Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reviewing the Reviewers: An Analysis of Book and Movie Reviews

For a book or movie review to have any credibility, there has to be some balance. In other words, no review should be completely negative or positive. Even if the reviewer absolutely loves what he is reviewing, there must be some criticism, and some call for improvement. Otherwise, the review is tacitly claiming that the book, movie, television show, or anything else that is being reviewed is flawless.

On the other hand, a sneering, lopsided attack is rarely warranted and is usually an excuse for the reviewer to spew some venom and show off how clever he thinks he is.

Unfortunately, the state of reviewing today would lead you to believe that there is an awful lot of perfection out there. Unwarranted praise, low standards, and an unwillingness or inability to thoroughly critique are some of the main problems. Why is this so?

First, there are an awful lot of people out there--mainly online--who have no idea what they are talking or writing about. They have basic emotional responses to what they read and see. Without any knowledge of character development, narrative, or any other aspect of writing or film-making, they simply have nothing worth saying. Their comments are no different than a 12 year-old's description of a movie. When you can't articulate exactly why you have an opinion on something, your comments lose credibility.

Second, numerous reviewers offer up their views as a brazen quid pro quo. They may be getting paid to shamelessly provide a favourable review. Or they simply review positively because they want to maintain access to those who give interviews, provide admission to various junkets, or otherwise make the life of a professional reviewer worthwhile. If those individuals are writing for high-profile media outlets, their opinions can influence others.

Third, as time goes by, there are fewer opportunities for paid reviews in the world of newspapers and magazines. The demise of Kirkus Reviews is another example of that. When reviewers are paid for their time to write a well-researched review backed up with relevant and insightful comments, the quality is generally better.

Finally, there is no accounting for taste. It is hard to fathom the rubbish that is embraced by so many people. This is not so much an indication of the lack of good reviewers as the fact that numerous individuals simply have different standards, and like different things.

The average length of reviews must surely be taking a hit as well. Pithy reviews that are hardly more than a synopsis and a rating are becoming the norm. But all is not lost. Though the amount of worthless garbage on the internet is unlimited, the overall availability of good information on books and movies continues to increase.

In the online world, some of the best and most thorough reviews can be found on Unfortunately, like a microcosm of the vast online universe, to find those reviews, you will have to wade through a lot of dross. Disingenuous tripe that has been planted by those associated with the work that is being reviewed is also a problem.

One of the best high-profile professional movie reviewers remains Roger Ebert. The most well-known and "successful" person in any field, especially one in which writing is the medium, rarely is the most thorough, knowledgeable, and entertaining. Ebert is an exception. He still makes the effort to provide reviews that are entertaining in their own right, and often extrapolates and riffs off the themes in the movie he is reviewing. And if you're a regular reader of Ebert, you are sure to read references to other movies, books, and even great music related to whichever film is the focus of the review.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Police Officer Murdered in Ottawa

When ready-made and easy-to-follow narrtatives come screeching to a halt, many people don't quite know how to react.

In 1995 I was living in Tel Aviv when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. The night is burned in my memory. There was a nice chill in the air, and a political rally in support of the Oslo peace process was being held a few kilometres away at the Kikar Malchey Israel (Kings of Israel Square). I half-heartedly urged some friends that we should head down to take in the event. Instead, we settled for a night at the local pub.

A few hours later the word came out that Rabin had been shot. There were two palpable, collective pauses that night. The first was after everyone knew the shooting had taken place, but there was still little information available regarding Rabin's condition. A short time later the worst possible outcome was realized: Rabin was dead.

After news that Rabin was dead, rage quickly grew. Everyone was certain was that there was going to be a war, the assumption being that an Arab had pulled the trigger. But still, the officical word had to come down so that the rage could be consummated. When the news broke that, in fact, a Jew had put five bullets in Rabin's back, no one knew quite how to react. A wrench had been thrown into the narrative.

Police Officer Murdered in Ottawa

This is what I am reminded of as the story of a police officer stabbed to death in Ottawa has evolved today. The rightful mourning for the fallen officer, Eric Czapnik, started in earnest as soon as the horrible details started to come out. An officer writing some notes in his car outside an Ottawa hospital was attacked by a knife wielding maniac and stabbed to death.

But things took an even worse turn when we learned that an RCMP officer, Kevin Gregson, had done the killing. The sadness and mourning will not be diminished for the many people who are affected by this killing. But somehow, while it's all a bit more repellent and vile, the rage won't be channeled quite as easily and purely as it would have been if the killer had been a career criminal.

The hatred would have been white hot, the calls for revenge greater, and the ease of attacking the courts for lenience (the RCMP officer who did the killing pulled a knife and threatened someone a few years ago) would have been unhindered.

This will be much harder for police officers to deal with.

Numerous Questions

The details of this story will take some time to come to light. When you consider the secrecy and closed nature of all police forces, it's easy to imagine that the RCMP, at least, will do its best to keep the public in the dark about what exactly happened here.

What is already known is:

The RCMP officer who did the killing was on leave due to the previous charge he faced in 2007, and surgery that he underwent to remove cysts from his brain.

Czapnik was at the hospital on an unrelated call when he was attacked and killed.

But the questions are numerous:

What was Gregson doing at the hospital?

Did Gregson know Czapnik? In other words, was this personal?

Was Gregson treated more leniently in 2007 because he was a member of the RCMP?

Besides determining exactly what happened, the interaction between the Ottawa police and the RCMP will be interesting to watch as this story unfolds.