Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Reviewers Are Becoming Obsolete

Yesterday I received my weekly copy of The New Yorker, a magazine whose subscription I'm eager to let expire. In their "The Current Cinema" section, reviewer Anthony Lane takes offense at the very publication, not to mention film adaptation, of "The Da Vinci Code." Just to remind you, this is supposed to be a film review.

In the fifth paragraph of Lane's review, after neatly and snarkily summing up the entire plot, Lane decides he's Michiko Kakutani, and writes:

"If a person of sound mind begins reading (The Da Vinci Code) at ten o’clock in the morning, at what time will he or she come to the realization that it is unmitigated junk? The answer, in my case, was 10:00.03, shortly after I read the opening sentence."

I'm hoping I wasn't the only one who, after reading that, wanted to hold Lane up by his tweed jacket and drop him out a library window. I didn't read his review to see how much smarter Lane is than the 50,000,000 people who've bought the novel, I read it to get an opinion of the movie. Let me repeat. This was a movie review.

We get it, Anthony. You're smart, we're dumb. Go off and translate the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and leave us to watch "Ace Ventura" in peace.

But this is a growing trend in reviewing, and one I feel renders reviewers more and more obsolete. Kakutani herself, the grand dame and high executioner of book reviewers, has come under fire the last few years. Not for particularly vicious reviews, which are common, but by making an effort to presumably show how much of a better writer she is than the author in question.

Case in point: Her review of BRIGET JONES'S DIARY penned in the voice of, get ready, Ally McBeal. Her review of Ben Kunkel's INDECISION "written" by Holden Caulfield.

More and more these days it seems as though reviewers are injecting their own personal agendas into their reviews, almost trying to prove that their superior minds are above the drek they're forced to write about every week. You can't open up an "Entertainment Weekly" these days without slogging through a 1,000 word Owen Gleiberman review of the latest teen comedy whose running length is shorter than the time it takes to look up Owen's SAT words in the dictionary.

And as funny and on-target as it was, Roger Ebert's review of Rob Schneider's "Deuce Bigalow 2" smacked of personal vengeance exacted for a colleague Schneider had criticized.

You see what you've driven me to, reviewers of America? I'm defending Rob Schneider. ROB SCHNEIDER. I hate Rob Schneider!

Bad reviews are commonplace, and sometimes well deserved. Every year there are countless stinkbombs in the movie theater, on the radio, in the bookstore and on television. But reviewers these days seem to revel in the "We're smarter than you" theme that makes reading their opinions not just infuriating, but irrelevent.

And does anybody outside of pretentious film students actually say to a buddy on a Friday night, "Hey, let's see what's playing at the cinema?"

NO. They're freaking movies. Accept it. We don't care how smart you are. We don't care if your treasure trove of adjectives would make your 7th grade English teacher proud. We don't care if you hate the same actors or authors we do. All we want is an honest, unbiased opinion of the work in question. And if that's too difficult, take your "fair and balanced" reviews over to Fox News. I hear O'Reilly has a spot opening up.

9 Comments:

Blogger Sarah said...

Actually "let's go to the cinema" is what they would say in Britain, but I digress...

This is one of the few advantages of writing 200 word reviews: I don't have a lot of room to grind personal axes, if I so desire. And since I don't, it's much easier to say what's actually wrong with the book in question.

And Anthony Lane can't be Michiko because someone else has the honor.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Gotcha. So if they want to call it "Cinema", they should rename the magazine "The New Englander" or something. Wait, that might be taken.

I like your reviews a lot, as they maximize the word length given and don't feel too long or too short (and you don't make them personal).

IMHO reviews that are too long (New Yorker, I'm looking at you again) are harmful to the book in question and also go against the very notion of reviewing. They make the article about the review, rather than the work.

3:18 PM  
Blogger JT Ellison said...

Amen to that, Jason. I review for RTE and try to keep my reviews between 300-400 words, and the vast majority of that is background. The expose deconstructionist critiques give away the entire story. And to be honest, anyone can regurgitate a plot. It takes a little more work to assimilate the story in a paragraph for a reader. I'm still working on perfecting that.
Sorry for the multiple comments, I'm playing catch up.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

No need to apologize, thanks for contributing!

I think 300-500 words seems about right for book reviews. Less than that and the reader will have a hard time getting anything substantial out of it. More than that and it begins to feel like the reviewer is just testing out his/her thesaurus.

Great comments everyone!

5:16 PM  
Blogger Brett Battles said...

Nothing pisses me off more than a review (both for books and films) that does one or all of the following:

1. Gives away too much of the plot
2. Is a thinly veiled outlet for the reviewer to get on a soapbox
3. Doesn't address the merits of the manuscript at all
4. Is obvious the reviewer didn't read or see the full book or movie.

For those reasons, I seldom look at reviews. So maybe you're right, we don't need them. (Any critic wanting to review my book should know I was coerced at gunpoint to write the above comment.)

7:32 PM  
Blogger December Quinn said...

True. This is one reason I avoid reviews, too. Yes, it should be funny or interesting or whatever, but it should also, first and foremost, be about what it's supposed to be about.

The worst Entertainment Weekly review transgression I read was about LOTR The Two Towers, where the reviewer went on this big rant about how a particular scene underscored Tolkein's message about progress and used it to discuss how Tolkein would have felt about the invasion of Iraq. (Really.)

Aside from the fact that it's completely irrelevent to a movie review, the scene in question was a Jackson-invented addition and was in fact the opposite of the way things happened in the book.

(And for the record, I don't know or care how Tolkein would have felt about Iraq. I also don't care to have politics mixed in my movie reviews, even when I agree. I do know and care what kind of person Faramir really was, though, and I was mad.)

8:20 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

The same man who held Brent at gunpoint threatened to kill my dog if I didn't write that post.

Reviews do have a place; a lot of good books might not reach their audience if not for them. But like December says, IMHO reviewing a book or movie is different than reviewing an author, the same way reviewing a film is different than reviewing the source material.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Bernita said...

As a rule of thumb, if a reviewer pans a movie - I know I will like it.

4:45 AM  

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