Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Why It Can Be Okay To Be A Hater

Since writing about Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, it has been released in America to a tidal wave of positive notices, with even less dissent than there was in the UK. While I would like to think some of that might be attributable to Anglophilia from some critics who consider the UK to be automatically culturally superior (a fallacious assumption if ever there was one), people I know and whose opinion I respect have chimed in with fulsome and uncompromised praise as well. Once more I feel like the curmudgeon who hates fun, even though I still maintain the movie is a wretched, hollow mess hiding behind a smug veneer of respectability.

However, this suspicion that I am out-of-step with the happier end of the cultural spectrum haunts me even more now that I've seen Mamma Mia!, the most successful Hollywood musical of all time. The DVD release has been the cause of much celebration by the UK press, who giddily recount tales of singalong screenings packed full of delirious fans who adore it, flaws and all. Though some outright hate it, I've heard many people say they thought it was dreadful, but couldn't hate it because it is so genial and determinedly jolly that picking on it seemed unfair.

I had a similar response at first, but it slowly turned sour, which convinced me to blog about it. That post is coming up, but while writing it I kept changing tack, eventually realising that my thoughts about it were rooted in my unspoken beliefs about criticism. This realisation came as I saw with some sadness that, as both Mamma Mia! and Happy-Go-Lucky have accidentally or intentionally generated a impregnable forcefield against criticism by dint of being celebrations of joyousness, writing negatively about them is tantamount to hating life, or proof, as Melanie Reid puts it in this column, that I “have missed the joke”. Maybe she’s right, as the only jokes I could see on display in Mamma Mia! involved bawdy comments about promiscuity and male genitalia, and they didn’t make me laugh. I must hate life!

This gets to the core of any film criticism (or, in my case, amateurish blogging about superhero flicks), that for any movie or book or album or comic or game, there is liable to be someone out there who thinks it's a joy-inducing slice of heaven, so what purpose does a dissenting voice matter? There are even those of us who think Speed Racer is a misunderstood classic, but as only twelve people seemed to like it, it's not quite the same thing. Mamma Mia! is the fastest selling DVD of all time, a record that is unlikely to be broken when The Dark Knight comes out, even though that movie made $440m more in theatres. Mamma Mia! isn't just loved by a few. Its fanbase seems to be monolithic. It makes millions of people deliriously happy. What's the point of bringing up the faults of this movie when millions of people either ignore those faults or think they they are actually the things that make it more real or honest?

This is the "If you don't like it, don't watch it," defence, employed by fans to bitch out anyone who dares to point out the flaws in the object of their affection. Talkbacks across the internet are littered with this mewling protest, not in the hope of saving someone from wasting their time on something they don't like or "get", but because they want the negative assessment eradicated. It's childish and conceited and hilariously thought to be the final word in these arguments, even though I'll watch whatever I fucking like and won't be told what to do by some weasel in a Save The Cheerleader t-shirt.

(To whoever created that image, thank you from the bottom of my heart.)

To clarify, I feel I have an insight into their mindset. Shamefully, I will admit to thinking Heather Havrilesky should just switch Lost off as it's obviously not the show she expects, and her constant frustration with it for not being a jolly romp every week is depressing to read, but that's in my crankiest moments. Obviously she should do what she wants to, or has to, what with her being a TV critic and all. That attempt at rationality on my part doesn't make reading her drubbings any less frustrating or upsetting, though. Why is my emotional response so visceral? Am I personally offended by it? Is it an unthinking and oblivious diss of my own opinion? Am I objectively wrong somehow, and Havrilesky has some insight into the show that I, a mere blogger and fanboy, am missing? Am I empathising so much with the creators of the show that I feel bad for them being insulted like this?

It's all very silly and solipsistic, and I try to subdue those feelings. While pretty much everything that happens on the internet is ephemeral and meaningless, I heartily believe raging ineffectually against a consensus opinion is necessary and almost worthwhile, and not just in an arrogant "Every Opinion Counts" way. It's the way of things that people are more likely to want to debate something that they enjoy above something they dislike, as most people will gladly not waste time on something they derive no pleasure from. As a result, fanbases grow and solidify, and any outsiders looking for information about a work of pop culture and/or art will come upon an uncritical consensus view that something has value. Sometimes it will, above and beyond the appeal it has to a fanbase, and sometimes it won't. However, as time passes these pop culture artifacts become considered classics, and their influence can be felt on other works that come later.

That's all well and good if they're original and personal and thought-provoking etc., but if they're poor but popular, it can be a problem. While I'm uninterested in anything that rips off Buffy or Angel, I'll happily give hours of my life to experiencing the work of people inspired by the Mutant Enemy team to stretch themselves to those heights of writing. It's likely to happen, as many writers on that show were insanely talented (Whedon, Espenson and Goddard particularly spring to mind), and to aspire to their level of excellence is commendable. The goalposts should be there, but if, over time, flat and lifeless writing is considered the height of achievement thanks to relentless praise from uncritical fans, those goalposts move, and we're stuck with Torchwood as the standard bearer. Yes, I’m aware that I’m describing a worst case scenario that is almost totally beyond belief, but the nightmares of a world in which that poo-wad of a show is revered have been keeping me up at night. I appreciate that there is a large element of over-reaction there. After all, no one would ever try to fuse the macho nonsense of Torchwood with the concept of Buffy.

