The meaning of being critical

There! I’ve seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey three times now and it’s profoundly amazing how it actually gets better with each viewing. This is truly a wonderful adaptation entirely in line with the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, my all-time favourite films. I was shocked, therefore, to find that The Hobbit has actually received only mild critical praise and hasn’t been nominated for any major award outside of the technical categories. It’s disappointing, but as a fantasy fan I’m kind of used to being looked down upon by the “elite”. It’s been that way since, well, forever, after all. I suppose The Lord of the Rings was an exception in terms of its critical reception (at least the cinematic version), possibly because when it came out, it was “new” in the eyes of the non-geek world. Its literary roots also helped to grant it a certain credibility in the circles of those who believe films should be “intellectual” for whatever reason. What bothers me more, though, is how utterly flimsy the grounds for this lukewarm reception were and more precisely, how they’ve been repeated ad nauseum by different people until they lost all meaning. Resistance to the new technology of 48 FPS (which I’ve by now seen and approve of), coupled with an “it’s not LOTR” shrug, whereby the film was often diminished in the eyes of those critics simply because it doesn’t have the same dark and epic tone of its predecessors. There is a strange idea doing the rounds these days that films have to be ominous, emotionally heavy and “mature” (whatever that actually means) in order to be meaningful or worth considering for an award. I’ve read one review that patronizingly called The Hobbit “harmless fun”. Well, I suppose it is harmless fun, certainly, but it is also fun of the highest quality, and it does have something to say as well. Just because it doesn’t slap you in the face doesn’t mean it’s not profound in its beauty, its artistry and its charm. At any rate I was happy to find that most casual moviegoers were very enthusiastic about the film, praising its well-crafted characters, storyline, music and visual artistry.

This has caused me to scratch my head and think about this a bit. Why is it that those who are concerned with cinema for a living seem to be so jaded and blasé about it at times? It seems to me that people who want to appear knowledgeable about a topic take great care to be as critical about it as possible. Not critical in its original sense, the critical mind that embarks on a journey of detailed appraisal – but what we have come to understand by the term “criticism” today, which usually amounts to quick, broad judgments that ultimately aren’t very “critical” at all.

Unfortunately, this form of criticism has also found its way into the geek community, where it has now grown wild and uncontrollable. It almost seems like negativity has become a must for anyone wanting to appear intelligent, and I think fantasy and Sci-fi fans have desired to appear intelligent for ages, having spent their lives absorbing culture that has been frowned upon by the mainstream for a very long time. Today (thankfully), fantastic genre material is finally being taken a little bit more seriously, but there is still a tangible sense of shame, even fear, surrounding the enjoyment of fantasy. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the almost laughably desperate attempts that novelists, film makers and game developers have been making to give fantasy a more “mature” and “relevant” edge, often inserting easily readable political messages into their work or providing a gloomy tone and so much violence and sex that nobody could possibly mistake their work for something “for kids”. I’m not a fan of this development since to me it comes across much like a teenager whining that nobody takes him seriously, which inevitably leads to people taking the kid even less seriously. The “look at me, I’m mature, I’ve got politics and sex and stuff” school of fantasy doesn’t really strike me as very fantastical at all. This is the stuff that claims to be confronting but to me it seems to be running away from what fantasy actually is: mysterious, intuitive, joyous and free. Of course, if people enjoy this style, that’s a great thing since there are definitely good things being made in that area. What bothers me is not really the work itself, but the way “dark and mature” is accepted whereas fun, charming and beautiful fantasy is not, unless it does something else that is edgy and cool, like being so kitschy that you’re allowed to enjoy it since you might be ironic about it. Honest, wide-eyed, innocent love for strange and unbelievable worlds, creatures and stories, is not okay apparently, and I don’t know why, but I guess it’s just not hip or edgy enough.

