7 Dumb Things People Say When They Don’t Dig A Movie

الثلاثاء، 21 مايو، 2013

There’s no shame in a movie not working for you. This is something I’ve come to terms with over the course of my movie-watching career. Very few movies, or anything that ultimately often comes down to taste preferences, are universally appreciated. This isn’t a flaw to the system; it’s how the system works. It’s how taste works. Different strokes for different folks and all that. It takes all kinds, etc. etc. I have no beef with people who simply don’t dig a movie or show or whatevs that I care deeply about. There’s plenty of stuff that others think is great that I’m not into for one reason or another.
Here’s where issues arise though: it’s in the reasons people give for not liking something. It’s usually more appropriate to place the responsibility for not liking a movie, especially if people have been making pretty airtight and detailed cases for its greatness, on yourself. I’m not blaming Amour for the fact that it didn’t connect with me. Everyone else who’s seen it seems to think it was devastating. And I was probably tired and cranky when I watched it late at night. I can’t say why I didn’t get into it, but I didn’t. No worries, right?
For lots of people that’s not good enough. They seem to think giving some meaningless explanation for not liking a movie will give their taste some sort of credibility. I’ve witnessed enough of this kind of talk, from critics and mainstream moviegoers alike, to identify a few cliché criticisms people make when they obviously can’t think of anything original or interesting to say about why a movie didn’t work for them. Because they don’t seem to simply think the movie didn’t work for them; it’s that it doesn’t work as a movie. If it didn’t appeal to them specifically then it’s a failure as a piece of work. Or it didn’t conform to some imaginary “rules” about filmmaking. Come on.
Here are 7 things people will say are a movie’s shortcomings when they don’t know what they’re talking about. Watch out for them because they usually show a person is BS-ing you. It’s not to say everyone who says this stuff is completely clueless, but rather that one who is completely clueless tends to rely on these tropes. Sorry if this is a little ranty.

1) “I just found it to be poorly edited. It had real pacing problems.”

Editing is an area that sounds technical enough to make people who talk about it sound smart, but in reality its qualities are so elusive that the vast majority of people trying to speak to its merits are fooling themselves into thinking they’re experts just because they’ve used iMovie before.
Forget even for a moment that there are plenty of theorists who argue that cinema is basedentirely on editing (they call it “montage” because French words are inherently more intellectual), so saying a movie was poorly edited essentially means it was a poor movie anyway so the criticism is redundant. The fact that the Oscar for Best Editing almost always gets awarded to the movie that also wins Best Picture bears this out.
But forget that it’s redundant. The real issue with trying to speak to a movie’s editing specifically is that unless you know what the editor(s) had to work with in the cutting room, it’s impossible to know how well a movie is actually edited. Every filmmaker I’ve ever heard or read on this subject attests to this, most notably Sidney Lumet in his phenomenally informative bookMaking Movies. I’m dropping his name so you can trust my credibility without giving it a second thought. A movie can be pieced together brilliantly from poor material and be indistinguishable from an expertly shot collection of footage thrown together willy-nilly. So when people throw this line out they’re usually trying to talk more about a film’s general rhythm, which is difficult to articulate, and how that fits in with the actual material of the movie. But that’s harder to talk about, so soundbites have to suffice sometimes.

2) “The direction was inept. He didn’t know what he wanted to say or how to say it properly.”

While referring to the editing in a vague manner makes people think they’ll sound technically credible, vague references to direction are a way to garner artistic credibility in the minds of the people interested in that sort of thing. Using “direction” as a sweeping term is problematic because it ascribes to the theory that there is a single author of a movie, the figure of the director. While it’s true that one person often bears a great amount of responsibility for a movie’s eventual outcome, there are so many hands involved in the cinematography, music, editing, and performances that giving one person all the credit is simplistic. They’re an overseer, which isn’t to reduce their contribution to a movie but merely to focus it. So people are often completely unclear by what “direction” they mean. Sometimes they mean composition of shots, other times they really mean editing, or cinematography (another sweeping term), or mise-en-scene if they want to show they took a university film class. “Bad direction” is too general to have much meaning.
There’s also a tendency to appeal to the “rules” of filmmaking, as if there’s this checklist of quality that all directors must adhere to. It’s like grammar. People will be sticklers for “correct” grammar, when really, as long as people understand what your trying to say, or conceivably can understand and appreciate it (and when they don’t, this is where rules or expectations can be useful), you’ve done your job. Many confuse a failure to communicate with a lack of thought, or vice versa, which is, once again, too simple.

3) “It was good, but flawed.”

This is one of those dumb things people say where the expected response is “Oh, he found some flaws in the well-regarded movie. He must really know what he’s talking about!” The speaker can fold his arms and nod his head in self-congratulation while his audience is scared into silence. When met instead with a response of “…like what?” a person can be thrown for a real loop sometimes.
It’s because thinking about a movie as “flawed” is way too rigid a rubric to be applied to subjective things. Some will identify a confusing ending from a Coen brothers movie as one of its few flaws, as if they had only known their ending was confusing they would have changed it. If only Johnny Nobody had been a consultant on the film! He would have set them straight!
Things people often identify as “flaws” are deliberate choices made by the filmmakers meant to achieve a specific end. If they don’t work, they’re not “flaws,” they’re expressive chances they took to try to get a point across. These chances flop all the time in movies but they go unnoticed because there are other things going on to distract our attention. There are scenes in movies that I’m sure didn’t express everything a director wanted to express, but still were interested and got a sizeable amount of their ideas across, and this is hailed as a success. But is this not a flawed result? It’s an arbitrary term usually used as a conversation stopper because nothing makes people less interested in hearing more from someone than general vagueness.

