Saturday, July 17, 2010

Buying into the Hype: Why It Doesn't Matter if Inception is Any Good

The point of advertising is to try convince the consumer that they want something that they don't necessarily need. Movie advertising is kind of the same way: it's to convince people that a movie is maybe better than it actually is. And truth be told, on some occasions, the movies linked to the ads are about as good as we hope they are. But look at District 9. Last summer I was travelling through Pennsylvania where we stopped at a McDonald's for lunch and, on the side of my drink cup, was an alien with an X through it and a logo that said No Alien Zone or something like that. I had no idea what District 9 was about at the time (only knew of it by name) but in that moment I translated that clever bit of advertising into expectation of a great movie. After all, a movie advertised this cleverly must be just as clever no? Well District 9 was clever, but not enough to be more than simple summer entertainment. However, by that point it didn't matter if the movie was good or not. The hype machine has spun its wheels and the ads had done their job and people, despite the film's many misgivings, was deemed to be great. I hate basing my expectations for movies off of ads and trailers and whatever other lines we are fed before the mass public has even gotten a chance to see it. Although I expect Inception to be a great film, I will still go into it this Tuesday with a blank critical slate. I want it to be great, but I'm prepared for it not to be as well. A lot of bloggers are saying it is in fact great. Some of these people I respect and some I don't. One critic who I do respect, David Edelstein, said it wasn't. He didn't like The Dark Knight either. That's fair. Even though I thought the Dark Knight was the best film of the year two years ago, in a sense, I had more respect for Edelstein for turning in a negative review, losing the film its 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, because it showed that he had at least stopped and thought through the movie. He's not a contrarian critic like say Armond White. If David Edelstein says a movie doesn't work he must have (his own) good reasons. I haven't read the Inception review in question yet because I don't read any in full before I have my own on paper, but here's the point: Edelstein was hung out to dry by both peers and viewers alike for his review of the Dark Knight. He's caught flack again for his Inception review (despite it now only sitting at 83% on RT). But why? Just because everyone says Inception is a great movie, Edelstein is a lousy critic for looking inside himself and not finding reasons to agree? The problem is, as I maybe alluded to before, Inception (along with Tarantino and Scorsese films and many others) are advertised as great films, and people buy into that. I'm not trying to pass judgement on Inception for I have yet to see it or anyone who wrote a good positive review of it, but once people build anticipation, once the hype starts rolling, people stop thinking about the reasons why movies are great and instead just accept that, well, it looks great, everyone says Christopher Nolan is a great director, it must be great, and so on down the line.  Too often we as movie fans let this laziness hang over us because it's easier and quicker than dealing with a movie and all it's parts. We fail to form true opinions and argue them fully and, to another extent, we fail to understand film itself. What if, and you never know, Edelstein is the only right opinion across the board? I'm sure the people who rushed to the battle lines never took that into consideration first? I'll explain with an example. I took a first year film class which had both Memento and Antionioni's Blow-Up on the syllabus. People left the Blow-Up screening in anger. No one knew what to do with it and thus passed it off as garbage. I didn't like it either, but I wasn't satisfied with my dislike of it; that was too easy, and once I began to deal with it, deconstruct it and build it back up in my mind, it revealed itself as a great film and I understood why it was such. Everyone, of course, loved Memento but, you know what, it's not a great film. It's an entertaining one where a young director is playing with plot gimmicks, but it's not a lot more. Once you break it down you're left with nothing really but a hip, stylish, post-modern film noir that people like because it is "different." Nolan has, of course, with Batman Begins, proved that he was a great director, solidified it with The Prestige and made sure the title was sticking for good with The Dark Knight. I expect he will continue on in that tradition with Inception but, you never know. The first step is being courageous enough to admit that. I guess what I'm saying is, what happened to the days before trailers, when people went to films because they wanted to know if they were good or not and they broke film down in order to talk intelligently about it? Did that die with Pulp Fiction when people started liking it just to let everyone know how hip they are? I'd love to read a good review that called Goodfellas one of the worst movies ever made and justified such a bold stance because it would mean, if nothing else, that at least someone took the time to think about a film intelligently and share what they found. That's more admirable, I think, than another person on the heap saying that Goodfellas or anything else is good because, ya know, Scorsese is God, it's different, it's hip, it's got good dialogue, etc. You can get those conversations around any watercooler. Shouldn't we, as critical voices, be using our medium for something of more substance, or is that too much of an inconvenience? What do you think?

