Thursday, March 29, 2012

How to Write Reviews

People often assume that writing a review of something is a very simple process. You watch/read/attend the subject in question, and then you give your opinion about it, right? There's a lot more to it, though, if you want to do it right. The steps aren't particularly hard to follow, but they do require some thought.

I started writing reviews of restaurants, theater performances, and various arts and culture events back in college. I even won an award for my column during my senior year, but the best part was getting free tickets and press passes to events that I could never afford to attend on my own dime. Now I write mostly film reviews for as the National Classic Movies Examiner. Over the years, I have also had to teach review writing to college composition students. At any rate, I've got some experience with the process, and you can probably trust my advice.

First, you need to watch/read/attend the subject in question, but you also need to develop a broader sense of the category to which it belongs. Go to a lot of plays, see a lot of movies, eat at a lot of restaurants before you start reviewing them. Get a sense of the range and the history of your subject. You are more credible as a reviewer and will be able to offer a more balanced opinion.

Second, do a little research to see what other people have to say. I generally read IMDB, look for reviews from respected critics, and spend at least an hour brushing up on material relating to the film before I write. For film reviews, the bonus features and commentaries on DVDs and Blu-rays can be a great resource. Build up a personal library of books and go-to websites that you will rely on when you write. You will not want to repeat what these sources say, but you will want to know what is generally thought and be able to establish your own review as something distinctive but well-informed.

Third, start writing. You review should provide some basic information about the item in question, but it should have a clear structure that targets a few key aspects that you want to emphasize. Do not attempt to exhaust the subject. Pick two or three elements - either good or bad - and explain their effect on the overall experience. For a restaurant these might be service, ambience, and the food itself. For a film, these might be a particular performance, a theme, or a technical aspect. For films, plays, and books, be sure to keep plot summary to a minimum. NEVER tell the whole story! Avoid spoilers as much as possible. All too often I read film "reviews" that are really just extended plot synopses. Make sure that your review has a clear structure with well-defined paragraphs. It ought to go without saying that the review should be grammatically correct and free from any distracting technical problems with spacing, punctuation, font, etc.

Finally, read what you have written! Good proofreading skills are invaluable to writers of every kind. Especially if your work will appear in print or online, you want it to represent your best effort.

Good luck with your review!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Representations of England and George III in 'Schoolhouse Rock'

