A Critic's Guide to Critics.
(Or 'The Art of Writing Reviews.')
by Akio Nagatomi (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Being a critic is one of the easiest jobs in the world. After all, you don't really produce anything substantial, and anything you do produce is entirely derivative. The adage 'hindsite is 20/20' is what all reviewers live for -- rather than going to the effort of creating something original, we get our kicks from leeching off other people's hard work...
But there are a lot of review sites out there... and most of them are bad. Really bad. Makes you wonder why people even bother. Part of the problem is that a lot of people build websites that are completely unnavigatable. They take the term 'user-hostile' to all-new heights. For them, I strongly suggest they visit Sun Microsystems' website, and find out what Sun's usability studies have revealed in their Guide to Web Style. The other part of the problem is content... or more specifically, the quality of the content. Bigger is not always better; it only stands to reason that lousy reviews make for lousy review sites.
Let's take a look at what I think are the most common myths we amateurs hold so dear...
Myth #1: You can objectively review a film.
Forget it. If reviewers were truly objective, not only would every review be essentially the same, but it would also mean that a single reviewer could quantify every genre of filmmaking. Critics can't even agree on what criteria is applicable to any given film, let alone what's good about it. Reviewing is a highly subjective task. Subjective observations are heavily influenced by our own personal biases and lifetime experiences. Never mind about objectivity. Write honestly instead, and make sure that your own reasoning is sound.
My own site is completely un-sponsored for one very specific reason: If someone is financing your venture, but you stand to lose their backing by writing an unflattering review about one of their products, you can't help but be influenced by the situation. If you're sponsored by a related company, you run the risk of losing your credibility.
Myth #2: Since all reviews are subjective, there's really no such thing as a 'good' or 'bad' movie. After all, not everyone will like what critics call 'good' movies, and not everyone will hate what some consider to be 'bad' movies.
Big contradiction here. How can you possibly objectify something that's inherently subjective? Well, the answer's a bit of a cop-out, but the reality is that society as a whole will determine what's good, and what's bad. Who in the late 18th century would have guessed that van Gogh's paintings would become such treasured items? Or that Shakespeare is now required reading in school? Yes, we're often at the whims of our collective selves, and this collective will ultimately decide what's good or bad. But don't try telling me that Titanic, the biggest grossing movie in Hollywood history (in unadjusted dollars, that is), is the best movie ever produced by the industry. I don't think that it even comes close to placing in the top 100. But it sure brought in a lot of people, and a lot of dough.
Understanding the potential shortcomings of how we critique is just one step to producing a good product. There are lots of actual steps involved; far too many to cover in a single essay. But here are a few that I think are beneficial to every arm-chair critic:
Tip #1 - Pick up a stylebook. Any stylebook.
English is a problematic language at best. It becomes even more so when you start adding grammatical and spelling mistakes, or slang. Want to make a review sound like it's written by a 9-year old kid? It's easy -- just use phrases like "kick-ass" or "it rocks" or "the movie sucks!" Throw in slang terms that only juveniles use. It's no wonder so many review sites aren't taken seriously.
A stylebook gives you an invaluable reference to what's acceptable usage in the world of journalism. Concerned about political correctness? Not sure if terms are unclear? Then the stylebook is for you!. I use the AP (Associated Press) version, with one major exception. AP uses US spelling conventions (as does the Canadian Press version for some strange reason); I prefer the more traditional UK format.
Tipe #2 - Wach you're speeling and gramma.
Which witch is which? Should I use two, to or too? Threw or through? Whether it's the construct or its usage, the English language has more variations that the weather. Proper use will make your article more readable, and therefore more enjoyable to read. A spell-checker is very handy, but be aware that most will not pick up grammatical mistakes. You'll probably never rid yourself entirely of typographical errors, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try.
Tip #3 - Take courses. Then watch lots of movies.
The two will go hand-in-hand. You can't possibly write decent reviews about films if all you know are Star Wars and X-Files. Expand you horizons! Think that Miyazaki is penultimate director of 'feel-good' flicks? Go back a few years, and check out what Frank Capra did with It's a Wonderful Life. Who does the best scene composition and dramatic lighting? Well, every animation company can learn from the original study in cinematography techniques: Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Is Robot Carnival the ultimate example of art-house material? Think again - none of those anime directors can hold a candle to the likes of Bergman, Fellini, Scorcese or Kurosawa. Not only will you be able to write more intelligent reviews, but you'll have a grand old time discovering why some movies are called "classics."
What I found particularly insightful was being on the receiving end of a critique. Take a creative course of some kind, any kind... one that features some kind of critiquing session. It can be in drawing, filmaking or creative writing -- it doesn't matter. Being on the receiving end of a review, and understanding how the person came to the conclusion is an extremely valuable lesson in the review process.
Tip #4 - Research you subject matter.
Make sure that you back up your opinions with real facts -- otherwise, your opinions are basically worthless. Don't try passing off Big Trouble in Nekonlon, China as a serious martial arts film. Let's face it -- the writers aren't concerned about realism here. The movie is about as serious as it's namesake, Big Trouble in Little China. That doesn't mean that you should automatically discount these not-so-serious subjects. After all, a not-so-serious look at serious subjects is the very thing that breathes life into parodies.
Similarily, make sure that you back up your opinions with facts. What good is giving a show a 6 out of 10 star rating, if people don't know why, or even what constitutes a '10?'
Tip #5 - Be fair.
Don't like dubbed titles? That's fine. But don't unfairly handicap a show just because the subtitled version isn't available. Similarly, just because Carl Macek has a reputation for re-writing a production doesn't mean that you should discount everything he's done. For every Robotech that's out there, there's also a My Neighbor Totoro.
Tip #6 - Don't lecture (which is precisely what I'm doing in this essay!)
Nothing irks me more that being told what to think. Present ideas, and support them. But don't bother telling people that Akira is the be-all and end-all of Japanese animation -- you'll just chase them away from your site.
Tip #7 - Read other people's reviews... but only after you've written yours.
It's important to get other people's insights. They may have noticed details that you missed. But don't read the other reviews until you've finished yours. You'll be surprised at how easily a phrase from a well-written article embeds itself into your brain, to the point where your review will start looking like the one you just read. Paraphrasing doesn't work either -- if you steal someone else's review, it will invariably sound like someone else came up with the idea. Gain what you can from other people's efforts, but be original.
There. Now you know how I write my reviews. Now go out and write your own.
- Akio Nagatomi, 1998.11.07
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