In his essay Confessions of a Book Reviewer, George Orwell described the plight of professional critics in the 1940s. Forced to write about hundreds of books on a tight schedule, forced to keep inventing reactions to books they cared nothing about, they ended up producing last-minute reviews which were little more than a few prepackaged phrases slapped together. (Film critics had it even worse: in addition to the above, they were "expected to sell their honour for a glass of inferior sherry.") Such reviews were useless as criticism and useless as simple reading or viewing guides.
Obviously, nothing has changed today -- if anything, critics are under additional pressure, since the media companies which produce book and movie reviews are largely the same media companies which produce books and movies. The standard commercial review is minced press release (seasoned with received opinion) piped into a tube of cliche, and this is how it must be. I couldn't expect any more from professional criticism. Under the capitalist system, it's a lost cause.
The problem I want to address here is that of crap amateur criticism. Orwell seemed to put a lot of faith in amateur critics. He suggested that most books could be reviewed by amateurs, giving professional critics room to write longer, more thoughtful pieces about the books that mattered to them. And thus no-one is under any pressure, everyone reviews what they want to, and everyone wins.
This scenario works because amateur critics care about what they review. The word "amateur", after all, comes from the Latin for "lover". An amateur film critic is someone who loves film, who feels strongly -- positively or negatively -- about the film he is reviewing, whose strength of feeling will animate his review. And so, instead of the routine, perfunctory work of a commercial hack, we will get a review that, for all its rough edges, is a considered personal statement. We will get an opinion. Right?
Here is an amateur review, taken from the IMDB user comments for a film called Down with Love (a sentiment which I believe could be explored more thoroughly in Hollywood movies). It is entirely typical of the average non-illiterate user comment.
Delightful homage to `50s Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex farces with Zellweger as an author of a self-help book in essence for women to reclaim independence by forsaking emotions (i.e. love) for self-respect and McGregor as a skirt-chasing playboy journalist for a men's magazine a la Esquire who is assigned to interview her by his namby pamby editor and best bud (Pierce) but winds up attempting to expose her as a phony by making a play for her under a false identity. Innuendos up the ying yang and some inspired shtick fuel the confectionary[sic] light fluff in this cute valentine to the Kennedy era of the battle of the sexes with appealing work by the leads and supporting leads (including Paulson as Zellweger's dead-pan publisher) but the real stars are the perfect production design Andrew Laws[sic], inspired costumes by Daniel Orlandi and sleek cinematography by Jeff Cronenweith combined with the double entendre stuffed screenplay by the writing team of Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake with able direction by Peyton Reed.
Horrible, isn't it? Like Roger Moore on a bad hair day, the paragraph oozes failed slickness. The reviewer has packed his two enormous sentences with the ready-made phrases of a jaded hack; but lacking a hack's practice and an editor's grease, the phrases creak and stick out like exposed machinery. Let's look at the review again with the cliches and cliched constructions underlined:
Delightful homage to `50s Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex farces with Zellweger as an author of a self-help book in essence for women to reclaim independence by forsaking emotions (i.e. love) for self-respect and McGregor as a skirt-chasing playboy journalist for a men's magazine a la Esquire who is assigned to interview her by his namby pamby editor and best bud (Pierce) but winds up attempting to expose her as a phony by making a play for her under a false identity. Innuendos up the ying yang and some inspired shtick fuel the confectionary light fluff in this cute valentine to the Kennedy era of the battle of the sexes with appealing work by the leads and supporting leads (including Paulson as Zellweger's dead-pan publisher) but the real stars are the perfect production design [by] Andrew Laws, inspired costumes by Daniel Orlandi and sleek cinematography by Jeff Cronenweith combined with the double entendre stuffed screenplay by the writing team of Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake with able direction by Peyton Reed.
As you can see, the review is almost entirely composed of cliches. Even the structure of the review is cliched. We can extract the bare bones of the review to create a kind of review template...
Delightful homage to [other film] with [Lead Actor 1] as [describe what Lead Actor 1 does] and [Lead Actor 2] as [describe what Lead Actor 2 does]. [Cliched description of the events] fuel the [cliched description of the action] in this [cliched description of the film]. There is appealing work by the leads and supporting leads (including [supporting actor] as [what supporting actor does]), but the real stars are [cliched descriptions of the special effects, costumes screenplay etc.] and the able direction by [director].
... which can then be applied, with little effort and no feeling, to any movie:
Delightful homage to comic-book cyberpunk with Keanu Reeves as disoriented hacker Neo and an impressive Laurence Fishburne as the mysterious stranger Morpheus who tries to convince him that reality is not quite what it seems. Could Neo really be 'The One' who is chosen to save humanity from the threat of machines? Moments of philosophical insight and a keen awareness of net culture permeate the high-kicking action in this hugely entertaining sci-fi blockbuster. There is appealing work by the leads and supporting leads (including Carrie-Ann Moss as Neo's would-be lover) but the real stars are the incredible and innovative special effects by xxx, the relentlessly cool production design by yyy, and the alert, intelligent script by the Wachowski brothers, who also provided the able direction.
With slight variations, the template can be adapted to fit a more serious film:
Moving tribute to the victims of the Holocaust with Liam Neeson as conscience-wracked wartime-era German businessman Oskar Schindler and Ralph Fiennes as the sadistic Nazi officer who runs the nearby concentration camp. In this Oscar-winning epic, Neeson imparts a sensitive dignity to his role as Schindler, who ends up saving over 1100 Jews from the gas chambers by making them work in his factory. There is also appealing work from Fiennes and the other supporting leads (including Ben Kingsley as Schindler's Jewish accountant) but the real stars are zzz's startling black-and-white cinematography, John Williams' stately and moving score, and the mature and thoughtful direction from Steven Spielberg.
Other films are left as an exercise for the reader. In any case, it should be obvious that the amateur in question has no more written a review than a child with a Leonardo colouring book has painted the Mona Lisa.
The tragedy here is that the would-be reviewer presumably felt about this film, cared about it enough to compose a review and post it to the IMDB, but that none of this feeling comes across. From reading the Blockbuster Video Guide he thought a review should contain phrases like "with able direction by..." and "but the real stars are...", but trying to convey feeling with this stuff is like attempting foreplay with a tank. He tried to speak of his enthusiasm for a movie, but he ended up saying nothing at all. The dead language of the hack-critic has simply destroyed his self-expression.
The reviewer has my sympathies: in any writing, it's hard to resist the lure of the convenient cliche, the prepackaged phrase. Frequently, I find my own writing lapsing into formula -- in fact, "lapsing into formula" is itself a lapse into formula (though maybe "lapse" isn't the best word). But that said, I don't mind cliches as long as some feeling, some personality, some evidence of original thought still pops up between them. When prose is nothing but cliches (as in the examples above) then we have a problem: even if its motivations are sincere, the prose won't be.
It's the pressures of reviewing to tight deadlines, of giving dishonest praise, that make commercial hacks depend on cliches for their reviews. Amateur reviewers suffer no such pressures; why then are most IMDB user comments so hackneyed and lifeless? I can only assume that these users are imitating the commercial reviews they see. They have decided that the correct way to review a film is to assemble a few stock phrases and package them as attractively as they can. Expressing their feelings and opinions -- expressing themselves -- doesn't enter into it. Indeed, commercial reviews have demeaned their critical language so much that self-expression is simply impossible.
Which, as Orwell might say, is doubleplusungood.