Reviewers on Reviewing

Tony Isabella appreciates the attempt:

I get lots of great comics and other items; in a sense, I get paid to read them. I get to let you know about terrific stuff and, in doing so, maybe give a boost to a worthy creator or publisher. I get to warn you away from some not-so-terrific stuff and, though I take little delight in doing so, I figure such negative reviews help you allocate your disposable funds towards better comic books. … I write for the comics buyers, not the comics makers. And yet…

Sometimes the not-so-terrific stuff breaks my heart. Because, most of the time, even in my most cynical moments, I realize those who made the not-so-terrific stuff didn’t set out to make it not-so-terrific. … I applaud them. I wish I could be supportive of their efforts in a review. Instead, I offer them this:

Keep going with your heart. If you need to tell your stories and make your comic books, don’t stop because you don’t get a good review from me or any other critic. Don’t stop because your work doesn’t sell. I mean, don’t spend the rent money publishing comics that don’t sell, but, if it gives you joy to see your work in print and you can afford the expense of that, then, by all means, go for it. Go with your heart. Your dedication and the work itself will be your rewards. As payoffs go, that’s not too shabby.

Ty Burr ponders the loss of professional-level craft:

When a movie critic has the effrontery to take a contrarian position on matters pop cultural — say, by panning a pirate movie starring a beloved leading man — the immediate reaction of some readers is to shoot the messenger. In practical terms, this translates to e-mail pouring into my in-box accusing me of crimes from crack smoking to mail fraud for daring to dump on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a film that has everything you need except pacing and a plot.

Many of the e-mails gleefully pointed out that the movie has been a massive hit, but that’s in no way a reviewer’s concern. Our job isn’t to reflect mass tastes but to present informed opinions that ideally help readers triangulate their own decisions (by disagreement, if necessary) and/or provoke further thought. … No, what galls about the poison-pen e-mails is their angry certainty that a film critic has no taste for entertainment. That we’re poops at the party, unable to have a good time, looking for art and profundity where it has no business being.

Horse-puckey. Working critics are as desperate to be entertained as paying customers, provided the rewards are there. We certainly don’t head into Click or The Break-Up hoping for art (that we leave to indie films, Oscar hopefuls, and the French). All we ask for is craft: the various vectors of script, casting, production design, camerawork, editing, and score that can mysteriously come together to provide what we really ask of a movie: that it transport us en masse to a far-off place without once letting us fall.

16 Responses to “Reviewers on Reviewing”

  1. Dwight Williams Says:

    A fair comment. All anyone can and should do, whether critic or artist, is their level best of the moment.

  2. David Oakes Says:

    “All we ask for is craft”.

    And therein lies the problem. Most of the public doesn’t ask for craft, at least not in any conscious, articulated fashion. They have a binary worldview of “Good” and “Bad”, and they really don’t care about “Why?” As long as the soundtrack is jazzy enough, they aren’t going to be concerned with the long-term socio-political ramifications of the lead being a dog.

    “Thumbs up” or “Thumbs down”. The rest is for students of the craft, not consumers. (That is should be is a totally different argument, and one that simply creates a heirarchy of more and more involvement. I also detect a sense of sour grapes, when on the one hand he claims that the critic is not an agent of mass tastes, and yet using the royal We and “en masse” to describe a good movie.)

  3. Paul O'Brien Says:

    Craft is one thing; but to suggest that the average viewer goes to see PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN because they want to be “transported en masse to a far off place without once letting the audience fall” is rather more dubious. Realistically, the function of a film like PIRATES II is to entertain a mass audience and thereby make money. Objectively, it’s a success on that level. Critics tend not to like films that work on that level because there’s no depth or innovation there to write about – although in their own way, they’re still technical achievements.

    However, to judge the importance of critics by their effect on the box office of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN is rather missing the point. Films like PIRATES are truly review-proof because they appeal to audiences who basically just want a well-hyped shiny thing that delivers on the promise of an evening’s mindless entertainment. Second tier films, and especially those with some actual intellectual or dramatic content, rely much more on word of mouth, and on the critics to kickstart it.

    Besides, the function of a good critic is not simply to dole out star ratings, but to write in an interesting way about what a film is trying to do, and why it works (or doesn’t). The whole notion that criticism exists to determine what films succeed is utterly wrongheaded. It exists for the primary purpose of having an interesting conversation.

  4. Johanna Says:

    Shouldn’t Superman have been “review-proof” in that sense, though? And yet, it wasn’t. Or is word of mouth when your buddy says it different, somehow, from when a critic says it?

  5. markus Says:

    I find it useful to distinguish critique from review, but even the latter can’t help being engaged in trying to teach it’s audience the difference between quality and personal appreciation.
    Arguably, per the received mail, critics as a whole are not terribly successful at this, but I think it’s a vitally important task worth doing.

  6. jabolo Says:

    I have to disagree with Paul, atleast in regards to Pirates. When reviewers talk about ‘craft’, they are referring to the ability to execute the movie in such a way that the motives behind its creation (artistic or monetary) are satisfied efficiently.

