I was recently reminded of the documentary Heckler. I quite enjoyed it – parts of it at least. But I also thought it was rubbish. The start was promising: vintage footage of Bill Hicks chewing out an unfunny heckler, a story of a comedian being punched by an audience member he challenged to take the stage, a brief bit of footage of a woman climbing on to the stage and bopping a male comic in the face.
And then – after some talking heads discussed the idea that heckling in comedy can be useful but is most often distracting – the film jumped straight in to an exploration of the damage that criticism can have on the careers of comedians, actors and musicians.
The logic seemed to be that a critic writing a review was no better than a heckler at a comedy show; essentially yelling out a bunch of whiney crap because everyone can have an opinion.
I found some of the opinions expressed in the film interesting. There were some painful moments where Jamie Kennedy – the subject of the film; a deeply unfunny comedian – read out his worst reviews to the critics who had written them. He seemed to be seeking clarification, asking people directly how they could live with being so mean.
He asked the question (more than once) “why do you hate me?” And essentially received a version of the answer “I don’t hate you – I hate your work” several times.
The film is whiny, one-sided and deeply flawed. It never mentions any of the positive reviews that some of the interview subjects must have had – these are people that have appeared in more than one film, have made more than one album, have regularly performed comedy. I’m not saying they have to have received at least one good review but it does seem likely.
Also Kennedy campaigns against the bitter vitriol that spews from the internet – and this is fair enough. He cops some awful abuse in some of the reviews. But he – and several of the comics and actors interviewed – complain about the anonymous internet posters; the trolls, the website cowboys. He seems happy to dump all critics in to that category; tenuously drawing the link between the critic – an apparently unloved and unlovable whiner – and the audience heckler.
It got me thinking about the critical process. And that is why I would recommend the film. There are some funny moments, some painful/cringe-inducing moments and some interesting observations.
But art and/or performance of any kind needs outside comment; needs a set of opinions that are created away from the PR-vehicles and the industry in-groups. And that is where a critic or reviewer comes in.
I’ve said this before – but in my own experience, in terms of the criticism my criticism receives – I am only ever told that I cannot write when a person disagrees with my opinion. No one ever writes in and says I agree with everything you say but you’re just not very good at saying it. They save that for when they vehemently disagree – like it’s the most powerful weapon they have in dealing with the critic: you’ve said that person cannot do (well) what they are trying to do so now I’m going to say that you cannot do what you are trying to do.
It’s fine for people to do this – but it doesn’t show that any thought has gone in to their attempted rebuttal. And when, as is often the case, a person is saying you were really mean to them and I don’t like you – you’re a dickhead, well it’s a pot/kettle/black thing isn’t it.
I’ve even had: your not even any good at writing. And if you can spot what is blatantly, obviously wrong with that construction we won’t even need to put in a good word for you with the NCEA peeps.
The movie Heckler talked about how reviewers just get to stay stuff – without thinking, without consequences. That nobody critiques their work. Well, that’s not true. Not here anyway. You have the chance to say what you think every day. And while I do get to choose the topics (it’s only fair I think, given that I’m doing the writing) I do often think of you – or some of you – when I put an idea together.
The weirdest bit about watching Heckler, for me, was wondering why Jamie Kennedy put himself through all of that. If he believed he had a good career – people were going to his shows, he was making money – then he could have just carried on. If he wanted to please the critics (or hecklers) then he could have tried to sharpen his act. He did not do either. He tried to address the issue of what it is to be criticised and/or heckled by kinda confronting people about what they had said. The internet commentators that Kennedy confronted were generally pretty happy to tell him to his face that they thought he was terrible. The journalists working for newspapers certainly were.
And he is terrible.
Sure that’s only my opinion in this case – but I know that, that’s why I wrote he is terrible. I don’t need to say I think because this is an opinion piece (as is the way with blogs and with reviews). And I am not saying he is terrible as a person, I am saying he is terrible as a comedian. I don’t need to add that though because he is not being reviewed as a person; he is being reviewed as a representative of comedy; as a musician too (fleetingly) and as an actor.
