January 21, 2014

The Contrarian: Resisting the Urge with Film Criticism

Once Upon a Time in the West

We all have the impulse to become contrarians in culture that excites us. There’s a driving need to be unique that has only grown exponentially in the Internet age. Fantasy football managers want to believe they are the first to find a diamond in the rough. Disney World fans think a quiet lunch spot is their incredible discovery. It’s even more pervasive in the world of movie lovers. So many of us say phrases like “everyone hates this movie but me” or “I’m the only one who realizes that movie sucks” without even thinking. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in being an original thinker that we lose sight of what drew us to movies in the first place. Are we watching so many because they’re enjoyable or just trying to carve a niche in a chaotic world? The fast-paced world breeds contrarians everywhere, and the rush to throw out an opinion just reinforces this basic instinct.

Going against the grain is hardly reserved for bloggers. There’s a notorious film critic who’s tried so mightily to stay important by nastily speaking out against everything. This contrarian is not a dummy and recognizes that blowing his opinions out of proportion makes him a household name. Even his removal as a member of a large film critics society has brought even more attention. While every critic is entitled to his or her opinions about a film, wearing those views like a badge of honor is problematic. It becomes more about the person than the discussion of the movie. It’s too bad since contrary views can lead to engaging discourse. It’s boring for everyone to just rave about the same films. That’s part of what makes the unending series of awards ceremonies lose their interest.

Upstream Color

After nearly three years of blogging, I’ve grown weary of hearing the same comments made over and over. This isn’t anyone’s fault in particular, and it relates as much to my own interests as a writer. I’ve tried to shy away from one-note words like “worst”, “terrible”, or “greatest”, especially when it comes to acting and directing. So much of our perspective as viewers (and writers) comes from individual experiences, and judging art the same way you’d rate a vacuum cleaner seems unfair. I wasn't as thrilled by Upstream Color as many critics, but that doesn't mean they're wrong. That challenge makes rating a film so difficult. Although I don’t rate them on the site, I do give star ratings on Letterboxd. Those are entirely subjective and often differ from any perceptions of true quality.

Here's a good example from my early days in writing about movies. During the heyday of DVDs in 2001, I reviewed the comedy All Saints Day. I hated the movie and strongly criticized the acting, directing, and every other part of it. I called it "one of the most maddening viewing experiences of the year" and was vicious. To be honest, it was a fun piece to write. Both the director and one of the actors e-mailed me with nasty responses. While their feedback of statements like "get off your thrown" was hardly intelligent, it feels different today when I think back on it. Instead of just describing my negative reactions, I really took shots at the people behind the movie. While I wasn't being a contrarian, that experience relates to what I'm getting at with this post. My review was lazy. The movie was terrible, but it deserved a more nuanced response.

Before Midnight

Another factor is the impact of our expectations, particularly with older films. The best writers identify their biases and use them to craft their pieces about movies. There’s nothing less thrilling than reading a takedown of a classic from someone convinced they’re doing a public service to the dummies who love it. I’ve been confused by the raves about plenty of acclaimed films, but that doesn’t mean the others are reading it wrong. One of the great aspects of this culture is the way that movies evolve over the years and become more powerful. World events and our stage of life play such a part in our reactions. Would I have the same feelings about Before Midnight if I was 21, single, and didn’t have kids? My own experience as a dad and husband changes how I view every scene.

What’s the solution? There’s no easy answer for obvious reasons. We’re all looking for something different out of our passion for movies. I’m not in the camp that thinks we should just be positive and avoid criticism. It’s fun to argue passionately about a film, especially when the community’s gone a separate route. That’s different than being a contrarian to rile people up and get attention. That style loses my interest quickly because it doesn’t account for nuance. I’ve found that most bloggers (or at least the ones I enjoy) write with more depth and consideration. That said, it’s an ongoing process to find a voice amid the hubbub. I still have a long way to go before I feel confident that my opinions have come naturally. Putting them into words is even more difficult. It’s quite a challenge, and that keeps it exciting to spend so much time on this very gratifying pursuit.

