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LJI9 Week 30 - The Critic

This is my entry for this week of LJ Idol, Season 9. Please check out the entries of my fellow competitors and consider joining the therealljidol community. This week's topic was "Critical Hit."

I am not as nice as I seem. In fact, I'm the sort of person who drives to the grocery store with my son, nicknamed Kung Fu Panda, telling jokes at our cat's expense. I told him that while we're out, our kitty Luke goes to "Cat School," where he learns how to behave in a way that cats find acceptable.

"Does he learn how to use the litter box?" KFP asked.

"No, he already knows that. He learns how to make stinky poops in his litter box." Whether from digestive issues or a reaction to his special allergen-free prescription cat food, Luke's room-clearing poops are legendary. So yes, I made a joke at our cat's expense about something he can't help, setting a horrible example for my 4-year-old son. And that's not even the worst thing about me.

I am a capricious culture snob, governed by no set pattern. The only constant is this: whether it be a television show, a movie or a book, if I like it, I consider like-minded people to be savvy consumers. But if I dislike something, those who like it must be tasteless or dim-witted.

Like Elaine Benes in "Seinfeld," I loathe "The English Patient." While writing an Oscar series on all the Best Picture winners (yet unfinished, due to the untimely interruption of a baby who continues to need constant care, even at age 4), I watched the movie, expecting far more than it delivered.

Perhaps the funniest part of the "Seinfeld" episode where Elaine takes exception to the Oscar-winning movie -- an episode which is extremely funny, because I say so -- is her inability to articulate the reasons why she dislikes it. She simply declares it boring, and when people argue with her, she flies into a rage and tells them to "Go to hell!"

I know how she feels. But being a writer, and a Virgo, I feel compelled to delve into the reasons behind my gut reaction.

Certainly, "The English Patient" was boring. My antipathy for the movie goes beyond that. The movie is wretched, because it could have been much better. It was a historical World War II drama/romance starring a stable of Oscar-caliber actors (Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas, Willem Dafoe, Naveen Andrews, Colin Firth). If only the key actors had had even the teensiest bit of chemistry, it could have been outstanding. Instead, the bleached-out, lackluster film makes me want to cough up sand.

Without revealing any spoilers -- so if you're daft enough to watch it after reading this piece, don't worry -- suffice it to say that every bloodless moment can be seen coming miles and miles away. Much like a mirage in the desert, if that mirage consisted of "serious actors" doing what passes for "acting" but is really more of a table reading. The movie vacillates between the past and present, interweaving several characters who are all equally flat and undeveloped.

For those who might assume that I simply dislike movies with slow pacing, I loved Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain," a dreamlike depiction of a man dealing with grief over his wife's death. I'm also happy to sit through an entire movie where essentially nothing happens in terms of narrative, such as "My Dinner with Andre" or "Waking Life." I would argue, however, that both of those movies did a better job of maintaining the flow of the film than "The English Patient" did.

All of this would be bad enough, but then the film went on to win an Oscar. Why? I believe it's because it's one of those movies you're simply SUPPOSED to like. You can practically hear the Oscar voters screaming: "Ralph Fiennes hides his face behind bandages for half of the movie: that's ACT-ing! It's set during World War II, which is the most important period of modern times! It's based on a book, for crying out loud!" I remain unimpressed.

Simply put, I react strongly against anything that too many people say is good. I never would have read the Harry Potter series if it hadn't been recommended by a friend whose taste I respect. If I'd been young during the Sixties, I probably would have never willingly listened to the Beatles. In the Wilson household, we were taken to symphony concerts and ballets on our family vacation, while other kids baked on the beach.

Ironically, we also watched more television than is currently recommended by interfering parent groups. We went to movies together on a regular basis and talked all the way home about what we liked and didn't like. We were not elitists in the strictest sense, but because we were taught to analyze everything, my siblings and I grew up with a critical eye.

This sort of parenting led to permanent damage, leaving us unable to admit to someone that we like something that's too popular without making a coherent statement about why. By default, we all listen to public radio in the car (although I consider myself to be a little more open-minded, since I listen to WXPN, a public station that actually plays music). My sister has no cable television and initially pledged to keep her first daughter away from the addictive medium. I later caught her at nap time, playing "Caillou" on Netflix to put my little niece to sleep.

The truth is, people like what they like, and when a lot of people like something, it probably has elements that would appeal to a lot of different tastes. But I tend to assume that they're simply not examining things that closely. And I suppose, if I think about it, that's really sort of stupid.

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( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 10th, 2014 06:02 am (UTC)
I am not as nice as I seem. In fact, I'm the sort of person who drives to the grocery store with my son, nicknamed Kung Fu Panda, telling jokes at our cat's expense.