Kennedy and some of the other actors/musicians/comics on camera as part of Heckler talked about reviewers making it personal. I’d argue that the artist is the one that makes the review personal by taking it personally. Of course they think they work they did was good – that’s why they did it. I don’t imagine there are many musicians out there who actually think something along the lines of: you know what, this isn’t that good but I need some money, so I’m going to release it anyway.
What qualifies me?
This is the question that is often asked of critics. This idea that you are clearly a failed film maker or a failed musician – and a favourite line in the comments is that no ten year old ever dreamed of being a critic.
I’m not sure that comment is as clever as the people that say it seem to think it is. I know that by 13 I knew I wanted to write – mostly about music. By then I was already playing music. I never figured I’d see which one I’d get better at. I never tried to compare my abilities at the two – I would argue, in some senses, that being able to play some music is useful when you are writing about music. Definitely. But it doesn’t make it a crucial element – it’s not necessary for the critic to have to be able to perform the task they are criticising. They have to be able to form an opinion and express it in writing, or when speaking on the radio or on television.
And we are all critics. We rent a crappy movie (in our opinion) and we tell people about it. We probably tell more people about the duds they should avoid than the good ones we want them to see.
There was that time I wrote about Fat Freddy’s Drop and Mu went on National Radio and implied that I was a racist – a term that seems far too easy to bandy about as a cop-out in this country. I’d argue that he was making it personal (or trying to take it there) with that comment.
When I review music I don’t want to hate it – but I do want to react to it – and of course you want to get a reaction from what you write. Morons that call for objective reviews are not thinking properly.
Here’s an objective review I prepared earlier. It is of the Fat Freddy’s Drop live album:
This new album is recorded live at the Roundhouse in London. The album is called Live At Roundhouse London. It captures the band’s final show from their 2008 European tour. The album features six songs. The first song is called The Camel. It is 13 minutes long. The second song is called The Raft. It is 16 minutes long. The third song is called Flashback. It is 12 minutes long. The fourth song is called Pull The Catch. It is 10 minutes long and differs from the feel of its studio-album version. The fifth song is called The Nod. It is also 10 minutes long. The final song is called Shiverman. It is 16 minutes long. The album is recorded live and features a live drummer playing with the band. Fans will want to hear this.
That’s just an extract – but it provides some information about the album. It is objective. And complicit with the idea of being objective it does not tell you what I think. That would be a subjective review – aka the normal kind. And as music is subjective it should warrant subject reviews, right?
Anyway, I was thinking again about Heckler – and how there’s a function for almost all online writing (whether under the piece or via social media) where the readers do get to write comments – you get to tell me when you think I’m wrong. And that’s how it should be. The critic is not right, just someone who writes. And we cannot get a reaction every time; we cannot make you react to our words every time but when we do that’s a good thing. Because it means you are thinking. You are wanting to argue, to challenge, or even to react positively to the review – that’s still reacting. You are supposed to take the review and use that as a measure against your experience and as something to agree or disagree with. Something to inform your opinion…based on my opinion/s. Or whoever the reviewer is.
Now you are free to tell me that this has been whiny, one-sided and deeply flawed. And I will assume you mean this blog-post – rather than actually meaning me. If you want to say it about me that’s also fine, but don’t say that and then tell me that I’m the one getting personal.
If you think this has come across as defensive that was not the intention. But as a reviewer writing about reviewing it is tricky not to sound defensive of the craft.
Anyway, what do you think about the artist reacting to the review? Should they bother? Should they actually stay away from all reviews? What makes their opinion of their work more valid than the critic’s opinion?
Have you seen Heckler? What did you think of it?
And do you still read reviews to help you make your own hiring/downloading/buying decisions? Do you have reviewers you trust? What are your thoughts on the critical process?