4) “It looks great, but there’s not much there.”

This is the whole “style over substance” point. The implication is that if a movie focuses too much on its style, its tone, its visuals, then it tends to sacrifice themes or ideas or something. A movie like Pulp Fiction or really almost anything Quentin Tarantino has made attracts this criticism from a number of viewers and reviewers. Movies that operate more like poetry like The Tree of Life get this same line thrown at them. More recently, Anna Karenina and Killing Them Softly were two examples of movies whose visuals were praised but were blasted for a “lack of substance.”
I reject the notion that style and substance are two different things. People also describe this as form vs. content. I don’t think of these two entities having a versus aspect to them. I think they often work in conjunction, complementing each other, enhancing one another and working together to achieve something powerful. But I disagree that they’re separate. I think image itself is substance. I think creating something beautiful or interesting on a purely visual basis is valid and worthwhile. I think something that is “cool” could just as easily be described as “beautiful” if that word didn’t sound so uncool. There are ideas to images that express more than a didactic theme can. And sometimes there is simply immense value in experimenting with how we see, or how we hear, how we view specific things when juxtaposed with other things, and so on. What I’m saying is that “looks great but lacks substance” is an oxymoron and annoys me when I hear people appeal to it as a clichéd criticism.

5) “It was so unoriginal.”

I’ve got news for you, bro: everything is unoriginal. The concept of originality is sort of moot by now. Me, saying this, is not even an original thought. I’ve been informed on this argument by Kirby Ferguson and his famous “Everything Is A Remix” video series, which makes the compelling case that nothing is actually original but a combination of elements that came before, every idea, thought, concept—it’s all built upon previous ideas, thoughts and concepts.
But that’s just one reason I find this classic objection uninteresting. Another is that while even the movies that seem original are well-veiled mishmashes of previous ideas, movies that don’t hide aspects they borrowed from those that came before them should not be held in shame. Remakes and sequels are not bad in and of themselves; this gets lost in the fact that often they are poorly made. Continuing stories that already exist is a valid storytelling mechanism, and is really as old as human narratives themselves. That’s the nature of myth.
I’m sure Oedipus was a rip-off of something that came before but we just don’t know about it. The worst part is that when people get caught up with plot originality they tend to overlook real innovations (synthesized from earlier influences of course) in storytelling, be it visual, tonal, thematic, or what have you. This occurred most recently with The Amazing Spider-Man, which is a brilliantly told origin story but people dismissed it because they already had an origin story on film that they deemed authoritative. Similarly with Avatar, people called it cartoon Dances with Wolves or futuristic Ferngully but its similarities to these and other movies that retell a story that America seems to really need to deal with pale in comparison to its technological and artistic merit. There’s more going on in the movie than a tribeswoman teaching a dude her language.

6) “I just couldn’t relate to any of the characters. They weren’t very likeable.”

Never mind the fact that these are two different things, that relating to only people who are likeable is a pretty vain and self-centered and self-deluded thing. I don’t even know where to begin with the contention that only likeable characters are interesting. This would basically go against a thousand-year history of tragic storytelling, where a main character’s flaws lead to his demise, or even a more recent rich history of anti-hero narratives. If you only want to concern yourself with nice people you’ll get exposure to approximately 3% of humanity. Have fun with that.
The idea of relating to a character is a tough one though. I think what people usually mean when they say this is that they couldn’t find anything particularly interesting about a character, which can be perfectly fine. But I think it speaks to a general lack of curiosity if a person is only interested in characters they think are like them or the people they know. One of the great values of movies is that they can expose us to people and worlds we never get to experience in real life, albeit a tiniest taste of the real thing. It’s often better when you can’t relate to the environment or characters at all, and get to learn a thing or two that you weren’t aware of previously.

7) “It just sucked. I was bored the whole time.”

I maintain that it’s a crucial distinction that must be thought through carefully: was I bored because of the movie or because of me? I can’t tell you the number of movies I’ve been bored to tears through the first time and found extremely engaging on second viewings. It’s a lot. There’s so much depending upon the environment you watch a movie in, who you’re with, the size of the screen and immersiveness of the sound, and countless other factors. It’s just too easy to dismiss a movie as boring, as if that’s just a quality the movie possesses, rather than consider why you were bored while watching it. Sometimes I’m too distracted to get into something that demands a bit more attention. It happens. It’s not always the movie’s fault (although I’m not saying it never is).
The point I’m trying to get across with all this is this: to come across like you’ve given the quality of a movie a great amount of thought, rehashing old lines that people toss around all the time is not the way to do it. People who do this seem like they have an emotional reaction to seeing something and a handful of phrases they can use to express that to others. Simply saying “I don’t know” should be considered a more attractive option than it is. It’s hard to explain why a movie does or doesn’t work for you personally and even harder to try to figure out where it went wrong on the production level. There are very few people who are able to do this at all, let alone well. And almost none of them seem to write about it very much. So we’re left with a large number of people who, God love ‘em, try to sound like they know more than they do. And it becomes easier to identify the more you hear them do it.
I don’t know what I’m talking about either. But I try to make it clear that at the very least, I know that I’m mostly full of dumb reactionary opinions.

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