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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Review

Fair & Balanced graphic used in 2005
As reviewers, is this our motto? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It started at 13, but it grows. I do not have a Unified Field Theory of Reviewing, but I work in that direction. We are up to 52 insights.

1)    For purposes of this class, I consider reviewing an act of journalism, something done quickly, accurately and insightfully but still the act of a generalist, by someone who knows a little about a lot. Like journalism, the teaching of reviewing is pragmatic. One shares with students the formulas - the cookie cutters that work perfectly well if you have assembled "good" ingredients - that allow the student to produce useful analysis quickly, efficiently and without anguish. Is this approach a disservice to the students? For, as in all journalism, in reviewing our ideal is to know the formula but to go beyond it when we can, to surprise our readers and perhaps ourselves.
2)    What’s the difference between a regular feature story describing something like the labyrinth walk and a review of the walk? I would say that certain implied aspects of the former become more explicit in the latter. The review is more explicitly subjective, more comfortably judgmental, more direct in suggesting something is worth doing – or not. Objectivity (a word I hate when it comes to journalism since journalism is not science) isn’t a particularly useful idea in vetting a review. I prefer Fair and Balanced when it comes to the journalist’s work. But in reviewing? Broadly. Very broadly.
3)    Accuracy in reviewing? Absolutely. Non-negotiable.
4)    Since this class is called Arts Reviewing and Reporting – and because one of the things I dislike about some reviews is their plethora of unmoored, undefined adjectifying (more to come on that) – each review must have some basic consumer information, such as times, dates, places, costs, contact numbers for the thing reviewed. That strikes me as Fair and Balanced. (See #1.)
5)    A variation on the preceding paragraph. I want description in any review done for this class. Employ the senses. Don’t merely describe the thing itself but at least consider the possibility of describing the audience, the venue. This may be particularly important in the music review because this is one of those corners of popular culture where my ignorance is particularly vast.  Describing the music may be hard – though it’s certainly worth doing. Describing the bands and fans? Easy.
6)    You can’t do a good review without understanding your audience, which is just another way of saying you need to figure out if your reader shares your frame of reference. Everyone has Ph.D. knowledge in some areas and kindergarten knowledge in others: “George Washington, first president of the United States of America, a nation-state located on the North American continent, one of the principal land masses on the third planet in a minor star system on the fringes of our galaxy ….” (Note to self: Just what is a nation-state anyway?)
7)    What I am doing here, collecting fragmentary insights about a topic, is characteristic of many reviews. They proceed by association, with no clear through-line or nut graph. What is the structural sine qua non of an effective review?
8)    Yes, you in back. What is a sine qua non? Does context make the meaning clear? How often should a reviewer challenge readers by using vocabulary that some of them may not understand? Under what conditions might this be acceptable? More to the point, is it ever desirable?
9)    The first thing you have to learn in review writing is to go into the experience with some specific expectations if – like me – you tend to let the experience flow over you without exactly thinking about it.  Start the Thinking Machine early. As in any reporting, you are ready to go where the experience takes you. But you want to make sure you get something out of it. The reviewer as blank slate: Sometimes that just doesn’t work. You need some general ideas about the art form – its history, its current state - going in, and also about this particular thing and its creator, if such information is in the air.
10) Corollary to the preceding: Unless you are some Big Wonder Brain with total recall, you are going to need to take notes. That’s what makes reviewing specific. You have given your brain one more thing to do. You have to be thinking about your own thinking and writing it down. Perhaps, your top reviewers don’t need to do this? We’ll ask.
11) Just read a review of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in Salon that makes the point that “It's darker than you remember and speaks to our times.” Two words for reviewers: revisionist and/or contrarian.  Or, maybe, three words: recognizing the obvious when others seem to have overlooked.
