Thursday, October 22, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are, or How I rant on ranting

Rule number 1 of reviewing: don't assume anything.

If there's one thing I hate to read in a review is: people said A but...B!!

Reviews that attempt to position themselves in a conversation about outside expectations have a place in film discussions but I wonder how much are we really talking about say, Juno or The Dark Knight or Slumdog Millionaire when a review is insistent on how the 'buzz' is right/wrong/misguided/etc.

The latest case for this is Spike Jonze's adapation of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. This is not only because Sendak's book is adored by a significant amount of people but also because the film went from 'it's delayed, suffering from bad test screenings' to 'hit viral sensation' after the Arcade Fire trailer debuted earlier this year. Mainly: there's no way you could enter into this film without a preconceived idea of what it'd be (or what you wanted it to be, or what Warner Bros. wanted you to think it'd be or what your childhood self wanted it to be or..well, you get the idea). Add to this that we live in a Twitter/instant reaction world and you've got a situation where seeing a film where you have no expectations of it is more the exception than the rule (I was flabbergasted the other day when I friend told me he had seen this film called 'Precious' and he thought it was really good. Yep, he caught it at the New York Film Featival and loved it and knew NOTHING about it beforehand. Crazy, I thought to myself, but it also showed the type of audience reaction that probably greeted the film at Sundance before Oprah and Tyler Perry and everyone in the blogosphere started telling us how great a movie this was - and before the backlash that may or may not be now pervading the film recently given the Gotham Awards snub). But I digress. Back to Where the Wild Things Are. I recently read James's "Rants on Where the Wild Things Are" and while I'd usually shrug off my dissension from James's view to his "Humbug" mood recently (I think he just needs a visit from La Tisdale - or Zac Efron - to cheer him up and make him love 'stuff' again). I'm not saying James is 'wrong' in not liking the film: we are, after all, allowed to have (and voice!) our own opinions. Yet, his review seemed to come from a place of 'can people stop saying how good this film is?' which in certain ways is a version of 'my opinion doesn't jibe with the consensus' yet morphs into 'my opinion should be the consensus' (which, ultimately is the reason we write about films for the blogosphere to read, no?). If it feels like harping on James, I'm not (I'm sure I've made similar comments on this soapbox of mine). I just think that there must be a place for healthy film discussion that doesn't take into account 'buzz' in order to frame an opinion about a film (look at the way An Education - for a more recent example - went from 'Amazing' to 'Meh, what was everyone talking about?' in a matter of blog-tinged seconds)

I could sit here and rile a couple of counter-arguments to James' review - it isn't after all, a perfect movie - (for example I think the first half hour of the film is a great glimpse into Max's world - which never seeks to explain Max's "misunderstood nature" nor does it attempt to advocate or endorse it, and the ensuing narrative works to fractally retell it over an over again) but instead I wanted to open up a discussion on the way recent technological (and marketing strategies) have made our appreciation of films a reactive (rather than an active) activity. Recently, Nat came up against the same problem when screening Precious:
Can you have a pure reaction to a movie if you've already heard a thousand opinions about it? Probably not, as the annual conversation cycles of awards season illustrate. It starts with "my god it's amazing!" which quickly turns to "it's everything you've heard it was and more!". Eventually the "I liked it but..." hedging and the angry "it ain't all that!" begins. Well, you know how it goes. You've probably joined in dozens of these conversations yourself.
So, I have to wonder: do we have to have these conversations? Is there no way to talk about Where the Wild Things Are in terms of its approach to Sendak's book: what does it mean to translate a slim children's book into a hipster Oz-like parable? What does it say about the American audience its aimed at? About its place in a studio/auteur-based economic model? About its place in Jonze's filmography (clearly, Keener isn't the only thing it shares with Adaptation and Being John Malcovich)? Just as I think too much is made of "Oscar" films conversations during the Fall ("Will/Should it be nominated?") I think there are plenty of more conversations to be had about films these days that move beyond "good/bad"/"was what I expected/not what I wanted/expected." Does An Education not spark more interesting conversations regarding May/November romances than about Mulligan's Oscar chances? Does Precious not raise more challenging discussions when framed in terms of its subject matter rather than its press backlash?

It seems the conversation is happening already. Over at Awards Daily Sasha Stone points to Roger Ebert's review of Amelia to showcase how a review can do both things I'm talking about without falling into certain traps. As she states,
Here’s the thing, though – when writing a review, why not make it a good read? Ebert’s recent review of Amelia isn’t just a think piece on himself and why he’s right that the movie sucked and where it doesn’t work and why it is going to bomb — most importantly, he doesn’t yarn on about how he would knew it would fail and how right he has now become – is there anything more annoying than that?
And really, we could all be doing worse than aiming to be as entertaining in writing reviews than Roger Ebert (who, even when he raves about a film I hate - see his adoration for Crash, he does so in a way that doesn't feel like he's trying to persuade me to think like him or join in whatever buzz he aligns with, but to make me watch the film itself).


Dame James said...

Wow. Is it weird that I feel kinda honored to be owned so hard in this post?

In all honesty, I really didn't intend for my review to be an attack on people who didn't like it. Reading it back now, I can see how you could take it that way though. I guess it's just the inner psycho diva inside me that reacts like Alex Forrest when I'm not crazy about a film and I see that other people are loving it to pieces. I don't mean to invalidate anyone else opinion and really don't want to (how boring would it be if we all agreed?).

In regards to your last bit about discussing films as more than just kneejerk "yay or nay" reactions, I totally agree. I love reading pieces by you and others (Nick's Flick Picks is another site I personally adore who does this well) that elevate film pieces beyond casual Travers-esque reviews. The only defense I have is that I'm still learning. I hope I'm not as bad as some sites around the blogosphere which cater solely to Oscar buzz and simplistic reviews, but I guess I can lapse into it sometimes. My dream someday would be to write like Pauline Kael but I suppose it even took her some time to get as awesome as she did.

Have I really been that "humbug" (as you say it) lately? I really thought I was being less harsh in my film grading and such (I have been giving more and more A- and A's).

mB said...

James, would I bother reading your blog (let alone comment, link and tweet about it) if I thought you were part of the problem? ;-)

That said, I'm sure I lapse into it from time to time as well and as for your humbug-ness, I think you just have been writing more about the films you dislike and less about the ones you like, thus giving off a negatively skewed vision of your opinions.

mdeals said...

Such a lovable monster..........

john smith said...

Hello UK students!!!!
Register before Jan 15thand get 1000 pounds student aid.