Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Right (and Wrong) Way to Write a Movie or Book Review

Now, I will freely admit that I am an amateur reviewer. I am not a professional. I am not a highly trained film or book critic with an English degree and extensive schooling in literary criticism. I have some background in it, however, as textual analysis is often an extremely important part of historical and cultural research.

Nevertheless, I write my reviews in order to achieve two things: 1) to keep my mind sharp while I'm in Korea, and 2) to practice and improve my ability to write good reviews. I enjoy reading books, and I also enjoy cinema. I read fiction and watch cinema for the same reasons as I read philosophy, history, and political science books--to keep in practice with textual analysis and criticism, to think (I enjoy thinking), and to learn something.

Now the bulk of the books I've reviewed here I give generally positive reviews. The reason for that is many of the books have been preselected due to their reputations or the reputations of their authors. I could write a number of reviews on books that are not very good, but I honestly don't want to waste my time with dreck. I did enough of that in high school and college.

Anyway, in the past year, I'd come across two amateur internet film reviewers. These reviewers are Confused Matthew (pictured below) and Mr. Plinkett (pictured left) at Red Letter Media. Of the two, Mr. Plinkett is the superior reviewer. He not only analyzes the plot and pacing, but also costume design, set design, cinematography, and overall effectiveness of the film.

Confused Matthew is an extremely flawed, although quite talented, amateur film critic. Matthew's strength is the ability to analyze the plot of a film and zero in on inconsistencies, sloppy scriptwriting, and poor characterization. As an example of some of his better reviews, I'd like to indicate his critique of the Matrix sequels. Matthew is very good at exposing plot holes and characterization inconsistency, as well as pointing out how the Wachowski Bros. clumsily attempted to deepen their story's metaphysical and philosophical meaning by shoehorning Baudrillard into their dialogue and plot points. Matthew is the sort of reviewer who can tell when a character has been handed the idiot ball, or when lazy scriptwriting and poor plotting choices lead to wall bangers. These strengths are also possessed by Plinkett, but Plinkett doesn't demonstrate any of Matthew's flaws.

Confused Matthew's weaknesses all stem from his own subjectivity. As Quantumjoker has indicated, Confused Matthew is an extremely subjective reviewer. Now, all of us are very subjective. It's almost unavoidable. However, Confused Matthew's failing is his inability to approach something he dislikes from a coldly rational standpoint. This has led to his extremely flawed 2001: A Space Odyssey review. As I mentioned before, Chase Melendez responded to Confused Matthew, in my opinion demolishing his entire review. Matthew's rebuttal failed to address Chase's criticisms effectively, and ultimately, Chase's absence from the Internet world has led Matthew to discontinue his self-defense. Chase hasn't been the only person to respond critically to Confused Matthew's inexplicable review--Poparena and Quantumjoker collaborated on a multi-part response as well.

Matthew's bias against 2001: A Space Odyssey effectively invalidated his entire review because anyone who has seen 2001 and watches Matthew's review should see how Matthew effectively turned his brain off during the entire feature. His premise that 2001 fails as a film--indeed, for Matthew, is not a film--because of the absence of narrative is demonstrably false. Indeed, it is self-evident during other reviews of other movies that Matthew simply stopped paying attention to what was happening on the screen and instead focused on his own initial impressions and frustrations. A good example of this is his review of Spirited Away--there are parts where a viewer who watches Matthew's review, then views the film, can demonstrate scene-by-scene how Matthew is simply wrong in his assessment.

Personal biases are capable of being overcome if one chooses to do so. A great example of that is a friend of mine who viewed Darren Aronofsky's art film, π. This friend said that he despised the film. When asked why, he said that it was the grinding pacing and the overall bleakness of the experience that generated a visceral, negative reaction. He did not say that this was a flaw, however. He stated that this aspect of the film was actually an integral part of it. The film was incredibly effective at what it was designed to do. The film was not a failure for him. He was capable of moving beyond his own biases and appreciate the movie.