             Imagine, if you will, the scene of my sophomore survey of American literature. Thirty-some odd students, most of them engineering or nursing majors, filled the room with an absolutely palpable weight of boredom and apathy. I had assigned the introductory material on the Revolutionary Era of American literature for today’s assignment, and its lengthy perambulations on the nature of eighteenth-century colonial economics, European imperial politics, and early American debates about land ownership and the electoral system had proven entirely too much for my class. They slumped sullenly in their desks, barely looking up as I walked into the room. They dreaded the hour-long lecture on this material that I was almost certainly about to give, and they were turned off already, ready to ignore me as much as possible while I droned on about this lifeless and insufferably boring information.
Specialists in the eighteenth century feel a particular need to make this period connect with students, but how does one draw undergraduates, and especially non-majors, into productive discussions of a period about which they generally know very little and care even less? The tactic that I employed in this class, which worked remarkably well, was not to give that dreaded hour-long lecture at all, but to turn to Schoolhouse Rock for an introduction to what the Revolutionary Era meant to the course of American history and national identity.
George III eats a chicken.
Why Schoolhouse Rock? For one thing, almost every American who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s can sing at least parts of numerous Schoolhouse Rock songs. Even today’s freshmen and sophomores are familiar with the cartoon series, particularly enduringly popular numbers like “I’m Just a Bill,” “Conjunction Junction” and “Three is a Magic Number.” They are short enough to show in a class and leave plenty of time for discussion, without leaving anything out or having to explain what happens in the rest of the film. The songs are catchy, the images are striking, and the vision of American national identity that the America Rock songs create is absolutely provocative when it comes to the legacies and contexts of eighteenth-century history and culture.
Three of the America Rock cartoons are particularly relevant to a classroom discussion of the eighteenth century and the formation of American national identity. “No More Kings,” “Fireworks,” and “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” all depict the American Revolution and the British response to it. Each demonstrates the ways in which American culture has created a story about how the Revolution began, what colonial Americans were like, and what England and especially King George III appeared to be like from an American perspective. Because my own scholarly background is in the British eighteenth century, I am understandably very alert to the cultural bias of the cartoons’ representations of England and King George, and it was this aspect of the cartoons that I drew to the class’s attention and encouraged discussion of throughout our viewing. This focus ultimately proved useful to the entire survey course, as we later returned repeatedly to discussions about how particular texts imagined America or Americans and how they imagined other nations or national representatives in contrast to themselves.
Not surprisingly given its title, “No More Kings” offers the most developed representation of eighteenth-century England and George III in contrast to colonial America and its colonists. The song and its accompanying images present a very abbreviated, populist and – of course – historically erroneous account of American settlement, with 1620 rapidly giving way to 1776 and the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock moving so quickly to colonial rebellion that a single Pilgrim settler looks around in astonishment to find himself surrounded by a large crowd of late eighteenth-century colonists. The cartoon then outlines some of the most celebrated events of the American Revolution and its aftermath, most notably the Boston Tea Party and the creation of the first American flag. In the course of its three minute trip through American colonial history, the cartoon also provides a tremendous amount of material for classroom discussion; its treatment of historical time and emphasis, its use of irony for comedic effect, and its visual representation of the English monarch and his forces all work together to create a very particular story about America and England in the eighteenth century, one that is both intensely problematic for the knowledgeable viewer and seductively persuasive for the general American populace. The ultimate value of the cartoon, however, is in its ability to make both its problems and its appeal readily apparent to a class of undergraduate non-majors, so that they can grasp and discuss the ways in which eighteenth-century history and national concerns are framed and packaged for cultural consumption.
Time, irony and caricature merge as the central narrative elements that dominate the cartoon’s version of Revolutionary history. The use of abbreviated time in the cartoon means that an awful lot of colonial history gets left out completely, with only the most significant or desirable elements of the American story left in. My class picked up on the omission of Jamestown from this narrative immediately, since we had just finished reading works by John Smith and other Jamestown settlers, and their early recognition of problems with the story that the cartoon was telling made it easier to get them to question the rest of the narrative’s perspective. The ironic distance between the images and the lyrics being sung while they appeared also caught the students’ attention. As the happy, hard-working colonists sing, “If the king could only see us now / He would be proud of us today,” King George III is watching these same colonists through a telescope from across the ocean and emitting high-pitched squeals of maniacal laughter at their efforts, even wringing his hands in stock villain fashion.
