Reviewing Existimatum's Reviews of Reviews: A Public Service

Categories: Film and TV

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As comment-thread haters love to point out, often with the caps lock on, most film critics would prove incapable of creating good movies themselves. Perhaps in honor of that truth, upstart website Existimatum trusts its reviews of movie reviewers' reviews to a most exclusive coterie: people who cannot actually write themselves.

According to an Indiewire interview, Existimatum's Latin-fetishizing mastermind Peter Kern believes he has hatched an objective rubric for ranking and evaluating critics' subjective responses to works of art. For each review reviewed, Kern's system considers the four essential elements of good criticism: "Quality of Writing, Quality of Argument, Spoiler Avoidance, and Presentation." Scores in these individual categories are then crunched together into an aggregate score for that review, which means that, for the Existimatum model, the "presentation" of a critic's ideas -- meaning font size, generally -- is as important as "Quality of Argument."

With such robust mathematical truths to guide it, Existimatum hardly needs written reviews of reviews at all. But it still has them. Here's three, reviewed!.

1. Rochus Pomponius's review of Violet Lucca's Film Comment review of Ender's Game
Existimatum's reviewers obsess over odd and insignificant details, structure their work according to a repetitious formula, and attempt to mimic the punchy, inflated language of the critics' blurbs that turn up in movie ads. Imagine Wesley Willis channeling Peter Travers.

Existimatum critic "Rochus Pomponius" neglects to consider Lucca's arguments or insights, preferring instead to deem her review a "turd" for its violation of Existimatum's cardinal rule of all reviewing: revealing any plot details, even of a 25-year-old science-fiction novel in a thoughtful piece written for a specialty magazine for the most serious of film enthusiasts.

Pomponius begins, "In an effort to not sugar coat this turd, Violet Lucca's 'Review: Ender's Game' doesn't belong on the internet it should be in a disused cesspool [sic]."

There's something oddly affecting about the many infelicities in Pomponius's attempt to set down a coherent thought: the split infinitive, the inability to recognize when one sentence ends and the next begins, the curious and baffling adjective "disused," which is probably supposed to be "diseased." Have you ever attempted to pick up a frozen pea while wearing an oven mitt? That's Pomponius reaching for the right word.

Most of Pomponius's 266-word review is dedicated to restating his or her complaint that Lucca has "spoiled" Gavin Hood and Orson Scott Card's piddling piece of science-fiction entertainment product. There's never any example of what Lucca has spoiled, just as there's no evidence for the claim that her plot summary is "ill-penned" or that her writing is "mediocre." Pomponius awards her 1.5 stars for "Quality of Writing," which suggests that, rubric be damned, no one at Existimatum has worked out a sensible numerical value for "mediocre."

Late in the piece, Pomponius complicates our suspicion that he or she is ancient Rome's village idiot. "Clearly this is an ironic piece of literature meant to parody the amateur reviews that the internet has become filled to the brim with," this critic's critic writes. Is Pomponius referring to Lucca's review or to his or her own? And where exactly is the internet's brim?

Anyway, let's try ranking this one.

Coherence: 0 stars
Engagement with the Critical Ideas Considered in the Review Being Reviewed: 0 stars
Unappetizing Mentions of Turds: 5 stars
Hilarious Mis-spellings: 100 stars, mostly for the sentence "Surely a 'professional' critic would no [sic] better than to spill a film's biggest secrets in a tragically written review that most will hopefully not read."

2. Marcus Julianus's review of Mark Kermode's review of Romeo and Juliet for The Observer

Besides functional illiteracy, the chief hallmark of the Existimatum critic is the curious belief that the writer of a film review should be held accountable for the design choices of the website where that review appears. "Marcus Julianus" assails critic Mark Kermode's review of the godawful new Romeo and Juliet movie on just that point: "The presentation of Kermode's Romeo and Juliet lacks creativity and imagination. It is repulsively plain and boasts nothing eye-grabbing."

"Repulsively plain" may sound like an oxymoron, but I recently ate a spoonful of plain yogurt when expecting vanilla, and, yeah, that was pretty gross. I do have a concern, though: Kermode's review earns just one star for "presentation," although its perfectly clean and functional layout on The Observer's site is in every way identical to that of Kermode's Ender's Game review, which Existimatum awarded four stars in the same category. The author of that review of Kermode's review of Ender's Game? This same Marcus Julianus, of course. Remember: Math is objective!

