Saturday, May 26, 2012
A VOCABULARY LESSON FOR CRITICS
The other day, there was a piece on Flavorwire on the most “epidemically overrated” novels in history; I won't link to it, since the whole idea is that they're engaging in provocation for page views, but you can Google that phrase and find the thing easily enough if you really need to read something dumb. As a thing unto itself the list is the intellectual equivalent of a fart—seriously, anyone who reads James Joyce for the plot is a fucking asshat—but as an excuse for a state of criticism jeremiad it'll do just fine.
Here's the thing: the word “overrated” is an absolutely fucking useless term if the subject being discussed is something that can't be objectively quantified. In sports, being over- or underrated is an actual thing. There are objective metrics by which you can determine whether a sports guy is as good as people say he is. Variables like how big a city the dude plays in, high-profile successes or failures, or being white can skew perceptions from what the actual data indicates. In the arts, though, there's no on-base percentage, yards after the catch, or plus-minus, making objective evaluation trickier. One thing that helps, though, is the phrase “it's not all about you.” Or, in other words, whether or not you like something isn't the same thing as it being good. Thus, the fucktards who wrote that Flavorwire thing are really saying “we don't like The Catcher in the Rye, Wuthering Heights, Finnegan's Wake, Moby Dick, et cetera.” (Also, they kind of tip their trollface by having Twilight be the last thing on the list; no reputable critic puts Twilight in the same league as Bronte, Joyce, Melville, and Salinger, thus undercutting the “overrated” conceit.)
Here's an audiovisual aid (pay special attention at about 1:45):
Now, I know your mind is blown because you just thought about Ugly Kid Joe for the first time in 20 years, but stick with me here. That song is, to give it the benefit of the doubt, at least partly tongue-in-cheek, though it's sending up a real thing, namely the way people, in order to seem cool, will cop an attitude about absolutely fucking anything. Which isn't cool. If your coolness requires shitting on something else, you ain't swinging from the championship tee, dude. (Ed. Note: golf metaphors are an underrated way to describe the state of being uncool.)
But “overrated” isn't the only word misused to the point of meaninglessness by people who don't write criticism properly. Here are some others:
Uncinematic: The most apt usage I can recall of this was a review panning Susan Stroman's direction in the movie of The Producers from the play from the movie, because the compositions kinda sucked and just seemed like a camera plunked down on sticks while a play took place in front of it. But even then, calling that “uncinematic” rather than just not the best use of cinema as a medium isn't quite right, because the only way something can really be uncinematic is to not be cinema.
Literary: A word nekulturny douchebags use to describe Wes Anderson movies because Wes Anderson has the fucking temerity to read books. Yeah, heaven forfend Salinger, John Irving and Roald Dahl have any influence on the guy. (Also, if you have any pretense to knowing about movies and you're thinking of snarking on Wes Anderson, save yourself the trouble and skip ahead to the part where you go fuck yourself.)
Dry: Unless you're talking about a martini, think long and hard about how you use this one (and if you drink martinis, think long and hard about just drinking straight gin). Even if you're using it right, there's probably a better way to phrase things.
Fanboy: Already covered this one.
Sexy: This one drives me up the wall, because you'd swear the way this gets thrown around no film critic has ever actually gotten laid in their lives. Any actress with a hemline above her knee and a neckline below her neck is SEXY. Just, no. Look at the scene in The Last Days Of Disco when Chloe Sevigny's trying to shtup Robert Sean Leonard and says “I think Uncle Scrooge is sexy.” It was fucking funny, right? You know why? Because she was using words wrong. Uncle Scrooge is not sexy, as sexiness would not be a thing if everyone was sexy. (Ed. Note: Uncle Scrooge is not the only entity in the universe who isn't sexy, either. THERE ARE MANY OTHERS.) Sexiness is also not achieved automatically by a shot of some titties. Take Chloe. Chloe's a whole movie about how Julianne Moore secretly and then not-so-secretly wants to fuck Amanda Seyfried. Sounds hot, right? Well, with the exception of about five seconds when the two of them are totally naked and totally Doing It (which couldn't help but be), Chloe's about as sexy as a glass-topped coffee table. And yet all the reviews were like, “sexy” this,” “erotic” that. Come on, y'all.
X-meets-x: For an example, from Owen Gleiberman's review of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom in Entertainment Weekly: “[Anderson's] rarefied, Salinger-meets-The Graduate-meets-music-video-meets-postmodern-TV-ads whimsicality.” This is an impressive pile-up of words, but it doesn't really mean anything. Salinger and The Graduate, sure, you can argue an intertextual relationship with Anderson's picture, even if they're kind of low-hanging fruit in terms of references. But holy shit “music video” and “postmodern TV ads” are vague descriptors, not to mention redundant, as they're both short-form audiovisual media made by most of the same directors. (He's also using “postmodern” wrong, but that's art geek hair-splitting.) X-meets-x is so rarely an illuminating tool and so frequently a “heyyyyyy, loogitme being all hip and shit” crutch that it really ought to just be sidelined.
Anyway, that's enough of that. Basically, all I'm trying to say is words mean things and they don't mean things that they don't mean. It's not all about you. And tits are awesome and everything, but you still need to make a good movie. You're welcome.