“Life. It’s literally all we have. But is it any good?”
That’s the opening line from one of my favorite TV shows, “Review with Forrest MacNeil.” In the show, Forrest doesn’t review food, books, or movies. He reviews life itself. His viewers send in activities for him to try, like stealing, going to prom, racism, or, in his most challenging review, pancakes. Forrest MacNeil gives all his time and energy to the art of the review, and the more he gives himself to the Review, the more his perception of reality warps. He becomes unable to enjoy the things he isn’t even reviewing, only able to perceive activities through his five-star lens. He takes on increasingly more risky acts, derailing his personal and professional life. Forrest MacNeil, in the process of reviewing life, forgets how to live.
I reviewed theatre for a Singaporean literature collective for two and a half years, and by the end of it, I would spend entire performances redrafting the first sentence of my review. Sometimes, I would catch myself doing this for a show I wasn’t even going to review.
My origins as a reviewer didn’t start with me setting out to “review” things. I would just write about movies during my mandatory military service in Singapore. I had nothing to do most of the time (shocker), and one of the nearest establishments was a cinema. So I would take a bus there, and I would walk twenty minutes back, the whole time talking out loud to myself about the movie I just watched. I still do this, but now we’re wearing masks, so you can’t really tell.
I would get into my bunk and scribble those thoughts into my journal, using pens I had stolen from our office, to try and figure out why I liked “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” so much or why “The Revenant” made me so uncomfortable. I asked myself questions about “Fury,” “Gone Girl,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Godzilla;” basically any movie in 2014 targeted at 18-25-year-old men.
That’s how I started reviewing.
I didn’t think of them as reviews because I wasn’t giving them a star rating. That’s what I thought reviews were — a movie’s quality distilled into a simple grade, telling potential audience members whether they should buy a ticket.
That’s why the film critic is one of film’s least favorite characters. They reduce the art of the film to a single letter or number. They’re the villain to the protagonist auteur’s story, a gatekeeper, a snob, a dream-killer. They hurl judgements down from their ivory tower, tossing down ratings and grades. They’re the person who couldn’t hack it as an artist themselves, so instead, they’re going to tear anyone else who tries down, with a two-star rating or even worse, C -.
It’s why in “The Critic”, an underrated cartoon for adults that predates the Simpsons, Jay Sherman, the titular critic, is the butt of every joke. That’s why Jay has three catchphrases, “It stinks!”, “Buy my book!”, and “Hachi machi!” (The third one isn’t relevant, I just like to say it as often as I can.) Jay is unlikable, unpleasant, unkind, and at the end of an awful first date is told, “You’re short, you’re fat, and even for a film critic, you’re ugly.” The film critic is the butt of the joke because the film critic has all the power.
Their opinions, once written, become fact. And, if they’re famous enough, their ratings become law.
The greatest critic in fiction has to be Anton Ego, the food critic from Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” Anton is a hard man to please. Anton doesn’t just like food. He “loves” it. He stays skinny because he spits out any food he doesn’t like. He is initially the film’s villain because he holds a grudge against the restaurant. But when he takes a bite of their ratatouille, he is transported back to his childhood, eating his mother’s home-cooked food — and he remembers what it means to love something.
To love something is to look for the joy in it, not to hate it when it doesn’t match your standards. That’s what reviewing is to me. It’s an act of love — perhaps an obsessive, slightly neurotic love, but love nonetheless. It’s about trying to stay above cynicism, as difficult as that may be in a blockbuster-stuffed, nostalgia-crazed, post-credit-scene-filled movie line-up.
But actually, it’s not really difficult.
Because as Anton Ego says, “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.”
When I started writing theatre reviews, my editor complained that I was always too nice. I pulled my punches because telling a creative their work is bad is difficult when you saw them sweating, straining, trying in front of you. My editor disagreed. He told me that a bad review is an act of love. You love the medium, so you want everyone to do better. Critique provides artists with opportunities to grow.
I still don’t know if I agree with him. I don’t know if the reviewer ought to have that much power, to determine what is best for the medium. I do know that Rotten Tomatoes scores, which aren’t actually reviews of a film but a numeral aggregate of reviews, should not have any power. A film with an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes may not mean anyone actually loved it. They just didn’t hate it.
These rating systems present quality as an objective fact. It implies there is a way to measure our emotional response to a film. I love “Goodfellas” and “Paddington 2,” but those movies leave me with two very different feelings. Ratings don’t reflect this — instead, they suggest universality. Regardless of your age, background, or individual taste, you will have a three-star, B+, 76% experience when you watch this movie.
But we aren’t empty vessels waiting to be filled when we go to the cinema. We’re brimming with our own experiences, perspectives, lives. That’s what makes going to the movies special. We’re not going to have a uniform experience simply because we are not uniform.
That’s why my reviews are about me. That’s why I over-use “I” as the subject throughout. Because this is my experience. And if I loved a movie, I want you to know why I loved it. What about it appealed to my taste, my experience. Maybe that’s going to connect and resonate; maybe that’s not going to land. And that’s completely valid. Because everyone’s a critic, whether they like it or not.
Once you’ve formed an opinion on a movie, whether you write it down or not, you’re a critic. Often, that’s easier for the movies you don’t like than the ones you do. It’s easier to know why the movie didn’t click than to pick at your subconscious and figure out why it did. I wrote 2000 words about “Uncharted” in one sitting. I could barely crack 600 words about “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, after almost three weeks. It is much harder, but also more rewarding, to write about a movie you like.
It’s harder because I want to show deference to the film, to admire the filmmakers’ craft and passion. It also means respecting the reader. That means no spoilers whenever possible, not getting lost in the weeds of the film’s context and history. And for me, it also means attempting, whether successful or not, to recreate my emotional experience of viewing the movie.
If I love a movie, I don’t want my review to just disseminate information about the film’s technical features. It is meant to be an addendum, an annexe, an addition to the film. It provides another angle on the film for the reader, to create a fuller experience.
But really, I’m writing reviews for me. Because after years of reviewing, my brain doesn’t know how to just enjoy a movie. I must pay tribute, too.
I don’t write the first sentence in my head anymore. But for days after, the review will form itself into my head until I finally write it down.
In Anton Ego’s closing speech, he also says this: “But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
The average piece of junk.
All I want to do with my reviews is to make them my own average pieces of junk. I hope you like reading them, though I certainly hope you don’t always agree. Because you’re not me and I’m not you. But what we both are, are critics.
A shorter version of this article was first published in F News Magazine, edited by Nestor Kok.