Reviewers without reviews


When researching reviews on the internets, I became aware of a particularly interesting development that I call the pure meta-review.

It seems that it is more hip to discuss movies in purely meta-film reviews, perhaps because no up-and-coming edgy writer or _writer of substance _or _person writing as a day job until their 4 short-story novella is released _wants to be so mundane as to address the actual plot (was Kael the last honest movie reviewer?).

Let’s take The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as an example. Now, in the run-up to the release of the film quite a lot of review ado was made from the question of “is this movie / is it not an secret weapon in the Christian front’s attempt to introduce all children to the Crucifixion?”

It’s an interesting question and was heavily considered by Lewis himself and his friends and associates, but many reviewers have explored this question at the expense of answering what is the most critical question a review ought answer: Should I drop the $10.00 to see the thing?

Let’s take the review by Annie Wagner in Seattle’s alterna-mag The Stranger which appeared in the Decmber 8-14 edition.

Wagner’s review can be structured as such:

  1. Vacuous introduction to the movie its principal ideas, and characters (that’s fine, most reviews are like this, it’s a weakness of the form

  2. LWW is Christian allegory, with points to support this view

  3. Did C.S. Lewis maliciously insert Christian allegory, is this dangerous?

  4. Tilda Swinton’s character was good as an evil being

  5. The kid who plays peter is kinda Aryan-y and the movie is decent entertainment

Well, OK, that’s a review, but it completely failed to do what all reviews boil down to: Is the thing worth seeing? Wagner’s sole commentary, a rather throw-away line at the end of the review is that it’s “…decent entertainment - epic and scary and icily pretty. If only it were safe enough to send your freethinking children to.” In much of the media coverage on this movie the question of the allegory has overtaken the question of whether or not you should go to see it.

Before the wrong impression be given, I’m certainly not opposed to the lengthy consideration of a movie in terms of its impact on visual arts / society / the reviewer / concepts of the soul / etc. but a review, at heart should boil down to familiarization, high- or lo-lights, and should you go see it?

I wondered if this was Wagner’s general modus operandi or was she merely joining the hordes of other reviewers that had taken this writing tack?

Her review of _Brokeback Mountain _ (cheekily titled _Bareback Mountain _( Tee-hee, I used “cheekily” - I’m clever too! ) ) follows the same. The question is: Should I see it never surfaces in the explanation of how the movie is really about 2 gay cowboys (I side with Wagner here, the producers, hedging their bets have tried to spin the story that the movie is a hetero- / homo- transcending exploration, which is bunk). Wagner spends 5 of 6 paragraphs explaining the relative gay-itude of the film and whether it was considered “gay” in the media. In the 1 paragraph that actually addresses the movie, nothing is told to me that I couldn’t have derived from the preview. I quote her paragraph in full here:

Brokeback Mountain is a film about gay cowboys - that is what it’s about - played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. The first half is a gorgeous love story in which words are kept to a minimum and the arid, exhilarating images of high-altitude scenery and exalted flirtation leave you as breathless as the heroes. When the famous pup-tent consummation (faintly damned as “tasteful”) finally occurs, their hunger for each other’s bodies is fierce and convincing. In the film’s devastating second half, the cowboys come down from the mountain, marry women, and inflict the violence of their disinterest on their families.

Anything that really tells me about the movie qua movie is stored in that single paragraph. This review essentially functions as a review of “Should you join in the dialectic on the relative signifiers of gay identity as promulgated by prominent film reviews, reviewers, and the film Brokeback Mountain.” This review, much like it’s predecessor, reads like the synopsis a TA writes for the 2006 lit-crit vade mecum.

Nevertheless, both of these movies are popularly being discussed in terms of their “place in society”, so I’m willing to cut Wagner a break, but her latest review on “Memoirs of a Geisha” is again a meta-discussion about the film, with only the most cursory treatment of: “Should I fork out the cash to see it?”

