Reviewing old books and films with content which unsettles you

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I’ve doubtless read more old books and seen more old films than I have from the modern era. As such, there are times when I run across things which can make me uncomfortable as a modern reader/viewer, even offend me. It’s not that I don’t know certain attitudes were prevalent, but rather that it’s kind of hard to just dispassionately take it in without reacting, thinking, “That’s just how things were then.”

We’re all going to experience books and films differently depending upon our socialization, background, personal experiences, values, and beliefs. I, as a Jewish, working-class woman, am bothered by things that wouldn’t bother an upper-middle-class Methodist man. Things that might merely make me uncomfortable in passing might outright anger an African–American, a Catholic, or a Cherokee.

Things to keep in mind while watching/reading and writing your review:

How much of a focus is the material in question? If there’s, e.g., a three-minute scene of racially-motivated violence in a 20-minute short, or a brief scene with a stereotyped Jewish pawnbroker in a 73-minute movie, there’s no reason to obsess over it and make that the entire point of your review. Say it made you uncomfortable, and then move on.

Were these attitudes overtly racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, anti-Catholic, etc., or were they such an ingrained part of the culture as to seem matter-of-fact to the average person in the original audience? A lot of old cartoons accused of being horribly racist have struck me as more a product of their time, not going out of their way to offend people. It’s like the difference between celebrating a lynching vs. a blackface scene.

Was this something that couldn’t really be helped given the era? For example, as much as I wish non-white actors had been able to play major roles outside of so-called “race movies,” that just didn’t happen. White actors played characters of other races, or minorities played servants or minor roles. That didn’t mean a white actor in makeup couldn’t play a character of another race with integrity and sensitivity, or that a servant character was automatically pathetic.

If it’s more than a minor aspect of the story, take some time to explain your discomfort, but don’t go on some long-winded rant. The treatment and so-called slut-shaming of unmarried mothers in films like Faust and Way Down East really does upset me, but there are so many other things in these stories to talk about.

If you point-blank admit you don’t care about the historical, social, and cultural context, you’re not the right person to be reviewing old books or films! You have every right to feel genuinely uncomfortable with certain things, but you need to subdue your 21st century values and viewpoints when you’re dealing with bygone eras.

The normally awesome Rap Critic and his annoying SJW girlfriend Lady Jess totally dropped the ball when they reviewed The Jazz Singer last year, and they likewise missed a golden opportunity in their recent four-part series on Warner Brothers’ Censored Eleven. Instead of placing these cartoons in their appropriate setting, they did almost nothing but rant about how racist they are by modern standards.

If stereotypes are present, are they the only thing about a character, or just one of many traits? For example, the easily-spooked Trohelius Snapp in Midnight Faces seemed to have been included primarily for cheap, racially-motivated laughs. He wasn’t some deep, complex character who just happened to be easily-spooked.

If there’s truly enough material to do a full critique through, e.g, a feminist, class-based, race-based, or Jewish lens, why not do that in a second post? That way, your review proper stays on topic and addresses the actual story within its historical setting.

Was this based on popular beliefs of the time and not intentionally meant to be offensive? As much as I love Dante, he was still very much a product of Medieval Catholic Europe. So, yes, he was under the false impression Prophet Mohammed was a schismatic even though he was never Christian to begin with. Dante also subscribed very much to other Catholic doctrine. At least give him some credit for being evolved enough to question certain things he considers unjust or puzzling. He tends to accept Church doctrine in the end, but he doesn’t blindly accept it.

Words that seem dated now were the de facto words then. Words like Negro, Oriental, sinistral (left-handed), Mosaic (Jewish), Sapphist (lesbian).

Above all, consider the context and intent! Going on a huge rant against, e.g., blackface or the Mrs. Husband’s Full Name convention just makes you look immature and historically ignorant. These people weren’t including this material just to offend your 21st century special snowflake SJW self.

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An important lesson from my history with Quadrophenia

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The Who’s Quadrophenia has been my favoritest album almost since I finally was able to listen to it for the first time on 18 November 2000, fifteen long years ago now. I’d known about it since 1993, since it was one of the albums in my parents’ rather sparse record collection, but since we no longer had our record player, all I could do was look at the pictures, lyrics, and Jimmy’s story.

At 13, I was horrified and really turned off by the lyrics of “Dr. Jimmy,” since there are some lines which I interpreted as being about raping a virgin. This wariness stayed with me even after I made the move from casual lawnseat fan to serious, hardcore fan. I had to be lying down, on my giant leopard print pillow, when I finally listened to that song that afternoon.

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And guess what, it really wasn’t bad or offensive at all. I’d built it up so much, and it really didn’t upset me all that much. Obviously, there’s a huge difference in the brain development of a 13-year-old vs. a 20-year-old, but it also had a lot to do with actually hearing the lyrics sung vs. only reading them, and hearing that song in the context of the entire album.

Jimmy has been through so much teenage Sturm und Drang, and he’s finally reached the end of his rope. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything, and isn’t thinking or acting straight. Jimmy isn’t really saying he wants to rape another guy’s girlfriend (virgin or not), he’s saying he’s legitimately out of control and needs help.

This is the lowest point of the album, and after that comes the instrumental “The Rock,” where all four themes (“Helpless Dancer,” “Bellboy,” “Is It Me?,” and “Love, Reign O’er Me”) appear first separately, then slowly start merging, until finally the music gets faster and faster and they’re all one. The album closes with “LROM,” when Jimmy is finally at peace with himself and committed to going home to fix what’s wrong.

