On the Eye of the Beholder

Movies are a powerful medium. Even a bad one can stay with you forever and I think it's fair to say that the right one can definitely change your life. That being said, I think it's time we put an end to suggesting that a Hollywood sequel, remake or reboot has the power to ruin your childhood. And while we're at it, we can also stop suggesting that Hollywood owes us anything, or that being a fan of something means that you "deserve" something particular in return.

The first time I remember seeing this particular style of disproportionate outrage was at the very end of the 90s, when Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace came out and introduced Jar Jar Binks to the world; an act so heinous that if it happened today, the toxic levels of entitled nerd rage would likely make the internet poisonous for decades.

Since then, other franchises and properties of the 80s and 90s have been reemerging on what seems like a weekly basis, from Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to a whole new era of Star Wars and superhero movies. Tapping into nostalgia is big business, even politics is stepping up its game by taking advantage of the rose colored glasses of hindsight and trying to convince people that America needs to devolve. Indeed, nostalgia can be a roadblock to being progressive, but If having to wrap my brain around the words "Fuller House" means I get hours of undiluted David Lynch next year, maybe it's worth it?

But aside from nostalgia's regressive nature, it was seeing the increasingly crazed reactions from people over how these properties were getting brought back to life that had me wondering how much our past influences how we see movies today.  

For the vast majority of us, Hollywood played some sort of role in shaping the way we look at movies and what constitutes our likes and dislikes. These are the movies we are most exposed to at a young age before more exotic fare gets piped in from the open-minded sources we encounter as we grow up. Our high school and college years are so formative that I doubt there are many film fanatics who watch a new movie after the age of 30 and determine that to be their most cherished film. Such decisions are made during the impressionable years of one's late teens and twenties, otherwise known as prime nostalgia time.

First impressions are obviously important. Chances are, you could construct a pretty accurate top-ten list simply by ranking the films that had the biggest impact and impressions on you when you first watched them. A lot of this has to do with timing. Nowadays, the shock and awe of touchstone movies like Bonnie and Clyde or Pink Flamingos can greatly depend on when someone sees them during their own filmic upbringing. It's sad but inevitable to see movies like these lose some of their initial impact and for folks to require some Film 101 style contextualization if they don't catch them at just the right time.

This happens with some of the best and most cherished movies, since the ones that have the most impact and leave the biggest impressions are the ones that get carbon copied for years afterwards, diluting the very elements that made them special to begin with. Like many people my age, seeing Pulp Fiction at a theater in 1994 in my late teens was like freebasing uncut cinema - which is to say: it left quite an impression. Twenty years later, my biased eyes think it still holds up but I doubt someone watching it for the first time today will get the same kick.

Now, I know sentimentality and nostalgia aren't exactly the same thing, but I have long carried the movie Flirting around as a sentimental favorite of mine. Like most of my favorite movies, Flirting happened to get watched at just the right time and, perhaps by no coincidence, the movie itself is steeped in nostalgia. I saw it on TV when I was 16 or 17 and it hit me as one of the most honest depictions of teenage awkwardness I'd ever seen. It made me wonder why there weren't more movies like this - a feeling I took with me to film school and still hold on to today.

These are the kinds of movies that add up to define our tastes and our reactions to what we watch today - the movies that drove us to keep digging and wanting to see more. And no two people, even if they are the same age and received the same education and had similar life experiences, are going to end up with the same taste in movies. Which means neither person is going to be any more right or wrong when it comes to appreciating what a movie has to offer.

I feel lucky that I was able to get an early exposure to a wide variety of films growing up and that my parents were pretty early adopters of the VCR. Most parents would probably wag their finger at letting a 13 year old kid watch a mix that included lots of David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, John Landis and repeat viewings of Evil Dead 2. My childhood and adolescence wasn't the best, but movies did provide for some peaceful family time and I have fond nostalgic memories of us sitting around watching The French Connection or Raising Arizona. For all of the various issues my parents had, and perhaps passed on to me, at least I got an all-inclusive love for movies out of the deal. 

As I stand on the precipice of entering my 40s, I really do get the feeling that most of what defines my tastes in movies is pretty well cemented. They're not completely done evolving but I no longer have the omnivorous desires I once had and my patience for bad movies - be they ironically bad, so-bad-they're-good or simply dispassionate, boringly bad - is shrinking more and more every year. It used to be that I would watch multiple movies per day, but nowadays I'd say I average about three per week.

So, this is where good film criticism comes in. I understand someone in their 20s who holds little regard for some pretentious, highfalutin critic's opinion. Godspeed, since that person should go right ahead and devour any and everything they're inclined to regardless of what some critic says; that's what your 20s are for and bad movies go a long way to educate and help hone tastes and perspective. But that kind of stamina rarely lasts. Chances are, 20 years down the road that same person is going to check in with the handful of critics they've come to rely on in order to decide what movies they're going to invest their time in.

