Film

The Things I Will Never Understand

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As a budding film critic, I talk with people about movies. A lot. Being a critic can be a bit like living in Los Angeles: If you’re not careful, you can lose perspective and think that all you know equates with all that needs to be known. So I talk to people about movies, what the like, what they’ve seen, what they want to see. And without fail, and concerning a wide variety of films, they say this to me on a regular basis:
“It doesn’t look that good, but I’ll probably see it.”
This is the most bizarre thing you could possibly say to someone who cares about movies. I used to brush it off, but the statement’s mix of dismissiveness and passivity — an acceptance of inferior quality as well as some assumed duty to see the movie anyway — has been haunting me for years. It’s wholly different from hoping a film will be good but finding it isn’t. That cycle of anticipation and disappointment is common among moviegoers. But saying a film looks bad but then admitting that you’ll see it anyway is an acknowledgment of an awareness of a film’s likely poor quality, followed by a resignation that patronage is still somehow required. At first I thought the idea didn’t make sense at all. Then I remembered that this is America.
Decrypting the statement hinges upon two things: (1) Mass media serves as a common emotional background for Americans, uniting us in a nostalgia we all share without having to meet one another. And (2) most people set the bar so low for entertainment that they expect to be let down, and have come to view this not merely as a likely outcome of taking a risk on (even pop) art but consider it — the disappointment — one of the primary functions of movies or TV.
The first point is way easier to understand because it’s something we actively talk about. The members of every generation are now united as much by what they see as by how they were affected by major sociopolitical events: Yes, the citizens of Generation Y can remember where they were on 9/11, but it’s also not uncommon for them to insert (for instance) quotes from Anchorman into conversation. Film is something everyone can see and use to relate to others, and that ability to bond via pop culture references has made movies into something people often feel they need to see not to experience art but to keep up with the jokes of the day. It’s a vital way to stay current.
But the second part — the concept that viewers expect movies to be bad just because they feel they’re supposed to be that way — is infinitely more treacherous, confusing, and revealing. By feeling chained to the series of blockbusters, comedies, and action movies headed their way, viewers have come to value immediacy over artistic fulfillment, which is unfortunate because a staggering amount of mainstream films, the ones that offer themselves up as cultural touchstones, are bad. And these movies are bad for the same reason people see them: They exist simply to be known, and not to entertain or uplift or terrify or thrill. They want nothing more than to be the latest thing to be seen, and viewers know that, and they buy tickets regardless.
Movies unite people. Viewers want to be united, no matter the cost. Filmmakers know this. Viewers know that filmmakers know this. Repeat.
It can’t be a surprise, then, that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen earned a little more than $60 million just in its first day, setting a record for the highest-grossing Wednesday and likely on its way to much, much more. Michael Bay’s sequel to the 2007 film, both based on a line of Hasbro toys from 20 years ago, has a 21% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes and is at 36 out of a possible 100 at Metacritic. Are the critics wrong to find fault with the film? No. Should they be concerned at such an ideological divide between their camp and the general moviegoing masses, if there is one? No. Should they — we — be worried? Yes. Because people aren’t seeing this movie to enjoy it, or like it, but out of a sick and misguided feeling that they should unless they want to run the risk of being left behind. We have to change that.


And now, on a related note, @kiala reviews the new Transformers:

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