The satisfaction, the relief, that a writer gets out of placing that final full stop in a story can perhaps only be compared to the warmth of receiving an honest word of appreciation. And so, it happened earlier this week, when a reader told me that her most favourite review of mine was of a movie called Thiruttu Rail. I’ll forgive you for being unaware of this film that is no doubt buried deep in the foul-smelling cesspool of Tamil cinema. I had to dig up the review if only to revisit the nightmares again. And as I was burrowing into my archives, I couldn’t but wonder why a scathing review makes for such entertaining reading, why its charms are so delectable that even the late Roger Ebert found it necessary to bring out an anthology of his worst reviews (it has a pretty straightforward title: I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie, inspired by a famous line from his more-famous review of North).
Now, make no mistake, well-written positive reviews are wellsprings of joy too, but it is often a prerequisite that the reader have watched the film in question. Negative reviews carry none of that baggage, and provide instant gratification. They are your Facebook likes, they are your potato chips, they are your retweets, they are your two-minute noodles. In that sense, it goes against the wise words of Cobb in Inception that “positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.” It’s easy to enjoy negative reviews, the negative emotion they explode with, and what’s more, they come with the added incentive of making you feel good about yourself. Ha, if I were a director I could have done much better.
This is well in keeping with Festinger’s social comparison theory that states that we often compare ourselves to others, in order to define ourselves. So, when this A-list actress is mocked in a review, for being a loosu ponnu, the reader, for that fleeting moment, feels elevated. Is it a stretch to imagine that the reader, for just those few short-lived seconds, somehow feels superior to this woman who’s beautiful, famous and rich? Could it be that, for lack of a better phrase, subconscious pettiness that makes negative reviews so fulfilling?
Of course, for those who have already partaken in the misery of watching the dreadful movie in question, a scornful review comes as a helping hand, as a tissue to wipe their tears with. The shared trauma, for the time the review lasts, binds the writer and the readers into a therapeutic community. When movie critic Baradwaj Rangan summarises Anjaan with “You go in expecting a meal and you end up with a… toothpick”, you snort in laughter not just because it’s a great line, but because it acts as catharsis, as closure, for the seemingly insurmountable void the film created earlier. The writers themselves seem to be exercising freedom in a way they seldom are able to.
The focus is on form, on wit, on humour, on the how. How can I point out that the movie is an unholy mess, and in doing so, entertain? For his review of Isn’t It Romantic?, American critic Leonard Maltin simply wrote, “No.” Anthony Lane of The NewYorker wrote of Fifty Shades of Grey, “Think of it as the Downton Abbey of bondage, designed neither to menace nor to offend but purely to cosset the fatigued imagination. You get dirtier talk in most action movies, and more genitalia in a TED talk on Renaissance sculpture.” Two reviews, so contrasting in terms of length, but united in their clear focus on form and more importantly, in their freedom to express.
This isn’t all, of course. There could be yet another reason why we enjoy being exposed to the full blast of loathing in print: the everyday diplomacy we are surrounded by. There’s so much tip-toeing, so much fear of offending that most reviews of bad films simply settle for pointing out that they are okay films. When bad becomes okay, terrible, naturally, becomes bad. And in this corporate age of vacuous hellos and how-are-yous, an honest, scathing review comes as a whiff of fresh air, as a laughter track that mocks the banality of fake diplomacy. And that’s why it’s sheer joy to come in the presence of reviews like the one Ebert wrote of North: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” That there is the death of diplomacy. And that there is the sound of your relieved laughter.
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