    I don’t know how anybody could have seen Pirates II and believed that the script couldn’t have been ‘better’, i.e. been more satisfying on the summer escapist grounds that it was working on. The first movie is evidence that it could have been done better.

    Of course, it was a success, and I attribute that to the fact that it was a sequal and hit on all the fanboy references for those who had seen the first movie. But it could have been better. And it would have probably done even better in the market if the faults critics found it its script weren’t there.

    And thus critics serve a purpose by emphasizing lost oppurtunities and are not simply projecting their genre preferences in the review. To the degree that the reviews hurt Pirates sales at all (and they probably did to a (very) small degree), it will hopefully encourage a bit more scrutiny on the story end for the coming sequal.

    Its about efficiency.

  7. Lyle Says:

    As for Superman Returns, I think a “review proof” film is one that can succeed solely on the marketing and the hype… from all appearances SR failed on both levels.

  8. Johanna Says:

    True, I’ve forgotten about the problems the marketing approach had.

    Thanks, everyone, for lots of good points I have nothing to add to.

  9. Paul O'Brien Says:

    PIRATES II could, by all accounts, have been better. But it certainly wasn’t the godawful disaster that many of the reviewers seemed to think. There comes a point where it is simply futile to pretend that a film is not entertaining, in much the same way that if you’re in a room full of people who are laughing, you cannot honestly claim the film is not funny.

  10. Johanna Says:

    Judging from the audience, millions of people think According to Jim is funny … that doesn’t make them right.

    I take your point, and I even agree with part of it, but I can’t agree with judging qualities like funny or good by mass vote.

  11. jabolo Says:

    I’m not aware many critics labled it as a ‘disaster’, simply as a bland, poorly placed formula sequal that only worked for those with nostalgia for the first film, i.e. pretty much on the same level as most superhero comics. It was mediocre as ‘craft’.

    I think you are attacking strawmen.

  12. jabolo Says:

    Actually, to restate my point simply, I think using absolute measures of popularity such as ticket sales is a dubious way to assess quality, especially in an age of franchise sequals that automatically have a built in audience. Paul touched on that point himself when he noted some movies are ‘critic-proof’, i.e. the critics won’t destroy a movies chances.

    I believe, though, that critics and word of mouth can prevent even the most powerful franchise sequals from reaching their maximum audience. Its on these margins where some ‘quality’ (as defined by critics) matters.

  13. ~chris Says:

    All I ask from a critic is a well written, reasoned, and honest opinion, no spoilers, and please get your facts straight. Our local newspaper music critic once made a sarcastic comment about a singer, based on a misquoted lyric. The purpose of a critic is, as Tony put so well, to lead me to good I might not have found otherwise, and to warn me away from bad. To that end, the hard part is finding critics whose tastes are close to my own. Though we differ over Strangers in Paradise, Johanna, and you love manga more than I, you have recommended so many of the books I (and my niece) love that I value your reviews.

    Popular opinion carries little weight with me. Some comics/movies/records will get my money regardless of critical reviews (I enjoyed Pirates II and Supes Returns [but if you want to see a REAALY good movie, so see Little Miss Sunshine]). But the word of a trusted critic or friend (not my friend who loves 98% of all horror movies) can make the difference.

    Keep on plugging, Johanna!

  14. ~chris Says:

    Little Miss Sunshine is REALLY good, not REAALY good. :-P

  15. Lyle Says:

    Jabolo, I agree. With franchises, ticket sales are more a measure of enthusiasm for the franchise, how marketers took advantage of any positive feelings towards the franchise (meaning if they could convince audiences that this would be a “good” adaptation) and the quality of previous adaptations (see the number of profitable bad movies that get a sequel that bombs like Tomb Raider.

    Anciliary markets seem to play a key role in franchise films, too, with DVDs and TV airings being used to get people excited about the sequel (or to give new audience members a chance to catch up).

    IMO, a sucessful franchise plays upon goodwill towards the property. Pirates II’s marketing smartly relied on a message of how much people enjoyed the first one and the first one dodged the initial “cash grab” expectation by including Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski, who have just enough of an “edgy” and “quality” rep to make the film look like it would be more substantive than one would expect out of a movie based on a theme park ride.

    The big dangers for franchise films is if the property looks a bit stale (Terminator), if the film plays upon a stale aspect of the franchise (Superman Returns, which seemed to look backwards despite two other popular adaptations on TV), if the adaptation looks too different, losing any goodwill audiences have for the franchise (Catwoman) or if the most recent outing was unsatisfying (Alien, Matrix).

    For the most part, critcs can’t negatively affect these factors, though I think they can make a positive difference (most movie goers expect the critics to dislike a franchise film, so a good review becomes notable).

  16. Johanna Says:

    Chris, good point about the facts. I also look for a critic who doesn’t make it all about themselves. Our local paper has a movie critic who spends more time setting up his unfunny wisecracks than he does providing useful information about the film. I don’t care whether I agree with a particular critic or not — I just want to get enough information out of the review to be able to evaluate the item in reference to my tastes.

    I’m so glad you and your niece have found my comments helpful!

    Lyle, nice analysis. I agree with you that it’s entirely possible for critics to have an effect in only one direction, too.




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