curated: why so much movie criticism, and the movies themselves, are so awful these days

It’s down to “Satanic Panics and the Death of Mythos.” Aisling McCrea at Current Affairs has hit on it. Check out her beautiful explanation of what she means by “mythos” — it’s not about religion or even overt spirituality but a more general sense of the numinous — and how we got to a place where so many of us simply can’t seem to muster it these days.

And then:

[T]he denial of mythos is everywhere in our culture, and it can partially explain why so much of our approach to everything artistic, challenging, or mysterious seems reductive, dull, and unimaginative….

This rejection of imagery, symbolism, or any higher meaning that cannot be reduced to the literal, has become especially pervasive in contemporary art criticism…. [M]uch of it is dominated by a worldview that seems to reject metaphor, symbolism, mood and tone, or at least render them secondary to “plot.” (By “plot” here I mean “the literal events that happen to the characters and no more,” ignoring the possibility that other aspects of the creation can comprise essential parts of our understanding). One of the most popular genres of movie “criticism” on the internet right now is the “ending EXPLAINED” video, where any ambiguity or multiplicity of meaning you felt at the end of the film you’ve just seen can be cleared away like spilled popcorn. How did Jack Nicholson get into that old photograph at the end of The Shining? Is Travis Bickle dead at the end of Taxi Driver? Is Deckard a replicant? Surely these are the discussions such movies are supposed to raise, and if enough nerds puzzle over screenshots for enough time, the definitive answer will be found and the movie will be solved.

She then quotes video essayist Dan Olson:

“The reason I dislike these [videos] so much is that they are often a form of anti-intellectualism operating on the attitude that ignorance is purity; that an understanding of culture that rejects metaphor, that rejects the symbolic and clings to the literal is more true. It is part of the process of denying art the capacity for meaning.[…]It is rare to find someone who will entirely reject the idea of approaching film broadly from a thematic or metaphorical point of view, but all too common to find people who will lightly sneer at the actual attempts to do so, and suggest that it’s overthinking things…”

McCrea’s essay is gorgeous and incisive in its entirety, but this thing about “overthinking” really struck me, because it’s something I, as a film critic, have often been “accused” of. She goes on to discuss why so many people who consider themselves serious fans of a thing seem unable to think about that thing in a larger context:

[B]y getting bogged down in the literal objects, characters, and rules that populate the world—the “lore,” the “canon”—the fan loses sight of why the author chose to populate the world that way in the first place. All of this creation, real as it may feel to an enthusiastic audience, was the product of ideas that are worthy of discussion. The literal-minded fans are Funes the memory man, able to identify every Star Wars character and their backstory in perfect detail, with no ability to step back and ask themselves why a story about rebelling against an empire makes people feel so good, and whether they should think about that next time they put forth an opinion on Black Lives Matter.

Not only that, but if someone tried to connect the two within their earshot, this sort of fan might be dismissive or even indignant. The Star Wars characters live in another universe, where Black Lives Matter does not exist. They can’t “symbolize” or draw comparisons with anything in our world because they’re not of our world. It’s almost as if the fans believe they are actual people, and not artistic creations within a larger history of creation.

McCrea has lots more to say, including how this mindset is stifling cinematic creativity and why everything seems to be a sequel or an origin story or a spinoff lately. Please do read the whole thing. I’m going to be thinking about this for a long time.

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Patrick
Patrick
Mon, Jun 07, 2021 4:28am

That reminds me of one of the major criticisms I have for the Game of Thrones Series. Its creators have come out to say that themes are for Highschool discussions, not for filmmaking – and that disregard shows in how they change certain plot elements that might seem harmless on the surface, but greatly change the thematic underpinnings, generally into a more boorish view, if it still makes sense anyway.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Patrick
Mon, Jun 07, 2021 12:15pm

themes are for Highschool discussions

Appalling.

