What Gives… You… The Right? On Reviewing

Apologies for the lack of new material on The Outland Institute this week. We’ve been having the asbestos in the east wing of the Institute replaced – it was getting a bit worn out. Do you know how hard it is to find asbestos these days? Meanwhile – in between interviewing puppet squirrels – I’ve also had other work commitments, including my new regular gig on the tv-themed-podcast Boxcutters and I’ve been doing some Fringe reviewing for AussieTheatre.com.

Speaking of reviewing, Syms Covington has been having some fun at the expense of The Tender Hook recently – it’s an Australian film, so you won’t have heard of it. It was released on the 9th of October and set new box-office records, taking $4.55 and half-a-biscuit in its first week, before it was mercifully taken out the back of the cinema and shot repeatedly in the head. Which reminds me, it stars Rose Byrne. (Actually, to be fair, I’ve discovered I only hate Rose Byrne in Australian films, I think she’s pretty good in non-Australian films, and she is genuinely lovely in real-life).

Syms’ less-than-flattering comments about The Tender Hook led to this comment, from a person named “Anonymous”:

“Syms, I feel very sorry for you. It seems that you find enjoyment in belittling films you would never have the skill or imagination to make. Maybe if The Tender Hook was about a bitter, cynical nerd with a blog, you’d have liked it. Maybe if it spelt out every detail ad-naueseum you may have liked it. When was the last time you got laid Syms? I’m guessing its been a while. Seriously though, it’s your loss that you weren’t able to enjoy The Tender Hook.

It’s people like YOU that are the problem with Australian film industry… Get a life you miserable tiny little man.”

So people like Syms are the problem with the Australian film industry? And there I was, thinking it was the films…

Meanwhile, over at Stale Popcorn a (positive) review of Lady Gaga’s album had this response:

“this is by far the lamest review i have read about an record in a long time…who is the reviewer…for all we know your at home listening to yanni…please stop doing album reviews…this is totally an opinion review…exactly not what writers are supposed to do…get a real job…”

Now, there are several things we can learn from this. The first is that punctuation can be your friend, and you should never feel too frightened to used capital letters. Next is the slightly bewildering phrase “this is totally an opinion review”. As opposed to what? Reviews that tell you the album is 12 tracks long, has a duration of 48 minutes and 12 seconds, and its data is stored in sectors of 2352 bytes each, read at 75 sectors per second, in accordance with Red Book Audio Specifications?

The thing that links both these comments is the suggestion that the reviewer is not experienced enough to review, that they have no right to review. I’ve run into this in the past – a local playwright once wrote to Melbourne Star Observer to complain about my mostly-positive review (he was angry that I said the play was better than his previous ones, as they were obviously brilliant too). And he did his best William Shatner impersonation by demanding to know “What… gives you… the right?”

The answer? I saw it. Here’s my point – anyone who has seen/heard/touched or tasted the work has a right to review. (Well, as long as they’ve used the appropriate sense – licking a film does not give you the right to review it, no matter how tasty it was. Same goes for listening to books, or smelling anything, with the possible exception of perfume. Does anyone review perfume? But if you have combined the right combination of senses and formats, you have the right to express your opinion).

You might argue that a semi-literate 12-year-old on IMDB has less of a right than – say – David Stratton to review a film, but that’s simply not true. David Stratton’s review will undoubtedly be better-informed and cogently-argued, but the 12-year-old’s comment that The Wages Of Fear is boring and foreign is totally justified. Not just because The Wages Of Fear is both boring and foreign, (unless you’re French, in which case it’s just boring) but because The Wages Of Fear is boring to that 12-year-old. For many 12-year-old cineastes that pithy review will be of far more use than David Stratton telling them that Armand Thirand’s cinematography is luminous, or that it made a star out of Yves Mortand.

All reviewing comes down to a relationship between the reviewer and the reader – do I like their taste? Do I agree with their track record? I know from experience that I tend to side with Margaret more than David, that the Onion A.V. Club tends to be right on the money, and that Adrian Martin is completely insane and should never be trusted (I’m choosing to overlook that time David and Margaret’s drinks were spiked with LSD and they both gave In The Cut five stars, even though it’s a complete pile of pants. Overlooking, but not forgetting. Or forgiving).

What do you think? Does everyone have a right to express their opinion or should there be a way to distinguish “real” reviewers from “fake” ones? Who do you trust and why? Add your comments below, and I leave you with Syms Covington’s response from his site:

“Ah, democracy. Thanks for your comments, Anon, although I do have an alarming revelation for you: in my experience anyone who watches a movie tends to have an opinion on it, regardless of whether they are a filmmaker or not, and thanks to the rights of modern society they are entitled to express it. Perhaps you can direct me to your blog, or are you also criticising something that YOU don’t have the skill or imagination to do? Welcome to the interwebs, friend, I think you’ll find there is room for everyone.”

