01 August 2014

How Not to Write a Review, Unless You Want to Sound Like an Insufferable Prig


I know it's been all Snowpiercer all the time here lately, but this time it's not so much about that particular film as about how one reviewer has chosen to write about it, since his choices are ones that I detest in reviews, despite (or perhaps because of) how common those choices are.

I am, in other words, simply here to register a complaint.

There is a good argument to be made that we should not expend any time or attention on bad writing. Life is short, and there's plenty of great writing out there to read. But I am ignoring that argument for the moment, despite all it has to recommend it. Because sometimes something is just such a perfect model of What Not To Do that I can't help but want to scream against it.

The item in question is a review at The Los Angeles Review of Books by Len Gutkin. It is a negative review, but that's not the problem. I'm glad there are negative reviews of Snowpiercer, even though I loved the film, because I am suspicious of anything that seems to garner universal acclaim.

It would be nice, though, if the negative reviews could be something more than, "Waaaaa! I don't like this movie and other people do! I'm right, they're wrong! Waaaaaa! Pay attention to me!"

You think I exaggerate? Let me do something the review does not, and offer a bit of evidence...



The first paragraph is mostly summary, but the term "critical darling" is obviously there to let us know that this will not be an altogether positive review. Critical darlings are one step above warm piles of wombat dung, after all. Not only are they darlings (which we all know must be killed, not loved), but they're also the darlings of that most disgusting of creatures, the critic. (Critics who proclaim their distaste for all those other critics are the best, of course, because they're on Our Side. They're One of Us. We the people.)

The second paragraph begins with an overview of director Bong Joon-Ho's career, with The Host praised for its satire and wit, but the review quickly plunges into invective. "Snowpiercer, too, has moments of satirical wit, but it is mostly an incoherent slog, a tendentious allegory punctuated by overproduced fight scenes meant to be virtuosic but that are, in fact, merely busy — glossy object lessons in the asininity of action-movie convention."

Here's where we begin to see the problem with this review. The reviewer wants to universalize his own taste, prejudices, inclinations, ignorance, etc. He wants to become Us. He could not write, "I found Snowpiercer to have some moments of satirical wit, but mostly it seemed to me to be an incoherent slog..." No, it must be stated more categorically: It is this.

Of course, you might argue that since this is a review written by one person, the fact that it is one person's opinion is obviously implied, and saying, "It seems to me..." or "I found it to be..." over and over is annoying. That may be true, but writers find ways around it without declaring themselves God Of All Truth. And yes, certainly the omniscient pose is, we all know, just a pose. It's the choice to take such a pose that I object to, because it leads to an astounding arrogance of tone, a tone of absolute faith, utter certainty, pure infallibility.

Perhaps I so bristle at it because I've fallen into such a tone myself at times. It's hard to avoid, I know. But worth the effort. The pieces of writing that I most regret having published are reviews composed with such a tone.

I could complain about the inaccuracy of Gutkin's adjectives, or the factual inaccuracy of his "in fact" ("merely busy" — no, that is, in fact, wrong), or the blithely dismissive phrase "the asininity of action-movie convention" — but let's instead look to how he justifies his opinions. After such assertions, there must be evidence, no? "The entire movie looks, somehow, both very expensive and frustratingly cheap." Another assertion. Followed by a comparison to a video game and another assertion: "which would have been impressive 17 years ago." Oooh, snap! But not evidence. (How does it look like that? Point to specific elements. Describe.)

"Snowpiercer is about class revolt, a theme whose timeliness has tricked critics into admiring it." More assertions and more arrogance: All those other people have been tricked! Our reviewer is the only one who can see the truth! This sentence is followed by a snide contradiction of David Denby's review: "'Is revolution being hatched in the commercial cinema?' The New Yorker’s David Denby was moved to ask. No, David, it’s not." This is a contradiction, not an argument. Also, it's puerile. (Why not just call him Dave? You're at Yale, Lee, you could, you know, jump on MetroNorth and hang out with Dave in NYC. I'm sure he'd love to chat with you. He might even offer you his job, because obviously you're so much smarter than he is!)

This is followed by some more snide summary in which the writer works hard to declare himself superior to the work he is reviewing.

(Have we found evidence for Gutkin's assertions yet? I'm not seeing much. But let's continue...)

There's commentary on Chris Evans's performance as Curtis. "Has there ever been a well-known actor so pitifully without any of the requisite gifts as Evans?" Yes, I'm sure there has been. But maybe he meant the question as hyperbole. No matter. It completely misses the idea that perhaps the performance is exactly what was needed, because perhaps there is a critique of heroic action movies built into this movie. I don't require a reviewer to agree with such an idea, but it's always worth considering that perhaps the item under review is doing what it is doing on purpose, and perhaps your job as a reviewer is to look for that purpose, and, before you reject the item as simply "bad", to consider this possible purpose and adjust your critique accordingly. But no, as any blowhard can tell you, it's much easier and more fun to hurl insults.

The review continues: "To be fair, he’s given some pretty hopeless material. Recounting to Namgoong the traumatic early days of life on the train, Curtis fights back tears (I think that’s what he’s doing) and asks, 'You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like.' After several seconds of grimacing: 'I know that babies taste best.' I laughed so hard I thought I’d be asked to leave the theater." Again, skipping over the snotty tone, maybe that's the point.