Oh bollocks.

And no, I'm not one of these fusty old moaners who thinks that standards are in the toilet and TV and cinema are cultural toilets with nothing of merit on offer. If anything, things are better than ever, primarily because even those stereotypical suit-wearing, cigar-chomping movie moguls are realising that smarter movies can find an audience and even a profit (though I hate to admit it, you can credit the Weinsteins' ability to make Miramax such a success for that sea-change). What worries me is that, while blogging and talkbacks allow anyone's opinion to be voiced, a dissenting voice will be shouted down by the fans, who have more of a stake in supporting the object of their affection than the "hater" has in hating on it (the exception to this rule is Heroes, which seems to have a large audience, most of whom are having fun piling on).

Of course, that is not to say I’m patting trolls on the back for standing up to the consensus with random reflexive insults that are posted merely to be contrary or obnoxious. There is a middle-ground, and debate can be conducted on the internet with civility and courtesy. I’ve managed it in the bearpit that is the AICN talkback, and if it can be done there, it can be done anywhere. It’s easy. Just follow the simple rule, “Don’t be an asshole”, and, weirdly, people respond positively. It’s shocking but true. I'm also aware that yes, there are often sites that go beyond the pale in chasing after an object of hate (I just stumbled across this baffling site obsessing about Kevin Smith), and while I return to the same few things I think represent the ass-end of pop culture, I do try to praise the stuff that makes it all worthwhile.

Before I forget, when I mentioned to Canyon that I was going to write this post, she made a good point, that often pop culture artifacts that receive a uniform critical drubbing or blanket praise do so because those with an opposite opinion feel cowed by the wave of consensus, and it's only after a dissenting voice speaks up that some people feel bold enough to voice their doubts. I'm not sure how often this happens, but Canyon mentioned the Titanic backlash, and The Dark Knight certainly went from high praise to fevered criticism pretty quickly. One anti-Torchwood post I wrote received comments about how relieved people were that the show wasn't just accepted as a quality production by everyone, as several media outlets were acting as if it was must-see TV, when in fact it was an ongoing car crash. It can be a real Mugatu/Crazy Pills experience when you're a lone rebel (oh God, get me!), so if even my carping, which is read by something like twelve people on a regular basis, is aimed at something everyone likes and gives others the courage to say how they feel, then I feel much better about being a mean-spirited jerk making fun of Eve Myles' berserk facial expressions.

Okay, that’s enough navel-gazing and justificating and preening and stating of the obvious. Consider this my huge caveat whenever I get all mean and start to complain about something that has a loyal fanbase. Though it might not seem like it, I'm criticising something beloved out of a sense of duty to mankind, and I also temper that with love. There should be garlands strewn at my feet or something.

ETA: Oddly enough, Noel Murray's penultimate Popless post at the AV Club has seen him pondering what is the point of criticism, and this paragraph chimed:

Throughout the year, I've been wondering: What is the responsibility of a critic? Is it to respond openly and enthusiastically to whatever an artist is trying to do? Or is it to nitpick it in the name of maintaining some authority? For most of my career, I've leaned toward the former, but I'm starting to see the value in the latter. Everything looks flawed to me these days—even the music, movies, TV shows and books that I love. When I review Mad Men or Lost for The TV Club, I often take pains to note the flaws even as I'm raving about what those shows do right, but whenever I do that, I wonder if I'm unnecessarily bumming out fans who came to The TV Club merely to celebrate the good. If I'd reviewed The Shield finale—one of the best TV endings of all time—would I have been persnickety enough to point out that some of the dialogue was strained and the ending rushed? If so, would that have served a purpose? I'm honestly not sure.

Of course, I think he has a duty to pick faults with the finale of The Shield which, while dwarfing everything else on TV all year, had its problems, though minor. His concern that the fans would be upset is off the mark. Fans with thin skins should know better than to expect blanket praise from a site written by such thoughtful people, and everyone else would appreciate the back-and-forth in the comments section. Also, if people are to trust your opinion, you have an obligation to be honest with yourself, especially if you're contributing to a larger dialogue. The man needs to be fearless, as do we all. Be sure to read the articles he links to in the first paragraph. The Pop Matters post is especially bracing, especially this:
Most reviewers are similarly in it for the self-definition, seeking to prove to themselves that their tastes are unique or trying to secure tangible proof of their influence on the world. The parasitic positive review is as much a will to power as the nihilistic negative one.

It's funny makes me feel kinda queasy because it's true.

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