All cats are assholes, so I wouldn't feel bad about this at all (says the owner of three cats).

I used to have this idea about criticism, until recently, I admit (and I'm almost forty). It's hard to imagine that the people who keep paying loads of cash to see all four Transformers movies can be good people... but on the other hand, I have two Fergie and songs and one by Britney Spears on my iPhone (also, I'm one of those jerks who owns an iPhone), and my spouse is a militant watcher of The Big Bang Theory, which is widely considered to be an awful show.

But what converted me into thinking those who like culture I disagree with (yes, even people who worship Rent--GOD I hate Rent) is Twilight. Don't get me wrong, I think Twilight and its imitators are really, really awful, and I wish they'd just go away; but its fans are not awful. They are readers and they are, above all, sincere. And I have to admire that.
Dec. 12th, 2014 01:37 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for this comment! I laughed out loud at the cats line, of course. We love Luke, but we have a lot of in-jokes about him.

I also laughed at your comment about how you have trouble believing that people who saw all Transformers movies can be good people, while still having things on your phone you might be ashamed to admit. That is me to the letter! My husband loves Big Bang Theory, and I have to admit it's grown on me.

But let me chime in the most cheerily about Rent. Sooooo bad! And I love musicals, too. In fact, I'm watching a special about Hollywood musicals right now on PBS. But Rent is so preachy it reads like something an earnest undergrad would write for his or her first theater class. If it weren't for the songs -- and people's deep need to feel that, by attending a musical about ISSUES they are somehow doing something good -- that show would never have made any sort of a splash.
Dec. 11th, 2014 05:45 am (UTC)
Oh thank God I'm not the only one who didn't like The English Patient! It's been years since I've seen it, but oh the *tedium*!!
Dec. 12th, 2014 01:01 am (UTC)
same here XD
Dec. 12th, 2014 01:39 am (UTC)
Truly dreadful, isn't it? But no one but Elaine would have admitted it out loud at the time. After all, that would be like admitting you had no comprehension of a classic. Balderdash, I say!
Dec. 11th, 2014 05:58 am (UTC)
Aw. You're thinking about why you think there's an element of un-critical-ness to things that are popularly liked, though. That's a good thing; it reminds you to give things a chance. :)

I think it's hard, sometimes, to like watching things that are popular if you tend to be more of a thinker and less of a watcher. There's a threshold of engagement that's different for people who want something to examine and people who just want to be entertained, and it's sometimes difficult to reach a happy medium when designing a show.
Dec. 12th, 2014 01:43 am (UTC)
I think my tendency to critique things is why I'm just as happy to give pop culture a listen/read/watch as the so-called high culture. But I think the problem I have with a lot of mass-marketed entertainment is that there's sometimes a tendency to water it down for the public. If it seems too cliched/predictable/facile, I have little patience for it. And yet the shows that can be the stupidest at times -- like "New Girl" -- can make me laugh out loud because they keep surprising me.
Dec. 11th, 2014 09:18 pm (UTC)
My daughters have been busy telling anyone who will listen that yes, we have a cat, but sometimes he bites since they became vocal. I'm waiting for someone to call child services about the monster I keep in my house. But he almost never puts teeth on them, even when they're obnoxious to him. He just bites me. And occasionally husband. It's just the weird relationship that the cat and I have. He hasn't drawn blood in years, though. And the girls think it is funny.

Cat banter aside, cheers to meeting artistic endeavors with a critical eye. Like the above posters have said, I don't begrudge people thier beloved bad shows and books. But I tend to respect their enjoyment more if they can make a good argument as to why they think something's worthwhile.
Dec. 12th, 2014 01:45 am (UTC)
I've known cats that would bite you if you had the bad luck to depart from their preferred petting pattern. My late cat Squeaky ONLY liked her head to be petted. She would sit on your lap, purring, but if that hand strayed below the neck, it was bite city.

I think your second paragraph says it all. I don't have to agree with someone about why they like something, but I do have more respect when people are thoughtful about it.

