“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? 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.
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.