20 comments:

  1. I admittedly reside at the shallow end of the commentary pool, but see just about every movie I review cold. I liked "Inception" A LOT, and I am certain that I was not influenced by hype.

    I watch next to no television and I don't read reviews of current films I am planning to write about before my own review is written and posted/published.

    So, I would have to say that "Inception" is as good as the consensus is saying. Edelstein is a minority opinion, who, unless one has found that his tastes mirror one's one, it one that can be safely disregarded.

    On the more general point, I never have understood why people feel the need to go ballistic when this or that reviewer or critic writes something they don't agree with. Everyone has opinions, and when it comes right down to it, that's what a movie review is. One guy's opinion and/or interpretation of what he's just seen.

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  2. If you want a time before trailers you'll have to sail all the way back to pre-cinema. Trailers have always been trying to convince viewing audiences X is the single greatest film by using a collective of quotes, marketing lines passed off as quotes, and just random statements.

    These days, with blogs, forums, and the like, at the hands we've found a far worse collective: Spammers. These are people, whom with no medium but trailers to support their arguments, will defend a movie, they haven't seen, against any claims of inferiority.

    You see sweeping claims of how the reviewer "missed the point" or "just doesn't get it." Yet they haven't seen the film. Yet, beyond a collection of thumps, and a few obscure lines, representing a movie, these spammers know nothing about it. Their opinion is based on the belief that something has to be good, because of either A) The strength of the talent, B) The source material, or C) a "cool" trailer.

    It defeats the very purpose of watching the movie. If you've made your point, traveled across the internet labeling your view across the board. When you actually watch it, you have two options: 1) by lucky enough to enjoy it as much as you claim you will or 2) admit you were wrong, and never speak of the film again.

    And we know people in the internet love to admit when they're wrong.

    Sorry for writing so much! It's a great post, and something along the lines I've been wanting to write about for a while.

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  3. I think you're selling the current generation short. Associating liking a film with being hip was in since the forties when Hollywood had its box office poison days with Ginger Rogers, Katie Hepburn and Joan Crawford. They had films that did good during the time but audiences didn't find them personable enough so they were considered "flops". And then of course so many films that are so associated with being "cool" despite being off with critics. Mob psychology will always pervade the world, but blogging just makes it more obvious.

    I'm really overly anticipating or not anticipating Inception. Seeing that Nolan has yet to WOW me I'm not anxious - just expectant.

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  4. I promised not to talk about Inception until all the movie bloggers have seen it, so I'll refrain from that. However, I think this is a similiar thread to what KITFR was talking about, a little bit. That if you consider your blog a movie blog that you should use it to say exactly what you think about a movie in an intelligent manner, regardless of if it's popular or not.

    As we can see from the number of followers you've garnered, you saying what you think is appealing and refreshing.

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  5. Steve, I'm glad to hear that it is THAT GOOD and am looking forward to it, especially knowing that, even though I haven't loved every Nolan movie, I've at least admired all of them. I know Edelstein is in the minority but A.O. Scott has also joined him and if anyone can write well about their position, it is Scott

    Univarn-Not only will they defend a movie they haven't seen, they'll also dump all over ones they haven't seen just based on trailers which is unacceptable to me because A) how many trailers these days are an accurate representation of their film be it for better or worse and B) as critics we need to be open to all films. We'd never know how to appreciate good movies as critics is we always avoided bad looking ones. In fact, some of my favourite reviews were for movies I've hated.