12)  A colleague says all ethical questions are actually questions about money in the sense that if a choice doesn’t threaten – or benefit – somebody’s pocketbook (probably yours), it’s just an intellectual exercise, an easy call. I wonder if the same thing could be said of discussions of what Art is. Craft is useful and justifies itself. Art is that mysterious thing that, by definition, justifies itself without being useful. The Artist unapologetically exerts effort that does not profit her/him, which effort could be turned to profit elsewhere. (Real $profit$ even if only by picking up cans by the side of the road. Not some gauzy notion of personal growth.) To label something as Art means it is worth doing even if it is not useful and, by definition, all useful things have financial value. Therefore, all discussions about Art are about what human activity lies within the charmed circle where whether it pays or not is irrelevant. This is a profoundly subversive notion in a capitalist society, is it not?
13)  Let’s keep this going. Thus, is an Artist who wants to be rich and famous that much less of an Artist? Does anyone really admire an Artist who isn’t in it for the money, and whose Art – I’m talking the category/type/kind/genre of Art rather than its execution – clearly will never make her/him a dime?
14)  Some reviews are written with great certainty, which makes the reader a spectator. Some reviews are a self-conscious debate with the reader. And some reviews are a reviewer’s debate with himself/herself. Time to bring in the Keats:
'At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'
15) I don’t want to forget one of my “unthoughts,” a fundamental premise when it comes to dealing with reviewers. Like columnists, theirs is a cumulative effect. You learn the reviewers’ tendencies, both stylistic and aesthetic. They build trust, though by that I mean trust you will enjoy them, not agree with them. (Of course, there is also trust in taste.) Drawing on the opportunity to use an eight-penny word, a reviewer has an oeuvre, a body of work, and it is in that context that you evaluate her/him. (Of course, we read “one-off” reviews. But for this course, we’re concentrating on the committed reviewer.)
16)  But every review is read each time by someone for the first time! Can we tease out those qualities that help a reviewer gain readers rather than simply not losing them? Or am I inventing a distinction that does not exist?
17)  Definitions of Art are like splatter paintings (he said). Throw some ideas against the wall, and your mind will connect the dots. That said, I do think that one of the most useful ideas about Art is that, by definition, it means different things to different people and that time treats it kindly, either in the sense that succeeding ages return to a piece of something (recall previous sentence: often with confounding new interpretations) or in the sense of rewarding extended contemplation, repeated exposure to. Hence my interest in an article in The Weeklings (“Rogue Commentary for Now People”) about movies that you can watch again and again with deepening pleasure. It’s called “Watch Me Two Times.”
18)  Simple, simple. A review is either instructive (to the reader) Or corrective (to the artist or art form). Or both. Right?
19)  Let’s quantify as much as we can. How many words that your average reader doesn’t know is it advisable to use in a review? I mean using the word without a, “that is…,” or other explanatories. Are there audiences who expect you to do a little of this?
20)  Real reviewers don't read other reviews before reviewing. If you do that, you're a critic! That said, it's an understandable temptation.  A reviewer might want to cheat because she/he didn’t know what to write, and all of us often read reviews because we don’t know what to think. It's not only a matter of having your understanding deepened by reading those reviews that say what you "have often thought but ne'er so well expressed," it's also when you read a review that surfaces how you feel about a piece of art because the review gets it wrong. Think of the review as the precipitant that causes ideas to form out of your supersaturated thoughts. (Yes, I looked it up.) Their wrong words help you find your right ones. But that's not a backdoor I want to leave open in this class.
21) One reason I read reviews, and not the least important: so I will have some cocktail party chatter. Does this generation of students have so convenient a shorthand for the urge to seem to know more than you do?
22) We will begin the semester with one word around which all else will form concentric circles. That word is “audience,” as in your audience for your review. But that word may change as the semester progresses. What other words come to mind, younglings?
23) Beware, young reviewer, of those things – bits of knowledge, philosophical and ethical truths -- you consider self evident, so self evident you build your review upon them and then discover no one else considers them self evident. However, recognizing such assumptions and then stepping back to explore why you think so is always a good day's work.
24) And never forget never forget that talking about or listening to others talk about questions that can never be answered is itself an appetite and perhaps a necessity.
25) “Hierarchy of genre.” Thank you, New York Times wine page (of all places).
