The Reviewer Has No Clothes

I admit it. It’s a bit of a sickness. When I absolutely adore a movie or book, I’m compelled to read its one-star reviews.

I tell myself it’s curiosity. Why would someone else strongly dislike something that I found so moving? It may actually be some twisted form of masochism. By now, I should know better than to expect to find meaning in most one-star reviews. Yet its an obsession.

After reading so many bad reviews, there’s one particular theme that jumps out at me. I call it the Emperor Argument. It can apply to any nonlinear, surreal, sexually deviant, or generally non-mainstream story. And here’s how the argument goes:

  1. Completely ignore the movie or book itself
  2. Rant that it was only popular for being “different” or “trendy”
  3. Assert that you see through its trickery
  4. (Optional:) Work in the phrase “the Emperor has no clothes”

Now, there certainly are some stories that use unconventional techniques in lieu of an actual plot or strong characters. Just as there are many movies that cover up their shortcomings with CGI, explosions, chase scenes, lush sets, historic costuming and so forth. But what bothers me is that the Emperor Argument often trashes the technique without addressing the story itself.

In fact, a good portion of the reviewers who employ the Emperor Argument will admit that they didn’t watch the whole movie or finish reading the book. This seems especially true for nonlinear or surreal stories, such as: The Time Traveler’s Wife, Slaughterhouse Five, Memento, Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The argument quickly dissolves into:

“I didn’t get it, therefore this movie cannot possibly make sense to anyone else. Anyone who says they did like it are only saying that because not understanding it makes them think it must be good. The Emperor has no clothes!”

Of course, for the handful of people claiming that “this movie cannot makes sense to anyone,” there are hundreds of reviews that say the exact opposite. Glowing reviews with detailed analyses of the depth of characters and the layers of meaning found within the plot. Details that they must be making up because there’s no way they understood the story.

A variation on the Emperor Argument occurs when the reviewer “didn’t get it” because the story didn’t meet his or her expectations about what it was going to be about.

Secretary is a good example of a movie whose unconventional sexual themes spun some reviewers in many directions. Many complaints came down to the fact that the story did not meet their expectation of it being either: soft-core porn; a BDSM how-to movie; or an after-school special about cutters. Therefore, the movie was pointless and the Emperor has no clothes.

With the Emperor Argument, the reviewer is typically looking at the means and not the meaning. What they miss in these stories, is that the how doesn’t matter as much as the why.

In Stranger than Fiction, the chicken-or-egg debate surrounding Harold’s life and Karen’s narration is unimportant. It just is. Same with the existence of the door in Being John Malkovich.

Not every storyline needs to be about getting from point A to point C, after overcoming point B.

At the end of the day, storytelling is subjective and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Yet after reading too many one-star reviews and seeing the Emperor Argument trotted out entirely too often, I have just one question for these reviewers: Is the Emperor truly naked or do you just not get his fashion sense?

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