The Pleasures of Reading Scathing Reviews
A recent post at television writer Ken Levine’s blog previewed the next few months’ films. Of Four Christmases, he had this wonderfully caustic comment:
Every Xmas Hollywood trots out at least five ghastly formula high concept hijinks holiday movies. This is four of them.
It made me think about how much I love really funny, really scathing reviews. I have some things to say about the rather peculiar pleasure of enjoying destructive criticism, but first, I went searching for some more examples.
Let’s start with Roger Ebert’s Your Movie Sucks, a collection of his more critical reviews. The book’s title comes from his review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. After starting by noting that the film is “aggressively bad, as if it wants to cause suffering to the audience,” Ebert notes that its star Rob Schneider got really pissy with critic Patrick Goldstein following his review of the film. Schneider bought full-page ads in Variety and Hollywood Reporter to fight back (imagine if our students bought ads in the Chronicle when we gave them bad grades), saying Goldstein had never won an award, and therefore was somehow unable to criticize the horrible film (editorial note: it really is “aggressively bad”). Ebert responds:
Schneider was nominated for a 2000 Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actor, but lost to Jar-Jar Binks. But Schneider is correct, and Patrick Goldstein has not yet won a Pulitzer Prize. Therefore, Goldstein is not qualified to complain that Columbia financed Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo while passing on the opportunity to participate in Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator, Sideways, and Finding Neverland. As chance would have it, I have won a Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.
Some other highlights from Ebert’s book after the fold:
- “Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time”
- “Boat Trip arrives preceded by publicity saying many homosexuals have been outraged by the film. Now that it’s in theaters, everybody else has a chance to join them”
- “Charlieâ€™s Angels is eye candy for the blind [â€¦] This movie is a dead zone in their lives, and mine”
- “Dirty Love wasn’t written and directed; it was committed”
- of The Hot Chick, he notes, “The MPAA rates this PG-13. It is too vulgar for anyone under thirteen, and too dumb for anyone over thirteen”
- and of Pearl Harbor, he states “although you may walk out quoting lines of dialogue, it will not be because you admire them”
A few more gems from other sources (some found via one of my favorite sites, a review aggregator, Metacritic.com):
- Keith Phipps of The Onion notes that Master of Disguise is “about as funny as a seeping wound”
- of Fox New’s misguided The 1/2 Hour News Hour, Sacha Zimmerman of The New Republic, wrote “It’s hard not to keep staring perplexed, squinting a little, and uttering, “I don’t get it” every few seconds”
- a reviewer of The Swan at IMDb called it “a shrieking abomination”
- of Knight Rider, pajiba.com wrote, “At nine minutes in, I had to shut my SlingPlayer software down (SlingBox is a miracle for those of us who like to watch TV in the office) because I think my computer was getting stupider just for having Knight Rider stream through it”
- Television Without Pity calls Married by America “a show so bad that we suspect that other bad shows took it aside out of compassion to gently tell it how bad it was”
- and they accuse Are You Hot? of telegraphing “more like a slave auction than something sexy and fun to watch”
- and Sex and the City is a “stupid, fluffy, and sometimes stale ‘comedy’ with the shelf life of an open bag of chips”
- finally, an IMDb reviewer writes of Batman and Robin‘s director Joel Schumacher, “I’d have more respect for Schumacher if I discovered that he hated Batman, and had intentionally ruined it with this garbage. Then, this might actually be just his own personal joke”
Why do I find these amusing? And it’s not just me. Clearly, Ebert could not sell a book unless there were others. And critics would likely just give up on reviewing really awful films if there wasn’t an audience for the reviews of those films.
Of course, an initial and understandable response comes at the end of this passage, from a review that pans Highlander 2, asking (then answering):
So why do we take the time to write these insanely long documents slamming these terrible movies? [â€¦] For this one, I must confess to having but one motivation–Revenge.
A really horrifically bad product wastes a reviewer’s time, and thus baits the reviewer to respond. Indeed, I found considerably more full-length bad reviews of films, rather than television shows, perhaps because films take away more of one’s life, and many cinephiles have a masochistic inability to leave the cinema until the show is over.
In a society that constantly demands civility, there’s also the carnivalesque pleasure of seeing something awful truly savaged. Note the frequency of the South Park-esque in bad reviews (with metaphors of slave auctions, old bums on buses, and seeping wounds â€¦ or we might think of South Park‘s recent episode lashing out at the recent Indiana Jones installment, in which Spielberg and Lucas literally rape Indy). If we’re usually asked for constructive criticism, as John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson (as Black Adder, not Bean) discovered, there are significant comic pleasures in tearing through such rules. Cleese and Atkinson, too, were master wordsmiths, and some of this criticism similarly shows artistic panache â€“ comparing the experience of being trapped in a bad film to that of sitting next to a B.O-drenched bus passenger â€“ and/or rhetorical flair â€“ turning Schneider’s gripe about being criticized by someone without a Pulitzer around on him, with a dig at his own nomination for a Razzie alongside Jar-Jar. Thus, while attacking the bad, we can enjoy something good.
Running with this idea, we might look to bad reviews for what they tell us about widespread societal frustrations with, and anger at, a culture industry that so often rips us off, or dupes us with false promises. Amidst both the industry’s and academia’s interest in fans, we’re often asked to overlook anti-fans and the hatred, dislike, or resentment of media. Perhaps this is why so many cultural critics bemoan the state of a media-obsessed culture, since they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid too and think that everyone loves everything. But even when an “impressive” 25 Million Americans watch American Idol, that means that 275 Million didn’t watch it. And while we’re talking about Idol, let’s remember that its star, Simon Cowell, is known for bad reviews.
Part of the problem is that there aren’t all that many outlets for us to meaningfully display or register our dissatisfaction. Especially since everything we find bad will no doubt be found wonderful by someone, we can also end up self-censoring, scared to complain too loudly.
The old line that if you don’t like something, just don’t go to watch it, or just change the channel, not only forgets that we might be duped into paying for a crappy film, but also that sometimes changing the channel only offers something else fit to reduce one to Oedipal eye surgery.
Thus, just as Seinfeld or Simpsons-like observations of the oddities of everyday life convince us that we’re not the only one to have ever noticed such oddities, or just as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have served an important role in a conservative America to tell liberals that they’re not being driven crazy on their own, part of the pleasure of a bad review comes from knowing that you’re not alone.Tags: anti-fans, reviews, Robert Ebert