category of critic who does express himself through his writing. Even though he says he tries to take himself out of his work as much as possible I still feel I learn something about him every time I read his posts which, above all, just means he's a better writer than he gives himself credit for.


  1. Then, of course, who's to say what the best everything-else is?

    There is no way not to make reviewing personal. Even if it's a person, say, gushing about that hallway fight scene in Repo Men, juxtaposed with a person panning it as a lame Oldboy ripoff. The difference is, one has seen Oldboy, the other hasn't, these little things that completely change our perception. Anyway.

  2. "The best critic is the one who studies everything but film."

    DEEP, dude.

  3. Mike -- Good discussion. I of course fully agree that the why is the most important. But I guess I disagree in the sense that the why has to relate to the writer of the review personally. For example, I think the reason why The Bucket List doesn't work (and yes, that was indeed the film, thanks for jogging my memory) is that it becomes corny as soon as it leaves the hospital setting (where it succeeds quite well, I think), they use obvious green screens (that's a technical criticism), and there's a narrative trick played on the viewer because the narrator ends up being dead all along. That's why it's a bad film, not because Nicholson and Freeman don't seem like "real cancer victims."

    I guess that's my problem with reading it too closely as a critic, like Ebert did. How can he say how every individual person will respond to being diagnosed with cancer? In The Bucket List, one cancer victim dies sooner than expected, the other lives longer. Isn't that kind of in keeping with the reality of cancer? I guess it's valid to say that these guys don't react like cancer victims in some other indefinable way -- I'd have to read Ebert's review, which I admit to not having done. But I don't necessarily think that's the REASON your average viewer won't or shouldn't like The Bucket List.

    Then again, I recognize that that's not exactly your point. The reason Ebert personally didn't like it may be more interesting than the reason a theoretical viewer might not like it, because he's a tangible person, and they are merely theoretical.

    Oh, and thanks for the compliment on my writing -- I know I'm a good writer! ;-) But seriously, it's kind of a difficult discussion to have because you have never actually read any of the reviews I am speaking about when I talk about my reviews, because I have decided (less and less convincingly by the day) to remain anonymous. If I gave you my real name, you'd be able to google these reviews and might better be able to assess how I come across in my reviews -- whether "I" am in them or not. I don't consider what I write on my blog to be "reviews" -- they are more like think pieces (even when they don't particularly make you think). And here I *do* make liberal use of the word "I." In fact, I would argue that reading my blog, you *would* think it's "me me me" because I use the word "I" so much, and include life anecdotes that are a lot more interesting to me than they would be to anyone else, not to mention a lot more detailed than they need to be. As a matter of fact, if you get down to the basics, I started writing my blog as an outlet for the word "I" -- because I am so strict about NOT using it in my reviews.

    As I said, always a good discussion!

  4. I just read Ebert's review, which I probably should have done before this discussion began. His primary complaint that relates to his own experience is that the guys have way too much verve for cancer patients who have just undergone chemotherapy. The rest of the complaints are complaints either you or I could have made, without having cancer. That complaint is certainly valid, and it represents the best of both critical worlds -- it is highly informed by his own experiences, but it is not unduly influenced by his emotional response to his own experiences. So in this case, my criticism of Ebert is unfair -- just as one should not review a movie without seeing it, one should also not critique a review without reading it! To assume makes an ass out of yada yada yada.

    Besides, I hate being on the other side of an issue from Ebert -- as I've stated previously, he's one of my favorite critics!

  5. The more I write about films, the more I realise that most criticism is entirely subjective. It's just my opinion after all, somebody else might like it, so who am I to judge a film's quality? I recently toyed with the idea of adding a rating at the end of my film 'reviews', but I'd have no basis for doing that. It'd be fun, yeah, but it's too final. I've never studied film, I haven't even seen most of them. I think a film deserves one-star, somebody else disagrees. Who's right?

    In terms of personal experience, I think films, like all art, is effected by when you're seeing it.

  6. "My problem is I've studied film too much. I'm too quick to break films down into pieces and dissect them on an aesthetic level which, needless to say, is criticism but not really personal. I've ceased providing my experience of a movie and sharinf why it worked for me and started preparing an argument for why it is a good film. There's a difference."


  7. Thoughtful post again Mike.

    I particularly enjoyed the last paragraph, as I could fully relate to that. Although I would never call myself a critic personally, my writings, lyrics, poetry reflect my raison d'etre more than the majority of one's daily conversations and actions.

  8. Well I guess it's about time I get to responding here

    Simon - agreed. That's why knowing less about film and knowing more about everything else is important.

    Hal - I must confess I was taking a note from David Bordwell here who has expressed similar musings in the past but it did seem to fit into the overall tone of the piece.

    Vance - Yes, I think this is one of the things we can cherrish about Ebert, that he puts himself into just about every review while still actually making valid claims about the worth of a movie in simple critical terms that just about everyone can understand. It's his true gift to the world.

    Chris - The best reason to justify not putting rating one reviews is so that people are forced to read them although you are right, rating movies is completely arbitrary. I wrote a post on that a while back.

    Filmgeek - I can now see that that quote you have pulled brings to mind what (I believe) David Bordwell said about Stanely Kubrick in that he knew everything about filmmaking and nothing about life. As was the reaction to Kubrick films, it can be both blessing and curse.

    Burning - All any writer ever wants is to be understood, no?

  9. I've been chewing over this post for a few days now, which is why I'm a little late commenting on it. But while I can see how some people would prefer the writer take themselves out of a review for the sake of objectivity, I think: a)it makes for a less interesting read, at least in my opinion, and b) even when not inserting themselves into a review/essay/critique (call it what you will) you can't escape the fact that what you're writing is entirely informed by who you are, your experiences, the summation of your life. To remove all of that would leave you with a Cliff Notes summary, and that I can get from IMDB.

    All of which is a long way to say I agree with you, Mike. The degree to which I find myself in my writing has been preoccupying me a lot lately, and I'm going to link your post to my own (in a very round-about way) about the subject.

  10. Chris - glad to have given you something to chew on. The reality is is that writing reviews is not about assessing the worth of a film it's about yes, sharing a personal expereince. If I say in a review of The Dark Knight that The Joker is a study in Freudian uncanniness, well I say that because I've read freud and maybe because Freud has informed my experience of the movie it will prompt someone else to look into Freud as well to see if I'm right. That's what review is: the sharing of ideas between like-minded people. As I touch on, it's possible to offer claims of a film's aethetic worth but trying to argue why a movie is good, and expressing what you found in a movie that connected with you are two different things entirely.

  11. I think we are all in agreement, I just think we're using different terminology. I agree with what everyone is saying about bringing your own observations/experiences to the table -- that's indispensable. And I of course think that I do appear in all my reviews in that respect.

    What I mean when I say I want to "take myself out of it" is that I don't consider myself important enough to appear as a "character" in my reviews. I am trying to defer to the value of the piece of art above myself -- I am its servant. The message that seems to have come across about my comment is that I want to entirely a neuter a review so it has nothing interesting to say. That's not true in the least -- I just don't want the interesting things in the review to seem to relate overtly to my own life, as expressed in terms of using the words "me" and "I."

  12. Vance - fair enough but to this I am reminded of one of my favourite Renoir quotes where he said that the songwriter is often greater than the song. So are you really the servant of the review? It's true that in most cases movies play below us, which is why, yes, we need to adjust ourselves to the movie and not the other way around. But the review is different. We have the power to make movies either better or worse just by relating them to ourselves and speaking in our own voice. Would Born to Run or Forever Young be half as good if not sung by Springsteen or Dylan? Probably not.