26)  I’m assuming a key question for a reviewer is: What do my readers know and when did they know it? I'm assuming that for many readers of a review, back in the day there was a good deal of innocence and ignorance of the particular piece of art (let us say a movie) as they awaited the review. But now, with the twitter and the Facebook and the email, both sweeping up and originating information and sending that information glancing off you, I'm thinking it could be harder to gauge just how much information your reader already has and exactly what kind of information –project financing, evolution of the script, actor tantrums, Hollywood buzz – you need to include and explain. (Or do you just ignore that stuff and focus on the thing itself.) In other words, your potential audience may be less homogeneous, more fragmented, than it once was. On the other hand, probably the smart editors have already confronted this challenge – niche publications have always been with us - and your audience will be there prescreened and thus easier for you to focus on.
27)  A game to play, particularly with movie reviews:  How many reviewers – or copy editors - succumb to the obvious comparison (frequently insulting but not always) or image or bad pun. This is probably an index to the audience written for.
28) Jean Renoir's remarks on theories: “You know, I can't believe in the general ideas, really I can't believe in them at all. I try too hard to respect human personality not to feel that, at bottom, there must be a grain of truth in every idea. I can even believe that all the ideas are true in themselves, and that it's the application of them which gives them value or not in particular circumstances … No, I don't believe there are such things as absolute truths, but I do believe in absolute human qualities—generosity, for instance, which is one of the basic ones.”
(Quoted in Sarris, Interviews with Film Directors , p. 424)
29)  Reading a movie review this morning, I re-realized an elemental fact about reviewing: A plausible generalization said exceptionally well short circuits critical thinking because the form argues for the truth of the content. Hemingway’s Jake Barnes  said, "Isn't it pretty to think so.” More like, if what you say is pretty enough, then I’ll think so, too.
30) A very long time ago I read Shirley Biagi’s book on interviewing in which she referred to Sam Donaldson’s great interviewing secret which (he said) was to ask a series of unrelenting “why’s” no matter how the first “why” was answered. Might that work for reviewing if only in internal dialogue? I liked the movie. (Why?) It made me smile (Why?) When the house blew up for one thing? (Why did that make you smile?) Everyone would like to blow up something. (Why would you like to blow up something?) Because every day in every way people like you keep asking me these stupid questions…. Of course, there are limits to this method since you have to adjust the questions to the particular thread you want to follow, so you can’t do it mechanically. But too often journalists do draw back from that nosy question that takes the journalist into her/his own discomfort zone. The same thing can be true of reviewing. Be ruthless with yourself. An idea hits you, and you write it down. Ask yourself why and answer your question in the review. Dig down underneath the bland generalization to the specific and the personal. Isn’t a review – a really good review - a form of confession? (Talk amongst yourselves.)
31)  I will boldface the part of the comment most relevant to review writing: Also weighing in on Django's use of the (N-word) is Sarah Silverman who told TMZ, "Doesn't it take place like during slavery? Wouldn't it be odd if they didn't have that horrific word in it?" The comic added that (Spike) Lee has "got a lot of mishegas with a lot of art. I think you can't really tell art what to do."
32) Talking about David Denby and his attack on snark (which I define as glib sarcastic bitchiness for its own sake): Denby's larger concerns center on the "enormous changes in journalism" transpiring as more newspapers shift from print to the Web. He worries that this shift might diminish some forms of journalism — investigative reporting, well-reported sports stories, arts criticism — or even cause them to disappear.
33) But let’s be honest: It’s easier to write a negative review than it is to write a positive review, if you’re aiming at entertaining. If you don’t know what schadenfreude is, you will be a spiritually deficient reviewer.
34) For the first few weeks of the semester, our Word of the Day will be “audience.” But at some point, I think we will grant that honor to “modesty.” Or has that quality become more burden than benefit to the aspiring reviewer?
