A Review, By Any Other Name

Commentary by James Berardinelli
August 28, 1996

One question I'm always being asked is whether I consider myself a "reviewer" or a "critic", and what I think the difference between the two is. Even though this isn't a topic of earthshattering importance, I admit to having given it some thought (mostly when I'm engaged in menial tasks like mowing the lawn or vacuuming the house). Basically, I think that 95% of all discussion and/or writing on movies can fall into one (or more) of five categories. They are: opinion, review, praise, vitriol, and criticism. I'll try to say a little about each before answering the question that provoked this essay.

Opinion. As the saying goes, everyone has one. In fact, opinions are so easy to come by that you don't even have to have seen a movie to have an opinion about it. Many people who haven't seen The Hunchback of Notre Dame claim that "it stinks" because it's a cartoon. I know someone who spent about five minutes ranting about the injustice of Il Postino's Oscar nomination before admitting that he hadn't seen the film. His comment: "It can't be any good because it has subtitles." Of course, this is the same guy whose favorite movie last year was Batman Forever. Opinions don't cost anything, they don't require any knowledge, and there's no need to support them. It's also quite possible to change them for no particular reason whatsoever.

Review. A review is an opinion, or a series of opinions, with evidence (or at least sound reasoning) to back it up. I don't consider the statement "Independence Day is a kick-ass movie" to be a review. That's an opinion (and not one which I share). On the other hand, "Independence Day is a kick-ass movie because it's got great special effects, a killer story, terrific characters, and a helluva good ending" is a review, albeit of the least informative sort. In fact, reviews can be anything from a couple of sentences to several pages. Reviewers like to believe that their scribblings are well-informed, whether this happens to be true or not. Some degree of research and preparation is needed for a review, even if that only involves actually seeing the movie. Generally, however, the more the reviewer prepares, the more coherent and useful the final product becomes.

Praise. Simply put, praise is saying or writing some very nice things about a movie. Although a complimentary review could be considered praise, what I'm really referring to here is marketing material. As with an opinion, it isn't necessary to have seen a film to shower it will positive comments (especially if that's your job). Writing "Independence Day is the biggest and best alien movie ever to invade theaters" is high praise, but there's not enough detail to make it clear whether or not the author has actually seen the film in question. Of course, the gray area is when a review crosses the line to become movie publicity. There are a group of reviewers (the so-called "Movie Ad Whores") who love to see their names in print. As a result, they write short, but extremely favorable, reviews of dozens of poorly-regarded films. Since they have a publishing outlet of some sort, and are willing (without solicitation) to say something good about a movie that no one else is lauding, the distribution company will inevitably take excerpts for print in newspaper ads. Peruse the Friday or Sunday section of a major newspaper and you'll get an idea of who belongs to this club. Movie Ad Whores don't get much exposure for well-received movies, since the distributors can use Siskel, Ebert, and other well-respected sources. The thing is, most of the public doesn't know the difference between Media Ad Whore X and Respected Reviewer Y. So, to the average person scanning the paper for something to see, it doesn't matter who provides the quote, as long as it appears legitimate. That's the reason why straight reviewers have so much contempt for studio shills. It's fine to praise a film that you genuinely appreciate; but there are men and women out there compromising their profession by doling out praise for the sole purpose of getting their name in the paper.

Vitriol. Essentially, this is the opposite of praise, although you won't see it in any newspaper ads (Imagine this quote in an ad campaign: "Independence Day is the most derivative and creatively bankrupt movie of the decade!"). Vitriol is any nasty statement, whether informed or not, about a movie. Aside from reviewers who hate a particular movie and members of the movie-going public who are turned off by it, there are two typical sources of vitriol: rival distributors and special interest groups. It's pretty obvious why Paramount, who made Mission Impossible, would want to spread anti- Twister hype, and why Fox would do their best to bury The Arrival, an intelligent alien invasion movie that reached theaters in advance of Independence Day. But its not just rival studios that desperately want to torpedo certain films -- there are also special interest groups who are offended by ideas or characters presented in a movie. For example, consider the Christian coalition that condemned Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, the lesbian activists who tried to kill Basic Instinct, and the Catholic community that raised an outcry against Antonia Bird's Priest. Most of the people protesting against these movies hadn't seen them, but were reacting based on emotionally- charged statements made by authority figures, many of whom were equally ignorant of the film's content. It's not necessary to have actually sat through a movie to make blistering statements about it. That's what freedom of speech is all about.

Criticism. This is a legitimate, thoughtful discussion of a movie or a movie-related topic that places it in a social or historical context. Criticism is almost always opinionated (in other words, there is a thesis), and each point is typically defended by some form of evidence. There won't be many unsubstantiated statements or knee-jerk evaluations of a movie's quality. Of material fitting into any of the five categories, critical articles are usually the most scholarly. They require not only a detailed knowledge of the subject under question, but some understanding of related elements. It's impossible to intelligently bluff one's way through a piece of criticism -- anyone who attempts to do so will end up looking like an idiot. In general, criticism also requires planning and some degree of writing ability. It's possible to give a spoken review, but verbal criticism isn't as common. And, while it's possible to write a short, one or two-paragraph note, most criticism is significantly longer -- perhaps taking up as much as several hundred pages.

All things considered, I lavish my share of praise and vitriol on deserving films. And I am certainly opinionated. But do I consider myself a reviewer or a critic? A little of both, I suppose. I don't belong completely in either camp; call me a "straddler." Several years ago, when I first started writing about movies, I felt uncomfortable with the label "critic". It seemed to belong to someone with more experience, knowledge, and formal film training. With time, however, I have attempted to expand my reviews to discuss more than the bare bones qualities of the film in question. As a result, I started treading out of the land of pure reviews and into the realm of film criticism. So today I'm on the fence, free to lean whichever way the wind blows as I sit down at my keyboard. Feel free to call me a "critic" or a "reviewer", in addition to any other creative appellations you come up with.

Next: "The Heat Is Off" -- a look back at 1996's disappointing, explosion-filled summer.

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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