This might be a good time to point out that Existimatum's own layout and design looks like catbutt, if catbutt for some reason had stupid Doric columns.

The rest of Julianus's 210-word review of Kermode's review of Romeo and Juliet is nothing but complaints that Kermode offers no evidence to back up his assertions. Julianus, of course, offers no evidence to back up these complaints. The Existimatum piece closes with this: "Overall, the review is fiery and well-written however the unsupported arguments and the short readtime elevate it to the highest levels of disposable."

Despite being "fiery and well-written," Karmode's review earns two stars in the category "Quality of Writing."

Let's rank it!

Stupid Doric Columns: 5 Stars
Run-On Sentences: 5 Stars
Consistency: 0 stars
Misapprehension That "Disposability" Is a State to Which a Thing Can Be "Elevated": 1 kabillion stars

3. Eugenius Antonius's review of Alan Scherstuhl's review of Ender's Game for the Village Voice

The rare Existitmatum critic who can comprehend why an introductory phrase like this has a comma at the end of it, Eugenius Antonius dedicates his critique of Alan Scherstuhl's review of Ender's Game to loftier complaints than web-layout or spoiler sensitivity. Instead, Antonius upbraids Scherstuhl for arguing that Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card's pig-brained personal beliefs can't help but poison the film adaptation. (Full disclosure: My name is Alan Scherstuhl.)

Antonius writes,"As a critic, Scherstuhl has an obligation to judge films solely on their artistic merits." And: "If the criteria for a film's worth becomes the personal beliefs of the filmmakers or actors, the integrity of the entire profession of critique will crumble."

In all of this, Antonius is absolutely correct. Art should be evaluated as though it merely happens to exist independent of its creator, even if -- as Emerson contended -- "In the man, could we lay him open, we should see the reason for the last flourish and tendril of his work, as every spine and tint in the sea-shell preexist in the secreting organs of the fish."

Scherstuhl will happily concede this as he and Antonius ride off together on a tandem bicycle to see an exhibition of Hitler's paintings, where these new best friends will joyously debate the quality of the brushstrokes -- are they super awesome, or are they merely awesome? (This is the question that will keep criticism from crumbling.) Then, after counting the number of words in each other's spoiler-free Hitler raves, Scherstuhl will pose the question he's been dying to ask Existimatum writers since first discovering the site: "Is your pseudonym meant to suggest that you're an emperor or a Transformer?"

Ranking:

Surprising Adeptness at Basic Punctuation, Including a Colon: 5 stars
Correct Spelling of "Scherstuhl": 5 Stars
Assumption That a Review's Highest Function Is to Serve as a Consumer Guide: All of the stars that the guy in 2001 saw when he said "My God! It's full of stars!"
Presentation: Catbutt


You could do worse than following Alan Scherstuhl on the Twitter thing at @studiesincrap.


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14 comments
AlexF
AlexF

As a bit of harmless fun, there's a lot to be said for a site that takes the p*ss out of cinema reviews, possibly the largest receptacle for pomposity on the planet.

However, when it states its intention to "mute(s) the opinions of unreliable critics, thereby providing you with the world's most credible compound quantitative assessment of a film" alarm bells should start ringing. There's not a lot of joy (or sense) in this Stalinist "mission to explain" particularly as you can't apply one rule (or ten critics' rules - ten critics is the size of the reviewing team for f*ck's sake!) to reviews that range from detailed analysis in the Village Voice analysis to a quick tabloid newspaper pointer as to what's at the cinema this week.

However, the most unpalatable aspect of the site is the lack of accountability. Some of the comments are little more than anonymous personal attacks on critics who at least had the decency to put their names to their reviews, however bad or good they were. Essentially it's trolling, albeit it trolling justified by Latin pretensions. 
Looking at a smattering of the critiques offered, it seems the site's guardians are looking for long-winded analysis (the longer the review, the better, it seems) over jokey exuberance. I for one, prefer the latter. In fact, the line that the Man of Steel's 'bloated budget could have gone a long way toward curing cancer' - apparently the offending comment that sparked Existimatum into life - made me laugh...and also said a lot more about the film than a hundred in-depth broadsheet opinion pieces.

