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How to like everything

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.

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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.

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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%).

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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.

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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.

10 Responses How to like everything
Posted By Tom S : August 30, 2014 5:56 am

For me, at least, part of praising the things I love- the Simpsons, yes, or Brazil, or the best iterations of Batman- is in trying to identify the magic, the animating force that makes it rise above merely pretty decent and become something really special. So when I see a version of it that lacks that- the later Simpsons episodes, the Love Conquers All cut of Brazil, quite a lot of Batman books and movies- it has a bitter, Diet Coke quality, a feeling of fakeness that sometimes overwhelms what might otherwise be ok by lacking the features I would identify as special in the best versions. Disliking the bad stuff reinforces my love for the good stuff, and helps me to figure out what it is that I really admire in it and find it in other things or reproduce it myself (ideally.)

Without some kind of critical outlook, it seems like you sometimes get the worst of fanboy culture- unquestioning love of a brand, with no interest in thinking about what that brand represents or what flaws it might have that could be usefully addressed. You get the ‘gamers’ that attack anyone who dares to say that video games are often sexist, or the Transformers fans who go to movie after movie they know they didn’t actually enjoy out of a strange sense of duty to the brand.

That said, I don’t think that’s what’s being described here- trying to derive some pleasure out of what you’re watching isn’t the same as shameless fanboy boosterism, nor does it inherently mean turning off the critical falculty- but I do think that hating things can sometimes be productive. Though usually I would only make a particular effort to share my loathing of something if it felt really ugly, racist or sexist or mean spirited in a way that made me angry at the filmmakers.

And looking at my Letterboxd listings, I think there’s maybe three or four movie out of the past thirty I’ve seen that I marked as not liking- I think I’ve gotten good enough at understanding my own taste to pick things I will probably get something out of nearly every time, and setting expectations (as Tammy seems to have demonstrated) can be half the battle, even if the expectation is ‘this movie will work best if I have no idea of what it’s about.)

Posted By Marjorie Birch : August 30, 2014 12:17 pm

My theory about ultra-critical people is that it’s easier to appear like an uber-discerning expert when you’re picking at minute particles of imperfection. Whereas, if you simply say that you love something, you come off as the intellectual equivalent of a Labrador retriever puppy.

I say, go puppies go!

Posted By Cool Bev : August 30, 2014 1:50 pm

Let’s face it, most movies are quite good – they are made by consummate craftsmen in a magic medium, and even the cheapest costs as much as a small house. Even the most inept movie maker manages to keep the mike boom out of most shots and not break the 180 rule.

So I carefully avoid seeing movies that I want to hate. I know if I went to see, for ex, Cameron’s Titanic, I’d wind up enjoying it, and I can’t have that! I’ve seen movies that I found fault with, but I almost always come away affected.

Posted By Doug : August 30, 2014 2:05 pm

Part of what makes our lives a crazy salad of opinions and enthusiasms is that some of our favorite things were stamped on our psyche at an early age-Westerns, The Three Stooges, Batman…which we then we must defend to others who never will ‘get it’ because their enthusiasms are “THEIRS”…and why can’t I love the Yankees like THEY do?
(Because they are the Yankees.)

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) : August 30, 2014 3:11 pm

My husband’s family are not movie buffs in the way that my family lives the term. Early in the marriage my in-laws would make fun of what they saw as my strange habit with “Don’t tell me – it’s your very, very, very favourite! Ha. Ha.”

A couple of months ago I cut out internet forums and most fan posts on the television programs I watch to avoid negativity and spoilers. I have regained some of my lost enjoyment. It is very nice.

Posted By george : August 30, 2014 8:23 pm

Life is too short to get angry and hateful over a piece of pop culture. A lot of it, especially modern Hollywood blockbusters, is just disposable entertainment. It’s not worth getting upset over.

In recent years, we’ve seen the sad spectacle of fanboys going berserk whenever a critic fails to rave over the latest superhero movie. It’s become routine for critics to receive death threats and rape threats from these comic-book geeks. Female reviewers get the nastiest comments. Ask the Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek:

http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2014/07/a_note_to_the_guardians_of_the_galaxy_fans_who_are_calling_our_critic_a_harlot.php

Fans need to calm down, stop taking this stuff so seriously, and just keep repeating: “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie …”

Posted By george : August 30, 2014 8:27 pm

“Let’s face it, most movies are quite good – they are made by consummate craftsmen in a magic medium, and even the cheapest costs as much as a small house.”

Most movies are neither great or awful. True greatness and true awfulness are rare. Most movies are just OK, average, routine entertainment. They’re acceptable time-killers. The Internet hyperbole that finds a new masterpiece and a new “worst movie ever” every week is ridiculous.

Posted By jbryant : August 31, 2014 11:51 am

I’ve never had any problem being honest about a movie’s flaws while at the same time being an easy grader. “A” for effort, and all that. As mentioned above, even bad movies often have notable aspects that can make them worth a look. And of course some truly horrible movies can be more entertaining in their badness than self-important Oscar bait.

I also agree with george that internet hyperbole (even pre-internet hyperbole) has done a disservice to a lot of films. Last night I re-watched ISHTAR, a funny romp that’s basically an updated Hope-Crosby road picture, which was widely named the “worst movie ever,” more for its highly publicized budget overruns than its actual quality (IMO, of course). Such films are often favorably reassessed in later years (e.g., HEAVEN’S GATE, SORCERER). Sometimes the positive backlash (is that a phrase?) begins immediately, as we’ll see when an almost universally maligned film such as THE LONE RANGER scores a positive review or two (I liked it).

Posted By Emgee : August 31, 2014 1:35 pm

Bad movies deserve to be criticized; it’s that simple.
Criticism isn’t inherently negative; how can you really love something or someone if they’re all about the same to you?
That’s a recipe for blandness and indifference.

Posted By vp19 : September 2, 2014 8:47 pm

Fandom should not be taken to extremes, one way or the other. There are armies who believe their favorites (e.g., Joss Whedon) can do no wrong, and even the tiniest criticism is regarded as heresy. Others can do no right (the Nickelback effect). And while Melissa McCarthy certainly is talented, to me she’s not even the funniest person on CBS — that honor goes to Anna Faris, who deserves a big-screen success (she came close with “The House Bunny” a few years back) to equal what her husband Chris Pratt has done this summer with “Guardians Of The Galaxy.”

Oh, and this fellow Nationals fan (who saw last night’s thrilling win in Los Angeles) has an explanation for the positive nature of the Washington fan base: Absence makes the heart grow fonder. At this time 10 years ago (early September 2004), D.C. wasn’t sure it would get baseball back after 33 lonely summers without it. (The Montreal Expos’ move wasn’t confirmed until Sept. 29.) So unlike Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston or either side of Chicago, there’s no unbroken generational link for Nationals fans; heck, the former team had a different name and played in a different league. We’re not negative because we know the alternative, and we never again want to drive to hated Baltimore to catch baseball.

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