A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of a film that had been making good box office. In this review, I sat on the opposing team’s bench and said “I don’t know what y’all are talking about – this film ain’t all that good”. With that, I had posted one of my most popular posts in months and opened the gates to one of the busiest days of traffic on this site. For a second, I saw the appeal of speaking up for the minority vote, and the allure of voicing dissent.
The moment passed though.
For a while, I’ve looked at contrarianism with a leery eye. For film discussion, being the curmudgeon who doesn’t like the films everyone else does has been sullied for a good long time thanks to one famous soul who has made it his mission to turn contrarianism into performance art. Let’s leave him out of this though.
It seems like every passing week, I come across another post that says “This film you all like? This director? Not nearly as good as you think.” Day-in and day-out, another pontiff takes to another podium to declare “Look people! Your emperor has no clothes!!” Sometimes it’s a film that’s generations old, other times it’s a buzz-worthy film that hasn’t even opened wide. Nothing is sacred, nothing is safe. If the crowds are gathering behind a fixed point, someone somewhere feels the need to knock that point off its axis.
So what to make of this growing trend?
I believe it’s important to vocalize both sides of an argument. Not only to fully analyze the work at hand, but also to further the dialogue and allow for a more informed opinion by all. After all, if everyone sat around talking about how awesome something is, then all we’d ever take away from film is how awesome it is. Unfortunately, when everything is awesome, nothing is. So indeed, having someone stand up and say “I hate to disagree…” Is valuable, and should never end.
Unfortunately, the increasing problem with those who disagree is that it has become harder and harder to respectfully disagree. Some, like the aforementioned side-show of a critic, have turned the whole position into a twisted game of “LOOK AT ME!”. Not only does this work counter to the idea of furthering the conversation, it makes it difficult to trust anything the speaker brings to the conversation. Do they actually deeply believe in the side they represent? Of are they getting their rocks off by being the centre of attention?
Let’s assume the former.
The writer might well think, from a place of total honesty that some artist or piece of art is “not that good”. How are they supposed to get the attention of everyone else that disagrees? Well often that comes by upping the venom – be truly antagonistic, use pejorative and hyperbolic language and pull no punches. Wherever possible, employ sentences structured around “I know ________, but _________”. If an argument needs to be tempered with outside influence and reputation, so be it. Rules are meant to be broken after all, so if it helps one’s position to bring into the fray the work’s fans or the work’s reputation, then why not? All the more chance that the writer will get people’s attention. The bigger the opponent, the harder the punches will have to land…so load up and let ‘er rip.
As a consequence, what we get is piece after piece that feel mean-spirited, self-serving, lacking perspective, or some combination thereof. The line between “I don’t like this” and “This is bad” is blurred at best, and sometimes ignored entirely. What’s left is something that is inarguable, and something that does more to call attention to the speaker than it does the overall debate.
This is the current state of contrarianism: it has become a position that lacks respect, understanding, and honesty. It is less about challenging popular opinion than it is about being a squeaky wheel and getting the grease.
I would never suggest that arguing in opposition should be avoided entirely – far from it. Some of the most fascinating films and filmmakers are the ones that leave audiences divided. Remember that on many an episode of my podcast, I’ve begun the conversation by asking guests to name a film others like that they don’t. What I would suggest, is that those who want to step up and say “That thing you love isn’t as good as you think” take a moment and a breath. Are you yelling at the crowd because you think they’re failing to see key details, or are you yelling at them because you think they’re all crazy?
The former allows you an opportunity to illuminate the masses…the latter just makes you look crazy.
Proceed with caution and proceed with respect. Otherwise you risk being written off as an ill-informed grump.