35) Andrew O’Hehir says: “Well, listen – the next time the movie beat gets boring I’ll write another essay proclaiming the death of film culture. Apparently that was all it took to perk things up! Actually, the widely misinterpreted point I was trying to make, which was that film no longer holds the position of cultural centrality it once did, on either the highbrow or mass levels, remains valid. Even amid the undoubted richness of this fall and winter season, you can find examples of this: While films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and Michael Haneke’s “Amour” pile up rave reviews and critics’ group awards, they don’t resemble what the general public thinks of as a movie, and the number of Americans who pay to see them in a movie theater may not exceed the audience for a single episode of a hit cable show. (My No. 1 pick of the year, which will no doubt be described as an eccentric choice, failed to gross even $100,000 in the United States. That’s more like the audience for a cable-access show. In Polish.)”
36) Mason Monroe on the difference between movie critic and movie reviewer:                 There is no bar to entrance to the critical pantheon. Is it that a critic sees a movie, thinks about it and then writes about it, while a "reviewer" sees a movie and writes about it without thought? I mean, this student likes film, right? What I would recommend to an aspiring movie reviewer (or aspiring film critic for that matter) is to watch a lot of movies. Watch them in theaters, watch them on TV or video. Find out what you like. Read some other critics/reviewers--I'd start with Ebert and Kael, but there's also Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, Jim Hoberman, Ruby Rich, Mike Sragow, John Anderson. Read Truffaut's book-length interview with Hitchcock. Read Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By about silent film. Then watch more movies.”
37) Art is a conversation with the culture. Reviewing is talking back.
38) This is Josh Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo explaining a blog post he did about gun culture. But you could also apply it to review writing: “There are many pieces I write not to convince or advocate but simply to capture as clearly as I can a certain perception or belief. They also help me learn more about the topic at hand and often more about myself. Much of what I wrote in this post was not to advocate or convince anyone but simply to capture an experience that seems too little unexpressed but is shared by many, many people.”
39) Reading a review can be like having a really smart friend - and sometimes like having a really smart friend who is arrogant but entertaining a little of whom goes a long way.
40) In art we reach across time, distance, class, circumstance – across any of the barriers that separate us – to find what the ‘mysterious other’ thinks. Reviews also do that in shorthand. If art is a mirror, what do others see in the mirror?
41) Matt Weiner, Mad Men creator: “And then there’s people’s projections about what the story means and it is often very personal. People will approach me with a take on a story that has nothing to do with what I was trying to say but has a lot to do with who they are, and as a writer that is — even if it’s incredibly negative — it’s a very exciting experience.”
42) More from MW that can also be said to apply to the reviewer as ignorant audience (in a good way): “It may make me old-fashioned, but I love the idea of someone sitting in their living room and not knowing anything, not even the guest star, and the writers and directors and actors controlling the audience’s experience the first time that they see it. I understand people’s attachment to these characters and this show, and that gives me a lot of pleasure. Their curiosity and anticipation is something that you pray for.”
43) Let’s tease out the obvious. Of course, you begin the review with something interesting. But where does the “interest” kick in? First word? First sentence? No later than the third sentence and you can only wait that long when the first two sentences are in parallel structure and suggest a payoff is coming? Indeed, certain publications and/or certain writers have a reputation that convinces you that even when the beginning is slow, there will be a heck of a payoff: The fuse is burning, but there will be an explosion. I think of some articles in the New Yorker back in the day which seemed to reprimand you (by their willful dullness) for wanting a slam-bang beginning.
44) Also, what interests and what doesn’t. Depends on the audience, right?
45) What I want to ask of reviewers: What they actually do? For example, how long after the experience do they write the review? And I also want to ask: If you had world enough and time, how long after the experience would you write the review? I am assuming professional reviewers with deadlines – or people with actual lives who have other, and possibly even better, things to do.
46) That deadline question makes me think of the S.J. Perlman quote: “I write faster than anyone who writes better and better than anyone who writes faster.” Are reviewers of that category of writers whose work is better because it must be written more quickly rather than more slowly? Whoa. Does such a category exist?
