What The Internet Hath Wrought: Film vs. Book Reviews

One thing the Internet has helped birth is the ability of anyone to sound (or sound like they are writing, rather) like a professional film critic, regardless of whether they know what they they are talking about, whether they have seen more than three films in their lives, etc. . I’ve glanced at “user-contributed” reviews on Facebook’s Flixter application which make even the trashiest pieces of celluloid sound like fair-game for a first-year Media Arts screening.

There’s nothing wrong with this. I’m not going to editorially trample on anyone’s feelings, yet.

However, while the same could be said for online book reviews, it’s much harder to get away with it (it being sounding like a professional…or a professional who writes as they sound. Something like that).

A film is inherently visual. It also has sound (most of them, at least). It also usually uses actors who speak lines. For the armchair (or E-Z Boy) critic, this audio/video-based performance makes the casual accusation of, say, “bad acting” somewhat verifiable (again, somewhat verifiable – there are always disagreements and prejudices, but these tend to be questions of degrees rather than disagreements of monolithic good or badness. To this end, it’s always harder for the viewer to infer a good performance from a bad film; it’s like a supermodel who cleaned her hands with an old dish cloth – sure she’s pretty, but she smells bad for some reason.).

Outside of the necessity of reading words printed on a page, books by comparison are not visual, nor do they have sound (assuming we forget for the moment about audiobooks). When a character speaks in a book, we don’t see Sally Field (mind you, perhaps some of us do…), but rather some variously fuzzy or non-fuzzy imaginary abstraction – an avatar if you will – that we attach to the words in order to help us visualize the character(s). For one person, they may be fluffy, indeterminate cloud-like beings, for others the animated cast of Battle of the Planets. Whatever floats your boat.

In other words, as regards books, whether it be War & Peace or The DaVinci somethingsomething, chances are pretty slim that someone’s going to criticize the performance of their personalized imaginary helper-beings, who mouth the pretty words in their head whilst they read. For the book reader, they don’t need to be convinced primarily through performance, but rather through conviction; the conviction of the author’s choice in story crafting, character actions, etc… This is not to say that the topic of conviction in books cannot be just as debatable as an actor’s performance in a film, however, due to being a medium which is more abstract, the arguments are invariably deeper than those shared about films.

Let me cut to the chase, this being the Internet and most of you having probably left to check out porn or martini recipes by now: books are abstractions whereas films are pantomimes of abstractions. Here, let me pull my chair closer [chrrrr]: films are easier to criticize. Period. They are small books, painted big. Once you have a rudimentary sense of what works and what doesn’t in film (acting, dialogue, story, and, peripherally, visual effects, sound design, directing) it’s pretty easy to sound like A.O. Scott, even when reviewing, say, Tank Girl:

In this wild, cheeky romp, the audience benefits from wonderfully imaginative environments, spunky performances, and a ceaseless plot driven by pure adrenaline. Tank Girl issues a decree to the viewer: the graphic novel-turned movie is a serious threat to original screenplays.

Is this valid? Again, if you’ve only seen three movies in your life, perhaps it is. Perhaps Tank Girl is for you. I only saw the first half of Tank Girl. I suggest you see none of it. In fact, I suggest all remaining prints be stored on the moon – but that’s me.

The problem (or advantage) with a book review (vs. film) is that there is much less wiggle-room when declaring your opinion. Unlike film, where there is more latitude for interpretation (particularly as regards camera work and editing), with books we are dealing with what is literally written on the page. Room for interpretation? Of course – there will always be room for interpretation, otherwise MFA professors would have nothing to structure their courses with. But certainly – whether we are talking about so-called professional book critics, or their translucent-skinned basement-dwelling non-professional Internet cousins – the opinions don’t nearly or consistently bounce from one end of the “good/bad” spectrum to another as is common with film.

I think it comes down to the fact that readers generally respect authors more than viewers respect filmmakers [and on this note, I suppose that really means “directors” – filmmakers, in my book, are people who go out with a camera, an idea, and come back from the edit room having done 80% of the process with their own hands – I’ll write more about this later]. This isn’t to say that readers respect authors as people; rather, I submit there’s a begrudging respect to anyone who has the perseverance to lay down 40,000 words which construct coherent sentences and paragraphs.

It’s a layman’s respect, whereas with filmmakers, if we don’t like what they do, then… well, they suck.

[For sake of disclosure, I’ve only done one film review on this blog – albeit in collaboration with my friend, Simon – and it was an artsy documentary about a soccer player.]


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