The final line was delivered, the opening riff of some upbeat punk number rang out, and Wes Craven’s name appeared on an otherwise black screen. Scream 4’s credits began to roll.
“That was a terrible movie,” said my friend.
I stared at him, trying to gauge his seriousness. His “you mad, bro?” look stalled my response; I wasn’t sure whether he’d said it to troll me. But when he repeated the sentiment a few moments later, I realized he was serious. He actually thought the movie we’d just watched was stupid.
My initial response was to think of all the reasons why it wasn’t stupid. My secondary response was to brainstorm movies he enjoyed so that I could demonstrate how his taste in film was invalid. But that would be rather a straw man, wouldn’t it? At the end of the day, my friend thinks Scream 4 is awful.
Interestingly, he and I spent an equivalent time laughing throughout the film. We both noted similar horror tropes which stretched the limits of credulity and admitted we didn’t actually care.
Put another way: we both enjoyed it. And that means, in terms of a few hours spent, Scream 4 was a success, awful or otherwise.
Most of us, I daresay, can’t afford to live in a world wherein an abstract like “quality” actually dictates our entertainment choices. We may strive for a certain degree of competence in the works we consume but, as with food, when filet mignon is unavailable we’re perfectly fine with a cheeseburger.
In either case, “it gets the job done.”
We have an insatiable appetite for entertainment, and no doubt it does us all well to have variety in our diet. When branching out, we look to friends, critics, even strangers for advice. But it seems to me we tend to ask the wrong questions. When we ought to be asking “what gets the job done,” we ask “what’s good?”
See, I loathe onions. Not everyone does and, while I don’t understand that, I’ve come to accept it. And because I loathe onions, I am acutely aware of their presence in a great deal of menu items. When I’m perusing the options, I mentally cross off ones wherein onions are a major component.
If I were to ask someone what they thought I should order, the likelihood of them suggesting a dish with onions is pretty good if they don’t know (or don’t remember) my aversion.
Put another way: when individual taste is left out, we have a tendency to make poor suggestions for other people.
That sounds obvious, but consider most reviews that you’ve read, particularly those accompanied by a grade scale. If they’re competent reviews, they probably try to be as “objective” as possible, focusing on factors such as level of bugginess, smoothness of execution, graphic fidelity, sound design, acting aptitude, etc. They hear the question “what’s good?” And for the most part, they answer it.
When my friend was trying to decide what movie to watch tonight, I told him Scream 4 was good. Afterwards, he said it wasn’t. But we weren’t disagreeing per se. Because technically, Scream 4 is a well-made movie. More importantly, I answered the question he hadn’t asked: it gets the job done. He enjoyed it. So did I.
Curiously, while five of us watched Sidney Prescott’s latest nightmare unfolding, my mother did her best to avoid the room entirely. She hates horror movies — the suspense, the blood, the screaming, more blood, more screaming — and when I told her “Hey, everyone’s watching Scream 4” she returned with “Everyone but me!”
Scream 4 could have won an Oscar for Best Picture, but my mother would still refuse to watch it. Because no matter how good or awful it is, she wouldn’t enjoy it. It features content she hates. It has onions.
I’ve done my fair share of so-called reviewing over the years, but in all that time I’ve fallen into the same pitfall that the very nature of the objective review necessitates: failing to account for individual preference.
Some people (I won’t say they don’t exist) truly do thrive off the technical details of entertainment production. They will watch any movie on which a company like Criterion puts a stamp of approval. They will listen to only the most intricate and moving of music. They bow at the altar of Metacritic and eschew anything unworthy of the 10th Percentile.
The rest of us are posers, pretending to care in the same way but unable to shake the feeling of dissatisfaction at the end of that accolade-laden foreign film, the lack of emotional relation to the lyrics, the failure to care about the characters in this year’s “best of show.”
It may have been “good” but it didn’t get the job done.
So what’s the point, Adam?
We really need to abandon this whole “objectivity” myth, because at the end of the day even if it’s possible, it’s useless. Why say “it’s fantastic, and I hated it” or “it’s terrible, and I loved it” when we could just say, “here’s how I felt, and this is why.”
Of course, the “objective review” will always have its place. Quite likely if anyone ever pays me for my thoughts I’ll be expected to conform to that mold. Meanwhile, I’m making a commitment to quit the empty commentary. If you’re taken to reviewing media, I invite you to do the same.
To acknowledge that you came to the experience with a preconceived notion of what makes for a good menu item. That you hate onions. Or that you love them.
To acknowledge that personal taste is not the same as objective quality, and that some people might love what you hated for the very same reasons you hated it.
To write your reviews as if you were talking to someone, someone you actually knew, for whom no movie is honestly a must-see, no game a must-play.
Stop trying to convince your friend that Scream 4 is good.
Stop trying to convince me that I like onions.
Stop trying to pretend that objective quality is the basis for your own enjoyment, and you may just find that your recommendations sound less like paper-grading and more like thoughtful advice.
And then, if you’re looking for a clever, self-aware slasher parody that capitalizes perfectly on the spirit of the first film and definitely earns its R rating, go watch Scream 4.