(But let's not entirely skip over that snotty tone. Gutkin presents himself as one of those people who likes to stay above it all, distantly judging anyone who might find the scene actually moving. I can see him at the theatre, laughing away while some poor schlub next to him wipes away a tear, and Gutkin turns to said schlub and whispers, "What a little crybaby you are. You probably watch the Hallmark Channel, don't you?")

He moves on to Tilda Swinton. To Gutkin's credit, he recognizes that Tilda Swinton is a god. He then references Coriolanus, to show what a real writer can do with similar themes, and Joan Didion, who long ago sneered down her sneery nose at Dr. Strangelove — and so Gutkin decides that because he, too, likes to sneer, he has rights to Didion's nose, and he uses it to sneer down at Snowpiercer, which is, in fact, worse than Strangelove. (Imagine that! The horror!) But Swinton's good: "Only when she’s onscreen does Snowpiercer completely hold one’s attention."

The above sentence is yet another example of the arrogance that oozes from this review. What if somebody said, "There actually are other moments that completely held my attention." How would Gutkin respond? He has left himself only two choices. He could say, "In that case, I am wrong," or he could say, "You may think your attention was completely held, but you are a victim of false consciousness, and I, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, know more than you, and therefore I pronounce you wrong. Return to the hole out of which you crawled, worm!"

The next paragraph is, surprisingly, all praise for various actors, ending with, "And as Wilford, Ed Harris is as good as you’d expect him to be."

Just as we're beginning to think that Gutkin is maybe not the total creep he seemed to be, he doubles down: "But not good enough." Ohhh, feel the burn!

The final paragraph continues: "Snowpiercer wouldn’t, really, be worth writing about at all, except that a number of prominent critics — and not just David Denby — seem inexplicably convinced of its virtues." If the egomaniacal shallowness of this sentence isn't obvious to you, just look at that inexplicably there. According to this sentence, none of the critics who have praised Snowpiercer have explained their praise. None of them. Instead, they've just written thousands and thousands of versions of, "Snowpiercer, Snowpiercer, rah rah rah! Yadda yadda yadda! It's great, great, great" Meanwhile, Gutkin has offered the devasting and incontroverible evidence of, "No, David, it’s not."

We're not quite done yet, so maybe there's some evidence in the final sentences. Gutkin actually quotes two reviewers, Dana Stevens and Andrew O’Hehir, but he doesn't quote their reasoning, he just contradicts their opinions, and quotes O'Hehir on Harvey Weinstein's initial desire to cut the film's length, which then leads to the final sentence: "Weinstein should have been allowed his cuts — the thing would at least have been shorter." (The thing. It's not even a movie, it's just a thing, something easily dismissed. Get this thing out from under my Didion nose! Such things are not allowed at the Yale Club! Go away, thing!)

This made me wonder if the reviews he quotes are as vapid as his own.

Here's a paragraph from Stevens (and not an entirely positive one, at that, despite Gutkin's accusation that Stevens gushes):
Unless you have a huge appetite for gnarly fight sequences, this seizing-control-of-the-train section gets a bit long and structure-less, though I will say this for Bong: His action scenes never build or resolve according to familiar Hollywood formulas. Any character, no matter how narratively important or beloved, can get the ax (often literally) at any time, which gives the battle scenes a palpable sense of emotional as well as physical suspense.
The qualifier at the beginning of that first sentence is an interesting contrast to Gutkin's arrogance. As someone who does, in fact, have a pretty good appetite for "gnarly fight sequences" (an accurate description of some of the central scenes in the film), I appreciate Stevens's caveat. Indeed, I can see how somebody less interested in cinematic mayhem than I might get bored during a lot of Snowpiercer, just as I could see they might get bored with any action movie, no matter how accomplished. If you don't like that sort of thing, you don't like that sort of thing, and you'll have a hard time telling the good stuff from the mediocre or even bad. (It's like me trying to tell you if a football player is any good. Amateur football games look just like professional ones to my eyes. But I'm not writing reviews of football games.) Further, Stevens makes an assertion about those action scenes (they "never build or resolve according to familiar Hollywood formulas") and then follows that assertion with reasoning.

The O'Hehir review is more descriptive and also full of assertions without evidence, and, truthfully, doesn't do a very good job of explaining its praise.

It's easy to write negative reviews. It's fun, in a nasty, trivial sort of way. It lets you blow off the steam that built up from being subjected to an experience you didn't enjoy. I've done it. I get it. But a negative review needs to offer something more than just its negativity.

I've come to expect, perhaps foolishly, a little bit more of the L.A. Review of Books. Shouldn't an editor say, "Hey, you've clearly had fun writing this, but you should know that you come off sounding like an ass, and it might help to put a little bit more explanation in there to give some evidence for your criticism. You disguise the lack of substance with a tone of omniscience, as if the obviousness of your complaints isn't worth the effort of explanation. I mean, have you ever considered that maybe the problem isn't the movie? Maybe, really, the problem is ... you?"

3 comments:

  1. Tonstant weader fwowed up.

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  2. The review does a lot to reinforce New Haven's stereotype of Yale and its attitude toward the general public. It reminded me of this piece that appeared in the Yale Daily News a few years ago. As a little background, Toad's Place is a long-running nightclub in downtown New Haven and one of the last medium-size music venues in the area. http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2011/11/16/fisher-close-toads-now/

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    Replies
    1. They should have just given that piece the headline: "Locals. Ewwwww."

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