The Worst News You’ll Ever Exhaustively Seek Out
One thing they can’t teach you in film school (or art school or writing school or whatever school) is how to take a review. There’s an actual skill to it, even if the review is positive or… I’m tempted to say “bad .” But the use of that word “bad” puts me in the awkward place where now I’m reviewing the reviewer. And that’s not to say that there aren’t “bad” reviews – they’re there to be found aplenty as user reviews on IMDB, Netflix, Amazon, you-name-it. And they’re not “bad” necessarily because they’re negative or even often cruel – they’re bad because they’re poorly thought out by people who don’t try to express themselves in a useful or readable way. They’re gut-level internet-troll reactions of the “worst-piece-of-dogshit-I’ve-ever-seen” variety.
Knowing Where the Bodies are Buried
I like to think of all creative work as a conversation of sorts between the artist and whomever wants to engage with their handiwork. And when, as artists or craftspeople or whatever, we ignore the conversation coming back at us, we’re killing the entire process. We don’t need the criticism to do any work, but if we have a vital point or conviction from which our work stems, critics are a valuable way to figure out if that point/conviction/story/whatever got across to the audience. And although any current project being criticized has already been born into the world, hopefully SOMETHING can be gained by listening closely to the critics and learning how to do one’s job better the next time.
And more times than not (for me, anyway), when a piece of criticism feels personal, it’s not because it’s dead-wrong, it’s because it peeled up a corner in the work, found a rough seam, basically something that I was hoping nobody would notice. Is pacing off? A moment not working? An actor miscast? Generally I knew that or at some point I took the “least bad” route on SOMETHING, and it jumped out at the critic whose eye for creative stumbling was as keen as I wish mine had been while working on the thing in question. My job is to do the work to the best of my abilities, and his/her job is to tell others if he/she finds it to be worth anyone’s time.
Taking Criticism is a Necessary Skill
But to my original point – there’s no way to learn how to take an unfavorable review of your own work except to get one. Or several (as anyone with an enduring body of work will, eventually). This journey began for me when I was 19 and I wrote, directed and edited my first short film on a borrowed Super-VHS-c camera. The film was called “No Subtlety” and it starred four of my good (and very patient) friends. It was about a failed and suicidal magician who kidnaps a hitchhiker, ties him up, and forces him to watch his crappy magic show in his one-room apartment.
And no, I won’t embed it here.
When I made it, I’d had a good amount of theater experience (even some directing) but hadn’t so much as set foot on a professional – or even student – film set. But I knew that the sole reason I had been brought into existence was to make movies. At the time, the illustrious zine “Film Threat” had a magazine called “Film Threat Video Guide” which publicized niche and underground films by people like Nick Zedd or Richard Kern or Scott Spiegel, which championed DIY filmmaking on Super-8 cartridges, and which would review ANY indie projects sent in to it. So, all excited about hearing about my burgeoning cutting-edge diamond-in-the-rough genius, I sent “No Subtlety” in for a review and got my first critical face-smashing.
Sorry to have Wasted Your Time, Dave
What critic Dave Williams (not to be confused with Film Threat editor David E. Williams – they were in fact two different people) did in place of a review was come up with a witty top-ten list of alternate titles for my film. They were things like “No Acting,” “No Writing,” etc. culminating with “No Good Reason to Watch This Shit.”
Yup, that was in print and whatever the readership of FTVG was – they would all know me first as a hack (even then, I flattered myself to think I’d be “known”). Was I devastated? Yes, of course. For me, a great deal of work had gone into that project and I’d toiled without supervision or instruction and completely without anyone who had more experience than myself (which, to reiterate, was zero). And although “No Subtlety” was certainly not a film that by any means could be called “good,” I HAD figured out how to do a fake driving “process” shot (using mirrors to reflect light and create the illusion of motion), I’d learned a little bit about coverage, and my friend Mark and I had built a homemade jib arm out of PVC and conduit pipe so the film had a lot of fancy moves. I’d dealt with the limitations of linear video editing (basically one VHS deck to another), learned a thing or two about post sound from a family friend who ran a recording and mixing studio, and I’d experienced the weird humiliation of showing that first awkward work ever to a few audiences – my immediate family, my class in school, etc. They’d all been very patient and generous with their time watching a crudely-formed story built by an over-enthusiastic newbie.
