12.20.2020

AN AIRING OF GRIEVANCES: Bubblegum, YouTube, Scorsese, Marvel, and You (yes, You)


I'll admit it: there were a few things I was disappointed with in the new Star Wars trilogy. But to be fair, I've been disappointed with stuff in all the Star Wars movies. To be even more fair, there's stuff I don't like in all movies, period. And at the apex of fairness: life is full of disappointment.
 
But back to Star Wars; I've listened to the complaints of others (some of them yours) regarding "plot holes" and "fan service" and "inconsistencies" and "failure" -- and I hear and read everything from free-floating hostility to meticulous scrutiny, and I'm always left wondering, "My God, what is wrong with you people?"

Now, I'm not here to discredit the cultural validity of Star Wars -- hell, I practically wrote a book on my boner for it, so I look down my nose at no one when it comes to Sy Snootles. But it's become dishearteningly clear to me (particularly in the Age of Shame) that most folks simply aren't digesting certain things the way I am, and it's really harshing the vibe in the room. The superficial accusation often directed at me is that I place certain sacred institutions too high on the shelf, thus allowing my very public lust for nostalgia to cloud my judgment of otherwise bad or mediocre art. Not the case; conversely, the opposite is the true scenario: people are mistaking focus-tested Comic Book mythology and culturally-diverse franchises for adequate sustenance. So my question is, "Where's the bubblegum?" In the absence of nutrition, people are consuming empty calories for nourishment, so, in other words, "Why so serious?"
 

Star Wars is bubblegum. It's softcore, fast food, punk rock, heavy metal, cartoon pornography, and to assign anymore weight to it than that is selling yourself short. But this isn't about Star Wars -- it's about Bubblegum: a term used to describe 'disposable' or 'contrived' art that's aimed at the youth culture (or some shit like that). What it really means to me is much more literal in its analogy: a rush of sweet, soft chewiness that eventually loses its flavor & you spit it out. Except, to those of us who hoard media in our minds and homes, we have a proclivity and a talent for analyzing and appreciating every piece of pop we put in our mouths. So don't get me wrong: we can choose to take certain things seriously, but it would better serve you to be (or continue to be) self-aware about your choices. Art is the most important thing to us (and by "us" I mean you & me), but let's not abandon the hard truth that it's as important (and by "important" I mean trivial) as life itself. 

Is there a difference between "High Art" and "Low Art?" I don't think so - but not a lotta people seem to be on my side.
 

I wanna talk to you about something that I mention all the time -- but no one's really seemed to hook into it during the 10+ years I've been publishing. So, my bad, I guess. There is a belief; call it a creed, call it a state of mind... call it karma. Me, I call it fear, self-doubt, ignorance; I call it cowardice.
 
I wanna show you something: it's incidental in and of itself, but thematically, it explains in just a few words what I'm talking about. This is a screenshot of a YouTube comment that I discovered beneath a fan video focusing on The Dark Knight Rises:
 

For the sake of consistency, I will write out this statement for you:
"Unpopular opinion but this is my favourite in the trilogy. It might not be 'the best' speaking objectively, but it's the oine (sic) I enjoy most."
Now, some of you might have an idea of what this person is saying, or trying to say, because this falls in line with your own mentality - not specifically about Batman movies, but all things in general: the notion that there is an abstract divide between was it "good" and what you yourself prefer. I'm compelled to call attention to it because this is no isolated incident: on a regular basis, everyone from professional critics to every putz with a Letterboxd list is peppy to proclaim, "I know it's trash, but I love this movie!" Jesus, what a self-deprecating display of intellectual weakness.
 
Look, I don't wanna be pissed off about stuff -- don't you think I'd much rather be talking about the layered character development of Baxter Stockman, or the inconsistent availability of Banana Cream Twinkies? And wouldn't it be more fun for you to read some kinda fun list? But there are certain things - like the downfall of McDonald's - that require an attention and awareness that is apparently predicated upon my own discontent. There's nearly nothing more maddening than a solid contradiction, and all I'm talking about here are careless, shameless contradictions of terms. I would not go so far as to call it hypocrisy because these peoples' tastes seem so malleable that it's not rooted in any real conviction.

There is a wildly popular YouTube channel devoted to reviewing movies in a lighthearted, comical way - and they are audacious offenders of this mentality. A notable example appears in a video in which they discuss a handful of films released in 2016, and amongst those films is The Witch, which prompts a remark that is something to the effect of: "It's not my favorite movie of the year, but it's probably the best movie of the year." Now, if this was said in jest, I have to applaud an irony that cuts that deep. But I don't think it was - I think this was a visceral, tangible illustration of this sort of weak-minded approach to film criticism that I'm talking about -- as though assertive conviction got thrown out with toxic masculinity, or people are simply feeling guilt for taking pleasure in anything.

Why are we dumping on the things we love based on some intangible barometer that doesn't even exist? What exactly is the criteria that would enable one to say, "I like it, and it's a good movie!"? Boy it sounds stupid when you put it like that, doesn't it? I'm sure I've addressed that old cautious, diplomatic phrase, "Guilty Pleasure" once or twice before, and I'm certain I've shared a word or two on people who love "bad movies," but these noncommittal ideologies continually beg the question: What exactly makes a movie "good," and what information are you basing that on? Because, by definition, it's not coming from you; who's making you feel this guilt, what credentials do they have, and why do you hold them in such high regard? Do you feel legitimate shame any time you and Janus Films don't see eye-to-eye on what makes Cinema "correct?" Are Rotten Tomatoes percentages filling you with self-doubt? Are your pretentious friends bullying you into second-guessing your streaming content queue?
 

