January 11, 2015

How To Deal With A Bad Review


I loved Birdman. I loved the ironic parallel in which Michael Keaton was potentially confronting his own ‘has-been’ anxiety from the Batman days, with his character Riggan Thomson dramatically feeling the same towards the poster of ‘Birdman’ that hangs in his messy dressing room. Some could say it was brave of Keaton to do that.

We all know what an ego is capable of; some would go miles to avoid any mockery of one’s own career.

It was a clever parallel but it wasn’t the reason I liked the film. The bit that really got to me was the heated confrontation scene in the bar with the New York Times critic, played by Lindsay Duncan. It made feel a bit sick, anxious I suppose; but also sympathetic. You feel for Keaton’s character, you, the audience see the backstory, the raw emotion, the feeling of ‘last chance’, the blood and tears that go into the performance. These feelings, however are not necessarily towards Riggan himself. I’m not thinking ‘poor him‘ or giving him the empathy or pat on the back, but I am gunning for what he stands for within this scene; what he represents. He represents the struggling actor; the actor on the rise, or the actor on the downward spiral; he represents the desperate, hopeful, hopeless artist. Powerless and at the mercy of the critics.

Artists have adversities to deal with. Money, yes. Creative blocks? Yes. But worse that that: critics. Critics in the front row, with narrow eyes and a scratching pen. The critics that hold a power so great that it makes artists feel sick with terror: they can make you, and they can break you into smithereens.

This scene stuck to me like a clamp. It made me feel uneasy. I was angry at this fictional New York Times critic: angry at her complacency, angry at her judgements, angry at her casualness when saying she was going to “destroy his show.” A critic destroying an artist’s work is akin to taking a wrecking ball to a family home. It is destroying a place of love and the foundations that hold it together with one foul swoop.

Artists are protective of other artists. Other writers share other writers work. Artists do not diss other artist’s, because, regardless of the end product, they know it’s HARD. This shows the sheer disparity between artist and critic: they have different jobs, separate agendas. A critic isn’t your mate. Does the person whose role of a critic need to lack empathy and emotion? Of course – otherwise they wouldn’t be able to be doing their job properly.

Is it likely you will create something and get a bad review or a negative comment? Yes – because one thing does not cater for all tastes. Ever.

In Tim Minchin’s Desert Island Discs he talks emotionally about being affected by a particular Guardian critic who “hated his act” in a scathing review following a stint at Edinburgh when Minchin was in his earlier days of performing. It reminded me of the battle and anxiety of the artist that I felt during Birdman. This is what he told Kirsty Young (about the awful review):

“It really affected me. I wasn’t ready for an article in a national English newspaper that was just so awful, that was a hard lesson to learn. I think all reviewers should write as though they are watching a friend of their sisters.

Their answer is subjective. There are some great reviewers out there who would make an argument and I would understand them because they know how to write about something that [they don’t think] is achieving it’s goal.

People are quite contemptuous about people who don’t like dealing with reviews but it hurts when you’re told that what you’ve worked on is useless.

Imagine you had to get up every night and do a whole load of jokes that you know you don’t find funny anymore; a whole load of songs you don’t like the tunes of anymore because you wrote them yourself; you hate the sound because you loathe your own voice – these are all normally human things right to not like your own material – then you’re in a national newspaper, the one you respect and read, that makes criticism of specific bits in the show. It doesn’t say “this could do with work” but it says this person (me) “does not deserve to be on stage”. How would you feel when you get to the point in your show that night? How do you get up on stage and get to that joke again with that guy’s words ringing in your head? The answer is: toughen the hell up, you’re not mining coal as a 7-year-old.”

It’s true. It could be worse, of course it could be. No-one will hold your hand for months while you wallow. Maybe someone will say something nice to you for the first five minutes during the initial shock. The truth is: the critics and their criticisms are necessary. Without criticisms, there is no art, because there is no audience. Even though the critic scene made me feel sad, uncomfortable and other emotions, it was clear that this is the industry; this is the world we live in. If you create something (anything) you will be critiqued. You will be judged. You are screwed if you don’t have thick-skin (harder than it sounds, obviously). Because you will be given a mark out of 10, like when you were back at school. You will have to deal with good reviews, bad reviews, and middle-of-the-road reviews. It is impossible to make art without receiving contrasting feedback, you will never ever ever be universally loved, or universally loathed.

The other role of the critic is a necessary one for artists – it makes them work for it. You want to prove critics wrong. It is a basic human instinct: if someone tells you cannot do something, you are more likely to go and do it. For artists, it is not a choice. If you tell someone not to touch a hot plate, they will instantly do it.

In the end, the critic will only make you stronger. It will make you realise that art is not a choice. It is not a “oh, that person thinks I’m shit, I will stop now.” It is a life-long mission, an obstacle course with some serious tests. Bad reviews being just one of them.

Update: (I just told my boyfriend the title of this blog post, and he started singing this in a high pitched voice.)

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