Friday, April 12, 2013

Movies: can a reviewer step out of his or her own way and write an objective review?

You know what they say about opinions: they’re like belly buttons – everybody’s got one. (I may have substituted “belly buttons” for some other orifice). Regardless, a successful movie review typically includes a healthy dose of opinion.
As a result, if you regularly read the work of a trusted movie reviewer you probably have a pretty good sense of his/her likes and dislikes. These may not be openly declared, but they will certainly filter out through the various reviews over time.
Whether those personal preferences get in the way of a good review is the question I’d like to address.

Reviewers’ likes and dislikes can evolve from simple preferences and they can be quite innocuous, as when your friend declares her favourite colour is red. How can you really argue for or against the merits of a colour? And if so, would it make compelling reading? Likely not.
More powerful – and potentially damaging – preferences are generally derived through prejudices, as when a reviewer makes preconceived judgements toward people or a person because of gender, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, race/ethnicity, nationality or some other personal characteristics.
These can add a new, unwanted dimension to a review, especially when the prejudice is not openly revealed. For example, imagine you’re reading a review about a Julia Roberts movie, written by a man who’s hated her since the days of “Pretty Woman” because he thinks she’s a showboating, man-hating ego-maniac. He’s probably not going to mention his prejudices because they could be seen as unprofessional and taint any future review, especially of a Julia Roberts movie. Or maybe he doesn’t mention them because he thinks he can look overlook them and judge any film fairly. Highly doubtful.
Some say prejudice refers simply to unfounded beliefs. Amusingly, pioneering American psychologist and philosopher William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) once said: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” You could apply this statement to movie reviewing.
The bottom line is this: every reviewer has preconceived judgements about other people and the artistic and creative decisions they make. It’s human nature.
So, when do a reviewer’s prejudices become a problem? How about if your reviewer is unable to put himself in the position of his/her readers when discussing a film? After all, understanding your readership is a key requirement for any writer, including an entertainment scribe. 
Most important, being able to imagine how a member of the opposite sex would react to or experience a movie is essential if one is to tailor reviews to the other both halves of the population.
Can a 49-year-old white, straight male empathize with a 16-year-old lesbian character who is struggling with bullying and discrimination while in high school?
Alternatively, if a woman over the age of 50 has to evaluate movies geared to 14-year-olds boys, can she remain open to enjoying, for example, Adam Sandler’s juvenile characters and often downright silly films. (I may have just revealed a bias of my own there, but then I don’t think Sandler would dispute this assessment.)
What’s the answer then? Should reviewers offer full disclosure every time they knowingly hold a bias or are prejudiced about some element of the work being reviewed? No, it wouldn’t work. Sometimes we don’t like an actress simply because she reminds us of someone who jilted us in high school – but we don’t consciously know this is the reason. And some people just don’t like westerns or documentaries or subtitles. These aren’t good reasons to punish films in reviews – but it happens.
Remember that reviewer prejudices and preferences are constantly at work, shaping every film review you read. If you can’t spot these over time in your trusted reviewer, maybe you share similar views. Or maybe you’ve been missing out on some terrific movies!
The best policy, I believe, is to read a variety of reviews, as many as possible. If a wide range of people, having a wide range of likes and dislikes, agree that a film is great – or awful – it probably is. Use this as your guide going forward… with one caveat. 
If you love Bill Murray and would see him in anything, don’t let anyone stop you from going to see his latest movie – even if it’s a documentary about the ups and downs of the pulp and paper industry. In other words, don’t overthink it. If you love something a film, an actor, a director, a screenwriter or a genre go ahead and love it unconditionally. 
But remember, that’s just your opinion.


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