« Concert Report: The Klezmatics | Main | Worth a thousand words, more or less »

About reviews and reviewers

So, here’s an odd question: To what extent do you want a movie (or music or theater) reviewer in a daily newspaper to express his own preferences and interests, rather than her estimation of her audience’s?

That is, say your hometown newspaper’s movie review has a kink for (f’r’ex) women wearing gloves. The correct thing for such a reviewer to do about such a kink is to keep her mouth shut about it, right? I mean, it’s all right to mention it, or even to have it as a sort of running gag, but we don’t want her to review the movies based on how they appeal to her glove fetish. Right? I mean, if when she sees a movie with beautiful black elbow-length ones, she doesn’t want to give it five stars, even if she knows that she’ll be buying this one on DVD and watching it over and over again, with the blinds down. Her personal preferences, in such a case, should be kept as separate as possible from her reviewing job.

On the other hand, take an example of a reviewer who really thinks that (again, f’r’ex) fart jokes are funny. When a new Will Farrell movie comes out, it there are a bunch of good fart jokes, that’s a movie that should get some extra stars, yes? There’s no reason, there, for the reviewer to hold aside her own taste. Why not? Because it’s a taste that lots of the potential movie audience seems to share. So, from these examples, it seems as if the reviewer should consult her own tastes insofar as those tastes represent common ones. But that can’t be right, can it? I mean, if a reviewer appreciates, say, a well-edited movie, and is irritated by a movie where the editing is for crap, should she not take the editing into account in the review, just because most of her readers don’t really understand movie editing at all?

OK, what about good acting. Jane Reviewer likes good naturalistic acting, and Joan Reviewer likes good stylized acting. Does Joan have the responsibility to learn to recognize what Jane would like, and if not appreciate it for herself, up the recommendation because it has good naturalistic acting? What if Jane really can’t tell good stylized acting from ham acting, because it all looks fake to her? Is she automatically a crap reviewer? Would she be a better reviewer if she just panned everything that wasn’t in the naturalistic style?

I’m not talking about good magazine essays, by the way, which aren’t meant (mostly) to persuade the viewer to see or avoid a movie, so much as to persuade the viewer to adopt the writer’s views on that movie, movies generally, and the entire culture. No, I mean the daily newspaper, which reviews two or three movies every week and gives them a certain number of stars, or thumbs, or motion-sensitive laughing pumpkins. You might say that such a newspaper should hire a reviewer that shares tastes with its readers, but (a) how can you be sure either what the applicant’s real tastes are or what the readers’ tastes are, and (2) every reviewer must have some element of her taste that is unusual, if only an appetite for seeing more movies than the rest of us could bear to sit through. And if Jane Reviewer doesn’t start the job with a kink of some kind, surely she will develop one after the first fifty movies, yes?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


at this point, if you were looking for one strategy, i'd say that a reviewer in a small paper, and not writing a capsule review, should develop a circle of local friends who like to watch movies, and sort of keep an eye on what they like and don't like, and why, then write the column with them in mind.

then you can go into the rest of it, and hopefully think of yourself as finding movies for people on a tight schedule, and add a little about why you liked it personally, but that's a separate thing. a reviewer who goes out of their way to insulate themselves from the public in order to hold pristine personal fetishes is a twirp.

in summary, you should consider yourself the-friend-who-saw-the-movie in something like the same way that one chooses holiday gifts.

I'd say a reviewer shouldn't consult her own tastes but should rather adhere to general standards about what makes a good movie.

Anyone who is going to be in the business of writing movie reviews ought to have a very broad taste in movies anyway, and be able to sit through films of any genre with equanimity (I could never do this because I wouldn't willingly watch a horror movie, ever) and to have a basic idea about what makes a film a good film of its kind, i.e. don't apply the standards of an Almodovar film to a Pixar film, or vice versa.

The reviewer could indicate when a film will appeal to certain tastes even though it is not a good movie, but I think it is valuable for a reviewer to try to let people know what a good movie is.

I suppose that means that I think even the film reviewer doing dancing pumpkin reviews for a local weekly should, to some extent, be offering readers a view of what culture is.

I don't have a good answer to the actual questions, but I'm obliquely reminded of a fascinating but long article titled " Desire Roped In: Notes on the Fetishism of the Long Take in Rope."

I'm also reminded that Richard von Busack, my favorite film reviewer, does two particularly cool things (or did back when I was reading the Metro regularly, anyway): (1) he gave a sense of what the experience of seeing the movie was like; and (2) he provided some context for how the movie fit into the history of film and its genre and so forth.

Arguably, the second part of that has more to do with criticism than reviews. (Another of my favorite critics, though not in film, is Norman Spinrad, whose book column tends to take four different sf books and discuss how they shed light on each other, and what their common themes are, and so on.) So I may just be saying that I tend to prefer criticism to reviews. Still, I think even a short review can provide useful context and/or help set expectations appropriately--and for me, the best thing a reviewer can possibly do is set my expectations appropriately.

I'll leave you with a crotchety but mildly entertaining piece on bad book reviews.

...Oh, wait, I lied, here are two more items from the same sequence of links that I followed the other day. I haven't read either of these yet, but it's vaguely possible that they're relevant: "How to Write a Book Review" and a UNC handout on writing reviews.

I personally think that reviews are almost useless without more data about what the reviewer thinks about other things. The "if you liked X, you'll also like Y" style review is way more useful than "I liked Y".

Even if the reviewer says "I think the audience of this paper would like this movie", that's still not at all useful unless you have some sense of how well the reviewer knows the audience of the movie. "I liked all these movies that you've also seen and liked, and I liked this new movie too" tells you a lot.

(And I think I believed this even before Amazon and its ilk turned this into a peer-to-peer marketing technique. :^)

I agree that it's good to know what the reviewer's tastes are (there was one reviewer, in the Chronicle I think, who consistently disagreed with, so that was pretty useful/reliable to me), but I would caution against overuse of specific comparisons between works.

"If you liked X, you'll also like Y" can be really useful to readers sometimes, but I tend to feel it's often too specific, drawing too much of a connection between works that often don't have much in common. And it veers perilously close to describing a work as a cross between two other works--which again can be a good technique if used in moderation, but there's a reviewer in Asimov's who used to describe every single book reviewed as being like X crossed with Y. It drove me nuts. Though perhaps that's more a "don't overuse any given technique" issue than a "this particular technique is bad" issue.

The "if you liked X, you'll like Y" review is still dependent on the reviewer's good judgment. There are lots of reviews like this on Amazon, many of them based on the two books being of the same or similar kind. But if one book is a well-written and the other isn't, the comparison won't hold for any reader who cares about books being well written.

Jed's point about the value of a reviewer giving "a sense of what the experience of seeing the movie was like" gets at a way that a reviewer who is a keen observer and an evocative writer can write a review that transcends differences in taste. If he captures the experience well, the reader can decide for herself if the experience is the sort of thing he or she likes.

I meant to be more clear that "if you liked X, you'll like Y" reviews are only really useful in quantity. Knowing that I like both Noises Off and Dangerous Liaisons doesn't tell you that they're anything alike. :^) But if I tell you a hundred movies that I like, and then tell you that I also like a new movie, and that I like it for the same reasons as I like some of those other movies, and you also like those other movies, that's useful info.

...and even more so if there are a hundred of me, and we all agree. (Or if we disagree, and you can find patterns in the disagreements.)

Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.