14 comments:

  1. It's a great point, and I think we're all guilty of this at some point. I regularly need to remind myself that funny is good and even vitriol can be entertaining to read, but honesty is always better. Do I fail at this? Sure, sometimes I do. And that feels great in the moment. But honesty is always, always better.

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    1. Steve, I've definitely fallen victim to it. With some movies, it can be pretty easy. I can enjoy a witty post that derides a movie; it just depends on the approach for the most part.

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  2. It feels pretty easy to identify the people that are just attention seekers, and that goes for both professional critics and bloggers. Or at least my own hubris makes it feel like I have the special ability to tell who is writing something just for the sake of stirring things up and not for the sake of a real critique. :-)

    While my blog's basis came from the idea of how I had been recommending films to my friends for years and I was now extending it to "online friends" - thus I only write full reviews for films I would recommend - I do admit that another thing that not writing negative reviews did for me is elminate the concern I had that I'd fall into the lazy trap of trashing a film just because I thought of a witty (to me) insult. There's practically a subgenre of professional critics that try to work a pun on the film's title into an insult of the film.

    And like you I do use Letterboxd for something I don't on my own blog - while they are not full reviews, I will write comments on films that I felt were not very good.

    Finally, for what it's worth, I didn't think Upstream Color was ALL THAT, either, even though I've now seen three bloggers I respect put it in their Top 10 for 2013. One thing that doing the 1,001 Movies list did for me was that there were several other bloggers writing reviews of the same films so I got to see the wide ranging reactions to them. Steve Honeywell and I agree on a lot of films on the list (i.e. Amelie, Field of Dreams, The Lives of Others), but also disagree on others (i.e. The Sound of Music, Forrest Gump.) I'm fine with that and I'm sure Steve is, too. Neither of us are so insecure in our opinions that someone disagreeing with us upsets us. We each know the other has given the movie a real watch and written some well-thought out comments afterwards. And sometimes those comments give us something we hadn't considered before.

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    1. Chip, thanks for such a thoughtful reply. I can definitely see the value in just writing about films you recommend, especially if you're concerned with going the other route when trashing a movie. I will talk negatively about a movie, but my goal (not always successful) is to avoid saying things like "it sucked" or "horrible acting".

      With Upstream Color, I can totally understand why it's showing up on year-end lists. It's a gorgeous film and has an intriguing premise. I liked it but wasn't blown away by it. I need a little more plot that makes sense. Still, that doesn't mean the others are wrong.

      I agree that disagreements with people you respect can be really interesting and expand the enjoyment of a movie. That's what makes it great to be involved in blogging and the Internet. It would be pretty boring if everyone agreed.

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  3. The problem I have with this issue is the idea that someone is being contrarian. Take the critic you cite for instance, I don't think for a second that he's contrarian. He has his own point of view, and he's very consistent with the way he presents that point of view and how he frames his opinion. He goes against the grain a lot, but I don't believe that makes him a contrarian.

    Personally, I've been told that I'm a contrarian, or even a troll, at times. The present day cinephile community does not seem to be anywhere near as open to differing opinions. As soon as I tell someone I don't think Christopher Nolan, Robert Altman, or Quentin Tarantino are talented filmmakers there's always someone who labels me as a troll or as being contrarian.

    I think we all, myself included, need to do a better job of accepting differing opinions and realizing that people can like what they want to like and hate what they want to hate.

    Good piece though. :)

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    1. Bill, I don't consider you a contrarian and think you always have a solid opinion. I may not agree with you all the time, but I can see why you're thinking a certain way.

      On the other hand, I can't say the same thing about White. It doesn't bother me that he has such different opinions from a lot of other critics. He's obviously a smart guy and has reasons. What bugs me is that he wears it like a badge of pride and won't consider other opinions. He also refuses to give credit to any other critics and is derisive about bloggers.