31 Responses to What Gives… You… The Right? On Reviewing

  1. Edward says:

    You’re right about everyone having the right to review. Margaret and David are a great example – whoever you identify with more is not the point – if the show was just the opinion of one of them, you’d feel cheated, no matter how well-informed it was. Its the conflict of opinion that is not only justified, but informing and entertaining.

    More importantly, there is a whole world of perfume reviews out there. Here’s a review from the ‘Now Smell This’ blog.

    http://nowsmellthis.blogharbor.com/blog/_archives/2007/3/22/2824938.html

    I’m just pleased there is someone out there named ‘Andre Gas’ willing to put his name to a fragrance.

  2. Anne-Marie says:

    Art is created to be seen and the opinion of every member of the audiences is valid. If you’re work isn’t connecting with an audience – surely you should wonder why! I could go on for ages – but I’m trying to form a coherent opinion about Barry Kosky’s masturbating clown.

    However, as the wonderful -big-arty-farty-festival-that-I-just-love-to-bits continues – check out this
    http://www.melbournefestival.com.au/program/production?id=3475&activityid=19964

    The most respected reviewers of this years MIAF are a group of kids from Footscray. I think that’s so cool.

    And – back to reviewing. I recently asked a local creator what it was like to receive a a totally damning review.
    http://www.aussietheatre.com/actorprepares.htm

  3. Dan Cardone says:

    How dare you write this blog criticising people who have a right to express their opinion. It’s so rude! You are obviously just a big nerd with nothing better to do than put together words that make up sentences that hurt peoplethey spend a lot of time making thier art that works from their heart you are shallow and bitchy obviously you need a good fuck huh huh…yeah, is that what you like? you like my big cock? yeah, yeah, ill give it to you baby, whooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

  4. Dan Cardone says:

    I mean, what is this alleged correlation between people who are grumpy and critical and people who don’t have sex? Obviously if you have a problem with badly written, indifferently acted, incoherent films, then you’re not getting porked enough. Maybe if you were having badly written, indifferently acted, incoherent sex, I’d see the parallels.

  5. Dave AA says:

    I tried to lick Rose Byrne once for a film review, but she threatened to have me arrested….

    Also Wages of Fear is a terrific film!

  6. Sam says:

    Anne-Marie: I’d be interested to know what coherent thoughts you formed over Barry Kosky’s masturbating clown… when I saw it a large portion of the audience walked out (would this mean that they are getting coherent sex or incoherent sex?), and later in the performance (when the strangly Dr Who like bird monsters who dropped their pants came on) the poor woman sitting next to me starting giggling, which became uncontrollable hooting! I thought the libretto was a bit much, but enjoyed the music and the perfomances – especially the “Angel of History’s” performance… was that her voice the whole time or were they doing clever technical trickery with it?

  7. Dan Cardone says:

    And here I was thinking that the Barry Kosky reference was made up! Wow, that’s my idea of BRILLIANT THEATRE. I’m sure Barry is having a hooting laugh somewhere of his own at the audiences expense…

  8. Dan Cardone says:

    and I love Wages of Fear too. Although I can’t argue that it’s not foreign. If you really want boring you can see the William Friedkin remake “Sorcerer”…

  9. outlandinstitute says:

    Anne-Marie & Sam: Please tell more about the clown. Oh, that Barrie Kosky – he’s such an enfent terrible! He’s so controversial! He’s not at all a cliched self-parody!

    Dan & Dave AA: I suspect my disappointment with The Wages Of Fear is actually David Stratton’s fault – if he hadn’t bigged it up to the max I may have enjoyed it more. But it takes SO LONG to get to the gelignite-in-the-truck (I think it’s an hour before that part starts) that it reminded me of that Airport movie with the Concorde in it, where the plane takes off, the plane lands, the plane takes off, the plane lands…

    Edward: Very true, it’s the Margaret & David combination that really helps, to see the difference of opinion. Incidentally, David’s now introducing movies on ABC2, just like he used to on SBS! It’s a lovely nostalgia feeling, David sitting in front of a curtain, telling you all is right with the world…

  10. syms covington says:

    William Shatner? You sure it wasn’t Christopher Walken?