Both the sped-up time and the ironic juxtaposition between lyrics and images are played for laughs in the cartoon, but they also contribute to the seriously problematic way in which the English monarchy is represented in the person of George III. The cartoon’s time progression is too fast for an accurate representation of changes in the monarchy as the Pilgrims become the established colonists and then the revolutionaries, so George III ends up being depicted as king of the entire business, from 1620 right on until 1776. Only the color of his costume changes from scene to scene, and the repetition of the same colors over the course of the cartoon means that the outfit color does not actually correspond to a sense of a different king being the person depicted. Thus, it’s George III who vulgarly eats a chicken while the Pilgrims build the colony, it’s George III who laughs maniacally at the established colonists who hope for his paternal approval, and of course it’s George III who oppresses the American colonists until they are left with nothing but barrels for clothing and a strong urge to dump their over-taxed tea into the harbor. The English monarchy is therefore represented in the cartoon as consistently neglectful of and hostile to American colonial interests, so the eventual Revolution seems that much more like a noble uprising of long-suffering, good-hearted colonists against an inherently nasty and unlikable tyrannical ruler, one who had apparently been oppressing these poor people personally for over one hundred and fifty years.
18th-century representation of George III
George’s appearance in the cartoon is pure caricature, designed to provoke laughter and disgust. His lips are thick and purple, with matching spots of livid purple on both cheeks. He has a huge nose, awful teeth, and a short, fat body. The royal motto, “Dieu et mon Droit” appears ironically over his ugly, swollen head as part of the decoration of his throne, emphasizing in a more subtle way the king’s claim to absolute power as divine right, although that level of detail generally needs pointing out for the benefit of undergraduates. His gross consumption of the chicken while the colonists work emphasizes England’s role as the consumer of American labor and goods. His crazy laughter at their demands for fair treatment is both hilarious and disturbing. He is villain and madman, fink and tyrant, the absolute cartoon ideal of perverted power and corruption. The lyrics of the song reinforce the cartoon’s visual representation by putting some very damning words into George’s purple, thick-lipped mouth:
They knew that now they'd run their own land,
But George the Third still vowed
He'd rule them till the end.
Anything I say, do it my way now.
Anything I say, do it my way.
Don't you get to feeling independent
'Cause I'm gonna force you to obey.
He taxed their property,
He didn't give them any choice,
And back in England,
He didn't give them any voice.
(That's called taxation without representation,
and it's not fair!
But when the Colonies complained
The king said: "I don't care!"
Coupled with the repellent visual image, these lyrics make George III seem utterly callous and dictatorial. When he declares, “I don’t care!” in response to the colonists’ complaints, he suddenly stops snickering and draws himself up to his full height, assuming an uncharacteristically regal pose to signify his superiority to the colonists and his ability to refuse their demands and assert his own power. He then sends an army of leering, purple soldiers to crush the revolution, their purple color making them an undifferentiated mass existing only as extensions of the purple faced, purple clad king.
18th-century representation of George III
I asked my students what they noticed about George’s appearance after we watched the cartoon, and they invariably understood the general aspects of his representation as markers for ridicule, as cartoon short hand for the bad guy, but of course there’s a lot more going on in the image than that. A quick look at some of James Gillray’s caricatures of George III shows that the Schoolhouse Rock image owes much of its construction to a very specific public representation of that monarch during his own lifetime. Even the way that George holds an item in his hand in each picture is strikingly similar. It’s one thing for a twentieth-century American cartoon to present an English king as a fat, ugly lout, but it’s quite another for his own country, in his own time, to do it. When I offered the Gillray images to my class for comparison, the students realized that the cartoon was, in spite of its silliness, actually borrowing its visual vocabulary from the period itself, and we entered into some discussion of George’s reputation as a monarch in England and the popularity of cartoons as a way of packaging certain versions of history and politics in the eighteenth century as well as the twenty-first. Of course, a scholar of the period knows perfectly well that our image of George III has altered considerably over time, and we see Gillray’s caricatures as part of the machinery that helped to create the myth of George III as oafish lout that Schoolhouse Rock continues. In more recent years, scholars like Linda Colley and Christopher Hibbert have complicated and brightened our view of this beleaguered English king, and I made a point of telling my sophomores that, from a British perspective, George III was ultimately one of the most popular and even beloved monarchs ever to rule the British Empire, an idea which they certainly would not have gotten from watching “No More Kings.” The image, therefore, proved to be a very productive starting point for a whole set of conversations about period politics and culture.
Far from being a “cop-out” tactic to amuse bored students rather than teach them, my showing of the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon was very much a calculated effort to engage a varied group of sophomores in some very sophisticated conversations about the eighteenth century.  The issues that “No More Kings” makes apparent form some of the most vital concerns of eighteenth-century studies. Even the most basic discussion of the cartoon with a group of undergraduates will necessarily get into problems of representation, national identity, historical “truth” and political propaganda, and popular culture. These are the same issues that scholars of the period are currently exploring with great enthusiasm, as the number of academic publications about such topics clearly proves. Undergraduate students, even non-majors, can tackle these topics with thought and energy if the material is introduced to them in a way that is familiar, interesting and “modern” enough to resonate with their own sense of culture and identity. If the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon contains glaring historical errors, grossly exaggerated characters, a maddeningly catchy tune, and silly visual gags, then it does so to the benefit of conversation about what all of that is supposed to mean. The America Rock cartoons all sell a particular story about the formation of the United States and the nature of American identity, and “No More Kings” is a part of that project, but students are able to enjoy the cartoon while still questioning it, and that habit of questioning the nature and purpose of the narrative being presented is one that every college student ought to develop.

NB: This paper was originally presented at the annual meeting of the Southeastern American Society for 18th-Century Studies in 2008. Please give proper credit when citing this material.