All in all, what we get when reading magazines or websites is an incredibly repetitive and soulless approach to enjoying the geeky genres. It’s always the same, utterly boring criticisms and praises (mostly the former) that resurface because everyone apes what the smart and cool guys have to say. Here are some examples of opinions you need to share if you want to have “geek cred”:

  • Everything from the 80s is better than anything made now unless it was done by Christopher Nolan.
  • Anything made by Christopher Nolan is the greatest thing ever.
  • Avatar is a bad movie because its story is not original (which is okay if you’re doing a remake of a reboot of a reimagining of a comic book, but not if you’re establishing a completely new universe complete with ecosystem and realistically constructed alien language) and, of course, because there is too much CGI.
  • The Star Wars prequels are bad because Jar Jar has a squeaky voice, there is too much CGI and they’re not the same as the old ones.
  • Indiana Jones 1-3 are awesome, but number 4 is bad because Indy survives a nuclear explosion in a fridge… And there is CGI (ripping out a still-beating heart and dumb gross-out comedy involving disgusting food like in Temple of Doom is okay because “eighties”)
  • In case you didn’t get the memo, CGI is the work of Satan. Unless the entire movie is CGI animation, then it’s okay to drop the irrational hatred and just enjoy (Pixar, Dreamworks).
  • “Mature” is inherently and always better than childlike because we all know only adults watch fantasy movies and play fantasy video games and the definition of “mature” is always “contains complex intrigue, ambiguous or nihilistic morality, sex, violence and swearing”. And people have dirt on their faces.
  • Video games and roleplaying games should be for “the initiated” only. As soon as ordinary people start enjoying them, that means they’ve become mainstream and they are BAD.

Look, I’m not for a moment saying you’re an idiot if you don’t like Avatar or the Star Wars prequels, but I am sick of being called an idiot for liking them. I think many of these views have become so manifest in the geek community that you’re bound to be taken to task very harshly for disagreeing with any of them. And that, to me, is not only boring, it’s worrying.

clichethoughts

I’m proud to say that I greatly enjoyed all of the films mentioned above, I’m a big supporter of George Lucas and yes, I enjoy Christopher Nolan’s work as well. And that is not because I’m superficial or I lack a critical eye, it’s because I truly love fantasy and the feeling of being whisked away to strange new worlds, which Avatar and all of the Star Wars movies gave me in abundance. There is so much more to discover and to talk about when it comes to these films, so much more than the same old cyclical droning about “too much CGI” here and “bad dialogue” there. We get it — we’ve heard it — you’ve had your say, guys.

Now just consider this for a moment: there really are much more original, much more personal insights that I’m sure many people have had as they were watching these films, things that had nothing to do with putting down the film, but insights that arose from simply accepting and enjoying the film and I’d love to hear and read more of those – you know, questions like, where did the name “Neytiri” come from, or is there a deeper reason why the planet is called “Pandora”? Or, is Anakin’s conception without a human father a biblical reference or is it more related to Eastern philosophy? Or an analysis of the outlandish but strangely elegant and unifying visual style of The Phantom Menace, or the way John Williams’ music spans the entire arc of Anakin’s downfall, or a look at the Jedi philosophy as it appears in the prequel films. Or a serious and open-minded investigation on the meaning of midi-chlorians, instead of just the swift, condemning and utterly simplistic judgement that they turn the Force into something scientific rather than spiritual (which is false, by the way).

You know, I want to read more of the stuff that really celebrates the magic of imagination and adventure. There is something childlike and innocent about the way fantasy captures hearts and minds, but also something spiritual, like these other worlds somehow help us to get in touch again with some forgotten, ancient part of our collective unconscious. That’s really the way I look at it, and I find that infinitely more interesting and more exciting to ponder, discuss and share than talking about why this or that film fails to deliver. And at the end of the day, when we’re done talking about this, maybe the most important thing is that we should all just stop whining (including me), get off our butts and create our own magic.

P.S.: There is in fact a very interesting blog on exactly the kind of Star Wars-related questions I mentioned here. It’s called The Star Wars Heresies.

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By Clark Kent Without Glasses

4 comments on “The meaning of being critical

  1. WOOO! Yeah! Thank you so much! This is absolutely perfect, and something I’ve been trying to get at for years!

    As for The Hobbit, I agree with you 100% Although, honestly, higher framerates make me dizzy and give me the weird feeling that the movie is in fast-forward during high movement scenes, so I personally have an extreme dislike for it. But that’s just me; it’s not inherently bad, and nothing could ruin that awesome movie.

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