Bad Reviews – get over it

I was originally going to begin this post (about the way artists — and their fans — react sometimes vituperatively to negative reviews) by saying it was apropos of nothing much. Just a subject that had been bubbling in my head for a while, based on the occasional message board comment, or celebrity interview. Then — literally just a day or two ago — I heard a bit on the radio about how some symphony conductor took umbrage at a negative review posted by a blogger and angrily responded, apparently employing the usual invectives (the blogger wasn’t a legitimate writer, and how dare a man who wasn’t a world class symphony conductor presume to opine upon he who was!) Indeed, as it was reported on the radio, part of the issue among music fans seemed to be, not so much whether the conductor was right to say what he said, but whether he had lowered himself by even responding to a (fill in a pejorative adjective)”blogger”.

Now, obviously, since I’m writing a blog post — I’m not exactly unbiased on the topic. But I do think we’re getting into a particularly weird and elitist area when we say: some people have a right to opine, and to have their opinion taken seriously…and some people don’t. When surely the only litmus test is whether the writer (whether a “professional” newspaper critic, or a self-posting blogger) is articulate and seems to have genuinely put thought and consideration into forming their opinion (and goodness knows I’ve read plenty of “professional” reviews that are none of those things).

So anyway — I guess this ended up being a fairly topical subject for my blog after all!

Now, here’s the thing: of course if you’re an artist (a filmmaker, a writer, a conductor, whatever) you don’t like bad reviews. And, of course, if you’re a fan of a work, you can bristle if others hate it, or, perhaps worse, dismiss it blithely. I know — I’ve been in both camps myself. But most of us, whether a creator, or a fan of a creator, accept reviews — opinions — are part of the game. And sometimes, negative reviews can even be helpful and constructive if you (as a creator) perceive some truth in the criticism.

Yet some people don’t accept negative reviews as just part of the game. And will react quite strenuously.

But people rarely object to good reviews, to accolades heaped on them by the press, by awards showered on them at film festivals. Movies and TV shows are often screened in advance for critics in hopes of getting good reviews out there before the public. So clearly they don’t mind opinions, or people promulgating those opinions — as long as it’s in the creator’s favour.

So if you want to accept good reviews…you have to be prepared to respect negative reviews, too.

And the irony is those quick to denigrate someone’s right to express a negative opinion are often themselves more than eager to negatively dismiss something else. Fans of “challenging” European movies…who will blithely dismiss all “Hollywood” films as puerile. The Art House director who, in interviews, will happily take pot shots at all those crass filmmakers toward whom he sees himself as being superior. Take Canadian actor/writer/director Ken Finkleman (and it’s perhaps unfair to drag him into this debate since, off hand, I can’t say whether he objects to negative reviews, or whether perhaps he embraces them as valid parts of the creative process). But I’ve only read/seen a few interviews with him…and it doesn’t seem to require much to set him off dissing films like Saving Private Ryan, or even rock bands like Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Clearly Finkleman doesn’t feel critical opinions should be kept to one’s self!

Now obviously there’s the old “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything” philosophy. That it’s fine to praise a work you like, but if you don’t like it, no, you don’t have to lie and say you do…but you should shut up. (Though even this can backfire: years ago, when the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation was first airing, stars of the original Star Trek were often asked their opinion and they tended to be coy, saying they hadn’t watched it yet — and fans of the new Star Trek were quick to berate the actors for this lack of support, it not occurring to them that maybe the actors had seen the new show, didn’t like it, but were too diplomatic to say so).

I’ve seen some magazines that specifically say they only publish good reviews — that there’s enough dreck out there, so they want to promote the good stuff. I can sort of see that — except, first off, I often don’t bother reading such reviews for the same reason I might not read a story where I already know how it ends. Part of the reason you read a review is to see what the reviewer has to say. If you know the review is going to be positive before you even turn to the page it’s on…then you know what the reviewer is going to say! More to the point, it can inadvertently hurt the reputation of works that aren’t reviewed…because the audience will be left unsure if the reason it wasn’t reviewed is because it’s terrible, or the magazine simply hadn’t got around to it yet! At least if good and bad reviews are published, then no review can be construed as simply…no review.

Besides, what about works that have both good and bad aspects?

But the question is: is a review there to serve the artist…or the audience? Artists would say: it’s about promoting them! Them! THEM! But it’s actually a little of both. Obviously a reviewer wants to promote a good work…but equally, the reviewer wants to “save” the audience from wasting their time on something that might not be very good.

The only way a “ban bad reviews” attitude can be justified — maybe — is if the filmmaker (or the conductor, or whatever the artistic field) made their production with their own money, isn’t charging the audience to see it, and probably is only offering invitations to a select few, as opposed to the general public. But once you are expecting people to pay you money for the privilege of basking in your genius, or even give up two hours of their lives (not counting travel time and parking), then the audience has a right to be forewarned that the experience might not be all that was promised. Otherwise you’re just a snake oil salesman, rolling into town, conning people out of their hard earned money for potentially a bottle of nothing more than watered down corn syrup — and beating up the sheriff in a back alley when he comes around asking to see your medical credentials.

What’s also odd (and why I question whether people who argue against reviews even believe it themselves) is every step of the way — a film (or any artistic enterprise) is reviewed. By producers, by executives, by funding committees. Not everyone who wants to make a film gets to make a film. Not every script that is submitted gets put before a camera. There just isn’t the money. If there was no pre-production review process, if some projects weren’t deemed “worthy” and others “unworthy”, no movie would ever be made…or each would be made for a budget of about $27.00! So how can someone criticize negative reviews (without being a hypocrite) when their very career is based on the fact that the other guys lining up for the same funding dollars they were got turned away?