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This is why it’s so important to be familiar with a book, album, or film you’re reviewing or discussing. You can only get so much from someone’s else’s review or plot summary. It’s always possible that person has a much different opinion than you would, or didn’t state certain things so accurately, chronologically, or clearly. Even if you have read, seen, or listened to it, you may have misremembered or forgotten some important things if your last experience wasn’t so recent. Unless we’re talking about something like a film you’ve seen 20+ times but haven’t seen in a few years, it’s a good idea to at least skim through it in preparation for writing a review.

Some books are so sprawling and ambitious, it’s hard to nail down a concise plot summary. Actually reading the book, or skimming through it if you’ve already read it several times, can really help to nail down the most important points and characters, and help you decide which things aren’t paramount enough to be included in anything but a super-detailed, blow-by-blow review.

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Some plot summaries make a book or film seem really boring, and you can’t understand what all the fuss is about till you actually experience it in context. For example, the classic 1928 film The Crowd may sound rather dull and pointless if a reviewer just says it’s about an ordinary man and his ordinary wife struggling with their relationship and finances, with a tragedy thrown in, against the impersonal backdrop of a giant metropolis. That doesn’t nearly begin to do justice to why this film is so moving, innovative, and special. (But of course, not a lot of non-cinephiles would even know this, seeing as how it’s still not on DVD while pure garbage like Year One gets rushed onto special-edition DVDs.)

Writing a review based on personal experience lets you summarize something in your own words, based on your own experience, with your own opinions and feelings. Obviously, I’ll give a reviewer a pass if it’s something like a lost film or a work of literature not translated into a language the reviewer can read. Then we have to depend upon other people’s word for it, with perhaps some available bits and pieces. However, there’s never a genuine substitute for good old-fashioned firsthand experience.

 

Bad vs. good negative reviews

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(This is edited from the typical super-long piece originally written for my old Angelfire site. It seems like I wrote it in 2005.)

So many people seem to treat writing a review as just parroting mindless praise or totally slamming the artist. Tell me why you like it, don’t just regurgitate what a lot of critics have said. Too much praise can diminish the actual merit. People only say Pepper is the greatest album, Citizen Kane is the greatest movie, or W&P is the greatest book because they’ve been told to say that, never heard any dissenting viewpoints.

Some people find City Lights a bit overrated and/or not Chaplin’s greatest, but they acknowledge that it’s worth it to get to the final five minutes. However, someone at IMDB just brought up personal reasons, calling it the work of a conservative reactionary, a guy stuck in the past, because it’s essentially a silent film despite being made in 1931. Then he bought up Harold Lloyd, who excitedly made his first talkie in 1929, embracing the new technology instead of shunning it. That’s as bad as bashing a book, movie, or record because it’s “way too old,” silent, or black and white, or making disparaging remarks about the physical appearance of the singer.

It’s really priceless to only spend a line or two trashing on it and then launch into a review of something else entirely. “Ew, how could you like (singer’s name), he’s way too old and really ugly to boot. He needs to retire already. Compare this with the beauty of the records made by (reviewer’s favourite band). Their work is fresh and consistent, not stuck in the past, and they’re much better-looking. Their five best records are (albums’ names); I’d highly recommend going out and buying them instead. Other good bands you need to investigate instead of wasting your time with this ugly freak are (bands’ names). You won’t be disappointed!” Then go review them instead.

Other horrible negative reviews latch onto the tiniest, minutest details and then won’t let go. I’ll agree that some small details can cause you to dock an otherwise brilliant 5-star product half a star or even a whole star, but so many people focus in on one tiny little detail to the exclusion of all of the item’s other merit.

You miss the entire point by latching onto stupid details. These are usually the type of people just looking to get offended at anything slightly racist or sexist. Certain books and movies were naturally products of their times; of course you’re not exactly going to find too many enlightened attitudes relating to women or ethnic minorities. Cringe for a moment and then move on.

An intelligent negative review points out with specifics just why it wasn’t personally enjoyable. It doesn’t just say the writing was boring, the lyrics were dumb, there wasn’t enough development of the main storyline, or the acting was wooden or over the top. And hey, sometimes something can be so bad it’s good, so trashy it’s delicious, something you really really love even though you’re ashamed to admit it.

A lot of people dislike things because they were forced to see them in film appreciation class or read them in English class, and then the teacher overdid the symbolism and never let a negative word in edgewise. Your hatred or resentment grows because it’s been forced on you, instead of just finding out on your own that you don’t care for it. And a lot of things do seem a lot worse because, thanks to so many generations of hype, you were expecting something more, something different, something breathtakingly, mindblowingly stupendous.

Nothing can convince you otherwise if you’ve already convinced yourself of a certain singer’s ugliness, a certain nasty rumour about a songwriter being bisexual, an actor being egotistical, or one minute racist spot in a book being so bad it overwhelms all the redeeming qualities of the other 765 pages. But at least have the respect, decency, and honesty to critique the product and not the person who made it (unless it’s from someone truly repugnant, like Michael Weiner, David Irving, or Ernst Zundel). Use specific reasons, don’t just toss out generalistic platitudes.

It’s really stupid to say something is bad just because it’s old, silent, or black and white. I even saw one review of one of the nine volumes of The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy that runs “This item has no spoken dialogue. Disappointed.” Are you being obtuse and idiotic on purpose?! Also, just because something is a melodrama, sentimental, or depressing doesn’t mean it’s bad.

That something is 87 years old, in black and white, a silent film in 1931, depressing, racist in one (shameful) spot, or underdeveloped in spots is beside the fact. That’s off-topic when it comes to ultimate merit. Have a real reason for disliking something!