Sometimes the best part of web writing really is the critics in the comments section.
I’m not being sarcastic or passive-aggressive. Perhaps I’ve simply been privileged to encounter some of the best comments sections I’ve ever seen. I’ve met great, long-range friends in lengthy exchanges hosted by Speculative Faith, Facebook friends, Facebook “enemies,” or ministry pages.
One of those friends is Jared Wheeler. I don’t always remember a friendship source, but I remember this one. We became (Facebook) friends after my article on Christ and Pop Culture about the Legend of Korra animated series finale.1 Jared took umbrage with much of what I wrote, and away we went.
Some of that’s to be expected. CAPC articles go through an editing process, thanks to a fine team of word-sharpeners. Still, and perhaps due solely to the writer, any article can leave plenty of openings, potential misunderstandings, and of course, plain poor arguments. How much more so a story on a personal site like this one.
More recently, Jared also took friendly issue with my Monday micro-rant. In “A Movie Is Much More Than the Pop Song They Stuck in There,” I suggested “critics” (my often-undefined term) pay more attention to movie pop songs than to the films’ central stories and soundtracks. He believes I fired indiscriminately based solely on my own feelings. Also he felt his feedback went on overlong. If so, I’ll double that offer by copying it here, and hoping to let him sharpen me.
Why I fight to delight (even in some movies critics pillage)
Truly, though, it does feel like your ongoing criticism of criticism is veering ever further into purely petty griping. This is *pretty* deep in “I’m not going to be happy until you all enjoy the movies I do, for the reasons I do, in the way that I do” territory.
A small, snarky side of me would suggest the statement “I’m not going to be happy until you all enjoy the movies I do, for the reasons I do, in the way that I do” describes a fair chunk of film criticism. Not all, but some.
Here then, my weakest defense is that I’m simply following the rules.
But I hope that’s not how I come across.
Rather, I hope to articulate at least throughout a full body of work that I’m pursuing happiness by enjoying as many stories as I’m able. Here I mean “happiness” in the biblical sense. In short, I believe God allows story-making, even in this nasty world, as a reflection of his common grace. It also reminds us of God’s original purpose for humanity: to imitate and glorify God by making new things in the world he gave. And in so doing, we find perfect happiness, not solely in the stuff, but in the Giver.
If a story or other human cultural expression doesn’t give me this kind of happiness, I might say so. More likely, I’ll ignore the story.
But I concede that I can sound fairly negative when I don’t believe pop culture critics share my values. If I believe someone could be affected by a plain ol’ trend, I might say so. If someone seems to jump on a bandwagon for/against a story because of a “horse race” mindset, I might point this out. It doesn’t mean I despise that person or think “they’re not in favor of happiness like I am.” At worst, I’d say: Here’s another example of the fact that human beings have all kinds of snarled-up impulses within us, along with our God-given desire to be happy.
I have these same snarled-up impulses.
This is why I’ve been cutting back on watching acid-tongued movie reviews from YouTube critics. Their cynicism is often paired with some astute observations about story and filmmaking craft. Still, I’ve found that I can catch cynicism more easily than a two-year-old catches colds at day care. The treatment’s side effect? I may come off as very cynical against cynicism (real or imagined) from movie critics.
An essay on criticism
By the way, when I say “critic,” I don’t mean some major newspaper movie-watcher in a loft apartment somewhere. I think of anyone who styles him– or herself a critic. When I use the word, I’m thinking of mainstream media critics, the sorts who attend film festivals, yes. But I also think of geekbait “fandom” websites or YouTube channel hosts. Many of these have legitimate heartfelt opinions. Yet I’m sure others’ “opinions” are in fact incentivized, so they over-praise or rudely despise the latest flick (like Ghostbusters 2016 or Star Wars: The Last Jedi). And I think of any person who, as we all can be, may be tempted to follow after popularity trends.
“Ever read a movie review or comment that draws too much attention to a pop song the moviemakers stuck in there?” No. I haven’t. It might have helped if you had included some examples of this happening to validate your point . . . I’m not convinced that this is even a thing.
It’s a thing. But fair point—more examples would have helped. In this case, however, that would be like trying to track the source of a “meme.” And in fact, a “meme” (in Richard Dawkins’ original use) might actually be what I’m opposing here.
“If I’m right, perhaps this is just another example of some critics blindly trying to feel their way along these (very popular) genre offerings. After all, if you get lost among all the –Women and Captains and –Men that “geeks” can identify but you cannot, never fear. The movie might at least have a familiar pop song you can praise or scoff about!”
This is completely baseless. You’ve started with a false premise and you’re tracking it in a direction that doesn’t show any particular grasp or knowledge of how film critics do their job [. . .]
I’m perplexed by this fierce defense of professional film critics. I am not a pessimist and I believe God actively permits common grace in the world, including professional film criticism. But I also can’t share this level of enthusiasm for major media or human culture (under the Fall). Of course, many critics are fantastic professionals. Others are fairly terrible at their job. (At least one of them writes for the newsmagazine National Review. I shan’t malign him here.) Still, none of what I wrote was an attack on critics or their professionalism.
Even that response presumes a narrower “professional film critic” definition, although I don’t presume this.
I do contend for two first principles, which I’d left unspoken, in my original Monday story:
- My definition of “critic” includes many groups. Everyone’s a critic. Not just “professionals.”
- As a Christian, I do presume my priorities aren’t always the same as critics in a general audience.
