[I have only just realised, after writing this whole post, that this is really just a PR plug for a podcast I’m involved in, ‘The Proof is in the Podcast’. Feel free to just go straight to the chitter-chatter first.]
There are clearly many forms of writing which have become well established over time: The Novel, The Short Story, The Poem etc. We know these forms, so we know what to expect e.g. we know that a short story can probably be finished whilst travelling on The District Line between Earl’s Court and Tower Hill – with a twist hopefully kicking in somewhere near Monument. Now, just another one of these forms, which has become quite as ubiquitous as the others, is The Review (a poor example of which I sort of ‘coughed up’ down below). And I have to confess that there are some aspects of reviews that I just don’t get.
When are you meant to read a review?
If you read it before the film, then it ‘spoils’ some details, or at least wrestles control of how you approach the film from the writer, director etc. Surely all we want to know before watching a film is ‘should I watch it?’ and ‘what other films is it like?’ which e.g. Rotten Tomatoes does perfectly well, and could probably be achieved just with scores out of ten and sliding scale gizmos.
If you read it after the film, then don’t you already know a) what it was about, and b) whether you liked certain bits or not? Therefore much of the review can just be thrown out. Anything beyond this becomes one of the ‘two strands’ I discuss below, and I believe that these parts are really why we like we like reading reviews – and this shouldn’t be news to anybody – but these juicy parts can often be disentangled from each other and the rest.
(And I guess the only other option is reading the review during the film, which I’ve never tried.)
What are reviewers trying to do?
People often look confused when they read reviews. I’ve done this many times myself:
I love Film X.
This guy hates Film X.
How can this be?!
Replace ‘Film X’ with ‘cheese and pickle sandwiches’ and you obviously see how futile and worthless this apparent disagreement is. Perhaps I’m betraying my commitments to the inescapable subjectivity of aesthetic judgements here, but this maze of ‘why did you like it?’ and ‘but didn’t you think that?’ is a maze of dead-ends. Have you ever met someone whose opinion has been flipped by a review? Similarly for ham sandwiches: “Oh yeah, now you mention it cheese and pickle sandwiches are delicious!”
Fortunately, reviews don’t just tell you whether some random stranger somewhere has similar likes and dislikes to you. They may summarise things in an insightful way; give information about the context of the setting of the film, or the creative processes behind it; draw parallels with other pieces of art etc. All good stuff. This is what good newspapers and e.g. Roger Ebert do very well. I don’t think I’m really very good at this.
However, recently I have realised that what I personally find much more interesting is reflecting on what the film/game/whatever is actually about. Surely this was why you wanted to experience it in the first place, not just to flex your muscles of literary appreciation. Take Inception (SPOILERS!) as an example – surely of most interest here is: ‘how much control do we have over our dreams?’, ‘how do we experience time in our dreams?’, ‘what would it be like to share dreams?’ etc etc. Not ‘was Hans Zimmer successful in applying a deep, ominous, repetitive thud?’, ‘was Nolan’s choice of names for the characters appropriate?’ etc. To see a film only at this level is to see it at one level of abstraction away from the whole point.
I only started really thinking about this when a few friends and I rather accidentally started a podcast based around discussing quotes in films. But of course it’s nothing new. Reading groups must do it a lot, although I think they often get caught in inane “but I like it!” disagreements too. A good example of The Reflection that I can think of is in The Mind’s I by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, which I recommend to anybody. After each essay or short story they reflect on the issues; they don’t waste time saying whether they like it or not, and they leave the literary critique to somebody else. I think that maybe people shy away from the reflection side of things because, well, it’s easier to just say ‘Boo!’ or ‘Hooray!’ But I say ‘Hooray!’ to The Reflection.
All I’m really saying is: I quite like this and I quite like doing this. That’s all.