13 July 2015

In defense of the first-person review.

As most everyone reading this will likely be aware, The Dissolve ceased publication last week, just shy of two years after it had launched. I'm inordinately proud to have been a regular contributor for the site's entire existence, and like my friend Noel, I don't have much to add to the outpouring of grief and hand-wringing that its abrupt shutdown has inspired. It was a grand experiment that failed, but at least we had it for a while. In the words of Gene Belcher, it gave us its magic and then it disappeared. Just like Toad The Wet Sprocket.

Instead, this blog post rather ungratefully concerns the one very minor thing that I didn't like about The Dissolve, which was its editorial policy banning any use of the first person in film reviews. This was carried over from the A.V. Club (at which all but one member of the original Dissolve staff had previously worked), for which I also/still freelance every week. I've always maintained that a blanket rule forbidding first-person reviews is sorely misguided, and while I've occasionally tweeted my dissatisfaction (to the annoyance of my editors, no doubt), one of the Dissolve post-mortem essays, written by Daniel Carlson for Movie Mezzanine, indirectly expressed my feelings in a way that made me want to sit down and make my case at greater length, just in case anyone should somehow manage to start a new film site ever again.

First of all, I understand the concern. Honestly, I do. Given a long leash, most film critics (or writers of any stripe, really) are apt to become obnoxiously self-indulgent, and the potential for editorial headaches is enormous. It's definitely easier to just say No across the board than to spend half your day sending freelancers notes explaining why their digression about their high-school prom experience is both unnecessary and distracting. And one can make the case—as the Dissolve editors did—that one can find creative ways to get various ideas across without employing either the first or second person (the latter also being banned in reviews), though said ways will often require one to use the gender-neutral indefinite pronoun "one," which tends to make one sound like a pompous ass.

Still, there is in fact a baby in that bathwater. Quadruplets, by my count. I hereby present my list of four Totally Legitimate Reasons to Employ the First Person in a Movie Review, None of Which Constitutes Making the Review All About Me Me Me Me Me.

Confessions of ignorance

The most important reason by far. Even critics who've watched 300+ movies annually for a quarter century can have significant gaps in their knowledge, let me tell you. Roughly 90% of the cases in which I want to use the first person in a review simply involve some variation on the words "which I haven't yet seen." In one embarrassing instance, I was correctly called out by an editor regarding a review in which my opening paragraph made a bunch of vague, tenuous assertions about the director's place in the cinema landscape. It was said director's sixth feature, but I hadn't seen the previous five; I had, however, seen some of the director's early shorts, so I leaned really hard on those, because I actually knew what I was talking about. The solution in that case was pretty simple: I wound up completely rewriting the opening graf, ditching any historical context and focusing exclusively on the film being reviewed. But historical context is valuable, even when it comes from a place of partial or total ignorance. My not-yet-published (at this writing) review of Jan Troell's debut, Here Is Your Life, never mentions Troell's most celebrated film, The Emigrants, because I've never seen The Emigrants and couldn't find a graceful way to mention it in the context of the argument I was making about Troell's sensibility. Ideally, I'd have liked to include a parenthetical along the lines of "(It's possible that The Emigrants, his most celebrated film, is an exception to this apparent rule. I still haven't seen that one.)" But I'm not allowed to do that, so my only option was to ignore a film that really ought to at least be mentioned in passing, then await the inevitable complaints about the omission in the comments. As a reader, I want to know if a critic reviewing Far From Heaven has never seen any Sirk, or if someone is coming to Hard to Be a God as a German virgin (or, perhaps even more pertinently, as a sexually active person of any nationality who has never previously seen an Alexei German film). As a critic, I want to be able to admit that I'm not especially well versed in a particular genre, or that I'm writing about Robert Pattinson's performance in Cosmopolis without having seen any of the Twilight films, or even just that I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the movie in question. Nonstop feigned authority gets to be kind of a drag.

Acknowledgement of extreme subjectivity

I ran into this problem most recently in my A.V. Club review of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, just released by Criterion. On the one hand, I had some concrete arguments for my low opinion of the film (particularly regarding its leering treatment of the title character), and I made them. On the other hand, though, I'm well aware of my general bias against cinematic surrealism, especially as practiced by European filmmakers in the '70s. Malle's Black Moon: nigh-well unbearable to me. Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain: likewise. The reader has a right to know that, due to some quirk of my temperament, I happen to be predisposed to find this approach to the medium agonizing. Conveying that information via a quick first-person aside would be a very simple matter. Instead, look how tortured my effort to get it across became! As someone aptly noted in the comments, the review's entire first paragraph boils down to "subjectivity yo," which should really be an unstated first principle. But belaboring the point was necessary in this case because I wanted to be truthful about my response to the film, but I also didn't want to discourage anyone from seeing it. (My editor helped out with a headline that actually comes right out and says "maybe ignore our grade." As I've told him several times, I'd really prefer not to grade "classic" films, e.g. the Criterion releases; the very fact that Criterion is releasing them precludes their being disposable, and jesus do people fucking howl if you give, say, My Dinner With Andre a solid 'B.') You could argue that I should just avoid reviewing acclaimed movies that I'm likely to find unbearable, but (a) that's not always financially practical, and (b) I often don't know a single thing about a film until I sit down to watch it, at which point it's far too late to turn down the assignment.