PS I find it rather had to believe that the site's guardians have actually seen all the films (many are press screenings only) that they're upbraiding critics for, particularly in terms of "reasonableness". And they need to spell the names of their critical victims correctly as well.

AlanShemper
AlanShemper

I've never seen someone so utterly fail to validate himself since David Koresh claimed to be the Son of God. At least Scherstuhl gets paid for it in money instead of child brides, I guess.

KeatsandYeats
KeatsandYeats

Scherstuhl seems to miss a couple critical things. First, Existimatum is primarily satire - which is abundantly clear to any moderately attentive individual. Second-rate film reviewers (a group in which the author may well serve as president, or at least treasurer) are not so much moderately attentive as they are maximally inattentive to anything other than their own egos. The type of people who will sever relationships on the basis of a disagreement with their entirely subjective opinion about an entirely subjective subject matter.

Which brings me to my second point - Existimatum's reviews are entirely subjective, as reviews are wont to be. Nevertheless, it looks as though the metric they use to grade reviews is pretty well in line with the critical consensus. So there you have it. Even if it's not as useful as a Rotten Tomatoes or a Metacritic it still offers a general idea of how a film is received. (Plus, it serves a different function.)

A part of that function is to parody the self-seriousness of the glut of self-styled critics out there. Guess what? A good number of critics Rotten Tomatoes uses to come up with its metrics are not only pompous and self-interested, they also suck at writing. Pull apart a split infinitive if you must, but we're talking serious errors in grammar and usage. The bar for a movie reviewer is shockingly low. (Maybe the catbutt reviews are bad art imitating bad art?)

A few notes to that point: Scherstuhl's overuse of the adverb throughout this piece is abhorrent, he somehow misspells "misspelling," and the work is so full of dramatic hyperbole and righteous indignation that one wonders whether the repeated use of "catbutt" reveals something else entirely.

It's called "butthurt."

One wonders when God saw it fit to excise Scherstuhl's sense of humor and replace it with a bottle of Sarson's malt vinegar, but we mere mortals bear the burden of the Ancient of Days' decision. Oh well. God works in mysterious ways. Scherstuhl, by comparison, doesn't work at all, unless he's pretty pissed.

KeatsandYeats
KeatsandYeats

@AlanShemper Scherstuhl gets paid for this crap? How did he even make it past the layoffs? Nat Hentoff gets axed, Scherstuhl remains. 

Up is down! Left is right! Crap reviews are the nation's pride!

studiesincrap
studiesincrap topcommenter

@KeatsandYeats The real Keats and Yates also spent their time defending terrible writing as "satire." Here's something else hilarious about Existimatum folk: writing six paragraphs in a pique to accuse someone else of being "butthurt."

KeatsandYeats
KeatsandYeats

@studiesincrap One other thing - better six brief paragraphs in a pique than an elephantine 1300-word wall of text in a pique, I say! Points for precision!

KeatsandYeats
KeatsandYeats

@studiesincrap So very pleased to have received a response from the man himself! As a matter of fact, neither Keats nor Yeats (whose name you have misspelled in yet another display of grammatical aptitude) were much for literary criticism. Rather, it was Shelley and Byron who surmised that the critics, not the consumption, killed Keats.

(No need to worry about your pissant ponderings ever affecting anyone so dramatically.)

KeatsandYeats
KeatsandYeats

@studiesincrap All right, all right. That made me laugh. I'm a former English teacher for crying out loud, that obsession NEVER goes away.

I'm sorry for being mean and I like you again. Now let's kiss.

KeatsandYeats
KeatsandYeats

@GrecianBurn @KeatsandYeats Yes, Keats's idea of negative capability was indeed a reaction against what he saw as a misunderstanding of the sublime in Coleridge's writing. Coleridge's approach (later defended by Lewis in "The Abolition of Man") was knowledge/experience-oriented, while Keats's was perception/experience-oriented. Nevertheless, Keats wasn't by rights a literary critic - he was a poet. In his later years, Coleridge was certainly a literary critic, to varying degrees of success, depending on the scholar.

GrecianBurn
GrecianBurn

@KeatsandYeats Keats wasn't much for literary criticism? His critique of Coleridge gave us negative capability, perhaps one of the most profound ideas of the last two hundred years concerning the nature of art and its relation to human existence. 

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