Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Rise of the Nitpickers...

... And the Changing Face of Online Film Criticism

2012 has seen the release of several massively hyped blockbusters, with at least one major one (The Hobbit) yet to come. The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, Skyfall, Looper... It's been a busy year of big-budget cinema, and each of the films have been greeted with reactions varying from gushingly hyperbolic praise to considered disappointment to pure hatred & spite. All had their fair share of problems, all had their minor & major successes. Critical and fan discussions were divided and lively: as it should be.

Yet in the midst of all this discussion - much of it productive and intriguing, it should be stressed - there emerged a trend. It shouldn't be surprising - these films attract massive audiences. Many of these are viewers who either don't care or don't have easy access to the smaller and frequently more interesting films that are out there. They don't usually engage with the wider critical discourse or forum discussions concerning film. Sometimes it's great to receive this new influx of opinions - a nice antidote to elitism, or hearing grounded alternate perspectives that we enthusiasts might not usually have the pleasure to engage with. While it's perhaps an injustice that The Dark Knight Rises has generated several thousand more forum posts than Holy Motors has, this will always be the way, especially when brilliant films worthy of debate like Margaret are unceremoniously and shamefully buried by its very distributors. On the plus side, much of this year's blockbuster batch has in at least been more engaging and artistically ambitious than the Hollywood output of recent years.

But yes: a trend did emerge nonetheless. And that trend was the Rise of the Nitpicker.

They go by other names - plot-hole spotters etc... - but their actions are the same - rip a film to shreds based on narrative logic / illogic alone. Some such complaints are completely warranted - few could deny that Prometheus' script was riddled with shortcuts, stupidity and inconsistencies. Others were more specific, often bafflingly so. How did Bruce Wayne get back to Gotham? How did James Bond survive falling off a bridge with a gunshot? Why do the future criminals of Looper have such an elaborate way of closing their loops, or why is it explained away with a single line of dialogue? The answer to the first question is simple: because he's fucking Batman. The answer to the second question is also simple: because he's fucking James Bond. There's a single shared answer for all of them though: it doesn't really matter.

A film by its very nature is a contrivance, a work of fiction. Suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite - doubly so for high-concept mainstream blockbusters. Are any of the purported plot holes of The Dark Knight Rises any more ridiculous or contrived than the concept of a vigilante dressed as a bat in the first place? I'm not excusing lazy scriptwriting, but sometimes a writer needs to take a shortcut or two to get to the stuff that really matters. The James Bond franchise as a whole is a good example: a series that has always been pretty silly, and even has a character - Q - who dishes out elaborate gadgets tailor designed by the scriptwriter or Ian Fleming to get the hero out of a particularly dramatic preconceived pickle. Yet at their best they're still great fun despite various nonsensical elements. James Bond films are at their best when they indulgence in their license to thrill - personally, I'm willing to forgive a shortcut or two when the payoffs are worth it. And Skyfall, while far from a masterpiece, is thoughtfully directed and often very entertaining indeed, while not skimping on some worthwhile character development. To me that's more important than scrutinising the handful of quick contrivances employed to advance the plot.

Filling in every single blank in a film's plot can be detrimental to a film's pace, or distract from the production's more important themes, scenes or characters. TDKR is already packed to the gills with narrative and ideas it wants to explore, often to its detriment (particularly during the sluggish opening hour). Wasting time on tiny details that matter little would only exacerbate the challenges of a film that already has structural and pacing problems. Looper - which, produced at a modest budget, is only vaguely suited to this discussion - is a film particularly unsuited to specific plot scrutiny - time travel films that aren't Primer are infamously problematic when it comes to logic and paradoxes. Luckily Johnson has crafted a film rich with intriguing characters, ideas and situations, not to mention drenched in a compellingly cinematic aesthetic. To me, it's almost unfair to go over the script with a fine-toothed comb when the overall experience is so rewarding. Time travel is inherently illogical - sometimes we just have to go along for the ride.

With all the pointless nitpicks this year's big-budgeted productions attracted, oftentimes the more intelligent or fascinating debates were drowned out. Prometheus was flawed as hell, but I came across far fewer reflections on the film's grand themes (admittedly often contradictory, which if anything makes debate more valuable) or lush cinematography than I did on the stupidity of the ship's biologist. Perhaps many people just aren't as interested in a film's overall artistic or technical successes as they are in tiny gaps of logic. Perhaps they are unwilling to make the leaps of faith required to reap the most from the experience as a whole. I partially blame those crazy long Star Wars prequel deconstructions on youtube, which were more worthy nitpicks as they were picking apart genuinely, irrefutably awful scripts (and they were also pretty funny).

Noel Murray over at the AV Club put together a more articulate reflection on this craze than I ever could. He concludes:
Viewers who praise movies with logical inconsistencies—or movies that appear to some to be espousing socially regressive viewpoints—are forced into defensive postures, asked to answer for mistakes that they may not actually care about.
It's an important point. The thing about film is that it can be challenging to truly explain why any given film did or didn't work for a viewer. We've all come out of a cinema and said "I like it, but I don't know why". Only on a second viewing of The Tree of Life this weekend was I able to come to a final conclusive reaction to the experience (positive, by the way, and enhanced by the rich critical discourse Malick's opus has enjoyed). There are so many variables: pacing, acting, direction, music, cinematography, tone, theme, personal preference etc... Many of these are entirely subjective - one person's great film can easily be another's worst nightmare. The main goal of discussing and critiquing film is trying to dismantle a film and understand why and how we have a specific emotional reaction to the complete piece of art. Divided opinions from individual to individual are only to be encouraged - it'd be no fun if we all liked the same stuff, even if some films will deservedly attract near universal praise (I struggle to see how anyone could dislike A Separation, for example - I'd genuinely love to hear that argument if you're that person!). Plot holes and nitpicking, however, can sometimes be objective and difficult to refute, even if ultimately the film succeeds in other, more difficult to decipher ways.

Yes, there will always be a place for thoughtful deconstructions of the failings of scriptwriters - in Hollywood, it's sure as hell an easy thing to do. In the worst case scenario, script inadequacies can indeed fatally undermine a film. It's always our duty to encourage writers to do better, especially when intellectually stimulating blockbusters are increasingly thin on the ground. But let us hope that the continued nitpicking does not drown out the voices of those who like to delve deeper, beyond the surface level inconsistencies and most basic of editing choices - perhaps said nitpickers will ultimately move on to appreciate and critique the multiple layers that can be evident in even the most expensive of blockbusters. We shouldn't completely forget cheap writing tricks, but sometimes we should be willing to at least partially forgive.

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