    Andrew- You raise a true and important point, especially knowing that a lot of those movies weren't realized as great until many years later when they came back into the public's eye. However, in truth, I do find it harder and harder to find good movie blogs that are offering worthwhile criticism and ideas as opposed to just poorly written fanboy ranting. I won't name any names but thankfully I don't follow too many of those.

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  6. Celtic- good link between this and Kid's excellent piece and yes I am happy to see that number of follwers growing although I have no point of comparision to other blogs so I don't know if that is a good number to have in the time that I've been doing this. In terms of me saying what I'm feeling, I've always held that quote from Fellini's 8 1/2 in high regard, "It's better to destory than create what is useless." It's in that sense that I educated myself, learned everything I could about movies, read ever book, saw ever kind of movie I could get my hands on, studies for four years, learned about the technical side, the business side, the critical/theoretical side, read great books on many many subjects. That's how you become a critic/a writer/a poet/an intellectual/a whatever. I fear that that is becoming lesser and lesser in these days and also reminds me of another quote from Joseph Conrad who said "One writes because they have something to say, not because they want to say something." Too many people these days go through the motions of talking, but nothing ever comes out.

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  7. I tend to be guilty of this, that is, reputation influencing my opinion on an old(er) movie. With Inception, I was jazzed about it before they even let out a synopsis, so yeah, my opinion of that is ridiculously biased. But I've been mulling it over in my head for awhile, and I'm going to stick with my original opinion. So there's that.

    I think it's important when you're writing a review to emphasize that this is your opinion, and not try to sell it as fact. That's why people say something is good for the sake of not deviating from the norm, is when people are so adament that something is amazing or horrible, they'll make you feel like shit if you don't agree.

    Excellent piece, anyway.

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  8. Gene Siskel never looked at trailers.

    I once made "previews" for an episodic radio program I worked on, and was horrified that "the hook" I used inevitably had NOTHING to do with the story...but was merely a "buzz" moment. That's informed my view of trailers ever since, and when someone (who purports to be a "film-fan") bases their go/no-go decision on a marketting tool, I e-bitch-slap them for it (and, amazingly, they don't back down "Well, it doesn't look..." yada yada yada.

    I don't read reviews before I write my own. My reaction to a film should not be filtered through somebody else's glasses, and as sure as jim emerson is going to spend the next two weeks picking apart "Inception" (oh, look, he's already started) until our eyes roll back in our heads, I'm not going to buy into the hype...I take Tarantino one movie at a time (as opposed to slapping the "Instant Classic" label on every one), and just as I judge a person not by their stratification in society, but by their individual output, I take my movies straight up, no chaser.

    And as much as I like read contrarian opinions on movies, critics can really miss it sometimes..like Edelstein, like Dargis, like White.

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  9. Simon-One should always stand behind their opinions assuming they are well argued and come from the heart

    YOjimbo- You are my hero, although I think Edelstein and especially Dargis are almost always worth reading despite their viewpoint because they are always interesting writers. White lost me when he said that Precious failed to do thinks that great black movies like Norbit do. Your comment about Emerson is spot on. I'm curious if his anti-Inceptions rants will equal his anti-Avatar rants which became so frequent I actually stopped reading him for a while.

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  10. This is an excellent post Mike.

    I was excited to see Inception, not because I find Nolan to be some saint or even that his films have a special emotional resonance, but because I find he makes entertaining and rich popcorn fare. The Dark Knight has deeper thematic resonance than it needed as a big studio summer blockbuster. He also has a penchant for effective psychological narrative (Pacino's descent in Insomnia, Pierce and Jackman's obsession in Memento and The Prestige).

    That being said, Emerson might have a point in his latest posts about the movie. I don't want to say too much about it until you have seen the film. We can discuss afterwards. To me, the movie creates a universe to play in. Does that universe speak with insight into human psychology? I don't think so. Is the movie a damn fine entertainment anyways? Damn right.