The formula is followed again:

  1. Cursory and bland paragraph about the story and the characters

  2. The movie is produced by Americans and acted by Chinese and this is inauthentic. [ Incidentally, Sergio Leone’s Western firms were produced by Italians and acted by a motley of Europeans - but they hit the essence of The Western on the head, surely the genus of the film doesn’t damn it, does it? ]

  3. The movie, such that anything can be said for it is a rushed, incoherent, and hurried mess (actually, very similar to the last paragraph - I’ll include it here)

The okiya where the geisha live is, we learn, a mysterious place that alternates between ritual and claws-out catfights. When Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang in cornflower blue contacts) is plucked from obscurity, she attracts both men’s desire and the vicious jealousy of Hatsumomo (Gong Li), an older geisha with a penchant for off-hours hanky panky. Their rivalry shamelessly pits virgin against vamp, and its campy excess provides the film’s few pleasures (“I… will… DESTROY YOU!” has got to be one of this year’s most memorable lines). The rest of the film is a confused mess—part chick flick drowning in silk brocade, part crass appeal to male voyeurism, and all woefully insubstantial.

But should we see it? Is there any redeeming quality to it? Is there nothing worth seeing in it? Should I wait for DVD?

I think the last review must be the effects of editors short-timing it before their holiday days off.

Nevertheless my larger question stands: is it impossible to find a reviewer who, well, reviews? Not the erudite celebrating their erudition?

I’ll note, I’m not a professional reviewer, and I’m not a professional writer. I’m just another guy out there with a blog that I suspect only 5 people read - but when one’s paid function is to be a reviewer of entertainment, is it too much to expect that we’ll actually get a review of the movie? From The Stranger’s biographical blurb I know that Wagner is highly learned it literary criticism. Could it be that that academic discipline - so ravaged by fashions since the east coast went deconstructionist in the late 80’s - has dulled its graduates-turned-film-reviewers from the Romantic _sturm und drang _of what a film is: a visual drug designed to awake the intellect, emotions, and passions in humans? Even her comment on whether or not the gay sex in _Brokeback Mountain _was hot seemed, well, cursory and a bit cold. We readers are, evidently, to boil down a complex story boils down to hot gay sex?

And I’m certainly aware that the hippest are just pointing to Wagner’s use of “hot gay sex” as a shibboleth wherewith to winnow out people that can’t handle a gay movie being in society. That sentence really served no function but to make sure that would not be an accusation. Auto-deconstruction complete.

Furthermore I don’t know Wagner, I’m sure she’s a perfectly nice person, and I’m sure her editor is that as well, and they are certainly not the only people that have this penchant for the over-meta movie review, but perhaps they can truly revolt against being just “another voice in meta-review reviews” by actually letting us know whether or not we should see the thing?


I sent the following e-mail to Ms. Wagener to see her comment.

Ms. Wagner,

As an occasional reader of The Stranger, I enjoy the movie reviews. Nevertheless in the last three reviews I don’t get the feeling that you’re giving us movie reviews, but rather meta-reviews. I believe that if you take my concern objectively and ask yourself “is this a review or a meta-analysis” you will agree with me that they all three fall into the latter category.

Now certainly a meta-review is a valuable endeavor, I like to hear about the costume production for a period piece, explore the artful use of lighting in “Collateral” or consider the social implications of a “gay” movie being in the mainstream.

Yet when looking at a recently-appeared movie review I want to know the plot, a bit of the highlights, and - most importantly - know whether to see it or stay at home.

The two should not be interwoven, or, if done so, a very specific balance must be sought. This preserved bifurcation is generally preserved in the New York Times (for example) by having insight and analysis articles separate from review articles. The function of an analysis explores a detail or background. On the other hand, a review gives the simple binary of go or stay at home.

Your Narnia review is more " Apologists versus The movie sucks" (which it does). Brokeback is more about spinning the gay factor versus what’s covered in the movie. Geisha impugns the ability of an foreigners to make a film about Japan (and if so, what, pray tell, does that mean for Sergio Leone’s cowboy movies?). These are interesting views (the second being the most tenable), but they aren’t reviews, they’re reviews of the cultural influences underpinning the movie’s production. Doubtless such keen insight was something cultivated in your pursuit of your master’s education – but for a simple joe who’s looking to know whether i should drop ten bucks for door A or door B these “reviews” (i say ““s not no mock, but to show the misappellation of “review” to these meta-analyses) are empty.

If it is your and your editors’ intention for you to write meta-narratives, why not title them such? If “review” is beneath your dignity and aptitude, why not seize another label? If you are writing reviews (and lord knows Pauline Kael wrote great reviews), perhaps more consideration to the film am sich will help your readers make informed decisions at the box office.

Lastly, I certainly bear you, personally, no ill-will, but am concerned that every “reviewer” now feels compelled to write reviews as a lit-crit Ph.D.

Regards and happy holidays,