47) Yeah, what about the value of limitation in the creation of Art? Robert Frost said something like writing poetry without meter is like playing tennis without a net. (A lesson to all of us: I recalled the quote as “without rhyme.”) Matisse said, “A large part of the beauty of a picture arises from the struggle which an artist wages with his limited medium.” So let’s all paint with our feet, right? Well, no. This can get silly pretty quick. But the role of limiting means in the creation of Art – I don’t think this paragraph has exhausted the topic (which says something right there.)
48) I bark about how flaccid those reviewers are that rely on sweeping, empty generalizations, but, from a practical point of view, thoughtful, well-developed judgments are like gold nuggets in a sieve, or like base hits in baseball. (Three hits out of ten over time and you’re an All Star.) Not every paragraph is as specific and well-argued as it might be. Terrific moments of insight or argument or eloquence will cause us to forgive the quick judgments with which the review is interleaved: “Abercrombie and Fitch were strong in supporting roles.” The reviewer establishes credibility and then draws on it.
49) This morning I started on my little list of bits of advice for this class. The first item? Modesty. Of course you have the right to an idiosyncratic take but strain to understand how others will take what you are consuming. Call it cultural awareness or call it zeitgeist. (Of course the charm of certain kinds of irony is your conviction that the average reader/watcher *doesn't* get it. You do. You are part of the elite.)
50)  Synchronicity. Friend Berger writes: The further student reviewers “stray from journalism the more problematic their writing will become. Seems to me the twentysomethings are more opinionated than ever these days. Must have something to do with living in public and viewing your life like a movie that provides entertainment for others. And the bigger the opinion the shallower the knowledge. I would rather they wrote with humility and description than big opinions, which 9 times out of 10 will not be stated from within the subject at hand, but from without, as this is what I think, which is not the same as this is what this movie, song, play made me think because of the way it is presented.”
51)  Back to hierarchy of genres, as I note my link on the class blog to something called “TV up, Movies down.” Speaking generally, we must not forget that shifting hierarchies in the arts – more than the word “genre” encompasses – influence our degree of attention and respect. Our personal hierarchy tells much about age, class and social aspiration. We all wear our cultural “badges.”
52)  I said this in (11), and I’ll say it again. When in doubt, think contrarian. Of course, you have to Write Smart when you are applying a corrective to popular  opinion, but Mill argued – and Milton would agree – that if folk aren’t exposed to ideas contrary to their own, “they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Whether or not Mill would on this principle read an essay praising the consummate artistry of Miley Cyrus, I do not know. But I think he would concede the wisdom of its existence. Returning to the real world, rejecting popular opinion can catch eyeballs, though you need to argue well if you hope to build “brand.”
53) To what degree does one plan a review? I don't mean structure as one writes but anticipation as one encounters the thing to be reviewed. Certainly experience and knowledge of the art form tell us that certain things must be scrutinized. But to what degree do we strive for the so-called "open mind," ready to engage on some element of the thing that we did not anticipate. Obviously, we have a checklist at the back of our minds as we review. I assume if we review often enough, we develop a kind of "muscle memory" of what matters - there are elements of the experience we can't NOT see. But are we capable of keeping the checklist at the back of our minds rather than the front. Are we open to the thing in personal, even eccentric ways, acknowledging that every "read" of an art object is personal. How does it make us "new," if I may get richly vague.
54) "In the first place, as we all know and as Nabokov on numerous occasions was pleased to remind us, art is at bottom an elaborate con game, but one whose techniques are designed to lead us by degrees into a realm of authentic emotion and aesthetic bliss, which justifies the con."
55) Rebecca Solnit - "I just made humorous remarks about some books and some dead writers’ characters. These guys were apparently so upset and so convinced that the existence of my opinions and voice menaced others’ rights. Guys: censorship is when the authorities repress a work of art, not when someone dislikes it.
"I had never said that we shouldn’t read Lolita. I’ve read it more than once. I joked that there should be a list of books no woman should read, because quite a few lionized books are rather nasty about my gender, but I’d also said “of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty.” And then I’d had fun throwing out some opinions about books and writers. But I was serious about this. You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us."

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