Posted by David Kalat on August 30, 2014
My wife once accused me of liking every movie I see.
As a criticism, that’s a character flaw I think I can live with. In fact, it’s hard to even see it as an insult. I’ve got a number of pop culture passions—Godzilla, Doctor Who, Batman, silent comedy… and I’ve always felt alienated from their fandoms. For some reason, fan culture has evolved a horrifying negative streak—the Worst.Episode.Ever syndrome so aptly satirized by The Simpsons. I don’t quite understand why people would express so much hate and anger towards something they ostensibly love—but at least showing hate and anger towards pop culture you love is preferable to venting that hate and anger at a person you love.
It’s one of the reasons I’m a Nationals fan. Most baseball fandoms I’ve encountered are as negative as the geeky fandoms I listed above. Come to love a team, and the rest of your life gets spent criticizing the players, the coaches, the owners. There are players that have gotten death threats from their own fans for bungling plays.
But the Nationals somehow cultivated a fandom of love. This is a team that happily cheers on former players when they show up in the new uniforms of opposing teams–something every other ball club greets with boos. Nowhere is this love more evident than in the Nats Archive—a Twitter feed of photoshopped images created by some merry pranksters who take the minutiae of the Nats experience and create running jokes, internet memes, and catch phrases that they bombard through social media. What this does, though, is insist on relentlessly celebrating the players rather than criticize them. Even the most heartbreaking loss can generate at least one ridiculous screengrab that can be photoshopped into absurdity. Make fun, not war.
And this is the attitude I carry with me into the movie theater, too. Life’s too short to worry about the flaws and faults and failures. I certainly have an abundance of my own flaws and faults and failures, and would like to pretend that my own good points sort of compensate.
But what my wife was noting in me is actually two distinct but coincident personality traits.
But first some background. She said this to me as we came out from a showing of Tammy, a recent dramedy starring and co-produced by Melissa McCarthy. I didn’t really like it. I didn’t find it terribly funny, I thought it was predictable, and my attention kept wandering. But it wasn’t really a bad movie—I was just miffed that the trailers made it out to be a raunchy comedy a la The Heat, and I probably wouldn’t have gone if it had honestly sold itself as a downbeat character study.
So why did I say I liked it?
Answer #1: Time with my wife is rare. We are both busy workaholic people with little free time. Neither of us gets much time to watch movies, and watching movies together is rarer still. Seeing movies together in the theater is so rare it’s almost a unicorn. If we’ve actually gotten to a theater at the same time, it’s enough of a small miracle that to say anything negative about the experience is disrespectful.
Frankly, I’ve got so much riding of the experience that it’s very hard to admit any disappointment. If we admit Tammy was a bust, that could well mean that 50% of the time I got to spend with her at a movie theater this year was wasted. (Luckily there’s Muppets Most Wanted keeping it from being 100%).
Add to that the politics of who chose the film—I hate to insult her selection, and I also hate to admit if I’ve forced a dog on her. The result is a sort of wilful blindness—a determination to pretend at all costs that we’ve been entertained.
Answer #2: My natural inclination to pretend I like what I see is enhanced by an even deeper, more fundamental trait, that disinclines me to criticize a movie even if I don’t love it.
Movies—well, all cultural products, really—are matters of taste, of fashion. Not liking a movie is not the same thing as the movie being bad, any more than liking it means it’s good. One’s tastes are not objective arbiters of quality.
It’s a concept that can be understood by analogy to food. Comfort food can be appealing even when you understand that its culinary or nutritional value is low. Foreign delicacies can seem weird or off-putting to people of different cultures. If you’re not a fan of beets or liver or veal or broccoli, then great renditions of such ingredients can be “good” without appealing to you at all.
Unfortunately, tastemakers and film critics don’t generally get this, and proceed from the assumption that what they like is what is objectively, artistically “good.”
And what this means in practice is that if you’re one of the many, many critics who, for example, doesn’t care for horror films, then you’re going to give equal grades to the scuzziest, slummiest, most routine gore flick as to something innovative and daring, just because both films are aiming at an audience that doesn’t include you.
What makes this attitude especially problematic is that so many critics and tastemakers want dearly to promote an alternative film culture to the mindless pap of commercial Hollywood, but that alternative is by definition going to be disliked by enormous numbers of people. It is simple math. If the alternatives (be they foreign imports, low-budget indies, classic revivals, or other arthouse staples) were massively popular, then they’d be part of the mainstream in the first place.
So, the very thing you seek to promote is by definition going to be perceived as “bad” by the masses of people who are not part of its narrower target audience. Furthermore, anything that tries to be different, or innovative, or take artistic risks might well fail or misfire—in other words, an alternative film could achieve everything it sets out to do, and exclude you because you don’t fit its target audience, or it could fail to achieve everything it sets out to do, and thereby even exclude some people who are part of its target audience. This is a high-risk game, and my hat is off to anyone who even tries to play it—regardless of whether they win.
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