Critical Confessions: Part 16 – Just Google It

There’s a concerning discussion going on at one of the websites I write for (not this one, another), which has me thinking about the role of the writer in post-millennial media. Not the fiction scribe who is locked in some literary retreat somewhere, desperately trying to fashion a third act out of the personal memories of his time in boarding school and the girl that got away. Nor are we discussing the still viable journalist, the newspaper (or site) scribe whose job it is to get the facts straight and the story right – though part of what he or she does will apply. No, what needs to be differentiated in today’s messageboard morass is what readers want, what purists expect, and how someone who doesn’t really care about either can survive within such weak geek conceits.

The issue at hand seems to center on what information needs to be included in a DVD review. If you look at such pieces within PopMatters, you will see very little technical discussion and a lot of critical thinking. There’s no kibitzing over aspect ratio, additional content, or picture quality. For us (and I speak more for myself than the rest of the staff), the purpose behind a DVD review is to give the film/TV show/band/music/material in question another, more in-depth look. We are not out to guide consumers on when and how they should spend their limited cash. Now, let’s look at a site like DVD Beaver. Almost exclusively, their reviews run under 200 words – and most of the time, it’s nothing more than a plot overview followed by a “good/bad” certification. Where Beaver earns its bacon, however, is in the audio/video bottom line. They post images, list scientific breakdowns, and try to do as many compare/contrasts of differing versions as possible.

So on the one hand you have a readership that clearly could care less if the latest release of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is nothing more than the 20th Anniversary Edition spiffed up with a plastic Lament Configuration collector’s box. Then there are those who want such an assessment to go beyond the movie and discuss each and every item that makes up the disc content proper. I call this the difference between being a “reporter” and being a “critic”. Again, I am not necessarily referring to the correspondent who sits on the sidelines of world events and attempts to make sense of it all. In this case, ‘report’ should perhaps be followed by the word “book”. It seems like, more and more, 21st century audiences want a basic, barebones, by the…you know, breakdown of everything, including the most minor or unimportant minutia.

And they have a point. With discs running between $10 and $30, and their Blu-ray counterparts costing even more, informed decisions are necessary before heading over to the nearest brick and mortar. This is especially true with genre titles. Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead have been released (and rereleased) so many times, in so many different ways, that it’s almost impossible to keep track of them all without a website devoted to the various format permutations. But how much is too much, meaning, how far does someone who writes for a living have to go to appease this particular arena. In my case, Fox sent a Screener DVD of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), and I always mention in my reviews that I do not have final product, and therefore cannot accurately comment on final tech specs. In most cases that’s enough. But apparently, such a sentiment is confusing for those outside the craft.

The main comment coming from readers has been “So what is on the various versions of the title? All the extras you mention? Some? None?”, and I am forced to write back with the simple sentiment – I don’t know. True, Fox released single, two disc and three disc versions of the title, but all I have is a screener. After that, if the questioner wishes to pursue the exchange, I usually get a response with something like “Well, a Google search will clear things up.” Oh really. Let’s dissect this suggestion for a moment, shall we. In essence, what the reader is requiring is this – that I, the person with nothing more than a prerelease copy of a film in my hand, should head out onto the World Wide Web, find someone else’s review or overview of the movie, and then copy/rely on/steal from them. For the audience, this may seem practical. For myself and other writers, it’s called plagiarism.

Now I’m not suggesting that the reader wants me to literally repeat the text I find while digging around the ‘Net, but he or she certainly wants me to use the work of others for my own benefit. Instead of offering up my own experiences and takes, I am to draw consensus from the rest of the community and then call it my own. Again, remember the suggestion – don’t rely on what you have in your own hand. Hit Google, get more information, and then report that. In actuality, it’s nothing novel to individuals in traditional media. News organizations frequently lift content from elsewhere, except in their case, they ascribe all attributes and footnote the fudge out of their sources. It’s standard operating procedure. But with the online writer more or less lost in a Wild West wilderness of rights and wrongs, what constitutes “research” and what constitutes theft.

It’s not surprising that within a realm of file sharing, bit torrents, and other forms of information misappropriation that this would be the suggestion. Bloggers frequently post content that they did not “originate” and yet call it their own, while some websites keep on critics who literally rob their reviews from other writers, merely changing the names Dragnet style to protect the less than innocent. In some ways, this is all connected to the ever-changing face of letters. On the one hand, there are reporters, people who simply regurgitate the most elemental of information and leave it at that. Then there are the critics, individuals who try to put such data into a kind of analytical perspective. They may not mention every fact, but they do try for a balance between both. And then there is the writer, someone who can be a bit of both, none of either, or a surreal smash-up of truth teller, sage, and spoiled sport.

I consider myself to be part of the last category. I am not in this to give you the A/V breakdown on the latest format releases. I do offer such insights, but I will not go out of my way to make sure that every single DVD I tackle gets the suggested Google once over. Have I ever used the online source as a means of solidifying a position on a disc? Yes. Have I ever borrowed or “believed” anything another writer has said to bolster my own opinions? Never! I consider myself a writer first and foremost. If I can’t get my point across creatively, maybe it doesn’t need to be made. That won’t make the people who pester me relentlessly about my lack of “completeness” happy, but frankly, that’s not the point. Differing approaches does not lessen the value of each and it also doesn’t make any one more “valid” than another. The next time you’re unhappy with the tech specs someone offers you in a DVD review, practice what you preach – do a Google search. That should solve your problem, right? Right.

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