Editorials, Everything Else — December 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm

THE SNARK MONSTER

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“For a critic that first step is the first printed joke. It gets a laugh and a whole new world opens up. He makes another joke, and another. And then one day along comes a joke that shouldn’t be made because the show he’s reviewing is a good show. But, as it so happens, it’s a good joke. And you know what? The joke wins.” - Please Don’t Eat The Daisies.

Sitting in the cinema before The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was subjected to an extensive number of trailers, most of which I had already seen (and did not get to see the Star Trek Into Darkness trailer, which kind of pissed me off).  Just before the movie started my friend leaned over and said to me, “Is there any movie you didn’t grumble at?”

What the hell was she doing there?! And there was totally sexual tension between her and Gandalf.

What? Moi? Did I scoff derisively at every single trailer? Did After Earth, Escape from Earth, Man of Steel, and that Twilighty-looking zombie movie produce nothing but grunts and grumbles of snark? Well, yeah, actually, they did.  I sat quietly through the rest of the movie – except for one moment when I may have gone “Oh, dear God!” at the random appearance of Galadriel – and I ruminated on the fact that my reaction to all of the trailers was to entirely, snarkily dismiss them.

What had happened to me? Was it the movies that looked stupid, or was I turning into a cinematic Grinch who didn’t like anything? Had my sarcasm finally overtaken my love of films? Was I becoming a snark monster?

Jessica over at The Velvet Café recently published an excellent post on this very topic and, while I don’t fully agree with her, she makes some good points.  Film bloggers in general have become obsessed with finding flaws, particularly in films that otherwise garner popularity and critical praise.  We enjoy snarkily pointing out plot holes, hokey moments, bad writing, and poor performances, even in the best of films.  We’ve become critics without critical distance, mouthing off about how much the most recent blockbuster sucked without really taking the time to explain just how good it is too.

Or have we? Are we all unstoppable snark monsters, hating on everything and sundry? One of the problems with film bloggers is that we really are film fans, in the broadest sense of the word.  We watch too many movies.  I watch everything from contemporary comedies to silent epics; I live for the Criterion lists.  We watch movies, good, bad and indifferent, and begin to develop an extensive knowledge of movie and genre history.  I find it difficult to divide my feelings about a film from my film knowledge.  If a movie borrows too much from past works – Inception from Last Year at Marienbad and Mulholland Drive, Tarantino from … everything – I hold it in contempt, because I know that there is a film that has done it better.

It is easy, however, to establish critical distance from older films.  When we pick and choose the movies we watch on Netflix, we can select the handful of excellent films from the 1980s without ever having to deal with the miles and miles of dreck.  We don’t have to watch all the bad serials and B pictures from the 1940s because we can choose to dwell on the best John Ford westerns, or screwball comedies.  We never have to know that Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty made an awful film called The Fortune; we can instead choose to remember them in Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde.  So it’s easy to say that the 60s were a better time for movies, because we can pick and choose those movies that represent the best without ever really having to deal with the worst.

At times perhaps we rip on a movie because it’s become fashionable to rip on it; the equivalent of the hipster hating everything that’s popular and loving all the things that ‘you’ve never heard of.’  But there are times when the movie really does suck.   I will never take back any snarky comment I made about Prometheus. I despised Prometheus not because it was fashionable to despise it; I despised it because I consider it a bad movie, in structure, in content, in writing, in directing.  Period.  If we want to have a debate about that, that’s fine, but just because it was a popular film and I did not personally like does not make me, or anyone else, a flaw spotter.  It might very well mean that we. Did. Not. Like. It.

Me, when I realized how awful the last Harry Potter was.

There’s as much to be said against praising a film too much as there is about praising it too little.  I automatically mistrust reviews that give too much praise: is it really that good? Is there nothing to be said against it? I loved Lincoln, but my God, it has its flaws.  There is little critical distance of someone who loves movies so much that they won’t admit to certain ones being bad, or even good ones being flawed. Some movies really do suck and as critics and film fans, we should be able to recognize that.  If we don’t, if we love everything, we’re not very good at what we do.

The point is strike a balance between recognizing flaws and enjoying a film for the film’s sake.  For every fanboy who lavishes praise on Tarantino’s latest, there’s another who claims that his films are all flash and no substance.  For every critic who touted Prometheus, there’s one who called it bilge water.  What we lack is not balance among the blogging community, but balance within ourselves.  Everything has to be either earth-shattering in its brilliance, or apocalyptic in its awfulness.  And if that’s the choice – earth-shattering or apocalyptic – then of course we will never have critical distance.  But let’s cut the shaming.  The more you tell me that I should love everything, the more the snark monster comes out.