RogerBW
RogerBW
Mon, Jun 07, 2021 2:11pm

I’d argue that analysis of American Evangelicalism needs to look at its roots in the search for a theology that could still appear to be Christian and yet condemn slavery. A casual reading of the Bible makes it clear that slavery is not regarded as a good thing: therefore that casual reading has got to go, and adherents must focus on other things. This is where the twisted logic that says “this isn’t really about slavery” and “my brother only means people with the same skin colour as me” comes from, and it was entirely deliberate.
One of the elements of that is that there’s “analysis” which is intellectual and bad, and “plain reading” which is commonsensical and good. But that “plain reading” is just as convoluted as any post-modernist’s messing about (without the sense of humour), with standard readings that take a bunch of verses, skip over one or two inconvenient ones that would change the whole sense of the text, and carry on.
I was playing RPGs when the moral crusades happened, and while they do line up conveniently with the logos-only theory they weren’t by any means the only thing that the fundies were frothing about in the early 1980s: they were a thing that Normal People didn’t do and These Kids Today did do, and therefore they could be a tool to separate Normal People from, well, actual normal people with diverse interests. Just like rock music, just like forbidden books, the overall goal is to convince the adherents that the world out there is a scary place and if they have un-saved friends they are at Risk of their Very Souls. (Any cult needs to cut off contact with the outside world to stop its members hearing things that would get them out of the cult.)
When it comes to the “ending explained”, I think that there’s another element – if you couldn’t work out what was going on in a film, you may feel inadequate or stupid. If someone tells you not only the answer but a dose of feel-good “and that means the filmmaker did it wrong, because it isn’t your job to try to work out what was going on”, that makes you feel better than the explanation alone. This seems to me like a lot like the conversations I’ve seen endlessly here – a fanboy-pleasing film comes out, MaryAnn gives it a broadly negative review, the fanboys come along and whine about how she just doesn’t get it and all you should have to do in a film is turn off your brain and enjoy it. Because if they enjoyed it and an intellectual didn’t, one of them must be wrong, and those intellectuals, you know, with their internets and art and medicines and being right about stuff, how can you trust them? (In this house, “overthinking” is a bad word.)
(This dismissal isn’t helped by the blatant manipulation in much of the commercial art world – Damien Hirst was generally regarded as an unoriginal failure before the Saatchis decided to pump him, bought up a load of his stuff very cheaply, then spent a lot on promoting one particular piece and buying it to drive up his prices. Most of the art critics immediately changed their tune and said that Hirst was a genius.)
I do think it’s possible to break the implicit contract with the viewer: a narrative that simply stops rather than having an ending that resolves things can be very unsatisfactory, particularly in a film that’s assumed to be a stand-alone story. Certainly I’ve felt very let down by such films. But, well, there’s no absolute scale of quality: that’s a film I didn’t enjoy, which doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. And sometimes an ambiguous ending is the point.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Mon, Jun 07, 2021 6:49pm

if you couldn’t work out what was going on in a film, you may feel inadequate or stupid

But isn’t that part of the larger problem? Why are so many people so uncomfortable with ambiguity? In a culture that valued introspection, intellectual curiosity, and nuance, discussing ambiguity and metaphor could be done in a way that was enriching, not divisive.

I do think it’s possible to break the implicit contract with the viewer: a narrative that simply stops rather than having an ending that resolves things can be very unsatisfactory, particularly in a film that’s assumed to be a stand-alone story.

Absolutely. None of this is meant to justify or excuse storytelling that is just plain bad.

