Ego Check

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.

This is the actual issue in which Dave Williams reviewed my first film.

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.

No Disclaimers

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.

yes, I know I used this before. It just fits.

Cinematic Immunity

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.

Dear dead Orson: Please ignore everything these people say.

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.


7 comments on “Ego Check

  1. I always thought that “Alien Raiders” didn’t really fit. Care to share what you wanted to call it?
    I always enjoy reading your blog- I can really hear your voice as I read it. And it makes me think that you could work as a therapist if you decided to give up video.

    • It was originally called “Supermarket” (perhaps too ambiguous), and then “inHuman.” I liked “inHuman” a lot but I heard that another studio was developing a movie called “Inhuman” and asked WB to change the title. I honestly have no idea why the title changed. I assume it was a well-meaning person who’s not personally a fan of the genre, who was trying to reach out to fans and perhaps not achieving the result he or she had wanted.

      I’m flattered that you think I’d be a good therapist, but that’s definitely a calling. I think you might get that impression because my blog is therapy for myself.

      Thanks again for reading, man!

  2. As a non-paid critic, your blog communicated to me your feelings about critiques. I always feel that a critic is paid for their opinion, and like a-holes, everyone has one. I seldom take a critics opinion. If I find, over time, a critic’s thoughts about a project and mine co-exist on the same level, I might use their judgment as a guide, not a bible. Your Blog is well written and thought out. Every artist knows when their work is the best they could do (or at least they should know), if they met their own expectations of the project.

  3. Good advice about reviews!
    When my memoir on loss and depression (A Grand Canyon) received its first review on Amazon, the reviewer spoke up boldly (through the anonymity of the Internet) that it was “an absolutely waste of time and money.” And it only got worse from there.
    Fortunately, the next two reviews were positive and I crawled back out from under my bed. But for the short time that first one was the only one, I felt as though the whole world would believe him.
    It’s easy to say you have to have a thick skin but another thing entirely to grow said skin. I’m working on it.
    You can find A Grand Canyon and other books at: http://www.amazon.com/Ken-La-Salle/e/B004U6OFQ0
    Great blog! All the best!

  4. Take all of your critics (professional and couch potato, internet drones) and none of them could hold a candle to the ineptitude of many studio (so-called) readers. They have proved to be jealous, paranoid sycophants. Through my various ins I have had the chance to read their reviews of not just my work, but work of some great writers as well. Fox’s early dismissal of Clive Barker and his work is a great example. After reading several reader reports on “Books of Blood,” Barker’s short story collection and later “Damnation Game,” I found terrible inconsistencies that proved that the reader merely skimmed over the work.

    I appreciate your views and refuse to critique it. Positive or negative, I believe would only fuel your fire. Rock on, Ben.

  5. In art school my work was exposed to weekly reviews critiques by my professors. The critiques were usually done in front of the entire class. The most beneficial critiques were usually the harshest, and some of the professors seemed to take a bit of delight in how mean or harsh they could be. I developed a couple of skills through this. First I learned to develop thick skin and secondly it made me grow as an artist.

    You mentioned the problems inherit in trying to duplicate work that gets positive review, and I agree. It’s more important to learn not to put too much stock in the “good press”. In learning how to deal with unfavorable comments or reviews people tend to want to offer up an explanation, circumstances or other information that the reviewer or commenter wasn’t privy to. Nobody really tries to find excuses or rationale to justify positive reviews or good sales.

    • That’s one more point for art school! I think in film school (at least in my day – when we shot actual film) that kind of thing is tough to do because of the time and expense involved in shooting a film – there could be no “weekly” anything, especially as one’s work became more sophisticated and each student would only make 1 film per semester or even per year.

      I do wish there was a way to do this though. Perhaps with technology being what it is, film students can finally churn out giant bodies of work and learn from their mistakes much faster.

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