“Your review just isn’t fair! You didn’t give the film a chance! You just don’t like the genre!”
If you review films, you’ll eventually get correspondence like this. I thought it would be fun to discuss the process of reviewing and the decision to lay on the snark.
I should first point out that I am a niche blogger in a little corner of the internet. Big time critics and activists have it much worse than me.
For example, note the hysterical responses from the crew of The Lone Ranger aimed at critics who panned the film and Native Americans who expressed concern about the content. (If you want evidence that men are the emotional ones, this is it.) And then there’s the little matter of death threats issued in response to negative reviews of DC comics films…
So, my experiences are very minor in comparison. That being said, some issues have been raised that I think need addressing and so here we are. Forgive me if this is elementary but let’s start with the basics to make sure we are on the same page:
- When I review, I compare apples to apples. That is, a romantic comedy is stacked against other romantic comedies from the same basic era. I also take time period into account as it would be unfair to review, say, a Georges Melies film from 1899 and complain that the camera technique does not compare to The Last Laugh.
- I make allowances for time, place and budget. A mega-budget Hollywood epic is going to be given a more thorough roughing up than an indie production from a country with no established industry.
So, let’s dive in.
What I owe to readers
I don’t owe you agreement. I don’t owe you praise for your favorite film. What I do owe you is honesty. If anybody reads my reviews, they deserve to understand how I reached my conclusions and they deserve to know what the pros and cons of the pictures are, at least to my eye.
There’s an online commentator whose motto is “Critique the media you love” and I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. When a sommelier samples wines and lists the pros and cons of a particular bottle, people don’t fly into a tizzy declaring that he or she must hate wine because a flaw was found. Quite the opposite. This person loves wine and has great experience in tasting it; if they rubberstamped “good” on every bottle, their opinion would be worthless and such hollow praise would mean nothing to the vintner.
There used to be a film critic in a small town newspaper that I read and his work became something of a running gag in my family. Every single film he reviewed was heartily recommended. “Don’t miss it!” he chirped. There’s a difference between a film fan and a critic when writing. Saying that a film is good but could have been better or that it doesn’t really work as an entry in its genre is what makes a critic worth reading. Smart dissection should always be the goal, whether to explain why a movie is wonderful, terrible or anything in between.
I meant to do that
For example, there are cases of zany movies using title cards or a narrator to say, “Oh, we don’t want to talk about this or show it or we don’t have the money, so let’s skip ahead.” And if it’s done well, this can be a delightful bit of meta humor.
But then we have the “I meant to do that!” excuses. “Oh, this film was never meant to be good and that’s the point!” is no more convincing than Pee Wee Herman’s famous catchphrase. I’m all for dry humor but it really is best to give some hints that you’re kidding around. I mean, otherwise people might think that your movie is really bad and you’re just trying to save face after the fact. Could such a thing ever be possible?
(I am reminded of the Space Mutiny cast trying desperately to convince the IMDB boards that their film was satire. It was supposed to be stupid! Really!)
So, how far should a review go before we label it unfair? That is a difficult question but I’ll tell you what I think is unfair:
- Complaining about a film made in a particular era not using techniques from a later era. (“It’s a silent film and therefore awful!”)
- Bad faith arguments. For example, pointing out a plot hole in the film but failing to mention that it is resolved or explained later.
- Not taking into account the circumstances of the viewing. This applies to silent films more than anything. For example, this review in which somebody dismisses a silent film entirely after skimming a battered YouTube version sans score.
I’m sure there are more but these are the ones that I notice the most. However, a smart dissection of a film’s eccentricities and flaws is not unfair in itself. In fact, I rather enjoy this type of review, especially if it is calm and ruthless.
“It doesn’t matter!”
This is an interesting one. On occasion, I have had people state that whatever I am objecting to in a film “doesn’t matter.” A more accurate statement would be that it doesn’t matter TO THEM. It would be the height of arrogance to assume that everybody processes a film the same way we do. Everybody brings a different perspective.
In my case, I have always been obsessed with the structural underpinnings of fiction and how the world in which the work is created affects those underpinnings. Like, I’m pretty sure I was the only tween/teen in my neighborhood who was obsessed with how the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath would alter espionage and action movie tropes. I did the same thing when cell phones became ubiquitous and rewrote horror and suspense tropes. (Good heavens, I wish I had saved my film writing from back then!)
So, my reviews tend to be analytical and obsessive about structure and balance and order and proportion within the fictional world of a film and how all these tie in with the tropes and expectations of the film’s genre, era and country of origin. Is this how everybody sees films? No! But there’s a difference between recognizing that somebody else is processing a film in a different manner and stating that my perspective “doesn’t matter.”
“But I like the star!”
The presence of a favorite star may be enough for some viewers to give a film a free pass. Not here. If I won’t spare Ivan Mosjoukine, I am sure as heck not going to spare somebody else’s favorite.
“But it’s just a little comedy! It’s just a light film!”
I have watched my share of bad rom-coms and children’s films, two genres that are often used to shield poor filmmaking. It’s “just” for the kids, it’s “only” a light romance. Why worry about little things like plot holes and pacing?
Because I love rom-coms and children’s films, that’s why. I think it’s disrespectful to place them inside a cake dome and pretend that they can’t stand up to criticism. Oh yes they can and the number of enjoyable, well-made films in these genres prove that they need no such protection.
The culture of fandoms and brand loyalty seems to have encouraged this notion that only wholehearted praise is acceptable for a fan of a particular art. How dare anybody call this anything but brilliant and perfect? Of course, this is the opposite of good reviewing.
(Frankly, it’s a bit ironic that fans of light comedy would be so humorless.)
“You like movies that make you think!”
This was once hurled at me as an insult. Guilty as charged, though I enjoy fluffy trifles too. All work and no play…
However, there does seem to be a strain of anti-intellectualism in these complaints. “I don’t think about movies, I just turn off my brain and watch” is a perfectly fine method but it is not the only method. I have no right to call someone ignorant or lazy if they prefer to keep things light but they have no right to suggest that thinking about a film is wrong.
Everybody has their preferred depth level when discussing films and that’s okay. What’s not okay is shrieking like a bonobo whenever somebody chooses to go for a deeper examination.
I dare say that there is not a single reader who agrees with me 100% of the time– some may NEVER agree with me– and that’s fine and normal and the natural order of things. I often disagree with my favorite film writers but I keep reading because I enjoy learning about their perspective.
However, my pet peeves are having somebody ‘splain to me what my taste is or acting as though their subjective opinion is somehow superior to that of anybody else. I really don’t have time to deal with solipsism, thanks.
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