Another good example may be my own reactions to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. When I read this book at 15 or 16, I despised every moment of it. I thought Holden Caulfield was an indescribable moron, irrational to an extreme, and thoroughly reprehensible a character. I believed the book failed as a novel because Holden Caulfield, for me, failed as a character. When I was 26 and reread the novel, my opinion of Holden hadn't changed. I still disliked the book. However, being older, wiser, more well-read, and more experienced, I was able to understand what Salinger was trying to accomplish through Holden. That understanding completely altered my assessment of the book's merits. My own personal opinion is that I still dislike the book, mostly for Holden's character. However, my assessment is that the book is an extremely deep meditation on the loss of innocence and teenage anxieties. Holden isn't a character, he's a stand-in for all pre-teens his age, and his actions aren't meant to reflect the actual actions of a boy so much as express the paradoxes and contradictions warring within the pubescent psyche of a male youth. The book is actually extremely worthwhile and is an important piece of American literature, and though I don't really enjoy it, I cannot recommend anyone not read it.

Confused Matthew is an extremely smart and astute guy--he is capable of giving his opinions on films and backing them up. However, what he does not understand is that the role of a critic is not to simply give your opinions. Your role is to assess the merits and flaws of a film or novel as objectively as possible. In order to do that, you are obligated by intellectual honesty to divorce yourself from your own opinion as much as you can. In that regard, I'd like to hold Confused Matthew up as an example of how not to write a review.

But how can one divorce oneself from one's own opinion? Well, it's really impossible to do so totally, but it is possible to mitigate one's emotional response. There's no accounting for taste, and that includes your own. So the critic has to develop a rubric or a set of guidelines that they follow in order to limit the intrusion of his/her personal taste regarding the subject of his/her criticism.

For these guidelines, I turn to the advice of novelist and renowned literary critic John Updike.
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2. Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.
5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never... try to put the author "in his place," making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

--"Remembering Updike," The New Yorker Online
Let's tackle each of these points in turn, shall we?

Rule #1 is perhaps the most important rule we should remember (hence its prime position). Do not criticize the film or novel for failing to do what it wasn't attempting to do in the first place. Only critique whether it succeeds at doing something the director/scriptwriter/author intended, or if it fails. If it fails, provide an explanation as to how and why, and provide suggestions on how it could have been successfully attempted.

Rules #2 and #3 are somewhat connected. Quoting (or playing segments, if your subject is a film) is incredibly important, especially when you are trying to illustrate your point. It can provide direct evidence for your criticism or your praise. It also helps you hone your criticisms--you are providing both your audience and yourself with something tangible that can help to focus and clarify your analysis.

Rule #4 is difficult to achieve, especially when you must give concrete reasons why a film or novel fails or succeeds. This is up to the individual critic's taste, and both Plinkett and Confused Matthew essentially unravel large swathes of the narratives they analyze, often out of necessity. Fortunately for them, these are often films that have already been watched and therefore, aimed at audiences for whom the plot won't be spoiled.

Rule #5 is, like Rule #1, something Confused Matthew needs to consider very closely. Matthew's review of 2001 leaves him open to attack (an opening Chase justifiably exploited) when he compared it to Jurassic Park as an example of a film that was successful. Both films were attempting to achieve radically different goals--indeed, Jurassic Park's goal is nowhere near as deep or complex as 2001's, and the former far more simplistically didactic than the latter, which is more open-ended and compelling.

But the most important part of Rule #5 for Confused Matthew is perhaps this little line:
"Sure [the failure]'s his and not yours?"

In the case of 2001, I believe the failure is not of the film, but of the critic.

Finally, the fuzzy, vaguer Rule #6, firmly states that the critic should not review a piece that he/she is predisposed to dislike. This single comment completely and utterly invalidates a great many amateur film reviewers online.

Updike's advice is the key to writing a good review, and it is advice that I struggle to follow in every book or film review that I write. I believe that more reviewers should take John Updike's advice--it will improve your ability to really, truly perform critical analysis on a text such as film or fiction.

