Monday, January 11, 2010

Watching the Watchmen, pt. 1

Negative reviews -- of both books and movies -- tend to be more popular with readers than positive ones do.  In my opinion, this is true for a number of reasons.  First, negative reviews tend to be funny, or at least have more potential for humor.  By casting a serious attempt at artistic craft in a light that renders it absurd, the reviewer has ample opportunity to display his own wit, skill with language, and imagination.  In some of the most hilarious negative reviews, the author, like a good prosecuting attorney, is able to simply step aside and let the work damn itself.  Second, negative reviews allow the critic to insert himself as a character in a way that positive reviews often do not.  Held at a remove from the work, the critic is witness, narrator, and, at times, even protagonist.  In Roger Ebert's classic review of Caligula, he appears as a solitary and powerless figure -- a lone sane nobody, unable to redirect the stampede of movie-goers as they plunge endlessly into the abyss ("Surely they know there are other movies in town that are infinitely better," he writes.  "It is very sad.") .  But third, and I think, most importantly, the arguments made in negative reviews at least present a veneer of objectivity: the reviewer has "standards," these "standards" have not been met, and thus, the work is flawed.  Why oh why, the negative review asks, didn't the author approach his work some other way -- in the first person, in the third person, in a plainer style, at a faster pace?  What's with this structure, why didn't the writer stick to a tried-and-true arc -- or if he did, why didn't he reach for something fresher, more innovative, surprising?

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that negative reviews can't be accurate, or even enlightening; defining one's own aesthetic against something one considers "sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash," to use Ebert's phrase, or even just deeply flawed, can bring one's opinions into sharp relief.  And, unlike some folks, I would not argue that "critics with staying power never employ snarkiness"; to the contrary, a well-crafted zinger -- even an empty one -- can linger in the reader's memory far longer than its intended target. 

But I do find that writing negative reviews, especially the ones that have me snickering as I type, can leave me at something of a loss when I approach material I really love.  If the negative review asks, "Why this way and not some other?" then the positive review must speak to the necessity of the choices made by the work's creator; otherwise by comparison, it reads like hollow praise.  Especially for works that are sprawling, ambitious, and complex, it can be easier to speak in enthusiastic generalities.

This is all a long way of leading into my subject: the 215-minute monster that is the "ultimate cut" of Zach Snyder's film Watchmen.  This movie, uneven, bizarre, pulpy, and mammoth, discredited by comic book purists and scoffed at by the easily confused, blew me away in the theater, but this longer cut was a revelation.  My next post may not have the entertainment value of a pithy dismissal, but I will try my best to dig into at least one or two aspects of a work that kept me transfixed for three and a half hours, and still left me wanting more.

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