Look, you can go on banging your drum about how much you love "camp" and "trash" if that makes you feel cute - I won't shame you for wanting to feel beautiful - but when you back out of the driveway at top speed without looking, I'm gonna lay on my horn. There's nothing brave about admitting that you weren't able to enjoy a film that you "consider well-crafted." All this demonstrates is that: not only can you not identify what you like about a movie, but you are, by and large, prejudice against the ones you don't; "I don't know why, but I just can't make the connection." And you know what? That's fine! I totally get that. But this "It's not you, it's me" attitude you're taking towards "important Cinema" comes off as submissively timid, ambivalent, and just generally ignorant about Film -- which, if I had to guess, is the exact opposite impression of the one you're trying to put forth. You're able to check off the half-dozen attributes the textbook says a great film should have, but cinephile that you are, you still don't like it. But you love Con Air - because it's "dumb."
 

So what's that say about movies? About art? About Criterion? About Bubblegum? What does it say about you? I realize that was five rapid-fire questions, but they're not rhetorical, and each one demands a specific answer. Keep in mind, I might not be talking about you specifically, but I am talking to you, because I'm reaching for examples & struggling to make a point that I'm sure will be misinterpreted by some (because it's 2020 and that's what y'all do), so please, chime in at any point here, because there's more to say.

Like this:
 
"I don't see them. I tried, you know? But that's not Cinema... Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn't the Cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being."
- Martin Scorsese on Comic Book Movies
 
You ever hear the phrase, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like"? What I've been seeing is an abrasive inverse: "I know art, but I don't know what I like."

On the list of humankind's most devastating innovations, the Top 3 has to be: organized religion, the atomic bomb, and the "comments section."

How do we feel about Marty's comments? I've scrolled through miles of grammatically soft reactions with great bemusement, and the median response appeared (to me) to be that: Martin Scorsese was incorrect. That he was old and past his prime. Out of touch. A boomer. Cancelled. Fanboys & girls came to the aid of their fledgling little Superhero Movies and beat off an unpopular opinion with crass criticism and furious anger, and suddenly no one was embarrassed about their adoration for lowbrow popcorn.

So what did you think? Personally, I was mortified by the intensity of the reaction; not since John Lennon v. Jesus Christ has there been such melodramatic feedback to such an innocuous, subjective (and, let's be honest, partially accurate) grouping of words. But my initial reaction (which hasn't changed) was this: he was entirely right, and he was entirely wrong. The reason he was wrong is that Cinema is and should be indefinable - particularly in regards to the terms he was using; this stuff about "humans conveying emotion" is a very narrow (though popular) margin of all that sound & vision is capable of, and is just as easily conveyed via television, theatre, and literature. Besides, I'm sure these theme parks offer a heaping helping of heavy-handed hamming between these defenders of good -- enough to sustain Marty's made-up point system (even if they are in front of a green screen with little dots on their faces).
 

And the reason he's right (which I will admit, whereas he will not) is entirely subjective. I've not really seen any Marvel movies -- at least none from this "universe" that they established within the past 10 years; I saw Ang Lee's Hulk, the Hulk with Edward Norton, and the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and they left me mostly underwhelmed. Outside of Chris Nolan, I've only seen portions of various recent DC movies, which I found to be laughably incompetent. So without getting too much into all the specific (and broad) reasons as to why these particular movies don't interest me, I just wanna use it as an example of how one can have a diplomatic - even optimistic - view of stuff they don't like. Scorsese's statements were genuine and eloquent - that's obvious (and admirable) - but to assert that Film needs to be 'this or that' in order to qualify as credible is ignoring the point of art, but way more than that, it's being willfully ignorant about show business (even if it is coming from the greatest living movie director).

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert truly despised the Slasher Films that were populating theaters in the 1980s - which is fair (and predictable). But the reasons they gave for their downward thumbs (which could've easily focused on the poor craftsmanship of these movies) was warped and inflated into weird, sociological themes about misogyny and child development; the two critics fed off of each other's increasingly bizarre assessments of these films, the filmmakers, and even the audiences (plural) that enjoyed them, until the subject at hand (the quality of the movies) was buried under a buncha psycho-babble rubble. 
 
It is my contention (yes, my contention) that had they not been a duo - bouncing ideas off each other into an avalanche of absurdity - that these laughable "reviews" wouldn't have spiraled into the dated punchlines that pretty much everyone looks back on with frustration and pity.

"I love people as I meet them one by one. People are just wonderful as individuals. You see the whole universe in their eyes if you look carefully. But as soon as they begin to group, as soon as they begin to clot, where there are five of them or ten or even groups as small as two, they begin to change, they sacrifice the beauty of the individual for the sake of the group."
- George Carlin

They of course weren't the only people to intellectualize these goofy flicks far above & beyond their intentions... but outrage loves company, and no one wants to be the odd man out. The individual. Not then, not ever. We're currently amidst the most divisive era of recent memory -- or does it simply seem that way because our differences feel so much more pronounced? The ability to casually communicate on a global scale only makes us more aware that we're not all alike, and that can create a very lonely feeling. So, we compromise our opinions and our values to better fit in with "the group." 

Look, all I'm saying is that your list of your "favorite movies" and your list of "the best movies" shouldn't be two separate things - that's ridiculous. No one's impressed by your unique understanding of how Cinema works; if you're not able to enjoy a "great" film, then it's not that fucking great, is it? It has problems, it didn't work, they left something out, they didn't take your interests into consideration. A slum built on a good foundation is still a slum. I know folks were real pleased when Black Panther got Oscar nominations because it validated what they already felt: the stuff you like is legitimate and worthy, because you are, and your opinions are grounded in something inherently human. And if you're a true connoisseur of Film, you should be able to identify what makes a movie great - especially in subjective terms, because in art, there's no other way.

- Paul

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