RogerBW
RogerBW
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Jun 10, 2021 5:26pm

If your mindset is about thinking the right thing, and you can’t work out what the right thing to think is, that’s awkward and uncomfortable. “Ending explained” shuts down discussion: this is the answer, that guy said it, on to the next thing.
For at least the last 50 years there has been a general policy in the UK (and the US too, though I don’t know about the timing there) of keeping people scared. thinking that they’re just one step away from the end of everything. If you’re spending your time being scared, you want reassuring things, like strong male politicians who make strong laws against bad people. Nice simple narratives with clear conclusions.
I think in general society there’s a sense now that there is no room for compromise: Our Side are angels, Other Side are devils, there’s no point in even talking with them. If Our Side says something, Other Side immediately says the exact opposite. It’s a great way of persuading scared people to sign up with the team that they don’t really like much but at least it’s better than the other guys.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Fri, Jun 11, 2021 8:42am

You’re not wrong about any of that. :-(

zak1
zak1
Wed, Jun 09, 2021 9:44pm

Thanks for referring us to that article

This distinction between mythos and logos is useful –

One other aspect that comes to my mind is that, in fact, in the realms of advertising and PR, the application of mythos seems to be, if anything, accelerating

I remember reading about some turning point in advertising, mid century or so – where they stopped trying to argue logically about the superiority of a given product – and instead started appealing more directly to desire and fantasy, to the “irrational”, as if to bypass the intellect altogether, and reach right into us to trigger our hormonal responses

I think this science of manipulation would rely heavily on expertise in the area of mythos – it feels to me like such notions are often applied from various quarters to “tweak” our public discourse – what does it mean when we say our popular discourse is reverting more and more to “info-tainment”? Hasn’t this phenomenon been discussed as a major factor contributing to our current political climate?

What McCrea seems to be describing is how this looks from the “ground” level – where it does seem like the public is moving away from considering and discussing these kinds of broader patterns in their own thinking – and this dovetails with the marginalizing of the humanities and social sciences, which teach us precisely how to examine and reflect on our own thinking and feeling – as if, on some level, people are encouraged less and less to participate in the framing of their own thinking

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  zak1
Thu, Jun 10, 2021 2:58pm

I remember reading about some turning point in advertising, mid century or so – where they stopped trying to argue logically about the superiority of a given product

They HAD to start doing that, because eventually there is no meaningful differences among the infinite brands of toothpaste, makes of cars, and so on.

But then, of course, we end up with the same problem that this essay discusses, which is that people do think that there is a logical explanation to explain why their favorite toothpaste is their favorite, and not merely that they have internalized whatever story the toothpaste’s marketing sells.

Ironically, it seems that it’s only when there are meaningful differences between similar-ish products that is any acknowledgement of the myth-building at work: “the cult of Mac,” for instance.

amanohyo
amanohyo
Thu, Jun 10, 2021 12:41pm

Some of this article reminds me of the writings of Mark Fisher (and the comic/film Ghost World which has a somewhat open and ambiguous ending) who argued that due to the plasticity and flexibility of modern capitalism combined with the advent of smart phones, we now inhabit a sort of non-time, where an interminable barrage of “breaking news” and prepackaged, bite-sized entertainment has not only made it difficult to connect in any meaningful way with past traditions (the denial/ignorance of mythos), but also made it impossible for people to imagine a future beyond capitalism or to even exist fully in the present.

Just a couple days ago, I was waiting to turn left at a busy intersection, and the light to go straight turned green. The truck next to me didn’t move, and I saw that the driver was staring at his phone. Normally, the drivers behind would start honking, but when I looked behind the truck, I saw that all of those drivers were also looking at their phones. The light almost completed an entire cycle before anyone moved. It was an eerie example of a world in which people are half-present ghosts following the hazy, listless motions of the people around them. In a world where people have lost all connection to the traditions of the past (everything from the past now co-exists in an undifferentiated internet soup), and are never really present, there are no building blocks to construct a mythos upon which to build a truly new and interesting future. And so, we see popular and even formerly “cutting-edge” avant-garde art increasingly dominated by nostalgia and pastiche (Ready Player One comes to mind).

