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  • Pete Mesling

The Negative Film Review


When you're a young movie enthusiast, you watch everything you can get your hands on because you don't want to miss a single jewel. (With music we seem to be more hard-lined from the get-go, for some reason, and books take time to read, so we become selective pretty quickly on the literary front.) The result of a scattershot approach to movie-watching, however, is that we end up taking in more junk than treasure. That's just the way the ratio works, folks. Well, being exposed to large quantities of subpar and mediocre entertainment can instill a sense of bitterness, even resentment. It's only natural that such feelings occasionally find release in the form of negative reviews.

Two things can mitigate the frequency and virulence of such reviews. As one's taste evolves, so does the knack for being effectively selective. We want to remain open to friendly recommendations and words of caution, but by and large we truly can get better at spectating. Like everything, it's a matter of practice—but the right kind of practice. Contrary to prevalent assumptions, flipping the critical judgment switch to the on position while watching a movie does not diminish the ability to appreciate light fare. I believe it was Steven Spielberg who remarked that there's nothing wrong with a popcorn film, as long as it's done with love. Absolutely right. There's also nothing wrong with recognizing a popcorn film as such. And if it's done with skill on top of love, there's nothing wrong with deconstructing it. Deconstruction, after all, is an integral part of this whole process of discovery.

The other mitigating factor here—and it's not completely untethered from the previous point--is simply the realization that it's okay to eschew crap. Every now and then a film comes along that gets so much undeserved praise and attention that no fair-minded cinéaste can keep utterly quiet (oh, the examples that are flying through my mind as I write this!). But on the whole, there's no good reason to make a steady diet of dreck. It's like David Lee Roth's stock answer when asked why he never married; early on he realized that you don't actually have to. One gets the sense that he's never looked back. That's how I feel about my abandonment of garbage cinema. All of a sudden, blue skies ahead!

All of this suggests a simple piece of advice. If you must criticize, also be sure to create. For nothing rounds the tip of your quill quite like the humility of trying to bring some kind of beauty into the world, where it might be judged, enjoyed, mocked, ignored, loved, hated, ridiculed, or learned from. We need informed critical opinions about art. Without that conversation, everything gets too quiet. And nothing can inform like getting your hands dirty. János Starker, the great cellist and teacher, once talked about the progress of a musician in terms of mastering one level and then moving on to the bottom of the next one, where you find yourself once again among the ignorant. When you've mastered that level, you move on to the bottom of the next. And on and on. A never-ending process. His point was that you can choose to stop after any one of those levels, but you can also choose to continue climbing. True of music, true of filmmaking, true of critical writing ... true of life.


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