In my experience, you'll never find a critic you will always agree with. (If you find someone you agree with 100% of the time then you might be reading this from the shared computer within the compound of a cult - which is to say: you're probably highly impressionable and easily convinced.) Everyone who writes a review is going through the process of filtering a movie through a lifetime of experiences, influences, considerations and holding it up to whatever other comedy, drama, thriller, horror, or psychedelic freak-out the movie deserves comparison to. If the end result comes close to your own perspective even 50% of the time, that's a critic you might consider holding on to.

Realistically, no two people are going to see the same movie the same way. In fact, most people will bring a lot of internal and external static with them - and the choice of what movie they decide to watch will often reflect their current disposition. Sometimes you feel like a nutty comedy, sometimes you feel like an 8 hour Bela Tarr movie. But the lucky/unlucky professional film critic often doesn't have the benefit of picking and choosing which movie they get to review based on how rosy or bitterly nihilistic they may be feeling that day - but that's why they're professionals.

And that's why movies are magical. You can enter a movie theater, check your baggage at the box office and get caught up in someone else's story. I knew a guy at film school who, among other reasons, loved movies because he could enjoy two stress-free hours with his ex-wife and their kids. Whatever they were watching at the time probably rated a little higher in his perspective because when the lights dimmed and the movie started he could put the rest of his life on pause.

But it's part of the professional critic's job to try and view a movie with clear eyes and to greet it on its own term, something I'm sure each and every one has probably struggled with at some point. But, despite what message board hacks might think, it's not part of the critic's job to remove themselves, their beliefs, personality or experiences from their review. If a critic is a bleeding heart liberal or a stodgy conservative, that's the eyes they're seeing the movie with and that's what should be reflected in their opinion.

Maybe I'm stating some obvious points here, but everywhere you look (again, thanks internet) readers of movie reviews are acting like they expect some dispassionate, personality-free review to simply describe the movie and tell them whether it is good or bad - like an opinion could simply be determined by a movie-watching robot that is programmed to determine craft, acting and intentions. Actually, a good review can spark epiphanies, debate, reevaluations, and, if your mind is open enough, the ability to see a movie through a outside perspective. This last example is what seems to get people really confused - yet, offering an honest, informed, unique and well-written perspective on a movie is exactly what good criticism is all about.

For those looking simply for a thorough account of a movie's plot and some version of an unbiased opinion I suggest waiting for the film's wikipedia page to get up to snuff. But better yet, I suggest taking a movie review for what it is - one person's opinion, not a threat to anyone's sensibilities. Hopefully a critic has the sense to clearly write how and why they came to their opinion so that hopefully, with a little thought on their part, the reader can understand where they're coming from. And again, there's a good chance it won't be the exact same place other people are coming from - but that's the nature of the beast.

I believe there is very little that is or should be considered universally accepted opinions regarding what makes a good movie. I think there's a certain level of craft we can all probably agree on, and some ideas about what constitutes good acting and writing - but even these ideas aren't unassailable. All it takes is the right kind of movie to come along and people will be redefining these things once again. This is one of the many reasons I love movies, it's grown, morphed, mutated and continues to do so - and it would be really, really sad if there were some sort of universally accepted notions of what a filmmaker should or shouldn't do when they go about creating.

Anyone who is a fan of movies should understand this. The people who make movies, write about movies, or just sit around watching them in their spare time - everyone has their own sensibility, perspective and tastes. It can be a deeply personal thing because these things gets formed over a long period of time, starting when we're young. This is probably why, when we disagree about movies, we can get super emotional and defensive. It can be seen as a personal attack on everything we stand for and all that we've been through, those very things that have created our tastes and perspective - the stuff that we hold dear, the nostalgic parts of our lives that made us who we are today.

At the risk of belaboring a point, I want to give one more example. I can't pinpoint the first time I saw Brazil, I must have been around 12 or 13, but it was one of those movies that made me feel like my mind was expanding while I was watching it. This ambitiously vast yet intricate world was put in front of me and while I was excited by how unpredictable it was I also felt so completely in tune with its sensibility. I was fully transfixed.

Fast forward 25 years and I now look at the impression Brazil had on me as the reason why I am more lenient and forgiving when it comes to ambitiously messy films. I'll watch a movie like Southland Tales and easily look past the scattershot storytelling to admire the gonzo, go-for-broke ambition it took to create its uniquely bizarro universe. So, if I were to write about the movie, I'd admit that it ain't for everyone, but I'd tell the reader about the kind of glasses I'm wearing, the perspective that caused me to appreciate a weird and flawed movie, and that they might want to pop on this pair if they're interested in watching it.

When it comes to talking or writing about movies, no one is right or wrong. It's all in the eye of the beholder. Nobody's going to show up with an answer sheet and start handing out gold stars. Unless you're ill-informed, narrow-minded or some kind of corrupted garbage person, the only way you can mess it up is to come to it with a bad attitude, taking aim to rain on people's parades and, generally speaking, be a dick. Whether or not someone else's perspective matches yours doesn't add or detract value from either party. If you're thoughtful about it, and you honestly express yourself that way, then chances are you'll get respect. And after all, that's about the best we can hope for.