When Amazon started printing readers’ book reviews on the net, a window opened briefly on the mental worlds of ordinary people — or, as Harry Dean Stanton so memorably called them, “ordinary fuckin’ people.”
Everyone should have a look at these reviews once in a while, to get an idea of what actually goes on in the heads of the other people who sit in a theater with you, not laughing at all the best lines, and applauding all the stuff you hate.
Hell, it turns out, isn’t other people; Hell is other people reviewing on Amazon.com.
And it’s good to get a glimpse into Hell every now and then. Slaps you awake.
To experience this Hell, just find the book or movie you most love on Amazon and read all the reviews. You will emerge a sadder, wiser aestheto-fascist, I guarantee.
And do it quickly, because Amazon’s remarkable venture in practical free speech is ending. In the nineties, before America’s dullard consensus had really gotten the hang of this internet thing, there really was a time when you could post honest reviews on Amazon. That’s over. First they did away with swearing and libel — the very mainstays of critical prose. Then they started insisting that reviewers use their real names, taking all the fun out of impersonating your enemies and plugging your own books.
Now Amazon’s added a feature the FBI must love: a little button at the end of each reader review, labeled “report this.” If you click the button, you get an invitation to turn in the offending review for “appropriate action” by Amazon.
Naturally, “appropriate action” means deletion. As this new feature goes to work, it will eventually grind away all the rough edges of these reviews. Soon nothing will be left but Amazon’s “top reviewers,” a few hundred bush-league Leonard Maltins incapable of blurting anything odd or new. So cherish these blurts while you can. Steep yourself in them. It’s an essential part of a dissident education. And fun, in a painful way, like swimming through a swarm of low-toxicity jellyfish.
I’ve been swimming through the reviews of the film Election posted on Amazon. I wasn’t sure why I picked Election. I love it, naturally. But I love Big Lebowski too, yet didn’t find much fun reading through Amazon reviews of it. For one thing, nearly everybody who reviews Lebowski loves it. How could you not? And there’s not much fun reading reviews by people you agree with. A big part of the pleasure of reading these things is the whip-sting of Wrong Thought.
That’s why the reviews of Election were so delectable: they were full of horrible wrongness, wrong statements by wrong people. I went through all 213 posted reviews the way kids in my high school used to pore over every page of the crash pictures in Highway Patrol magazine: for the sheer horror of it. What did Kurtz know about horror? He never read Amazon reviews of Election.
Election drew all the wrong viewers, sat them down comfortably… and then slashed them across the face with a bleach-dipped cat-o-nine-tails. When it came out in 1999, it was billed as a chirpy teen comedy, with Reese Witherspoon’s dimply smile fronting the ads. When her cornfed fans sat down with their popcorn, Election subjected them to a pitiless, contemptuous, proudly elitist dissection of the loathsome American polity. And this collision of ordinary fuckin’ viewers and Olympian chill-film makes for some wonderfully painful rat-squeaks from shocked Reese-fans who expected some sort of Legally Blonde prequel.
The reviewers you end up almost admiring are the ones who admit with grace that they didn’t get what they wanted:
“when i rented this film i thought it was going to be a cuetsy lil’ thing about highschool….WRONG! i soon realized i wasn’t watching something wholesome and family like. this movie is very, well it’s different. i don’t think i would buy the movie, but it was an interesting one to rent.”
But there were surprises, too. Small ones, like the number of people who whine about having paid a couple of dollars to rent this movie. When did it become socially acceptable to complain bitterly about a few dollars? I seem to remember a culture in which it was shameful to be that cheap. One of the effects of online discourse for the all-too-common Americans is that they’ve made it OK to be as tight as a snare drum.
And one big surprise: I learned that ordinary fuckin’ viewers require every movie to have a loud, crude, smarmy moral. The most common (and I do mean common) objection to Election is that you can’t “like” any of the characters, and none of them “learn” anything.
A review titled “Immoral Garbage” sums up this argument: “All the major characters are immoral bad people doing immoral bad stuff… nor do any of the characters show remorse or grow in anyway. There is nothing redeming about this movie.”
Some of the disappointed moralists all but plead with the film to help them out a little, like poor Karl Erickson of Dallas, who sobs, “I want to see something redemptive in a movie. I want to see characters – even ONE – change for the better. I want to see people learn lessons. If there are a lot of nasty deeds being done – whether they be sexual, drug-induced, hate-filled, whatever – I want to see someone regret something they’ve done, learn from their mistakes, you know?”
Actually I didn’t know this was such an unbreakable rule. In fact I was in the habit of admiring movies that refused the whole “epiphany” business, like Raging Bull and Fargo. No doubt because I haven’t spent much time in the US for a long time, I’d forgotten that the mainstream there sees all books and movies as so many After School Specials, whose sole purpose is the promotion of public morality.