Luke would like to point out that he only gives love bites, and he never touches the human kitten, no matter how loud and scary the little monkey gets.
Dec. 12th, 2014 01:51 am (UTC)
I named my last two cats after characters in the Black Company books (and the cat we he had before them had a blind eye, so we lovingly called her "One Eye" sometimes), and my husband says that was my big mistake. Goblin is not entirely unlike the nasty little wizard he was named for. But I've been amazed at how he loves and puts up with the human children that came after we got him.
Dec. 12th, 2014 01:59 am (UTC)
I was equally impressed with Luke's response to KFP. He tends to be a shy guy, but he actually comes up to him to be petted, occasionally (as long as I'm also involved, which provides him with added security). I taught KFP to go "cat fishing," which means to sit on the chair holding out a cat toy and making whispering noises until the cat is enticed to play. :)

Perhaps naming your cats after magical creatures wasn't the best idea, but at least you didn't name him after a fallen angel or another entity who's not supposed to be named aloud! We didn't name our kitty; he was named by his foster mom after Luke Skywalker, and even though that means he is now Luke Wilson at the vet, sharing a name with a famous actor, we didn't feel it was right to change it. He was one of the few cats who actually answered to it.
Dec. 11th, 2014 10:07 pm (UTC)
A long while ago, I went to see a movie with a friend. We walked out and I asked him what he thought of it. "It was good!" he chirped. He posed the question to me, and I proceeded to tear it apart in a dozen different ways. Then he says "you're right, it was awful!". And, frustrated, I explained to him that he was allowed to enjoy it and entitled to his own opinion even if it wasn't mine. This made him laugh. "You're even critiquing my response to your critique! Do you ever just watch a movie? Without thinking about it?" And no, I don't. Ever. I realized right then that he had this enormous advantage on me - he could just sit down and have someone tell him a story with big sweeping visuals and a soundtrack and everything, and that worked for him. He could let his brain go quiet and just immerse himself in that.

Reading this story reminded me of that story. And man... sometimes I wish I could just turn off my mind and read a thing without analyzing structure, or watch a thing without thinking about the story beats and tropes... but well... we are what we are.
Dec. 12th, 2014 01:49 am (UTC)
This, this, this!

My husband is the same way. After we see a movie, I ask him what he thought, and he'll just shrug and say he liked it. He hates it when I press him on it, and I just can't help myself. I need to know WHY.

Hey, I think it's good to be analytical about what you view and read and listen to. Not only does it help you understand why you appreciate it, but it can help you, as a creative person, with your own projects.
Dec. 13th, 2014 08:22 am (UTC)
You're even critiquing my response to your critique! Do you ever just watch a movie? Without thinking about it?

What? WHAT?!? Who does that? Or reads books or listens to music without thinking about it?

How can you not think about it?
Dec. 12th, 2014 01:04 am (UTC)
i never liked the english patient either. and tbh there are lots of books and movies that are wildly popular that i never enjoyed myself!
Dec. 12th, 2014 01:50 am (UTC)
Yay, I'm not alone! Of course, it's probably much less dangerous to admit that today than it would have been the year it came out.
Dec. 12th, 2014 02:12 am (UTC)
definitely not alone!

xD i felt the same way about Titanic when that came out and everyone was obsessing about it. every single time i said i didn't enjoy it i was gasped at. that got old really fast :X

Edited at 2014-12-12 02:13 am (UTC)
Dec. 12th, 2014 02:34 am (UTC)
Yes, "Titanic" is a bit saccharine, isn't it? Although having once written a poem about the Titanic, I was fascinated by the sets and how much historical detail they worked into it. I think I was more invested in that than I was in the story!
Dec. 13th, 2014 12:39 pm (UTC)
i really enjoyed the historical bits too :3 (oooh a poem about the titanic, is it on here by any chance? i'd love to read it if so :3)
i first read about the titanic when i was around seven years old, for a project at school, so i was really excited when the movie came out. what bugged me about it was the jack/rose/hockley love triangle as in i felt like it focused a lot more on them than the actual titanic itself, if that makes sense? i re-watched a little while ago just to see if i felt the same way (totally did :\)
Dec. 13th, 2014 08:20 am (UTC)
I actually liked The English Patient, despite many of the things you mentioned. Ralph Fiennes often leaves me cold, and he's sociopathically cold in that movie. But the scenery is gorgeous, the awfulness of the betrayal has to make you feel something, and all parts of the movie featuring Naveen Andrews and Juliet Binoche were captivating to me. I wouldn't give have given it Best Picture, but I did like it.

Seinfeld, though? zzzZZZzzzzz... ;)

I don't have terribly popular tastes, and I have finally come to terms with it. I usually don't like sitcoms at all, and I realize now that the comedies I _really_ like tend to be the nexus of irony, satire, and absurdity. Many people don't care for those things individually let alone in concert! So while Frasier and The Simpsons mysteriously did well despite such content, Arrested Development and Reaper and Futurama did not survive. If Monty Python had been on American TV, I'm convinced it would have suffered the same fate.

I'm having those cheesless cheese-shop blues these days...
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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