Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Not Everyone Is A Critic, But They Damned Well SHOULD Be

Hey, All You Siskels and/or Eberts!

As a member in good standing of several communities on Google + I'm constantly amazed by what people consider to be good creative works.  Now, I'm a big proponent of the concept that every movie, game, book, comic, band and T.V. show has its own built-in audience but I also know that sometimes things just plain suck.

My dad, bless his heart, used to take me to the theater quite a bit as a little kid.  Unfortunately his taste in movies was questionable at best.  I remember, even at that discriminating young age, sitting through such diverting but sketchy dreck as The Cat from Outer Space, The Land that Time Forgot, Caveman (starring Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach!) and the truly deplorable Hangar 18.  This last one was a particularly memorable experience for two reasons:
  1. After being knocked out and slung over the hero's shoulder, an anonymous goon reaches up to keep his hat on his head.  Ohhhhh...
  2. Before the movie started the theater inexplicably decided to show what amounts to a modern red-band trailer for a British sex comedy.  Since the audience that day consisted mainly of hormone-addled, desperately horny pre-teen boys who had never seen boobs before, the denizens of the theater (present company included) promptly lost their shit without further ado.    
As a kid, if someone asked me about a film that I was lukewarm on I'd often say something boring and non-committal like: "Well, yeah, I guess it was alright."  Looking back on it now, I'm convinced that what I really wanted to say was "that movie sucked like a Hoover".  I think I served up these milquetoast dismissals mainly because I was too polite or lacked confidence in my own judgement.  Honestly, there's nothing wrong with saying "it blows", "it rawked" or even "it was m'eh" just so long as you can articulate your position reasonably well.  Until you can do that, then you're just kidding yourself.  

So why do we do this?  Why do we have such a hard time admitting when something is wrong and/or terrible?  Perhaps it's because we've just laid down our hard-earned money for the privilege of hearing new music, reading the latest bestseller or catching up on last week's home video releases.  Even though I firmly believe that we shouldn't pirate stuff and that artists should always get paid, sometimes I can't help but feel that, half-way through a crap movie, I've been hoodwinked somehow.  After all, a fool and their money will inevitably be parted.

My interest in formal criticism was sparked years before I read the works of John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger in University.  In fact, it all began in 1983 with the release of a little indie picture called of the Jedi.  Now I've already recanted my troubled relationship with that flick in anal-retentive detail elsewhere (here and here for all you completest types) but a brief summation still bears repeating.

In 1983 I was totally obsessed with all things Star Wars.  I completely and utterly enthralled by the first two parts of the saga.  But after watching the final film of THE HOLY TRILOGY, I was left feeling strangely cold somehow.  It was if my best friend had been replaced by one of the Pod People from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  

I couldn't put my finger on it by I felt let down by the film somehow.  The revelations seemed ludicrous, not to mention kinda icky.  The movie looked relatively cheap and slapdash.  Compared to the modern mythos established by the first two films, the tone of Jedi felt completely juvenile and flyweight.

Since I was still completely under the thrall of Lucasfilm, I had a really hard time giving breath to my secret misgivings. If one of my friends tried to solicit my opinion about Jedi, I'd always play the apologist.  "It's good!" I'd enthuse, sounding suspiciously Stepford Wife-ish.  "I don't know if it's as good as the first two but, y'know, it's...good."

And then came that fateful day when I picked up the November 1983 issue of Starlog Magazine.  I didn't know it at the time but this historic periodical would also soon introduce me to the wild and wonderful world of Dungeons & Dragons.  But even before that happened, I bought this issue purely for noted sci-fi author Norman Spinrad's review of Return of the Jedi.  

As soon as my thirteen-year-old self was ensconced in the back seat of the family car for the return trip home I whipped open the magazine and went right for the review.  Since everything that Lucas and company had touched thus far had immediately turned to gold, I fully expected that Norman's review would act as a positive, geeky bulwark to protect my unflagging Star Wars fandom against the rising floodwaters of doubt.  But as soon as I read those first two paragraphs, I began to feel a cold chill creep over the sub-cockle region of my heart:

"I had my trepidations about reviewing Return of the Jedi and by extension, the completed Star Wars trilogy before I saw the film, and now that I have, I'm even more nervous about committing the act of lese majeste that honesty requires.  This is a dirty job but someone has to do it.

"Not to leave you in suspense, let me say at the outset that, in this reviewer's opinion, Return of the Jedi is a bad film.  It is bad on almost every possible level.  As science fiction, it is massively illogical.  As drama, it is anti-dramatic.  As action-adventure, it manages to make about two hours of almost continuous fast action and spectacular effects boring.  And as the capper to the Star Wars trilogy, it is a dreadful letdown that betrays most of what virtues the first two films in the trilogy had.

"On to the sad task of autopsy."

I was complete gobsmacked.  Over the course of four vitriolic pages, Spinrad went on to mercilessly savage the film.

At the time, I remember thinking to myself: 'Well, clearly this guy is an idiot.  He doesn't even know anything about Star Wars!'  After all, Jedi had a lot more plot then Blade Runner, which Spinrad had positively orgasmed over in a prior review.  Far from having "little or nothing to do with the rest of the film", the rescue of Han Solo served to illustrate the maturation of Luke Skywalker and his marked development as a Jedi Knight.  And never in the entire saga have the words "nuclear power" ever been uttered.       

I remembered throwing the magazine down in disgust.  If Spinrad likened his review to an autopsy then I was convinced that he should be sued for malpractice.  He even went so far as to raise the nasty specter of incest.  Incest?  In a Star Wars movie?  Seriously?  At the time I felt like a devout Muslim who'd just watched someone defile a copy of the Qur'an right in front of me.

But eventually I started to calm down and I read it again.  Yes, a lot of what Spinrad had written was ill-informed and inflammatory, but it also made me think.  The script did kinda suck.  The Luke / Leia / Han love triangle had been boringly dispensed with.  The second Death Star was a creatively bankrupt concept.  Jabba's courtiers were disgusting, the Ewoks were transparent marketing ventures and every alien looked woefully fake.  And if Lucas was aware of the relationship between Luke and Leia all along, why the hell did he let them make out with one another?  Seriously, that's just gross.

I'm telling you this because I know that it's difficult to dislodge our entrenched perspectives, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.  Slaying sacred cows often leads to irrevocable complications.  But I'm here to reassure you that it's downright imperative to do this from time to time.  Every day that goes by I grow increasingly terrified that society is getting more and more ill-informed, narrow-minded, obstinate and less discriminating.  We're far too willing to accept things at face value and embrace the mediocre.

I also know that the sort of paradigm shift that I'm proposing won't be easy since the exact same thing happened to me again as an adult back in 1999.  It took months for me to admit that The Phantom Menace makes Return of the Jedi look like friggin' Shawshank Redemption.

The moral of the story is: ask about the source of your pablum.  Take a peek behind the curtain.  Don't let your scared inner child force you to bury your head in the sand when you know full well that something is undeniably bad or terribly wrong.

EPIC REVIEW  Here it is folks, Norman Spinrad's historic diatribe against Return of the Jedi, in all its gory vitriol.  Man, talk about your Rancor monster...

(Make sure that you right-click and open each page in its own tab to read it better.) 

EPIC PLUG  You can catch my own brand of persnickety at my sister blog Entertainment Tourettes.   

THE CONSEQUENCE OF FAIL-URE  Not only will listening to our inner critic save our world, it might also cut down on some of these godawful parody movies...




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