    FYI to all mystified by the “last time you got laid” comment, I’ll explain. I should have followed The Institute’s advice and engaged with the film medium in the correct manner, but instead I tried to have sex with the film print, hence the negative review – and possibly the question from Anonymous as to what I was comparing it to. The Tender Hook was anything but tender, and it’s wooden fumblings combined with a total lack of imagination turned me right off. The hook for a hand was just freaky…

  11. Anne-Marie says:

    Sam – the night I went there were many walk outs – but this seems to have stopped and the talk in the Artists Lounge is lots of “loved it darlings” (insert air kisses)

    I decided in the end that I liked it. I don’t want to see it again – but I loved it’s absurdity and theatricality. No fucking idea why that clown was indeed masturbating though. I believe it was meant to be funny. But I may be alone in my opinion.

    I do love that opinions are polarised though. It was shit or it was brilliant. Nothing in between

    I’m not going to link to my review – but its easy to find!

    I just got in from a show (The Oak Tree – I loved it lots) and the team of kid critics were there. It’s very cool. They get announced and enter just before the show starts. They each have a note pad – and some snacks – and they giggle every time someone says fuck. As this IS and arts festival – fuck must be uttered in every dialogue drive piece.

  12. Janet says:

    And I thought Lady GaGa was a euphemism for Brittany Spears . . .

    Also did you deliberately misspell Yves Montand’s surname? It’s quite funny.

    And I think THEY (whoever they are) should stop giving Barry Kosky money – it just encourages him.

  13. Narrelle says:

    When I reviewed stuff, it was always about trying to articulate why I responded to a piece the way I did. It was necessarily totally my opinion, but I tried to explain it so that any reader could perhaps see where I was coming from and decide if it they and I had a similar approach.

    Anne-marie – I thought the interview with James Adler was interesting, but I think one of the things he misses is that a reviewer may *attempt* to engage with a piece and simply not find a way in. Tim and I saw that show a few weeks ago and Tim liked it more than I did. I found it hard to get into emotionally, though I thought it was technically fascinating. If a reviewer’s opinion is that there was no emotional connection, even if that is only true for that reviewer, there’s not a lot they can write.

    I’m a novelist now, and not every reviewer loves my work. Luckily, they don’t all hate it either. :-) But I respect any attempt to clearly articulate whatever reaction they had, rather than simply being smart-arse. Though it seems to me that if one follows the logic of this column closely, if reviewers don’t like my work they have obviously a) tried to lick it instead of read it or b) failed to have sufficient high quality sex before opening the pages. I cant’ tell you how much more secure this makes me feel as a writer.

  14. Dave AA says:

    I find it hard to see how anyone can write a negative review… usually the negatives never leave the processing lab.

    Boom-tish.

  15. Anne-Marie says:

    BTW – Sam – I’d actually wiped the Dr Who critters from my memory!

  16. Sam says:

    Anne-Marie: I liked your review – and perhaps its good to have some things unresolved (such as masturbating clowns) – perhaps it would have been easier to laugh if the libretto hadn’t been so earnest? I may be committing an arty faux pas here (perhaps on both sides) but when the score got going, the energy of it reminded me of the Dog Faced Hermans (which I liked)… The other thing I was puzzling about all through the performance was who/what was going to burst through that venetian blind… in the end just bright lights illuminating the audience – perhaps turning the tables on us (which having seen the very enjoyable Two Faced Bastard seems to be a common questioning theme). Part of the text of Two Faced Bastard was that reviewers deny the audience of having an ‘experience’ by telling us how to react – but perhaps this is human nature, the idea of classifying and contextualising things.

  17. Sam says:

    oh, and visually, those mirror-ball suits where the best.

  18. Sam says:

    and i can spell were when i try

  19. outlandinstitute says:

    Janet: All mis-spellings on the site are a deliberate attempt to reconstruct language for a post-modern world, and not sheer laziness on my behalf when it comes to spellchecking.

    And Sam – CONGRATULATIONS! You just contributed the 500th comment on The Outland Institute! Bit of a shame it was “and i can spell were when i try” and not something more poignant…

  20. Anne-Marie says:

    I haven’t written my review of 2 faced Bastard yet (I’ve hit the review wall and am totally sick of my own opinion) – but I am going to comment about the comments about reviewers! It comes back to the whole thing about whose opinion is worthy. And the whole thing about inviting comment from reviewers. If you don’t want to know what we think – don’t invite us.

    Bazza’s mirror ball suits were special – and neither character was masturbating. I too expected something exciting to be hidden behind the blinds. I was thinking it was going to link with the picture above the blinds – but then again – I think the moral of the experience is DON’T think too much.

    Oak Tree was another one all about questioning the role of performer. I loved that one though and am not going to write anything that could potentially ruin the experience for future audiences.