It seems that not only must the characters learn from their mistake, but there’s a limit on how many mistakes they’re allowed to make, as Karl goes on to imply: “Again, it’s not that I’m a prude, but it isn’t like Broderick’s character is any better off at the end of this movie than he was before he made the MANY mistakes he does here.”
The key phrase here is “it’s not that I’m a prude.” Karl says this twice in his review. Anyone who says “I’m not a prude” once is probably a prude; anyone who has to say it twice definitely is.
And Karl’s not the only one saying it. Jeff Benson of Illinois sums it up in one sentence: “I’m no prude, but I was appalled by the lack of morality of these unlikable characters.” I counted five reviews that contain variations on the phrase, “I’m not a prude.” Helpful hint for prude reviewers out there: don’t use this line. It’s a dead giveaway. There, you can say you learned something from this review, your character grew.
If you know Election, you’re probably wondering what could bother even the grimmest prude. If there’s one thing Election is not, it’s sexy. It’s more like aversion therapy for the lustful. The only sane negative comment on the subject came from a dude in Hawaii who asked the film’s fans, “Are u people crazy this movie sucked a big fat one ….i mean matthew broderick gets it on with a yeti!”
That pretty much sums up the “adultery” which so scandalized most viewers: Broderick lusting after one of the ugliest actresses ever featured in an American film. (And just for the record, he doesn’t even “get it on” with her.)
The other scene which upsets these people is one in which Broderick, less than thrilled with his plain wife’s mating cry, “Fill me up! Fill me up!,” sneaks down to his miserable basement to watch a porn film featuring ugly actors in their 30s as high-school jock and cheerleader fucking in the locker room.
This comic abomination, which would have Jackie Treehorn in tears, apparently qualifies as what one reviewer called “bad smuttyness.” A viewer in Utah calls Election “…loaded to the hilt with sex, sexual innuendos, and language that would turn your mother’s hair white.” Another simply condemns the “cussing.” (Again, Lebowski haunts this other great 90s film: “Just one thing, Broderick…do yuh have ta use so many cuss words?”)
But one thing you can say about our people: we’re verbally cagey. Several of the reviews hint at outrage that one of the main characters is a lesbian, but only one, Brandon from Kansas, had the honesty to say so: “This movie contains some sex, lesbian issues and things worse than that.” Brandon herself is one of those delightful surprises you encounter reading these reviews. She IS Tracey Flick, (even if she is a he — Flicks come in several genders) and admits it: “[Flick] has the aggression just like everyone has running out for something. Like I did running for Student Council Secretary.”
The review which best sums up all the sorry revelations of the lot is by Russell Rubert from King of Prussia, PA: “…this is less a comedy, then an all too possible headline in your local newspaper you’ll skip this travisty. It is the most disapointing thing I’ve ever seen Matthew Broderick in, with the possible exception of “Godzilla” (The remake) Oh yes, the acting is good, it better be, I’d hate to think these people are really like that. If you are in the market for offbeat, quirky fun, buy Rushmore instead.”
Yes, we love that offbeat, quirky fun, as long as it’s not actually offbeat or quirky. Oh, and of course it has to jerk some tears: “Rushmore was far more poignant [than Election].” Another critic advises, “Whoever wrote [Election] could have learned a thing or two from Rushmore. You can have pretentious, annoying characters, but redeem them in the end so we’re not completely turned off!”
The funny thing is, I hated Rushmore; hated that “quirky, offbeat” protagonist; even hated Bill Murray for lending legitimacy to a film which I knew, somehow, was in the enemy camp. Yet everyone whose taste I respect loved it. I even, uncharacteristically, wondered if I might possibly have been wrong.
Seeing all these Amazon idiots praise it by way of damning Election gave me a wonderfully smug sense that I was right all along — thatRushmore was, as I’d argued at the time, nothing but an adoring biopic about the life and adventures of a young David Geffen.
Thus the Amazon reviews serve another important purpose: their endorsement of Rushmore proves, or at least suggests, that my inarticulate loathing of it was right after all.
Yet another pleasure in reading these things is the joy of seeing one’s ideological enemies acknowledge a direct hit. The reviews of Election provide many such yelps of pain, like this one: “As a 38 year old male this movie offended me greatly. It was made by MTV films which says alot about the politically motivated aspects of what happens when a Music Video cable channel decides to starts making movies which are politically based and totally one sided. Its hard to believe that Matthew Broderick went from Ferris Bueller (A Hero) to a conniving, evil, audulterer (Mr McAllister). Another thing that hurt (following MTV’S political agenda) was that it glorified Homosexuality and made men look stupid, evil, and immature.”
There it is, the Bush consensus: terrified, vengeful, and hopelessly confused; blurted out more clearly by an anonymous sucker than it could ever be by its spayed official spokespersons.
Seek out these blurts while they’re around. Go to the movie you most love and read what the bad people have to say about it. As a wiser fella than myself once said, “To defeat the bug, we must understand the bug.”
John Dolan is the author of Pleasant Hell.
By John Dolan
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