Tuesday, November 10, 2009

NYMag's David Edelstein and 'Precious': How to write a controversial review

As much as we'd like to think we can draw a line between racists and non-racists, most of us know, at this point in history, that racism is endemic to many of our basic perceptions and assumptions, and that racial tension and difference infects even well-intentioned communicative action and civil public relationships. Precious, Lee Daniels' recent massively-grossing film, makes some strong statements on racism, classism, sexism, and general normative judgment, and it was only natural that it would be the spark that ignited some heated public discourse on these topics.

I haven't seen the movie, but I've followed a little of the public discourse, and that's what I'm going to talk about right now. I'm going to try to keep this post brief and unassuming, because I'm fully aware that seeing the movie and reading the book it's based on are imperative to really diving into a discussion of representational identity politics. Please bear with me... I'm going to work hard to keep my commentary confined to the discourse itself, which is all I'm qualified to discuss right now.

A little outburst of controversy has sprung up around one particular review: David Edelstein's review of the film in New York Magazine, which prompted a firestorm of criticism in the comments, and which prompted him to follow up with the kind of blog post that reads as both an apology and a self-defense. A lot of the controversy seems to be rooted in the fact that Edelstein used some very provocative language to describe the film:

"She’s also sexually molested by her jealous, welfare-cheating, gross, and sedentary mother, although the genital fingering might seem preferable to the verbal and physical abuse. The book gives you quite a bludgeoning. I started to pull back from it in a flashback when the 12-year-old girl is in labor on the kitchen floor and her mother is kicking her in the face. "

"I’m not judging girls who look like Sidibe in life, but her image onscreen is jarring to the point of being transgressive, its only equivalent to be seen in John Waters’s pointedly outrageous carnivals. Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits. Her expression is either surly or unreadable. Even with her voice-over narration, you’re meant to stare at her ebony face and see nothing. The movie is saying that she’s not an object, but the way that Sidibe is directed she becomes one."

The anger at Edelstein's review goes in all sorts of directions... detractors call him racist and prejudiced, they say that he sees the negatives in such relief only because he's sheltered from real hardships, and they think his lukewarm review of the film is inaccurate, because he fails to understand it on any deeper level. Edelstein retorts: the film was intended to make this negative impression, so he can't be blamed for describing it. And he does understand these issues, because he's dealt with them in his own background and experience. He spends a good deal of his response defending his opinion of the film.

However, this is missing the point, and failing to speak to the issue, which isn't the content of his discussion, but its form.

What Edelstein was trying to do in his review is clear... he was trying to evoke the movie's emotional and tonal content, to reproduce the ugliness that the film represents and critiques. That's the only reason to use such descriptive, provocative language to describe body type, appearance, and sexual abuse. However, Mr. Edelstein needs to realize that this isn't the role of a reviewer. The movie is carefully crafted to evoke these negative reactions, but with two hours of running time, it has the time to critique them and give the audience space to think about them.

You can't do that in a review, so you don't have the license to play on readers' emotions. Your job is to acknowledge and critique the spectacle: warn the audience that they'll be shocked at times, tell them that the images can be too heavy-handed, etc. It's a reviewer's job to have some critical distance, and to address multiple levels of merit and criticism... not to capture and reproduce the same emotions that the movie did. When you do this, your criticism will sound impulsive and ill-considered.

And this is what happened here, of course. A large part of the audience (and a bunch of readers of Jezebel) sensed Mr. Edelstein's negative reactions, but they didn't sense the necessary self-criticism that goes along with them, and that the film is trying to evoke. His sin is that he wrote a knee-jerk reaction, rather than an articulate critical assessment... not as bad as the sin of being racist, but still, a faux pas.

There were certain very measured, insightful critical points here: the observation that Sidibe's appearance is transgressive, and that the film may be too harsh in its Manichean portrayals of pure good and pure evil. When I see the film, I'm going to look for those things. If the whole review had kept that tone, it probably would have been better-received, even if the final opinion was the same.

There are other minor breaks in Mr. Edelstein's logic. For instance, he seemed to be saying that it was the abuse that really took him out of the movie ("I started to pull back from it in a flashback when the 12-year-old girl is in labor on the kitchen floor...") but his most graphic description is a description of the main character's appearance. His conscious emphasis is on the film's cruelty to its characters, but his subconscious emphasis seems to be on his aesthetic reactions to Sidibe's body. I'm not going to start attacking a reviewer's character without knowing them personally, but this point is at least worth thinking about.

The reaction was sudden and vicious, and I'm never one to take Internet forum posts at face value... but there's always a reason for it.