Tuesday, February 10, 2009

When Critical Response to Your Work Varies

By the time you read this, the movie-review site Rotten Tomatoes may have fixed the little problem on this review page, but it was a mind-bender when I found it.

The page is purportedly reviewing a documentary called Eleven Minutes, about a fashion designer. The blurb on the page begins:

It's been two long years since the sharp-witted Jay McCarroll was dubbed "the next great American designer" on season one of reality television's Project Runway, and he's anxious to finally show his first line of clothing. The feature documentary, Eleven Minutes, chronicles his year-long journey designing and preparing his first independent runway show for New York's Fashion Week in Bryant Park...

So far so good. Hop down to the first review and you read:

Some would call the rotund designer charismatic, but I say that this documentary should have gone on only as long as its title.

Ha ha, snippy review. The next one, however, seems more than a little odd:

This is not a feel-good movie by any stretch, but it gets amazing marks on almost every front and really needs to be seen.

Oh? A disturbing movie about a fashion designer, which "really needs to be seen"? Intriguing. And even more intriguing when you read the next mini-review:

A claustrophobic dramatic reconstruction of a 22-hour shooting spree in the sleepy coastal town of Aramoana, New Zealand, that left 13 people dead.

Damn, those Kiwis take their fashion shows seriously. And the reviews keep on a-comin':

The massacre still touches a raw nerve in New Zealand but, filming at a neighbouring town and informed by survivors’ accounts, Sarkies manages both a sensitive and excruciatingly taut docu-thriller that’s refreshing for the genuine weight of its tragedy.

A haunting, uplifting and never-exploitative portrayal of a terrifying real-life tragedy.

Ohhhhh-kay. A bit of research suggests that reviews of a docudrama called Out of the Blue are overwriting almost all the reviews of Eleven Minutes. This interpretation makes sense until we hit the following:

A Hollywood-friendly version of these tragic events, with the star water polo player Karcsi (Ivan Fenyo) forced to choose between possible Olympic glory and his loyalty to student revolutionary girlfriend Viki (Kata Dobo).

Water polo? Karcsi? Student-revolutionary girlfriend Viki? I suppose Aramoana, New Zealand, might have water-polo stars and revolutionary girlfriends, and that they might be swept up in a shooting spree--though I'm having trouble imagining how this relates to the Olympics.

More research shows that reviews of Children of Glory, a movie about "two brutally competitive water polo matches between the USSR and Hungary" (no, I am not making this up) just before the 1956 uprising are now being pasted atop where reviews of our Project Runway darling ought to be.

One of the problems with snippets of reviews is that some praise can be pretty damned generic. Riveting or fascinating or absorbing...hey, who wouldn't believe those words might crop up in respect to one's own work?

Imagine this sort of review mashup happening to reviews of your novel. First you read:

Brilliant and poignant...clarity of insight and crystal-bright prose...[1]

which seems a bit surprising for your noir crime novel, but, hey, it's good to see your genius being recognized. Next you find:

...imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd--but the book's basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy.[2]

It does? Ummm, what basis in rock-hard fact? By the time you get to:

This volume leaves the reader with an understanding of the hard-won military dynamics of the surge and the professionalism and competence of the generals who designed and executed it. [3]


As always, the emphasis is on tasty food that anyone can prepare—and the book's best sections are devoted to simple fare such as sandwiches and pasta...brings new life to staples like grilled cheese, with his Double-Decker Cheddar Cheese Sandwich with Pickled Onions and Potato Chips. [4]

you are pretty sure something has gone wrong in the critical assessments of your novel. This could have an upside and a downside. Someone will rush out and buy it to appreciate (at last!) your "crystal-bright prose," but somebody else will be really ticked off when they can't find the recipe for your Double-Decker Cheddar Cheese Sandwich with Pickled Onions and Potato Chips.

The internet simply burgeons with possibilities, doesn't it?

[1] Review of Updike's Rabbit, Run
[2] Review of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five
[3] Review of Thomas Rick's The Gamble
[4] Review of Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Dinners


Tim Stretton said...

Why are things always more interesting when they go wrong than when they go right?...

David Thayer said...

Billy Pilgrim leaves suburbia behind in this hilarious look at life in Anbar Province. Cameron Diaz has optioned the book and wants to play a Messerschmidt pilot defending the skies over Dresden.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

I'd hazard the guess that it's mathematical. Ther are so many more unexpected ways for things to go wrong...

David Isaak said...

Hey, David--

I'd buy a ticket to see that!

Is there any chance Cameron will do the movie topless?

Jen Ster said...

I worked for a newspaper back in the 1990s and one of the things we did when things were slow was write fake headlines. "Mayor Slashes Four, Dies In Beachside Caviar Brawl." "Planning and Zoning Board Rules For Nazi Homeowner's Yard Ornaments." Stuff like that. I could see us putting in a fake movie or book review in there just to pass the time. As far as I know, though, it never actually happened. At least not on purpose. I'm pretty sure that review of "Cubism, Steiglitz and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams" was for reals.

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