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  4. I notice this a lot, and I think I probably have had several posts where I feel like I'm defending what the world considers a horrible movie. I definitely try to keep a lot of things in perspective when writing a movie review, especially comedies. I've noticed lately that it bothers me when I see someone say something like "It wasn't funny. At. All." when what they really mean is "I didn't think it was funny. At. All." Another thing that I always keep out of my own reviews is any sort of rating system, what I often do in the case of a movie that I didn't like is to try and figure out what kind of person would like the movie. And even in the case of a bad movie that I enjoy, I keep that in mind as well, pointing out the flaws in the movie while noting that the other elements won me over in spite of the flaws. I'm probably not always successful because there's also the matter of what mood you might be in when you write the review, especially if you're like me and write off the cuff and publish almost immediately without any real editing.

    Very nice thoughts on the subject though, and I quite agree even if no one else does. ;)

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    1. What I've found with ratings is how freeing it felt when I decided not to do them. That said, I do recognize their value, especially for professional critics. You mention comedies, which are so subjective. That's what it makes it so tricky to deliver a comedy with widespread appeal. Humor is even tougher than making great drama. I appreciate the great comment!

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  5. You make some good points. Criticism should be about the movie and not the people (unless they were particularly bad of course) and if you do not like a movie you should be able to put that in words. I recently watched Inside Llewyn Davis and although I can understand the love it has been getting I really did not like it (still have to write a review for it). I usually try to imagine that I would be in direct contact with its director and be honest and open about what things I thought were bad. There are some movies though where I can't help myself and have to let go (Getaway being a recent example).

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    1. I know the feeling about having those times where it can't be helped. I tried not to get too nasty with Escape from Tomorrow, but that was a rough one. I just think it's about thinking through a review no matter what your reaction is. Just dismissing something outright gets old pretty quickly.

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  6. A great article Dan.

    "it’s an ongoing process to find a voice amid the hubbub" is the real truth behind much of this. This desire is not a problem (was it Emma Stone in BIRDMAN who said we're all trying to find our relevance in the world?) but it's your sincerity about how you achieve it I believe.

    Trashing someones film is hardly a sincere approach to garnering serious attention. In a perfect world, you want filmmakers and critics with opposing opinions to read your work and not viciously argue their perspective (with insults thrown in), you'd want them to appreciate your perspective and honestly, perhaps passionately, state their case. Not an argument, but a discussion. Artists know that everyone will have an opinion, it's where that opinion comes from which is important.

    Crucially, reflecting on your work. Asking yourself, how you would feel if you were the filmmaker and read such harsh words?

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    1. Thanks Simon. I've found that there's a big difference between saying "this performance didn't work for me" and "this person sucks". The second option is easier but offers no room for alternate interpretations. I read a book of Roger Ebert's reviews of Scorsese films, and Scorsese did the introduction. He talked about how even when Ebert didn't like a film, it made him better. I'd never put myself in that realm, but there still should be more thought into the process of writing about a film. I appreciate the great comment!

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  7. I hate to be the contrarian here, but . . . this was a ridiculous column. Contemporary criticism is incredibly poor, being either swept up in hype and fanboyism or obsessed with irrelevant concerns from the realm of partisan politics. In fact, film culture is pretty poor at the moment . . . which is why being a contrarian is not an indulgence but a necessity. As for Armond White, he is one of the few interesting film writers out there. You may call this attention seeking . . . but then you right a strangely conservative, status quo oriented blog post.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I would be interested to know more about why this post is ridiculous. My main point is that film critics should avoid being absolutist and write nuanced pieces. There's definitely a groupthink in film culture, but that doesn't mean there aren't individual voices out there with something to say.

      When Armond White refuses to name even one other film critic he likes, then he's just trolling to get a reaction. He's a smart guy and a good writer, but he's doing this to build up his own ego. In the end, it's just boring. It's cool if you disagree about contrarians, but I'm not sure why this makes me post just about the status quo. I'd be curious to get your thoughts!

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