    The general shallowness of the film's conception of the human sub-conscious will undoubtedly turn some critics off. Especially those who have a special bias for directors who have dealt effectively with dreams and the human sub-conscious (including directors whose films I know we both admire). But the film satisfied me on the level of a rich entertainment. I am not going to spend much time looking for insight into the human condition. Instead I will daydream the way I did after watching Indiana Jones or James Bond when I was a kid. The film is a great fantasy, and escapism with a rich enough universe to let us lose ourselves for an afternoon.

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  11. "And as much as I like read contrarian opinions on movies, critics can really miss it sometimes..like Edelstein, like Dargis, like White."

    But by saying that, Yojimbo, aren't you fostering the belief that there IS a right and wrong way to think about a film? I still think Inglourious Basterds is a bit garish at times and lacks some key bit of character development, the general words say other wise (I was also against type on Up in the Air, PRecious and A Serious Man and positive on Nine and The Lovely Bones)...I don't think I "missed it".

    Not to incite, I just love having these discussions with people.

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  12. I'm always interested in getting down in the trenches on these discussions of hype and our feelings about films based on their trailers. I don't necessarily think it's wrong to be excited or not excited by a movie based on its trailer, as long as you are criticizing or praising the way the film is being advertised, and not mistaking that for a criticism of the film itself. On my own blog I love to talk about the way the advertising for a particular movie is bad, which I think is very different from saying the movie itself is bad. I hope I make that distinction in my writing.

    It's difficult to avoid being influenced by trailers, and while it's noble to try, it's not really realistic. Unless you are truly going to see every film that has ever been made, you have to use some measure to choose which ones you'll see and which ones you won't see. And unfortunately, a trailer is an important part of that. But isn't a bad trailer really just confirming why you don't want to see a movie that you think may be bad for other reasons, such as you haven't liked the director's past efforts, you hate the star, or you hate the genre? I think we are confusing things a little bit if we say that a trailer, in and of itself, makes you not want to see a movie you ordinarily would want to see, or want to see a movie you wouldn't ordinarily want to see. The reality is that a lot of the time, the trailer is your first awareness of the movie, so it's a chicken-or-the-egg thing. For example, it wasn't seeing footage of Jackie Chan as an undercover spy/nanny in a kiddie movie that made me not want to see The Spy Next Door -- if I had read the concept on paper before seeing the trailer, I would have developed a negative impression based on that. But the trailer was my first introduction to the fact that there was a movie called The Spy Next Door. Like I said, chicken/egg.

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  13. Steven- thanks for the insight. I think you are right. Nolan's movies are all essentially about the same thing: flawed noir characters who are driven to madness by the standards of their professions and there are always a lot of Freudian and Darwinian things going on there as well. Thus, when judging one of his films, the only thing one needs to do really is assess how well he has brought that idea to life. He did it amazingly in The Dark Knight and I hope again in Inception. To get any deeper would not be reviewing the film it would be writing and essay on it and essays generally don't gauge the value of a film.

    Andrew- Strong point, let's seem if Yojimbo counters.

    Vance- I think the intention here was not to say that we shouldn't judge based on trailers but how people get so worked up about marketing and other superfluous things that when going in they already have their mind made up that the movie will be great and so therefore don't deal with the movie and try to understand what is great or not so much about it. That happens so often, especially with directors making big American films. It happens the other way too. Just Wright was one of this summers lovely underdogs but many bloggers I read deemed the movie not worth their time and so either didn't see it or didn't like it because they figured they wouldn't. To me that's not good criticism, which is basically what Yojimbo was saying above.

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  14. You're the first reviewer I've seen who's dared to call "Memento" anything less than an amazing accomplishment. Good for you. I liked it but did not feel it was Nolan's best work -- I reserve that honor for "The Prestige."

    I too miss the pre-hype days, when all you got was trailers and some posters and that was it.

