Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Silence of the Sublime

Sometimes, I worry that I only write reviews on this blog (and in general) when I've read something I dislike. Not that I think I'm unfair in my bad reviews--I try to give specific, concrete reasons why I dislike something, and I like to think I'm fair, even if I admit that I can be cruel.

But what I worry about is that if people read only negative reviews, they'll start to think that I'm actually a negative person. I worry that I'm coming off as a grump, a curmudgeon that doesn't like anything at all. Whereas in fact, I'm a grump and a curmudgeon who likes a lot of things. (Rimshot.) I just find it harder to talk about the things I like than the things I dislike.

Because the fact is, it's a lot easier to write a bad review than a good one. A bad review can point to specific areas where improvement is needed, giving concrete and constructive advice like, "These two characters are telling each other information that both of them already know, solely to provide exposition for the audience. That's a mistake." Or, "A car chase scene doesn't work nearly as well in a book as it does in a movie. Work to the strengths of your medium." Or, "Research is important to a believable and well-crafted book. If you're going to use intelligent zombie rats and mice in your novel, you should do some reading on actual rats and mice, so that your book doesn't wind up filled with plot holes because you don't understand just how hard it is to 'rat-proof' a building." (Um, sorry, Brian Keene, author of 'City of the Dead'. But it's all true.)

But a good story...it touches the soul. Whether comedy or tragedy, horror or romance, there's an indefinable element to the alchemy it produces in its audience. When you describe something truly brilliant, eventually all you're left with is synonyms for "good". You can say "the characterization is wonderful," you can say "the story was brilliant", you can say "the acting was amazing", but you can't ever really describe why. That brilliance exists on a level deeper than words. The sentence, "If Bruce Springsteen had ever recorded 'Born To Lurk', these two would have been on the album cover," cannot be pinned down or quantified to explain exactly why it is funny. It just is. There is a transcendent comic genius to Simon Pegg jump-kicking an old lady in the head that you cannot explain to anyone who has not seen 'Hot Fuzz' for themselves--and you'll get some odd looks if you try. The end of 'The Kindly Ones' will always bring tears to my eyes, but I can no more explain why than I can tell you why 'Slither' terrifies me.

Which is, of course, what we love about these stories. It's why we make art, to create something that transcends a mere description of its contents. But it does mean that ultimately, any good review can only say, "Go and experience this for yourself. I cannot do it justice." And you feel silly writing that every time.

7 comments:

Eric Teall said...

I've never thought you were too negative, John. The depth and consideration in your reviews demonstrates your love of stories and their engines/structures. Keep it all coming, please! :-)

Eric

Nicholas said...

I'd want to disagree with you, but it's hard to. It's not impossible to pin down what makes a good story or song or image, but it's difficult to explain to people because such elements, by design, go unnoticed by the audience. What's wrong with a story, by contrast, is often glaring precisely because it comes between the audience and the work.

I've always viewed a good story as a catalyst that gets inside your head and sets your juices swirling. The various tricks of writing, drawing, performing, and the like are there to insure the payload gets delivered. That's how I view skilled writing, anyway -- the ability to get the energy of your work inside the reader's head. Bad work irritates the audience somehow and makes them unreceptive. Good work disarms us with a flourish and gives us a peck on the cheek while slipping out the backdoor before we think to scream of scandal.

Karaoke said...

I do disagree. In my opinion, a critic's job when positively reviewing a film or comic or album is to express the experience they had with that piece of art, to give the audience a small measure of what they felt. You should inspire people to want to experience the same. If a negative review is intended to steer people away from poor work, a positive review should be steering people towards a good work.

Tell a story, tell what it meant to you.

And, of course, you CAN analyze a good movie or book or album or whatever, but talk about the elements that make it successful. Don't go, "The acting is good", describe the acting. Was it subtle? Did actor X speak his lines slowly with pained eloquence? Did actress Y spit out her words in a frenzy? Stuff like that! Also, you can talk about thematic elements, and why you enjoy certain kinds of stories.

It doesn't have to be, "Yeah this is really good."

For the record, I've never thought you to be too negative and really appreciate your posts.

David Wynne said...

Ah, don't be silly. You're not even CLOSE to being "too negative". The internet is overflowing with snarky, affectedly cynical, "everything's shit" reviewers. You aren't one of them. I think you do a great, and very well balanced, job.

John Seavey said...

Thanks, all. But I really wasn't looking for personal validation (honestly, I wasn't. I know that's the primary purpose of blogs everywhere, to say something mean about yourself so you can see everyone tell you how wrong you are and how awesome you are in the comments section, but for some reason I don't do that.)

I just thought it'd be a nice opening bit to use to transition into my actual point, is all. Still, it's nice to know that I can go ahead and ramp up the mean-spirited hatred a good long way before I start losing readers! :)

Mark said...

Bizarre post. Isn't your storytelling engines series primarily focussed on pointing out what works and why it does?

I think you're much better at good reviews than you give yourself credit for.

Anonymous said...

Read some of the reviews by Roger Ebert.

(You can find many of his great reviews at http://www.rogerebert.com/ but be warned there are also some Ebert wanna-bes posted on there as well.)

Ebert was a master at reviewing film, and part of his mastery was his ability to explain something of what made a movie work. Because this involves spoilers and requires the insights only time can provide, he only really does this in his reviews of older films, such as Casablanca or Duck Soup. But they are worth reading.

Take a couple of hours to immerse yourself in the writings of Roger Ebert, and you will find yourself an even better writer for your having done so.