Relevant personal background

To be fair, the A.V. Club did recently allow me to use the first person in my review of Rodney Ascher's The Nightmare, a documentary (of sorts) about sleep paralysis. I didn't even ask to do so—my editor had read my Sundance report at The Dissolve, in which I mention that I've "suffered" from sleep paralysis for my entire adult life (scare quotes because it stopped being frightening the moment I learned what it is; now it's just an occasional annoyance), and voluntarily granted me permission to do the same in my official review. Which is perfectly sensible—why would you not want a critic to bring valuable, relevant life experience to the party? Over the past week, a lot of folks have singled out David Ehrlich's terrific (albeit totally wrongheaded, based on what I saw) defense of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, in which he talks at length about how his response to the film is informed by his father having recently been in and out of the hospital with a Grade IV brain tumor. The piece was categorized as an essay, not as a review (Scott Tobias had already written a vicious pan), so Ehrlich was allowed to use the first person as much as he liked...but I see no good reason why a review couldn't or shouldn't be similarly personal. Had Ehrlich been assigned to review Me and Earl for The Dissolve, and consequently had to omit any reference to his father, would the world be in any way richer for it? Why not just assess these things on a case-by-case basis? Granted, that's more work (and easy for me to say, since I'm not an editor), but I feel certain that the benefits would outweigh the costs.

Because style

By now, Daniel Carlson is surely wondering why the hell I linked to his piece way back at the top there. It's because this rant was prodded by his assertion that "longer, more personalized pieces have a higher likelihood of reaching readers and defining an outlet's voice, and it's those two qualities—impact and personality—that help to create community." Carlson's point here is essentially that traditional reviewing is on the way out (hence "longer"), but I'm more interested in his belief, which I share, that readers prefer to know something about the people behind the words. As Jules told Vincent, vis-à-vis dogs and pigs, personality goes a long way. Not that a critic's personality doesn't come across unless (s)he uses the first person—I'm sure most regular Dissolve readers could identify which reviews were written by Scott, Keith, Tasha, Noel, etc. even with the bylines removed—but being constrained from mentioning yourself at all, even in passing, doesn't help to foster a connection between writer and reader. And it's not as if Wesley Morris, to pick an example almost at random, tests readers' patience with a sentence like "For most of Self/less, I was sure I was watching the first two episodes of a vapid new cable series." Sure, that thought could easily be rewritten to eliminate the first person ("Self/less frequently resembles the first two episodes of a vapid new cable series" would be the approved A.V. Club/Dissolve version), but doing so would elide much of Morris' singular personality. The element of hyperbole disappears. Recasting it that way takes a thought that's both amusing and evocative and renders it comparatively inert, turning it into a mere line of description. It's hard for me to imagine anyone making a convincing case that Morris, while a terrific writer, would be even better if he'd just nix the "I" stuff. (I also enjoy his Kael-esque authoritarian second-person pronouncements, but that's an argument for another occasion.)

Again, I do recognize that not everyone is Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Wesley Morris. I myself am not Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Wesley Morris, to my eternal shame. I do firmly believe, however, that I'm a stronger writer when I'm allowed access to every tool in the box, including moderate, non-gratuitous self-reference. My festival reports tend to be stronger than my reviews, in my opinion, precisely for that reason. (Frankly, my ideal format is probably the single-graf capsule, as seen here, which assumes the reader has seen the film in question and completely dispenses with everything except the precise intersection of the film and my personality. Hard to monetize that approach, though, except by way of enriching the owners of Letterboxd.) If the folks at the A.V. Club should see this, I'd encourage them to ditch the ban and just tell writers to keep first person to a minimum—"only when necessary." Evaluate each review on its merits, or lack thereof; if someone's abusing the privilege, send the offending sentences back with a request for revision and (if it becomes necessary) a friendly warning. Really, though, anyone causing that much hassle by using the first person probably isn't a very strong writer in general. If you've got a staff/stable you're happy with, letting them off the leash once in a while won't do any harm.

1 comment:

Claude said...

Sorry for the late comment, but I only just saw this.

It's funny, because I've had the thought several times that I prefer your informal reviews to the ones you get paid for. They have much more personality (not that the paid ones suck or anything). So yes, I agree with your point of view.