  21. Glenn says:

    As the writer of referenced Lady GaGa review, I thought I’d put in my two cents worth:

    OMGLOL!!!!

  22. Naomi says:

    Apologies for my delay in commenting. While my quips arrive in blog timeframes, my longer thoughts take a while to shuffle around and organise themselves.

    Anne-Marie said: “Art is created to be seen and the opinion of every member of the audiences is valid”

    I’ve been sitting and ruminating on this statement for several days wondering why it disturbed me so much. What eventually dawned on me was the problem is that it is condescending twaddle. “That’s a valid opinion” is one of stock phrases I use at work for someone whose opinion I’m about to completely ignore. It sort of sounds like you respect them, but what it really means you don’t have anything positive to say about their opinion.

    The problem here, of course, is that we simply cannot say, much as I’d love to, that every member of the audience has a worthwhile opinion. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean we should backhand them in such a mealy-mouthed manner. The only question of validity that should be troubling an audience is whether their MET cards have expired prior to their trip home.

    It is also complete tosh to mention its twin phrase – that everyone has the “right” to an opinion. Right or no right, validity or no validity, whether they demure from expressing them or not, the audience is going to have opinions regardless. So they should and bless them for it.

    Despite my belief that these phrases are deeply condescending I do think they are meant well, and are designed to encourage. Nevertheless, even as we encourage people to express their opinion, one thing is certain. That just as their opinions judge, so in turn their opinions will be judged. We will have opinions on their opinions.

    Once an opinion is expressed (potentially in the form of a review), it enters the circle of life (“hakumba matata” and all that sort of thing). It becomes itself something that can be reviewed or discussed, or have opinions formed about it by others. It becomes a good opinion, an incredibly insightful opinion, a poor opinion, an appallingly idiotic opinion – all things far more interesting and exciting than a “valid” opinion.

    As John said “anyone who has seen/heard/touched or tasted the work has a right to review”. I completely agree with this, but let us not forget that likewise, our reviews and opinions should be judged, and sometimes found wanting.

    ——-

    Having said as much, I suppose I should sketch out what I believe makes for a good review, rather than simply a valid review.

    * A love of the art form being reviewed. Hatchet jobs are always fun, but being a curmudgeon the whole time is simply boring.
    * A deep knowledge of the art form being reviewed. While great art can stand alone, no art simply emerges from the head of Zeus. Good reviewing can place a form within its art, identify its antedents, and draw out these relationships to other works.
    * Insight. Please don’t just tell me things I can work out for myself – offer me things I didn’t or couldn’t see by myself.
    * A degree of professionalism. To take John’s earlier metaphor about Australian cinema, when you take a movie out the back of the cinema one shot to the head should always be enough. Anything else is sadism or poor amateurism.
    * A sense of prescience. Reviews do not stand alone. Patterns emerge from individual reviews and criticisms and a consensus builds up cumulatively. For example, I’m not a great fan of ‘All About Eve’, but I’m not going to doubt its status as a classic. Hence, the object is not simply to offer your own opinion, but to try in some sense to foretell where the critical consensus might emerge in the future.
    * A sense of reticence: On the flip side, very few art works or movies do turn out to classics. Please don’t call a movie this unless you’re absolutely certain, or you get paid to have your reviews quoted in large glossy advertisements.
    * An ability to stand alone in its own right. I don’t have my books of Clive James’ 70s tv reviews, Grahame Greene’s 30s cinema reviews, or any of Pauline Kael’s works on my bookshelf because I expect to see any of the programs or movies they refer to. Because of the very nature of reviewing, the large majority of your audience will never see the works your reviews refer to. The reviews must be a pleasure in themselves.

    Which leads to my final point – the other statement that has been haunting me. John stated in his blog: “All reviewing comes down to a relationship between the reviewer and the reader – do I like their taste? Do I agree with their track record?”

    This is also complete and utter balderdash. I have critics that I passionately disagree with as a rule, but remain thoroughly engaged with. I don’t want to hear an opinion that merely mimics my own. Many, many inner city dinner parties are available is you want the warm and fuzzy feeling that goes with people nodding in agreement with you over the merlot. I want to hear a well-argued, well-informed opinion that ticks as many as possible of the dot points above, regardless of whether I agree with it or not .In fact, the less I agree with it, the more insight I suspect I am likely to gain.

  23. Anne-Marie says:

    I don’t know anyone who reviews (paid or unpaid) who doesn’t totally love and admire the art form they write about. Which may be why reviews can be so passionate. (And I don’t anyone who claims to be on the same level as Grahame or Clive.)