I'd also like to say that, though I believe Confused Matthew is a flawed film reviewer, that doesn't make him bad or stupid. Indeed, I think he's actually one of the better amateur film critics out there, and especially enjoy his reviews of the Matrix sequels and The Lion King. I believe, however, that he has no desire to improve as a reviewer, and that his internet celebrity status has, perhaps, had an unfortunate impact on the tenor of his reviews lately.


Brian Murphy said...

Excellent job. I hadn't encountered Updike's "rules" before but (pats self on back) I seemed to have instinctively been doing a lot of this stuff in my own reviews (or at least I like to think I have been).

I also self-select books so my reviews, like yours, are mostly positive. I do know of some critics who instead of leaving a negative review will choose to forgo any review at all; I'm curious to hear your thoughts on that practice.

By the way, I found myself sucked into the Confused Matthew/Chase great 2001 tete-a-tete and I completely agree with you, and with Chase. Confused Matthew really whiffed on that one.

Dave Cesarano said...

When I came across Updike's rules, I latched on to them, HARD. And I honestly look to Confused Matthew as an example of how not to write a review.

There are a few books that I want to review that would get negative ratings, but I've simply not gotten around to re-reading them. The closest I've gotten, I guess, is my criticism of Robert Jordan, author of The Wheel of Time.

I've a kind of tough review of Sign of the Labrys that I should clean up and post here. It's not negative, really. If a book gets a C-grade from me, that's kind of like saying "this book is 100% average and good for one read." I've yet to really give anything a D recently.

Porky said...

Those rules are really something. I've come late to Updike's non-fiction, but I'm glad I found it at all. I gained by reading this post too, without a doubt.

Rules #1 and #6 seem closely related. The point for me at this early stage of thinking is the need for an awareness of our own weaknesses and the impossibility of objectivity, and for generosity and respect for all concerned, writer, reader and reviewer.

nieuwendorp said...

I love Redlettermedia. His reviews are not only highly intelligent, but also laugh out hilarious. I've lost count of how many times I've watched his review of Star War's prequels. Matthew's alright. I disagree with him more often then not but it's interesting to see what he has to say about a certain subject. In addition all previous flaws you mentioned, I would add that I think he's way too bitter in his tone. I even found the reviews I agree with(like the Star War's prequels) unpleasant to listen too because of this.

David Hannah said...

With all due respect, I couldn't disagree more about CM. Confused Matthew is, in my opinion, the best critic on the internet, and possibly the world. I thought his review of 2001 had nothing to do with personal bias. And as for Chase,Good Lord have I never seen such a prick as he. He made nine videos responding to Confused Matthew, half defending 2001, half insulting Matthew. And if he comes off as an intelligent person from those videos (which he certainly didn't to me) then watch his Tom Cruise Scientology jokes video (If you can sit through it. It just made me cringe.) and you may not think of him as the intellectual he tried to give the impression of. And the way he talked to Confused Matthew as though he had burned down an orphanage by giving young people the idea not to see 2001. If that is damaging to him, then he would hate to see what I have said to my friends, some who have, some who haven't, seen 2001. I am 15, and let me say that I have not met a single person my age who has liked the film. It may be something to do with the fact that I sent the review to all my friends. Well, thanks for indulging me, you probably disagree, but there's someones opinion on the critics.

Dave Cesarano said...

Mr. Hannah,

Thanks for disagreeing with me RESPECTFULLY.

Confused Matthew is very, very, very far from being the best film critic in the internet, much less the world. Seriously, Red Letter Media blows him away, and not in entertainment value but in depth of analysis.

But, hey, you're 15. I give you some leeway. There's a whole lot of stuff you've yet to experience and perhaps someday, you'll get the right college professor and you'll go back and rewatch 2001 and get totally blown away. I've had my mind blown by stuff that I hated when I was your age. I'm not saying you're some naive kid, but you are inexperienced. I don't see that as a bad thing, though. It just means that you're not the same person you'll be in 5 years, 10 years, 15, 20, etc. and you'll see and understand things a lot differently at those points.

I hope this post did, however, get you thinking and maybe, when you give 2001 another chance in 10 or 15 years, your different perspective will, perhaps, be shaped a small bit by it.