 

7 Comments

  • I generally agree with this post, but I do hate to seem mean-spirited so I’ll generally only choose reviewin’ movies based on whether I already have a predisposition for the filmmaker or the genre. So, even if I do write a negative review, at least it’s not coming from a mean-spirited place. I don’t wanna watch stuff I know I’ll hate just to tear them apart.

    • I do find fault in critics who go to movies just to hate on them (unless it’s in the ‘so bad it’s good’ genre). And I think most intelligent critics go into a film with an open mind, even if it looks bad on the surface. Probably what disappointed me most about Prometheus was that I went in hoping to like it and left hating it.

  • If a movie borrows too much from past works – Inception from Last Year at Marienbad and Mulholland Drive, Tarantino from … everything – I hold it in contempt, because I know that there is a film that has done it better.

    This is problematic for one big reason– it’s prejudicial. There will always be a movie that “does it better”; movies borrow from each other all the time, whether from plot or photography or design aesthetics or period. No matter how many good “men on a mission” movies there are, most of them will look like heaping piles of garbage next to Seven Samurai (even some of the very good ones). That’s the benefit of being an original. Few who follow in your footsteps will match you, forget about surpassing you.

    So basically, I think if people play by this rule, they’re going to end up hating everything because nearly everything derives from something. This means watching a film like Holy Motors and poo-pooing it because Bunuel made The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois and The Phantom of Liberty. That’s certainly your prerogative but it’s a narrow one, and one that I think doesn’t benefit those who live by it in the slightest.

    (Which is to say nothing of the arbitrary nature of the “too much” clause. What’s “too much”? Too much for you might not be enough for me.)

    One other more minor problem is that, barring films like Inception (because I’m sure we’ve all seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Matrix films, Blade Runner, Heat, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so on), most of us probably haven’t “seen it all”. I strongly doubt most of us have seen, for example, a fraction of the films that Tarantino has, and only know that he borrows from other films when making his own because he drops big, obvious references and allusions to movies like Game of Death right at the forefront. We may miss subtler references to something like Samurai Fiction or Lady Snowblood. The greater point is that there’s a humongous world of film out there, so I generally operate on the assumption that I haven’t seen every movie that X movie derives from.

    • I do think there is a difference between a film that works in the same genre or even thematics (i.e. Holy Motor and Discreet Charm) vs. a film that visibly borrows large sections and ideas from something else. Tarantino’s whole body of work is essentially a cobbling together of cinematic references with very little underlying thematics that justify the films as films. There’s no depth to his work. Why should I watch Uma Thurman wielding a sword when I can watch Bruce Lee doing it better? Inception bothered me because it took themes and ideas and made a sub-par film out of them. I could see a number of forebears that not only did it technically better, but with greater intelligence and originality.

      Of course, this is all my opinion. I fully understand and accept that any other person might view it differently. I want a film to be great, I want it to justify itself and if it is a genre film, I want it to be a good one that either fulfills the dictates of its genre in an entertaining way, or subverts them. There are plenty of films that succeed at that, but I will continue to find fault in poorly made and border-line plagiarizing films that masquerade as art or even entertainment.

      Is it arbitrary? OF COURSE. It may even be prejudicial; We like what we like, and most critics are perfectly capable of dividing their personal feelings about a film from an analysis of its content. But if I’m to be asked that I not judge a film like Inception, or Prometheus, based upon what I think are its merits or its flaws, but judge it as … what? What exactly am I supposed to do with a film that I find pretentious and derivative? Shrug my shoulders and say that it’s good because, y’know, it’s a movie?

      None of us have seen it all. But many of us have seen enough to be able to tell when a director is trying to put one over on us. And I think that makes us snarky.

      • Okay, see, I’m exactly saying that you should judge a movie based on its merits and flaws, but “another movie has done it better” isn’t a flaw. Why should you watch Uma Thurman in a martial arts film when you could just watch Game of Death? I don’t much care for Kill Bill (either volume), but why not change the subject to, say, The Raid? Enter the Dragon is a superior film; why should I bother watching The Raid if I can just watch Enter the Dragon instead?