    Sometime last year there was a great discussion on Alison C’s blog about reviewing reviewers – I’ll see if I can find it.

    I never use the word critic either. I can only imagine Max Bialastock offering money to the NY Times critic.

    Review is opinion. No one is asking the artist(s) or the reader(s) to agree or disagree – or even to read it!

    Anyone else going to the opening of the Glass/Cohen piece tomorrow night?

  24. Tim says:

    The only qualification you need to be a reviewer is to be an audience member, and have sufficient observational and writing skills to convey your opinion in text.

    I think the “What gives you the right?” people actually want an insider to write a positive piece on behalf of the performers. Such people do exist – they’re called publicists, and you pay them to write nice things about you in media releases.

    In contrast, a reviewer’s only loyalty should be to the readers, who are trying to decide whether to pay good money to see the show themselves. Certainly you are trying to add insight, get beneath the surface etc, but not to the point where you say something is entertaining or worthwhile when it really isn’t. This is particularly relevant at huge festivals where there are hundreds of shows – with that much choice, punters don’t have to settle for less than the best, and are desperate for some straight talk in reviews.

    I don’t like writing negative reviews, but I try to justify and explain my opinions when I do; and if feeling unsure, I ask myself the question: “Would you be happy with a friend paying for this show because of your recommendation?” That helps put things in perspective.

    Having said all this, I do also try to make the review a good, entertaining piece of writing in its own right, so readers can enjoy reading it even if they’re not the least bit interested in attending the show.

  25. Sam says:

    Anne-Marrie: Seeing it on Thursday night

    John: Do I win a prize? Some Wong Kar-Wai slippers perhaps…

  26. Anne-Marie says:

    The Glass/Cohen is rather fucking fabulous.

  27. Sam says:

    Anne-Marie: Definately agree with you there – best thing I’ve seen so far

  28. Dan Cardone says:

    I’m in love with Naomi. It’s like she’s written the Rosetta Stone (or more appropriate metaphor) for Reviewers and Critics.

  29. Sam says:

    Dan: not sure if Rosetta Stone is what your looking for, since the text is more propaganda than critical – a decree by a council of priests praising Ptolemy V on his anniversary, particularly highlighting the economic privileges of said priests under his reign. Presumably in the hope they will continue!

  30. Paul Martin says:

    Obviously anyone can discuss film (or books, or whatever). The worth of the writing is dependent on various factors. If you’re just looking for an advisory service, you gravitate towards someone who has similar tastes and base your selections on that person’s comments.

    While David Stratton may be a film critic, I don’t think that really describes what he does with Margaret on TV. It is more of a reality TV show where we see two people banter over their tastes. There’s precious little analysis. This has become very evident for the last couple of years, as I’ve not been able to watch the show live and either read the transcripts or download the vodcast. About a third of a film’s coverage consists of a trailer, and another third is a synopsis of the film in question. I find both of these to be ‘spoilers’ and prefer not to hear or watch this until I’ve seen the film.

    The remaining third is a discussion where Margaret invariably interrupts any interesting point David is going to make with her matriarchal tut-tutting and occasionally David distracts Margaret. It makes for good entertainment but poor criticism.

    Personally, I enjoy reading reviews or criticism more AFTER I’ve seen a film, so I don’t have to worry about spoilers, and so I can think more about the film from other perspectives. I find most of what passes as reviews are merely synopses rather than critical analysis. It’s not enough to have an opinion (eg, “I didn’t like it” or “it sucked”); one must be prepared to explain or defend one’s opinion. It’s nice to be able to cross-reference other relevant films.

    Most mainstream reviewing is fairly mindless. I don’t think it’s as important to have a synopsis of a film as to know what its qualities are. Is it well-written, well-acted, look good, well-directed, etc? I’m happy to go into a film knowing nothing of the plot, but having faith in someone’s description of a film as compelling, must-see, etc.

  31. Paul Martin says:

    And adding to what Naomi says at the end of her previous post, I enjoy reading a good review of a film I hated. I say “good review”, meaning “well-argued”. I’m happy that others might appreciate a film I hated. Sometimes it enhances my appreciation of a film to read a well-considered and positive review of it, even if I can give good reason why I hated it.

    Film criticism/reviewing is different things for different people. For me and not doubt many others, it’s the dialogue. It’s reliving the moments, chewing the fat, and enhancing the experience. It’s digesting what’s transpired. Much thought, work, blood, sweat and tears goes into a film and one doesn’t necessarily consciously comprehend everything in one sitting. Discussion, debate, dialogue… these all enable one to get just a little bit more out of the experience.

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