Do you look at your master carpentry credentials when you take note of a stairway or deck or a door that is falling apart before your very eyes?
Of course you do not.
So then, why is this kind of question tolerated when talking about film-making, novel writing, TV shows, or comic books?
Heavy Armor at Loose Cannon asks the question. (I almost spelled that Loose Canon, which would be a whole other topic.)
Movies, books, comic books are products you buy. They’re products that you pay for.
The first authority for reviewing something is as a customer. That attitude has proliferated all over the internet with product reviews for everything. On Amazon you can register your opinion on a new hard drive, a new mop or a DVD of Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica.
Even if you didn’t hand over cash for the experience, you paid in time. The Simpsons in their Poochie episode mocked Comic Book Store guy (the default mode of TV producers and writers for imagining what their critics are like) for complaining about a TV show he didn’t pay for.
“What,” the episode has Bart tell him, when he complains about an episode, “They’ve given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them.”
Uh no. Nothing is free. Free television sells your attention span to its advertisers. It’s still a product that you’re paying for, the arrangement is just more complicated and it’s a three way transaction.
Set against this is the aesthetic argument that reviewing a creative product is different than reviewing a mop or a new hard drive. It’s not a wrong argument. A creative product has a deeper level of engagement, but that just means there’s a deeper level of expectations. But the same rules still apply. If a product doesn’t satisfy you, doesn’t meet its expectations and is poorly constructed, then it’s your duty as a paying customer to speak out about it.
The second authority for reviewing is creative. The authority for acting as a reviewer comes from the same place that the authority for being any kind of writer does. You can do it well or you can do it badly, but there’s no source of authority for it.
A script or a book isn’t good or bad because of the authority of its writer. If an episode is bad or a poem is terrible, will the author resorting to citing his education history or his awards make it any better?
If you read, then you are an authority on reading. If you watch television, then you are an authority on television. If you watch movies, then you are an authority on movies. Your experience is your authority. You know what you like. You know what you don’t like. You know what you want to get out of it. That makes you, your own authority.
Sure you might not know the difference between a single camera sitcom and a multi-camera sitcom, until it’s pointed out to you. You might not know what a tracking shot is. You might not be able to define irony. You might not realize the author’s whole fourth chapter is a reference to a famous epigram from Proust. But do those things really matter? I can talk for three paragraphs about a tracking shot, because it matters to me. To someone else it’s just a really long boring stroll where nothing happens. You are your own authority.
The more you know about a subject, the geekier you get about it. It’s why creatives love reviewers with authority who can appreciate all the technical things. They like the idea of being judged on technique, not on experience. On the flip side, popular trashy creatives like to be judged on audience experience, not on technique. And all of those are valid approaches because they’re all valid experiences with a product.
There’s no higher authority and no gated castle here. Entertainment is meant to be entertaining, it’s also meant to sometimes make you think and do a hundred other things that some speaker at AFI will talk about for fifteen minutes while looking at a bunch of old people wearing too much makeup.
A product is still a product. How much you know about it, can give your review more depth. A true expert can review a hard drive by going into detail about each component, discussing where the controller was manufactured, the manufacturer’s track record with components, how the transfer rate on the box differs from the actual rate that most users will experience under normal read/write conditions. And all that is important.
But if your hard drive is broken, if this is the third time that you sent it back, and you got it shipped back and it’s still bad, then your experience and your review and authority to review it is just as good.