Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Hype Argument

The hype argument to justify not liking a movie is one of the most powerful signs of poor film criticism out there. How many times can you recall coming across a review or editorial in which the writer gives props to a movie for being well made, well acted, well everything but that they just couldn’t get behind because they expected more based on all the positive press? It’s probably been quite a few, which is unfortunate because it may be one of the laziest arguments in film criticism, making the process much less about personal expression and far more about assembly line commodification. It’s depressing how far it sometimes feels we’ve fallen away from the practice of true film criticism.

If you’ve followed this space and my constant editorializing on the art of film criticism you will recognize this as a topic very dear to my heart and one I take very seriously. I am also, for the most part, adverse to film hype. That’s not to say that I don’t heavily anticipate new films from my favourite filmmakers, but that’s not nearly the same thing is it?

The truth is I watch trailers as little as possible (but let’s face it, one can’t avoid them entirely) and I don’t know how many times I’ve suggested a movie for the person to ask what it’s about. Nine times out of ten my answer is always the same: “I don’t know.”

The problem with hype is that it is, when you think about it, a secondary offshoot of the film itself. Whenever I read another lazy review in which the critic declares their expectations were not met due to hype I think, strange, I thought you were reviewing the movie, not the sociology that exists around it.

Okay, fair enough, you heard a movie was great, it wasn’t as great as you were told and now you’re disappointed. It happens. But this is water cooler talk, not criticism. The reason why we have critics is because criticism is a profession and an art form. It is a vocation in which we have entrusted a select few more well versed on the subject at hand than us in order to give us something to think about; a starting point for which to help shape our own thoughts and feelings about a particular work and, at the very least, to guide us towards good films and away from bad ones.

So why do I deem the hype argument lazy? Because, every time it is used it acts as an announcement of submission on behalf of the respective reviewer. We are tasked with reviewing the films we have seen not the ones we were hoping to see. To admit that one was disappointed simply because they expected more shows two things. The first is that the reviewer in question has not found their individual voice (great criticism after all is more about knowing what X thought of said work as opposed to hoping that X will tell us what to see this weekend). It also means that they have bought into a sort of reverse herd mentality. The majority said it was amazing, I didn’t think it was amazing, therefore it was disappointing. No thought whatsoever has been put into this argument. It’s Antonioni’s Problem of the Bicycle: now that the critic has let us know that they are disappointed we need to know why they didn’t like it as much as everyone else.

The second problem is that this argument shows that the critic hasn’t put much thought into the film itself or their affective relationship with it: the very foundation of good criticism. It is, as I said before, commodification: this one’s a disappointment, on to the next one. Great criticism, to repeat from older posts once again, is a combination of two things: a writer who knows how to read between the lines and then look inside themselves to understand what a work means to them emotionally, intelligently, philosophically, psychologically, etc., and someone who genuinely knows what they are talking about. The person who is submitting to the hype argument is doing neither.

Instead what they have done is written the movie off instead of giving it its fair due. Reviews should be written in a vacuum. What the world has to say about a specific film is much less important than what you yourself felt about it. That should be at the heart of every review. Being disappointed with a movie and blaming it on hype is to give the movie not a second thought and to pass the blame onto a third party, as if they are scared of taking a strong counter opinion. I have much greater admiration for the writer who writes a negative review about a universally deemed great film by providing intelligent discourse that, even though maybe you don’t agree with, you can’t argue with or dismiss, then the one who simply says they don’t agree with the hype and moves on. Once again: Lazy.

The writer who hides behind the hype machine thus tells us more about themselves as a whole than about the film in question as, at the heart of it, they’ve told us nothing about the film at all. Instead they’ve told us that their thinking mostly resides at the surface, their insights shallow and their patience to actually deal with a film is little. If I walk away indifferent or unimpressed by an acclaimed movie it leaves me with a feeling of utter unrest. Not only do I have to consider why I didn’t like it, but I must also meet it halfway to try to understand why so many people are singing it praises. Anything less is an insult to the film, the readers and even the reviewer themselves despite them also being the ones to blame.


  1. I can't remember where I was saying this recently, but the thing about hype or anti-hype is that you really can't undo what you hear. I don't watch trailers and I try to avoid reviews before I see the film but you can't exist in a vacuum and chances are that you'll here SOMETHING about a film that makes you anticipate or not and you can't undo it. The good reviewer tries not to overindulge in these perceptions, of course.

    1. Perhaps you like every movie or you just waste your time in watching a lot of them because you don't watch trailers. I do watch them before spending my time/money on a movie and choose the best one for me. Don't spend my time on watching movies blindly.

  2. You make some good points about the hype phenomena, which has gotten out of control the last five years or so.

    My opinion in a nutshell: If you go into a movie hyped up to see it, and are underwhelmed and base your criticism on that fact, you aren't really paying attention to the movie.

  3. Excellent post. I actually wrote a post over at Anomalous Material awhile back that addressed some of themes you're discussing here and I confess you did a more eloquent, accurate job of attacking The Hype Argument. I used the word "expectations" but like you mention expectations are in essence a by product of the hype.

    If people really sit down and examine how they feel about a film I think they would realize that those expectations truly didn't make a difference in what formed their opinion.

  4. Andrew- Yes, you can't avoid film hype but isn't it a matter of the wills, being able to go into a movie with a blank critical slate no matter what you have heard?

    Larry - I think in some cases, especially recently, the advertising has been more impressive than the film itself (I think District 9 is maybe the most perfect example of this). The movie therefore can't be anything but a dissapointment, but of course marketing, at it's best, is also an art and one can't blame a movie for not raising to the level of it's campaign.

    Nick - As I said, to admit defeat based on hype is to more or less fall in line with the mass, just on the other side. It's just disgusting to me to read reviews that offer no insight into anything but how the individual's expectations were not met. There's so many horrible blogs on the internet, that stuff should be saved for social gatherings or around the work coffee machine in the morning.

  5. I think what's underlying this post is something we need to admit: Film criticism in its purest form can only be performed by professional, paid critics. And this is because they see the movie before it has been released, and in most cases, have hopefully avoided early buzz about whether it's good or bad. Even they are not immune, of course, but only by reviewing a movie at the same time that other people are initially reviewing it do you have any hope of submitting a pure analysis of the film. After that magic moment when the first reviews print, any review you write may be even unconsciously affected by knowing whether you're supposed to like it or not supposed to like it. I love books like The Critics Were Wrong, because they include critics from decades past submitting honest negative reviews of movies like Star Wars. How envious I am of them that they lived in a time when little to no gossip from the set/festival buzz/analysis from other critics was available before a movie actually reached theaters.

    1. Vance you are very correct, although, despite them maybe being able to avoid other critical hype, as you suggested there is still celebrity gossip to avoid as well, which unfortunately seems to play more and more into criticism by the day. I'll have to check out this book, I love educated and intelligent arguments against great movies, it reminds me of the days when people actually thought for themselves.