Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Can't Win Scenario: Indifference

In a recent conversation with Ryan "Those Hats Have Lost that Maddening Feeling" McNeil of The Matinee, it was brought to my attention just how difficult it is to perceive indifference in the modern movie criticism environment. After all, it's easier to love or hate a movie these days. For my money that's just an out and out fact. Know why? Simple - it's near on impossible to convey indifference to something and get people to understand. Part of the reason why my rating system is as cumbersome as it is, is to convey that very feeling. To display that there are various levels to liking and disliking something, and most of them are inevitably usurped by those trying to claim one extreme or the other.

And for someone who is as often indifferent to mainstream and critical darling films as I, that's a tough pill to swallow. Allow me to explain. Let's say a movie comes out and the general consensus is positive. In true form a hefty portion of viewers begin making broad claims about its greatness in respect to the genre, year, ever, etc. Inevitably another contingent gives way to hammering down its flaws and in turn making broad claims about its overrated nature in respect to the genre, year, ever, etc. The two clash time and time again on forums, podcasts, in comments sections of reviews, on social media platforms, and neither really gets anywhere beyond counting the number of people around them who share their viewpoint.

Enter someone like me. Someone who liked some parts of the film and disliked others, and purely on balance decided one side of the enjoyment scale outweighed the other. Unfortunately that doesn't fly with the above groups. Depending on what they're looking for they'll likely find those things that I liked and disliked about it as evidence that I come down firmly on one side or the other. But I don't. And to assume as much is simply projecting one's own wants or fears onto my review. Admittedly, it's something we do all the time, but that doesn't necessarily make it any more right.

Nor are the folks who demand that you come down on one side or the other. As if film discourse is an endless battle between right and wrong and all that matters is collecting enough people who agree with you on the issue at hand. Which I would argue is a gross misunderstanding of how the brain works, and a problem far too prevalent in other portions of our society.

Unfortunately, I find this often puts me into a series of oscillating descriptions about my perspective on something. If someone says I liked it, I put in the caveats of the things I disliked about it just to make sure they understand the relative nature of my liking it. Which they in turn assume means I didn't like it, and therefore ask me why I dislike it. Which means I return to things I like about it, and they in turn return to the viewpoint that I liked it. Which is fine, but they never remember the caveats. Why would they? To them that's not nearly as important as understanding the general viewpoint I have. However to me, those caveats are paramount. They are what separates alright films from good films, good films from great films, and in turn great films from masterpieces.

Over time, as those caveats fade away in the memory of others, all that remains is how the person perceived the direction I leaned towards on the film. If they felt I leaned positively, they'll remember me as someone who liked the movie. If they felt I leaned negatively, they'll remember me as someone who disliked the movie. We often see in things what we want to see. In news stories as seemingly innocuous as a pie contest we can find everything from political agendas to the downfall of society. But often times we see these things because we are looking for the wrong thing to begin with.

We are looking for the broad perspective, the quick tag or easy label. Something that allows us to group and simplify events in our memory process. And anything that complicates that grouping is often disregarded in favor of maintaining the system at hand. But that complication is more important than we give it credit for. That complication is more than just an annoyance. That complication is more than a winding conversation towards the end goal. That complication is individuality itself.

Everyone one of us writes because we want to express our individual viewpoint. If we didn't we would just copy and paste other people's point of view or just link to them and be done with it. And that's surely not a society I would want to be apart of. You don't have to remember everything about everyone's review, that's a bit over expectant. But looking at a review and grasping the person's true feelings on the film. Those not so subtle differences between your own view point and there's. That's what really matters.

5 better thoughts:

Ryan McNeil said...

Interesting...very interesting.

I agree with a lot of what you're saying here, but I think you've missed a step. First to the agreement...

I do believe quite fiercely, that we are becoming a society of "yay" or "nay". Especially where pop culture is concerned, people seem afraid to have a nuanced opinion. People seem reluctant to remain lukewarm on an artist/the art. Taking the time and effort to express "I liked A, B, and C...but D, and E didn't work for me" seems to take too long.

The other thing is if a person liked A, B, and C the math tells me that they ultimately liked the offering...they just didn't love it. And that's swell - not everything out there should be loved or hated. Just leaning on like or dislike is what we need more of.

Too often now, the people feel the need to go to one end of the scale or the other. A film is either "holyshitawesome!" or "omigodthatsucked". It's not that black and white...never has been...

If I have any qualm with what you've expressed here, it's calling your stance "indifferent" (This is a bad week for me and semantics). I don't believe what you've expressed here is indifference - it's a fluid opinion. Saying "I'm not a fan of The Coens" does not cast you down into the realms of indifference, it makes you a person whose opinions are forged case by case...and Mr. Helms...that is a very logical, reasonable state of mind to be in.

Keep it up!

Mette said...

This reminded me of an article in the New Empress magazine, about why bad films feel so good. The author wrote that if you've seen a film you want to be like "Oh my God that film was so good/bad", because it's much more fun to feel that way than just "Meh that film was okay".
Now I don't think he's one of those persons who don't have mixed feelings about many films, but maybe some people out there think their movie-watching-experience was more "worth" if they loved or hated it, which... makes them/ their review more popular? I don't know.
Anyhow, I really liked your article.

Nick Prigge said...

Do you read AO Scott & Manohla Dargis at The NY Times? I feel like they're the two best in the game and I feel like it's because they consistently get across exactly what you're yearning for here. They don't give out stars or however-many-out-of-ten or whatever which doesn't force them into the yay or nay and their reviews are almost always stacked with points for and against. And when they do take a side it is typically more subtly than most. (And, of course, their prose is fantastic.)

I attempt to write all my reviews as a reflection of how the movie made me feel because what a movie makes us feel is, to my way of thinking, its most critical aspect. But if what a movie makes you feel is indifference....yeah, that's harder to express.

Good article.

Castor said...

No need to look farther than the success of Rotten Tomatoes which simply aggregates hundreds of point of views into a single number that people use to decide on whether to see a movie or not...

Or as we are all familiar, folks reading the last concluding sentence of your review and the grade and then attempting to discuss the movie with you.

Univarn said...

@Ryan Fair enough, though I do think indifference with respect to the movie still works here. Lots of time I don't come down on one side or the other, like or dislike. Which is the most frustrating place to be. Even more so than barely leaning one of those two directions.

@Mette Perhaps because those emotions are more stimulating, we gravitate towards them? It's hard to get pumped up about 'eh, it was OK'.

@Nick I do not, but perhaps I should. I hear a lot of good things about them, but lots of the mainstream critics I read are bleh.

@Castor Rotten Tomatoes is definitely a purveyor of bad decision making, not to mention home to some of the angriest people on the net.

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