[. . . ] so you end up in a place that is just pure fantasy . . . Again, if there’s a point worth making here (convince me), you should be grounding this in responding to real-life quotes that you cite, just as a start. (I have a VERY strong suspicion that, to the extent that this thing you’re talking about exists *at all*, you’re conflating shallow revenue-driven click-bait entertainment “journalism” with serious film criticism.)
For that last part, I could have closed this opening. I could have defined what I meant by “critic.” This clarity would have also specified that I actually meant, in part, to critique clickbait-type nonsense, including fans’ praise or criticism that I feel treads in shallow waters. And I feel comfortable doing this in a popular culture area with which I’m fairly familiar (superhero movies and soundtracks).
Guardians of the movie music?
“People went nuts over the simple fact that [Guardians of the Galaxy] has oldie pop songs in it!!!”
This is your one really salient, relevant example, and there are two things going on here that I want to point out:
1) Coming from you, this bafflement that people love a thing that they feel a strong emotional attachment to is . . . baffling. This piece is littered with hints at the fact that you understand the incredible deep and powerful connection people (including you) feel with music, both music in general and the specific songs or pieces that they have loved, often for decades. Like, if a movie critic wryly noted fan excitement over the tease of a beloved character in a Marvel post-credits scene, you’d be grossly offended . . . but you’re flabbergasted that it made people happy to hear a song that they loved. AND you think they’re enjoying the movie wrong because they enjoyed that.
Up until those last objections, I was tracking with you. But no, I wouldn’t be “grossly offended” by such a note about fan excitement. Nor would I claim that folks who like hearing a nostalgic song are “enjoying the movie wrong.” In fact, that’s a sort of binary “fresh/rotten [for everyone?]” approach to movies that I want to oppose in anything I write about human stories.
Also of note here is the fact that it’s not critics (pro or casual) but movie-makers often drive this attention to the pop song they stuck in there, at the exclusion of the movie’s other qualities. Another fairly recent example comes to mind: the Aardman holiday film Arthur Christmas. This is a popular-level, comedic animated exploration of the Santa legend. It has surprisingly heartfelt exploration about different people’s approaches to the holiday and gift-giving. And its distributor Sony chose to … hype mainly the film’s end-credits holiday song by Justin Bieber.
I’ve read fans who said that, thanks to the marketing, the Justin Bieber song was all they knew about this movie (which did not do well in theaters). Only later did they actually saw the film and find delight in its comedic and dramatic genius.
2) “Crazy characters and surprising heart drove that movie. Pop songs only gave audible seasoning—which the filmmakers bought and paid for based on simple knowledge of what oldie songs had already gotten popular among mass audiences.” Dude. No. Those songs communicate *everything* about the movie’s central character, who he is, where he comes from, and what he’s all about, and they are precisely deployed throughout the movie in a way that is spectacularly skillful at subtly reinforcing the mood and theme of each scene. That soundtrack, and specifically the fact that it is composed of pop songs, and the specific pop songs it is composed of, is the backbone of that entire movie. The fact that this was highlighted by critics while you more or less shrug it off is . . . exactly why THEY are the ones who are good at their jobs.
On this I mostly agree. To be sure, director James Gunn interwove these songs with the story and its aesthetic. I should have noted this artistry as praised by the professional critics. (Whether the second Guardians film did this as effectively is another matter.)
Again, however, I’m not sure that casual critics or fans, who simply reacted based on “I know that song!” would make those connections. I wouldn’t nitpick on these folks for their personal preferences. But I would note that, again, these songs (with licenses bought and paid) are very well-chosen parts of a cohesive whole. (Fortunately, I think most Guardians pro-critic reviewers understood this well.)
The better “worst” example is the one I cite immediately afterward: the dreadful Suicide Squad (2016). This villainous entry simply pasted pop hits, from multiple genres, over top of an already fragmented and near-nihilistic story. Also, I could have gone into detail about evangelical movies that overemphasize pop songs. But I felt I’ve picked on Christian movies a lot lately and wanted to leave that criticism more generalized.
I love film scores. That was the music I bought until I stopped buying CDs, and there was a long period of my life when “movie soundtracks” was my response to “What kind of music do you listen to?” A good film score is incredibly important, and often the use of pop music (or even just rigidly contemporary styles of instrumental music) in a film will render it dated within a few years. I don’t think the Star Wars franchise would exist if Lucas had backed the original movie with hit disco tracks instead of insisting on a full orchestral score by John Williams.
Amen. I also believe I’ve come down from my “I only listen to soundtracks” cage-stage. Instead, I’m trying to appreciate other folks’ diverse musical preferences. In my original story, I observed that I tend to prefer music you can “story” to. Others prefer music you can party to. That comparison has helped to clarify why people like different music genres.
But everything you’re complaining about here, and the whole way you’re complaining about it, is just so . . . ick.
Here’s hoping this response helps flesh out that original micro-rant.
I don’t intend my stories here, or comments on apparent trends, as wholesale rejection of Professional Film Criticism.
On occasion, of course I’ll do the 1960s thing and “question authority.” I don’t do this to be outrageous or contrarian. Rather, it’s because I don’t believe I share priorities with a lot of critics. Instead, I share my part of a conversation, as if over fast-casual food with a friend. Or enemy. Or frenemy. I hope I’ll always invite any of these to push back as part of the continuing dialogue. After all, no one is above criticism: not casual critics, pro critics, or myself.
- To recap: the brilliant creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender “juked” their sequel series, The Legend of Korra, in favor of the Sexualityism cause. ↩