Artists count on bad reviews — bad reviews of the other guy’s project!

And this applies equally to simply the hours in a day — there aren’t enough of them to watch every movie or TV show, to read every book or listen to every CD or attend every concert. Choices have to be made. Every time someone sees a bad movie…that’s a good movie they didn’t go to see! Filmmakers are counting on bad reviews of their peers’ films in order to steer the audience to theirs!

Perhaps the most bizarre rebuttal to negative reviews I’ve come across — and it crops up more than once — is the old: “Well, I’d like to see you do any better.” or: “Well at least the artist is creating something, while you’re just a sad pathetic loser who can only tear things down.” Usually this comes from fans of a work, but even the artists themselves will use this argument (I read an interview with a Hollywood filmmaker who had made a movie — not even a “difficult” art film, but a mainstream populist comedy — and who dismissed any critics by saying if they didn’t like his film, they should make their own). And what’s funny about that attitude is I find it hard to believe even the people saying it really believe it — ’cause if they do, man, that’s whacked!

It’s a bizarre argument on two fronts.

One: it just ain’t that simple. I mean, maybe filmmakers (and artists) really have convinced themselves that their career was directed by divine providence, that they are chosen by God (yeah, pretty creepy when I phrase it that way, eh?). But the truth is, it’s never a level playing field. That’s why in show biz they often talk about “the breaks” — recognizing that talent and hard work isn’t enough. Happenstance and serendipity also can play a part. How many bands get started because a guitarist happened to move next door to a singer — and otherwise they’d never have met each other? It’s nice to believe your career is based solely on moxy and hard work — but there are always those little things, sometimes even indirect, that play their part. The now successful actor who brags he arrived in town with two bucks in his pocket and had to crash on a friend’s couch for two months sounds like a great paean to pulling yourself up by your bootstraps…until you stop and say, oh, um, so you had a friend who could put you up then, eh? What about the guy who literally knows no one in the big city — how far will his two bucks take him? Maybe you were lucky enough to go to the right film class…or happened to sit next to someone who becomes your later collaborator (and if you sat two rows over, you’d never have struck up a connection). And that’s not even getting into all the actors and filmmakers who already had family in the business (whether a director, or an agent, or even a seamstress) — and even though they maintain they didn’t ask for any favours, just having that extra ground floor insight into how the biz works can give you the edge.

Obviously — I’m not belittling the talent, or hard work, that brings anyone to the forefront of their career (or, at least, to the point where they have a film in the theatres). I’m just saying no man is an island, and I doubt even filmmakers, in their hearts, really believe it’s as simple as “anyone can make their own movie if they don’t like mine.”

Besides…you shouldn’t have to want to make a film to have a right to express an opinion on a film anyway. Well…unless filmmakers want to restrict their audience simply to fellow filmmakers and I’m guessing — they don’t. They want cab drivers and nurses and accountants to come to their films (and to – ka-ching! – buy tickets!) So if they want the public’s money…then the public has a right to opine on their films.

More to the point: if you go to a fancy restaurant and there’s a cockroach in the food, would you shrug good naturedly and say, “Well, I guess that was my fault, because I could’ve stayed home and cooked.” And if the next day your friends announce they are going to that same restaurant, do you smile and say: “Have fun”? If your house collapses around you, crushing your car, do you smile and say: “I guess I can’t blame the builder because, really, I have no right to criticize poor construction until I’ve tried building a house myself”?

No — I don’t think so.

And that’s why I’m doubtful even people making these arguments believe them — ’cause I’m guessing they’d be the first to complain about poor restaurant food, or shoddy construction work.

So, no, you don’t have to agree with a contrary opinion — but you do have to realize that that opinion is just as legitimate as yours, and can be equally astute.

What’s also funny about opinions is, of course, how we all generally assume our opinion is fuelled by thought, and a sophisticated understanding of the story’s nuances…and any who disagree is a moron. People rarely say: “Man, I loved this film and the only reason you didn’t was because it was beneath you.” Yet it’s kind of an awkward — even goofy — argument. It particularly comes up in regards to serious, “arty” films, where fans will sneer at detractors about how they’ve been brainwashed by Hollywood, or their tastes are so banal they can only understand Disney cartoons. Apparently failing to perceive there might be a middle ground — that someone might still like this kind of film…even as they just didn’t think the film itself was a particularly good example of its kind

And the “I’m sophisticated and you’re not” argument can kind of backfire, too. I’ve seen movies I haven’t much liked, then will read some reviews or message board posts explaining how it’s a brilliant, challenging film, and anyone who doesn’t like it (meaning me) is a moron who isn’t smart enough to appreciate it. Yet then as they go on to describe the movie, the plot, the themes, the motivation I’m kind of checking things off in my head (yup, got that, uh huh, saw that coming) and as near as I can tell…I did pretty much get everything the movie was offering, and I still found it kind of dull, or poorly made, or predictable. So, y’know — who’s the moron? The person who didn’t like a movie because they found it clumsy and obvious, or the person who loved it because they found it difficult and challenging?

I’ve even seen reviews where the person who loved the movie, and who brags about its sophistication, will them make comments that indicate they misunderstood some of the plot points!

It’s the nature of the beast. And I’m not above it. If I like a movie, I’ll often read subtleties and nuances into it — even if it’s just some B-grade space opera. And if someone doesn’t like it, I’ll probably smugly think they just didn’t “get” it.

But, y’know, maybe they did “get” it. And they just didn’t like it. And that’s okay, too.





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