Free Yourself from Reviews

Should critical reception of art dissuade our enthusiasm towards it? Nick Martens discusses how reviews affect our opinions before we buy a movie ticket or listen to an album.

Recently, by chance, I learned that there is a third Guy Ritchie crime movie. His first, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, is among my all-time favorites, and his follow-up, Snatch, is similarly great. I never looked further into his career, though, because the critical consensus seems to be that after those two flicks–and after he married Madonna–his focus shifted away from crime and his output tanked. But given my fondness for those early movies, I knew that I couldn’t ignore 2005’s Revolver.

In this situation–discovering an obscure work from an admired source–I have a standard evaluation procedure, as I suspect many people do. First, I look it up on Wikipedia or IMDb, where I read the plot synopsis, check out the actors/director/writer, and maybe skim a user review or two. Then I head over to Metacritic.com, which shows an approximate average of the reviews from professional publications. I also generally read the blurbs supplied by a few trusted sources, and I may even click through to an article-length review.

For Revolver, though, I abandoned this process.

I knew that if Ritchie had produced another film on the level of Lock Stock, I would have known about it. I assumed then that Revolver had not been well-received and that canvassing Metacritic would reveal a critical flogging. (Note: if you too are intrigued by Revolver, I recommend closing your browser now and finishing this article after you’ve seen the movie.)

It turns out that the critics didn’t just dislike Revolver, they despised it. Roger Ebert writes, “It seems designed to punish the audience for buying tickets.” Given its abysmally poor score on Metacritic, I know that I would have skipped the film if I’d gone through my typical evaluation.

And that would’ve been a shame. Not because Revolver is particularly good or because the criticism leveled against it is in any way unfair or inaccurate, but because it was damn interesting to watch a director I love spiral into insanity. Going in tabula rasa, I was left to fend for myself as the film’s internal logic disintegrated. Had I checked the reviews, I would have known that the plot makes no sense, but instead I had a blast trying to piece it all together. Though I would never call Revolver a good or even decent movie, I’m just as hesitant to decry its cultural merit.

My biggest complaint about reviews, though, is not that they would have prevented me from seeing Revolver, but that, if I had somehow brushed aside the criticism and watched it anyway, the reviews would have forced me to dislike the film. Rather than absorbing it on my terms–muddling through the confusion and forming an opinion of my own–I would have seen only the negatives. Scott Tobias in The Onion A.V. Club writes, “The film opens with no less than five white-on-black epigrams from sources such as Machiavelli and Julius Caesar, so at least it’s upfront about its high-mindedness, but Ritchie relies too much on those quotes to do the philosophical heavy lifting.” This is, in no uncertain terms, true. Ritchie repeats these quotes incessantly throughout the movie, leaning on them to give the dialogue intellectual weight. But I liked them. Sure, their implementation is heavy-handed, but I appreciated how Ritchie uses them to rewrite the movie’s plot inside of the plot itself. I would never have reached such a conclusion had I read Tobias’s (completely accurate) criticism; I would only have seen the quotes as a philosophical crutch. Call me weak-willed, but I know that once a review plants that seed of doubt, my perception is forever tainted.

I don’t restrict this comment to negative critiques either. I think that any review narrows the scope of a viewer’s potential reaction to a piece of art. If a reviewer praises a film’s cinematography, I’ll be evaluating every framing and every angle as I watch, even though I don’t know the first goddamn thing about cinematography. While gawking ignorantly at a tracking shot, I’m apt to ignore a subtle crescendo in the background music, something I’m much more likely to appreciate. At that point, I’m watching the film from a split perspective, merging my and the reviewer’s observations instead of tailoring my perception to my own tastes.

I don’t want to give the impression that criticism dictates my reaction to art, but I think that reviews affect me, and probably most others, in a significant, perhaps subconscious way. For example, I downloaded a leaked copy of Stephen Malkmus’s Real Emotional Trash in January. I’d been looking forward to this album for years. Pavement is my favorite band, and the snippets of Trash I’d heard at a few Malkmus concerts were promising. Once I got the record, I was physiologically incapable of listening to anything else for weeks. I love it immensely; I think it’s the best Malkmus record since Pavement broke up. During this obsessive phase, I would talk anyone’s ear off about Malkmus’s genius. Last week, reviews of the record began to trickle in. The critical verdict? Lukewarm.

I’m not exactly surprised, given that I would take a bullet for Malkmus, that my opinion of the record is an outlier. But I did notice that my enthusiasm for the album, especially directed outwards, waned after seeing its middling reception. Sure, I may have worn out its freshness by playing it on constant repeat, but as much as I would like to deny it, I like Real Emotional Trash less because it received poor reviews. I’m only glad that I snagged an early copy, giving me a few precious weeks of undiluted enjoyment.

I should say that I’m not denouncing the form of cultural reviews here. Obviously many reviewers are idiots, but I think that the best of them are commendably astute. I’m also not saying that all art is subjective. A sharp critic can locate genuine elements within an artwork and evaluate them in an accurate way. I do think, however, when you walk into the theater or hit play for the first time that you can never predict which areas of your mind will light up. I think it’s a mistake to bridle this potential.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.