On Reviews
by Rusty W. Spell

I sometimes write reviews, and I used to write tons of them.  Most of it is and was just something fun for me to do.  I never felt that I was saying anything important or smart or worth reading, and I am always surprised when I find that someone gets something out of it.  But more than surprised, I'm always a little embarrassed or maybe ashamed when someone tells me they've read it (whether they get something out of it or not).  Because writing reviews is kind of a shameful thing to do.

At its best, a review of an album or movie or whatever will inform the reader of something.  "This greatest hits album contains every single released by the band during the period that so-and-so was fronting them."  Or maybe, at its very best, it will make you appreciate the thing just a little more than you already did, or articulate to you why you liked it to begin with.  Maybe it will give you an "aha" moment, explain something.  Book reviews are often pretty good.  Movie reviews do an okay job, depending.  Music reviews almost always are ridiculous ("It's not a great or important album, but it's a good one," etc.).

At the other end of "best" -- which is where I often play, I'm afraid -- are reviews that are simply insulting, hateful, mean, pointless.  Very recently, I was watching a documentary about Bob Clark, the guy who directed A Christmas Story and Porky's.  He also directed a movie called Baby Geniuses, and a writer for that movie was talking about a review he had read about it, how it was picking on the movie.  You can see why someone would want to pick on Baby Geniuses: it's a movie about talking babies, and it's certainly not a masterpiece like A Christmas Story.  But the writer, in a very sweet and hurt voice that actually touched my heart a little, said something like, "I felt bad reading this review.  I mean, this was a movie made to entertain small children, and this grown man was going out of his way to insult it for no real reason."  (This isn't a direct quote, but I hope it gets the gist across fairly.)  Hearing him say this wasn't the first time I thought about how hurtful and dumb the act of writing reviews can be, but it was the thing that made me write what I'm writing now.

Someone like me, who writes on not-widely-read websites, will write whatever crap they want without thinking that anyone will actually read it--certainly the person who made the work will not read it.  And usually, they don't.  Once or twice it's happened.  Once a woman emailed me because she was hurt that I wrote a negative review about the work of a decently-well-known director who was a friend of her son.  She said nothing about the director's work, only that he was a very nice person, which I never doubted, but that's defending myself too much.  Sometimes I've written reviews for things that my own friends have created and just hoped they didn't hate me for the half-a-negative comment that slipped in (the one thing that gets dwelled on, as a result of human nature, even if everything else is glowing).

But there's always the chance that someone famous will read what I've done, and it's almost certain that someone famous will read what a famous reviewer has written, which almost certainly causes hurt feelings, until eventually the artist often just stops reading reviews altogether.  In this way, critics are the worst kinds of "artists."  They (I don't say "we" for fear that someone will think that I think I'm something that I'm not, since I'm even worse than real critics) take some piece of art that someone has spent a lot of time on and take a few minutes out of their life to take a dump on it if they don't like it and say something nice if they do.  In every case (positive, negative, in-between) the effect is that of reduction.  And the act itself is something like vampirism: sucking the life out of a living thing for your own benefit.  All in a day's work!

This goes well beyond hurt feelings.  It enters the realm of wasted energies.  "Couldn't you be doing something better with your time than arguing that Weezer's Make Believe wasn't as good as their Pinkterton?"  This is why I eventually quit writing a review for every movie I watched and album I heard.  (This is why I never wrote reviews for books, which isn't nearly as easy when you're wanting to do a quick, sloppy job of it.)  But I still write these fake reviews for movies I haven't actually seen ("Rusty's Movie Pre-Judgments").  And here's a sampling of its genius:

"For French guys who like to look at their hairy balls in the mirror."  / "I don't like Clint Eastwood.  You do what you want."  / "Jason Reitman makes a movie even worse than Juno." / "Fart-skillet."

I'm not sure who this is meant to edify.  I do it as a fun (for me) way of keeping up with every movie that comes out and remembering what they are for future reference, and of course as a joke.  My only defense is that I don't take these things seriously, and I hope that no one else does much (except when I do take it seriously--I'm looking at you, computer-animated children's movies).  I'm not the worst critic (fake or otherwise) in the world, but I'm among them.  The answer I'd give you if you ask "Who are you to judge?" is "Just some asshole with an old copy of FrontPage."  God forbid I should meet a director like Richard Kelly one day and he turns out to be the nicest guy in the universe who's just trying to get his vision of the world out there -- even though it's about the worst vision I can imagine -- someone who's actually trying hard and who has made a name for himself, and he thinks less of me because I once called him a dickhead or whatever on the internet.

In the end, I'm just some guy answering the question "Hey, what did you think of this one?" without being decent enough to give a thoughtful answer, often taking the crude and offensive route instead, sometimes for a cheap laugh, sometimes because I'm just that lazy.  In reality, I admire anyone who attempts to create a piece of art or to entertain or even to make an honest buck (not forgetting that acting, directing, singing, and the rest of it is a paying job and a noble one), no matter how much I might hate the product that comes out.

Am I saying all of this so that I can then go on and do the same kind of time-wasting crap I've been doing?  Yes.  But I hope we now have an understanding.  "I love you and respect you and I wish I were in your position so that someone could take a dump on me."  That's what I'm really trying to say, I promise.

Copyright Apr 2010 We Like Media.
You may email Rusty W. Spell.