        (Also, not to turn this into a QT thread, but he’s a better filmmaker than Robert Clouse or Lee himself. I’m hot and cold on his films– I’ve written two essays on the matter– but he’s a master of technical craft. So, if you want a reason to watch a QT movie, that’s it. As far as thematic stuff, I don’t totally disagree with you, but I’d argue that films like Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds and the first half of Death Proof are much more than the sum of their references. Anyways, I digress.)

        This is what I mean when I talk about arbitrary critiques. It doesn’t matter that another movie did it better; it matters that X movie didn’t do it well, and that’s how we should be judging movies. If bloggers are watching movies with the reverse mentality, then it’s no wonder that so many of them just seem to gleefully hate the movies that they watch. If you think Inception didn’t execute its ideas well, that’s what matters, not that it drew inspiration from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Matrix films. Likewise, when Underworld actually does legitimately plagiarize shots and sequences from the latter set of films, the bigger problem is that it does so in service to a fucking horrible movie. I can forgive a Repo Men for stealing wholesale from Chan-wook Park because that movie at least has its own ideas to supplement its director-worship. Underworld doesn’t. Hopefully that makes my position more clear.

        Is it a problem for a movie to be derivative? Sure, it can be. But every movie to some extent or another is derivative. Every work of art is derivative to an extent. And that’s why derivation isn’t where criticism starts, or at least it shouldn’t be. (As far as I’m concerned.) If I walked out of Cloud Atlas thinking of every visual tick the Wachowskis borrowed from other sources, I wouldn’t be thinking about the stuff of the film, which is much more important to me.

        • I think we agree more than we’re actually letting on (except on Tarantino, who I maintain is a hack artist of the highest order).

          My problem continues to be when a film amounts to nothing more than the sum of its parts – a good example is the second 2 Matrix films, which are bad movies as well as deriving huge swaths of their narratives from a superficial understanding of philosophical and religious concepts, not to mention a postmodern compendium of cinematic and video-game references, without actually amounting to a complete and coherent whole.

          My argument is not that criticism should start with whether or not the film is derivative – that’s a reductive form of criticism – but once it has been stripped away of its surface material to reveal a gaping void beneath, then it is not art, nor is it something that I will waste my time praising.

          Nor do I fully agree that every film is derivative, unless you’re counting as derivative the fact that most narrative follows an Aristotelian structure, in which case all Western literature, theatre and cinema is derivative. The films that can stand on their own despite their original bases are worthwhile; the ones that cobble together bits and pieces from greater works and then call themselves art (or entertainment for that matter) are not worth my time.

          • The films that can stand on their own despite their original bases are worthwhile; the ones that cobble together bits and pieces from greater works and then call themselves art (or entertainment for that matter) are not worth my time.

            See, this makes more sense, because even the greats derive from somewhere. Seven Samurai isn’t just an influential film, it’s an influenced film, one that borrows a lot of tradition from American Westerns (notably those of John Ford). Hell, Dashiel Hammett inspired a whole cinematic genre, not to mention another great Kurosawa film, Yojimbo– which in turn influenced A Fistful of Dollars, itself an influential film– as well as a huge chunk of the the Coen brothers’ oeuvre.

            But this is also what I mean when I talk about all films being derivative to some extent. Going to the most absurd end of the argument, I’d say that cinema is itself a hugely derivative form just by virtue of how it binds together so many different artistic disciplines and collects them under one umbrella. (Though I don’t think that says anything bad about cinema whatsoever.) The problem, I think, is when a film borrows for the sake of borrowing and doesn’t do anything with its influences but reproduce them wholesale. That’s my big problem with Kill Bill, really, and why I can’t really speak fondly about the Matrix sequels; like you say, they’re never more than the sum of their parts (though Tarantino’s craft in Kill Bill is outstanding, as in the opening to the House of Blue Leaves sequence).

            So the problem, it seems, isn’t movies borrowing “too much” from past works, but borrowing from past works and…just borrowing. I’d argue, strongly, that Inception is very much its own film despite cherry picking from a number of different sources, but I know you hate that movie and I don’t want to turn this into an Inception thread– so I’ll put up Looper and Cabin in the Woods as two “influenced” movies that work and feel original despite having deep-rooted genre ancestry. I also think films like that are examples of why a trailer for something like Warm Bodies shouldn’t make us roll our eyes and pre-judge the movie, and I think a lot of bloggers are guilty of that sort of knee-jerking.

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