None of which could or should have impressed Dave Williams, as he’s got a stack of unsolicited movies to review and back in 1991 he had to sit in front of a VHS deck and an old CRT television and a bag of pre-fancy-flavor Cheetos and just watch whatever was sent his way. And then write something about it.
The truth is that, as an artist, you get ZERO exemptions. If your work is to speak for itself (rather than you sending your film along with a note of why it could have been better if it hadn’t rained that one day or a sketch of what you really wanted the monster to look like, etc.), you have to put it out into the world and simply accept whatever comes back – even if it’s written by a troll who likens your work to canine feces in form and substance.
Today I’d read something like Dave Williams’ review on a message board on IMDB and ignore it, but at the time it was the first critical response to the first thing I’d ever put out for a critical response, and it wasn’t pretty. The first evidence that maybe I WASN’T birthed into the universe to make movies with my undeniable talent as previously thought, but would have to work at it like everyone else. But also, if today someone showed me their own “No Subtlety”-esque short, I’m sure I’d be thinking things like what Dave Willams said even if I chose to frame my reactions more… Constructively.
But most creative people whose work goes up for review have a built-in coping method – They discredit the critics when they don’t like the review even as they fortify their egos with positive reviews from the same critics. I first became aware of this creative reflex while working in theater in Orlando – a three-theater town who at the time had one very powerful theater critic at the Orlando Sentinel. With a positive review, audiences would surge and everyone would be high-fivining in the dressing room. A negative review from the same critic could destroy a play and all the confidences of everyone involved. So when the positive review came down, it was posted in the dressing room and celebrated and everyone took credit for doing their best work ever. When an unfavorable review came down, suddenly people were reminding themselves that the Sentinel’s critic was really a food critic who’d been promoted to theater (even if she’d gone off to a graduate-level theater program, even if they were just weeks earlier celebrating her positive review). Each of her points – valid or not – would be dissected one-by-one and annihilated. With bruised egos the show would sodier on with the understanding that we who do creative work must stand by that work and not let the carping of the outside world interfere with our pure visions and brilliant expressions.
Which, of course, is pure bullshit. Or dogshit. Take your pick.
And then there are people who just don’t read their reviews. I admire their discipline, but I would want to read all the positive ones and my bastard integrity would then force me to read all the negative ones. So, to this day, I read them all.
Don’t Believe Your Own Good Press
I said at the beginning that there’s a skill to taking positive feedback as well. My general thought upon getting a favorable review is “holy shit! I got away with it!” But taking one’s positive critical feedback too seriously can lead to leaning into the things that get the most praise, which over time will lead to one’s work becoming stale and predictable. In order to keep one’s work vital and interesting both to one’s self and an audience, I believe it’s always important to lean out of the comfort zone and try work that COULD have unfavorable consequences. I mean, if we’ve learned nothing from “The Hangover Part 2,” “Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” or “Iron Man 2” it’s that stale repetition might make some money but it’s far from satisfying for anyone.
Ignore at your Own Peril
I do think there are times when it’s completely appropriate to disregard the learned advice from even the best critics. Sometimes, the reviewer wishes that the product was a totally different experience than what they’d expected (thanks to misleading marketing or just their own bias) and the review is angry at the end product for not being something else.
Although those are instructive in terms of how to meet audiences at their own expectations, there’s really not much of an artistic imperative that can be taken from that. I encountered this many times with my movie, “Alien Raiders,” where the title had been slapped onto the movie by studio execs and without my consultation – and then the inherent goofiness of that title ended up eating huge chunks of our reviews. And some (although not most) people were disappointed because they wanted to see a film that was supposed to be called “Alien Raiders,” which my film was not.
Again, this is not to disqualify the considerate, well-written reviews which appeared in print and blogs. In my opinion, the studio should know the expectation they’re setting up with any title, and should take their licks like anyone else when that backfires. But as a filmmaker, I can’t possibly answer those critics except to say “yeah, I agree with you about the title.” And when I’m actively working to get my film out there, to do so would be to work against the studio so I just say nothing.
There is No “Answer” to Criticism
There’s still the cliché of an artist “answering their critics.” And although filmmaker Uwe Boll’s answer was to challenge them to a boxing match (and everyone who ever hated any critic enjoyed watching that), there really is no way to “answer” a critic. Hopefully there’s the work, which we all strive to do as well as we can in whatever form that might take. At the end of the day, receiving criticism, in any form, is the final stage of every creative process and learning how to use – or at least not discredit – the information given by critics is often one of the the toughest lessons for every creative person to learn.