You’re already familiar with the “unreview,” but probably not by that name, which I don’t think has been used in this sense before. An unreview is an explanation of why we choose not to read something or watch something.
The unreview in action
Buckley acknowledges that the film addresses an important element from the Christian tradition, the notion that Christ was both human and divine. He says that the “illumination of the human side of the duality of Christ is inspiring to Christians, reminding them of the true suffering of their savior.” “But Scorsese,” he says,
helps himself to the remaking of Christ. He gives us a figure who, among other things, serves as a carpenter engaged in the making of crosses on which other dissenters from Roman law were crucified: the equivalent, 2,000 years ago, of being the manufacturer of the gas pellets used to kill the Jews of Nazi Germany. On the cross, he gives us a Christ whose mind is distracted by lechery, fancying himself not the celibate of history, but the swinger in the arms of the prostitute Mary Magdalene. The blend of the ultimate altruist seeking in primal agony the fantasy of hot sex is something far from what a Sen. Bilbo would have dared to do to Stepin Fetchit in a smoker in the ’30s, let alone on huge Hollywood screens with hawkers outside shilling for big juicy audiences to get a shot of impiety while protecting Artistic License.
Buckley has reasons and they are informed ones. He has a working knowledge of what the film is about. The film makes an argument that runs against parts of the Christian tradition as Buckley understands it (that Jesus was “made divine” and therefore wasn’t “born divine”), and its representation of Christ goes against the way Buckley and some of his coreligionists believe Christ should be represented.
I don’t agree with Buckley’s reasons. (I also find his references to the Holocaust and Stepin Fetchit rather flip, but that’s another issue.) I’ve seen the movie (and read the book) and while it’s much, much too long, I find its representation of the Christian story both respectful and nuanced. If Mr. Buckley’s faith is what he purports it to be, it can withstand a two hour + argument against it.
But before we get too haughty about Mr. Buckley’s snowflake sensitivities, I’ll suggest he’s not entirely wrong. We each of us hold certain things sacred, or cherished, or valued, that we prefer not to go out of our way to see challenged, even if we could benefit from the experience. And if I were to say something very disparaging but still reasonable about your belief system, you might object. Further, I’ll speculate that the circle of people who chose to see Last Temptation overlaps quite a lot with the circle of people who declined to see The Passion of the Christ. And when that movie was in theaters, I recall people just as eager to explain why they wouldn’t see it.
The key, I suggest, is to acknowledge and respect others’ reasons for seeing neither. Or at least usually do so–I can imagine reasons that don’t merit respect. We need not agree with those reasons, but we needn’t rush to condemn others of philistinism. And to be sure, if we were talking about banning the movies, then we’re talking about a different discussion altogether.
Cautions about the unreview
The unreview is by definition negative and a declaration of closed-mindedness. It’s an a priori decision not to engage a certain piece of culture. Sometimes we do so for practical reasons. There are only so many hours in a day. Sometimes for more principled ones. We may find the creator so reprehensible we don’t wish to endorse him or her, or we may find the message so out of bounds that even engaging the piece in question crosses a line. However, if we abstain too much and without enough awareness, we risk falling into a cycle of self-reinforcing reasons not to challenge ourselves. There are infinite ways for something to be imperfect and far fewer ways for something to approach perfection. If I keep focusing on how something falls short, I may fail to see what it contributes.
Thee unreviewer abrogates some standing to criticize–not all standing, but some. When you haven’t read or seen or listened to something, that person can’t be said to have engaged it fully even if his or her reasons for abstaining are good. Buckley is missing something by not having watched the movie.
The burden is on the unreviewer to demonstrate why we should care about their unreview. If the unreviewer wants to be heard, the trick is to somehow balance the risk of sliding into solipsism with the benefits of setting forth one’s opinion.
Anyone can and everyone does make unreviews. We opine about cultural productions we don’t know firsthand and refuse to entertain some of them. While that’s not rare, doing it intentionally, with full acknowledgment that that’s what we’re doing can, I hope, be a useful exercise
An unreview can place that play, song, or novel you love so much in a different context. Maybe it is helpful for me to hear why someone refuses to engage that which entertains me. An acquaintance once explained to me that he refused to watch Seinfeld (a show I like) because its humor was “cruel.” I think I mostly disagree with him, but I also think I see his point, and it’s good to hear his criticism. (He had one specific episode in mind, and since he actually saw that episode, his opinion is, I guess, technically not an unreview. But he declined to see further episodes based on that one.)
The unreview can also help us learn about each other. While I believe the unreview is a declaration of closed-mindedness, I also believe that if someone finds some production so upsetting or offputting that they’re willing to forgo any benefits consuming it might bring, and if they take the time necessary to do further research on it, I might learn more about them worth knowing.
In some cases, the unreview can expand one’s horizons. If I decline to see a certain musical, and if I demonstrate how I got to that conclusion, maybe you as a fan of that movie can explain why I’m wrong. I might not change my mind, but I might learn why someone holds a contrary view. We can now have a discussion whereas before we could not.
It’s usually better to read, see, or listen to a book, play, movie, or song. But we can sometimes engage without consuming. It’s not always wrong and sometimes it does good.
- William F. Buckley Jr., “Be loyal to your god–don’t see the movie,” Washington Post, August 16,1988. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1988/08/16/be-loyal-to-your-god_dont-see-the-movie/6f5ce63e-314c-42cc-870e-107ec04e71ef/> Accessed September 24, 2017. Paywall probably applies.