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  15. Yep, I agree with that. I am especially inclined to agree with the herd mentality when it comes to movies that are supposed to be great. I actually think most film fans have a decent capacity to identify if a movie is good, even though they were told it wasn't -- your example of Just Wright (which I'd like to see) notwithstanding. Of course, there are certain film fans who feel insecure if they diverge from the consensus regardless of whether it's in a positive or negative direction, but it actually seems more common to me with films that are supposed to be great. If you didn't get why the film in question was great, the human instinct is to just say it's great so you don't look stupid. I think it's easier for most film fans to allow themselves to champion a lowbrow movie, because concerns of intellectual inferiority don't enter into it. Then it's like you are being magnanimous by supporting it, while still sort of looking down your nose at it.

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  16. To clarify my last comment -- I don't agree with the herd mentality, I agree that there is a herd mentality. I re-read that after it posted and decided it sounded like I was promoting being a follower!

    And count me among those who consider The Prestige to be possibly Nolan's finest work.

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  17. M- I agree with The Prestige being a great film but I need to fall in line by saying I love the Dark Knight to death. Check out my Inception review and see how I figure The Prestige into it.

    Vance-People need to realize that most great films don't reveal themselves as great right away. You need to give them the time to brood in your mind and work back through them. I think people are too quick to take the easy way out and say oh yep, Inglourious Basterds=Tarantino and Tarantino=great, I'm done.

    I think the problem also is that people build movies up in their mind to a state of near divinity when that is simply a delusion. It's like seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time, all you can think about is darn, is it really that small because we are used to relating to it as a myth and not a real artifact that exists somewhere in the world.

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  18. This is a great thread.

    I finally got around to reading to reading some reviews of "Inception." And it really does seem to be that some of the negative reviews are coming from writers who either didn't pay one bit of attention, or who are writing more about what they think the movie should have been than what it is.

    David Edlestein and Jim Emerson, for example, both complain that the dreamworlds are too orderly and structured. Well, yeah, but that's because Dom & Crew were imposing order and structure. That was the whole point of what they were doing. (Edelstein even seems to have missed points that were carefully explained in the film, as exemplified by his expressed bemusement over what Arthur was up to with the packaging of sleeping teammates.)

    I really don't think "Inception" is much more than a heist film set in a very unusual environment--but it's good heist movie. It is about the "tick-tock" logistics, and not an "untethered dream" as Edelstein wanted it to be, according to his review.

    On a somewhat broader topic....

    Simon wrote: "I think it's important when you're writing a review to emphasize that this is your opinion, and not try to sell it as fact."

    Whenever I notice myself writing "in my opinion" during a review, I usually stop and cut the phrase immediately. I consider it self-evident that I am offing my opinion, and I hope everyone else can see that as well. (Now, in my case, I'm also always right, but that's a different matter. [And I jest, of course. I'm a guy who counts Charles Band's "Hideous" and "Blood Dolls" among my favorite films, so my standards of quality are highly suspect.])

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  19. Steve- you are right, this has become quite a good thread, I was worried that, when writing it, people would mistake it as an attack on them and their ability to review a movie which it certainly was it. I guess I am lucky to have been blessed with intelligent readers.

    I agree with you, I called Inception an action movie but heist works just as well. I think the moment people see that something is about dreams or told in a strange fashion they jump in head first into trying to find hidden things and whatnot instead of just standing back and seeing what the movie really is (this is a pitfall I fear many people fell into with Memento). Of course there are deeper themes at work in there but the main ones are pretty heavy handed and the film dedicats much of it's first section simply explaining and reexplaining just what the hell is going on. Not that this is a problem, just to say that a lot of the "hidden meaning" isn't so hidden if you just pay attention.

    On what Simon said, I tend to agree, but in ger defense, it is possible to make it known your opinion is being stated without being so broad as to state that it in your opinion. Depends on the skill of the writer I guess. sometimes I'll include it in an offhand way if it flows well because I like to keep my writing simple and conversational, and I think maybe that's what she was getting at.

    Now let's hope Yojimbo comes back one of these days and responds to Andrews comment.

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  20. You make some great points Mike, dilemmas I have been thinking about/struggling with for a while.

    The best thing (for me) to do is go in with no expectation, take it as I see it, ignore consensus and write lucidly and truthfully what I got from it.

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