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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

biased critics who accidentally tell you their biases

While I get beat up for being my regular ol’ biased self, here’s a great example of a bias that just accidentally happens to come out. It’s from, coincidentally enough, Time critic Richard Schickel’s review of Knocked Up:

Alison (Katherine Heigl) and her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) are out clubbing, celebrating the former’s promotion from stage manager on one of those Inside Hollywood TV shows to an on-air job. There they meet the overweight, unemployed Ben (Seth Rogin). She’s giddy with happiness (and a certain amount of booze) and they retire to her place — it’s the guest house at her sister’s nice middle-class home —

My mouth dropped open when I read this. Schickel clearly has no idea what constitutes “middle-class,” or what a “nice middle-class home” looks like. (Hint: they don’t have guest houses.) Now, could Schickel’s clearly privileged perspective on the modern American economy and the difficulties it presents to many of us have affected his reaction to the film? Is it possible that he might have not enjoyed the film so much if, say, he took into consideration the reality that an unplanned pregnancy can be a devastating thing, economically, for a young woman whether she has a partner at her side or not? The film finds humor in Ben’s perpetual unemployment and utter ignorance about the money needed to survive in the today’s economy. But would Schickel find it as funny as he clearly does if he had a more realistic appreciation for these things himself?

And to think: this one little aside in his review, which could so easily have been cut by his editor for space, is the only inadvertent indication we have of Schickel’s biases. Maybe he needs a Bias Meter too.

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  • bats

    Funny, all of the nice “middle class” houses in my community with guest houses rent them out (rather than use them for honest-to-gosh guests), to help make the mortgage payments for the rest of the hacienda…

  • I was explaining to my mother that big Hollywood productions tend to make everything prettier – not just the actors. So we get working stiffs staying in palatial estates or tastefully run-down lofts, shiny new Apple computers instead of third-generation Dells held together by duct tape, shiny brand-new cars driven by characters who couldn’t possibly afford them (unless we want to make a point about their desperate circumstances, in which case they’re driving clunkers which can barely move), etc. It’s all part of making the movie as pleasing and easy to digest as possible. Even scenes involving dirt and filth are tailored to create a specific (and ultimately positive) reaction. Why should we expect the houses to be any different?

    The same notion actually occured to me when watching Mr. Brooks. Costner’s house in that film is stunningly gorgeous. Granted, his character is supposed to be extremely successful, so it’s a little more in keeping with reality, but the house was still shot in a manner intended to be as desireable as possible – the same way a pretty actress, handsome actor, hot Porsche, or Apple laptop might be shot. Knocked Up operates according to many of the same principles… even the parts involving Seth Rogen’s skeevy roommates. On most levels that count, Hollywood movies are basically there to sell us on the consumerist lifestyle.

  • Ryan

    Accusing a reviewer of having bias has always been sort of funny in my opinion. Who of us over the age of 6 isn’t biased in some way? It’s a natural consequence of living life and forming opinions. To not have a bias you would have to walk around every day with your eyes shut and your ears plugged…until you got to the movie theater.

  • MaryAnn

    Why should we expect the houses to be any different?

    I’m not saying the movie should be any more realistic about this stuff than other movies are (that’s another argument). I’m saying this critic has his head up his ass. Pete and Debbie are not “middle-class.”

  • David C

    When I become the dictator of a ’70s-style SF dystopian society, I will require people to have Bias Meters installed on their foreheads with a constantly-updating neural interface.

    It’d be good for society!

  • I love your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  • Point, M-A. Pete and Debbie are most decidedly not middle class, at least not in any universe of which I am currently aware.

    However, could it be that Schickel’s review is simply taking the film at face value, and assuming that this is “Hollywood” middle class? After all, Pete and Debbie don’t have servants or a big cushy driveway or any of the usual semantic signals of wealth. They simply have a nice house. Granted, it’s a house that would easily fetch seven figures – maybe more, considering the film is set in LA – but it does bear mentioning. I guess the question is, how much of Schickel’s assumption is class bias and how much is just reading into Hollywood’s inflation of what “middle class” is supposed to look like?

  • Perhaps he meant to say “upper middle class”? Or maybe “middle class” is one of those euphemisms like “comfortable” than the rich-but-not-that-rich like to use to describe themselves.

    As for the bias thing, I suspect we’re all biased on one issue or another, either due to our family background, our education, our personal experiences, etc.

    And most often, when people complain about biases, what they really seem to mean is “you don’t share my biases.” Because thinking for oneself is so un-American. :-)

  • Sets only get to be characters in four cases:
    * Star Trek movies
    * Star Wars movies
    * Matrix flicks
    * …and, interestingly, the Cameron Crowe movie “Say Anything…”, where Diane Court’s house was a character.

    Re-watch the part right after she talks with the IRS agent and he says things like “Is everything nice… but not *too* nice?” It’s weird how the house that you’d taken for granted for the first 75 or so minutes of the movie suddenly takes on a whole new (and somewhat sinister) spin, particularly under the expert direction of Crowe as Ione Skye’s character really explores and *sees* her house for the first time.

    In every other movie though (including this one), the set is just a set, something designed by a set designer and usually laced with enough product placement to help off-set the budget.

    Lots and lots and lots of houses in California (where I grew up and where this film was shot), at all income levels, have guest houses and mother-in-law units. One of my ex-girlfriends lived in a one-bedroom cottage in Rancho Cucamonga that nevertheless had both a shack and a trailer in the backyard (and people lived in both). I’m not sure I’d read very much more into it than that.

    But for some reason, your initial post sure made me think of the “Say Anything…” house. ;-)

  • MaryAnn

    Perhaps he meant to say “upper middle class”? Or maybe “middle class” is one of those euphemisms like “comfortable” than the rich-but-not-that-rich like to use to describe themselves.

    I bet no one but Bill Gates and Warren Buffet thinks they’re rich.

    It’s funny, though, when you watch indie and foreign films, how much more real people’s houses seem to be. A real middle-class house is where Jenna lives in *Waitress.* Or the house that Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney live in in *Jindabyne.*

    I’m not excusing Schickel when I say this — because he should know better — but many American films can be called what the magazine industry calls much of its output: “aspirational.” (I hate that I know this, but unfortunately, corporately published magazines have been helping to pay my bills for years.) I call it “delusional.” Most Americans will never be able to afford the lifestyle that most magazines, retailers, and movies sell us as supposedly “middle class,” but we flip through *Better Homes and Gardens* and Pottery Barn catalogs and we watch movies like *Knocked Up* with high hopes that someday, we, too, may wallow in the splendor of 800-square-foot bathrooms and 600-count sheets. Until then, we buy cheap shit at Wal-mart and eat crap food and tell ourselves that someday, things will be better, and don’t revolt.

    I console myself by telling myself that the corporate overlords who keep us on the endless wheel of consumerism and credit-card debt will have to pay someday. But I don’t really believe that.

  • Right on MaryAnn! The bias hits the fan with reviews like his. The lower tiers of the upperclasses (that is the plutocrat wannabes) really make a show of their ignorant pride by calling themselves “middle class” when they haven’t got a clue how that looks to people who can’t even afford to buy one home, much less a home with a guest house.

  • Here’s my thumbnail borderlines.
    Upperclass begins when you own more than one home for yourself, e.g, you own a rental, a “guest” home, a business, etc.
    Middle class works for a living without owning the business or being upper management, usually rents but may own a home if only one’s own.
    Lower class has trouble paying the rent from month to month, doesn’t own a home, works for close to minimum wage, income is below the poverty line income levels.

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