Another look at reviews

February 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

I stopped reading criticism – of theatre, films, or anything that I might make a decision to see. After making my own shows the way that words could reduce, deflate and negate months of someone’s work had begun to make me uncomfortable, distrustful. In this country critics have a Mandarin status which friends from other places have told me is not universal. “Their opinion is really so important?” someone from Barcelona asked me. Yes, I replied, people really base their decisions – to see or not to see – on the reviews. My friend, also a theatre-maker, looked confused and worried, and I knew what he was thinking. It’s just someone’s opinion; someone you don’t even know. How can you judge without watching?

Mainly, though, I just found them to be wrong. That is to say, they expressed wonder and delight about plays that I then found dead and mannered. Or mediocre reviews killed with kindness my desire to see a certain film – and on DVD, months later, it took my breath away. I was tired of the internal monologue and post-show comments all saying, “but it got wonderful reviews…!”

Now, though, I’ve found a way to enjoy reviews: read them afterwards. This evening (tired of not being able to discuss it), I saw Shame. I left a bit confused by how it could have sparked quite so much talk. I thought the acting was very good, the music very cheesy (nocturne, anyone?), the sex unsexy, the motivations clingfilm thin. Or buried terribly deep. Either way, inaccessible.

I put the poster in because I like it, shame on me

But A. O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, does something brilliant with it, underscoring a careful analysis with bits of Shakespeare (ok, I’m a sucker), appreciating the good bits, and really pinning down the problem that left me with that so-what? residue somewhere between sadness and boredom.

(It occurs to me that this is how many people probably use reviews, but bear with me, I’ve just discovered it. Also no one ever reviews reviews – though hopefully because they’re too busy making art or money, or sledging, or something).

Highly encouraged, I Googled “shame film review” and came up with Peter Bradshaw’s in the Guardian. Here, though, I found myself lost. “Icily dysfunctional” in the standfirst described to me a film I didn’t feel I’d seen, and when “icy” returned in the first paragraph, accompanied by “nightmarish”, “damaged”, “neurosis”, “laugh-free black comedy” (not a comedy at all, then?) and “dysfunction” (again), I began to experience the sensation of wading through an adjective soup towards a receding target.

What was particularly strange was that I recognised the feeling from many other review-reading experiences – the feeling of constructing an imagined version of the thing to be seen which is both very real and completely fabricated. Sometimes this shadow construct is blown to pieces by the actual watching experience, and sometimes the two continue oddly to coexist. Tonight, the feeling was strange because the shadow was created after the real experience. Which is a complicated way of saying that Mr Bradshaw and I disagreed.

He has a hard job, though. Reviewers try to construct an experience for the reader that is a bit like the experience of watching the film (play, etc). They can’t say exactly what happens (though many, infuriatingly, do), so they use lots of colour to explain what it is like. But since they are individuals, rather than everypeople, the experience they recreate is their own – something we as readers can never hope to share. The review is a simulacrum – a copy of an original where no original exists.

Reading the review after seeing the thing now makes sense to me – it’s like a discussion over dinner with a friend. Reading it before, however, is only half the experience. We’re not learning, only listening. And while I’d happily have dinner with A.O.Scott whenever she or he is in town, I’d hope the conversation would stick to themes where we both had something to say.

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