I read Game of Thrones when I was a teen in 1996, and while I found it entertaining, it was already far behind the times when it came to storytelling and world-building. If you told me then that in twenty years, it would be the basis for a popular television show, I would have been very disappointed. 2015 was the future that Marty travelled to in Back to the Future II. As children, we all imagined what strange wonders the world would produce by 2020. The sense I get looking around at current films, music, and art in general is that time stopped moving around the early 2000’s. I don’t believe this feeling is solely a “these kids today!” old fogey rant (although there is a bit of that of course). Ivor Southwood calls it Non-Stop Inertia. We’re put in a constant state of nervous uncertainty (financial, emotional, physical, political), then told that it’s our job to be flexible, stay current, buy things that make us happy, recycle, reduce our carbon footprint, look at what those idiots on the other team just did, all to prevent us from ever slowing down to think about the broad systemic changes required to alter the future in a positive way or even imagine what that meaningfully altered future might look like.

The constant now is capitalism, and it reduces everything to a number or a ranked list. In addition to the “Ending Explained” and “Everything Wrong” videos, other popular formats are the “$1000 vs. $100 vs $10 (insert consumable item here)” and “Top 10 (insert product here) / tierlist” videos, and of course we have “unboxing” and “mukbang” videos, which are literally consumer sloppy seconds, capitalist pornography. Almost all former sources of mythos and mystery have been flattened into dollar bills – the article mentions the rise of the Prosperity Gospel in megachurches, but even secular spiritual activities like meditation and sporting events have been sapped of tradition and continuity by a desire to squeeze more profit from participants. I still go hiking to feel a connection to something vast, eternal, and unknowable, and I see more and more hikers staring at their phones when standing in front of a truly breathtaking landscape. Personal awe, wonder, and mystery aren’t profitable, but sharing photos to get some eyeballs on ads sure is.

The fundamental issue is that there’s no easy way to monetize individual mystery, empathetic open-ended pondering, or mental exploration. And so you get a society that rewards people who devalue Mythos and instead value moving upward on a well-defined and ranked social hierarchy and those who excel in competition where the strong can exert their will on the weak. These people have very firm boundaries between themselves and others, and between fiction and reality – they like closure, their team is right and should win, the other team is wrong, and should lose. Their dreams are sterile, unambiguous power fantasies like those in Inception. They float through a world of identical non-places like virtual shopping malls, ubers, airports, and chain restaurants. They want to know what’s happening right now, what’s the plot, who’s fucking whom, who’s stronger, who will win, what’s the next thing? There’s no place for theme, historical social relevance, thoughtful transitions, balanced compositions, compromise, nuance, a personally constructed ending to a story built on empathy and a softening of boundaries, those things all take time, time we could be using to pick out which episode, sequel, or remake we need to consume next to keep the hamster wheels of capitalism spinning.

Bluejay
Bluejay
Thu, Jun 10, 2021 4:06pm

Fascinating article. I’d suggest that we have an additional problem: it’s not that we always prefer logos over mythos, it’s that we’ve divorced logos FROM mythos, so that we sometimes subscribe to the mythos and ignore any inconvenience that logos presents. Sometimes we miss the forest for the trees; sometimes we prefer not to see all the dead trees and declare the forest healthy.

I’m thinking of those who revere all the symbols of the Confederacy because of “heritage,” ignoring what that heritage actually is. I’m thinking of those who rail against the 1619 Project and denied Nikole Hannah-Jones her tenure, because they’re invested in a fact-free mythos about American Greatness and refuse to see the logos that she’s actually shining a light on—the plain historical details about how all the systems we exist in are rooted in anti-Blackness and slavery. I’m thinking of the Texas governor proclaiming the Texas Constitution as a shining beacon of Texan greatness, despite the fact that the text of the constitution itself explicitly legalized and defended slavery. These people believe the story goes a certain way and has a certain meaning without paying attention to the actual plot points of the story.

When we lose ourselves in Star Wars minutiae while rejecting any attempts to connect its themes to anti-fascism or Black Lives Matter, it’s logos over mythos; when we persist in the myth of American Greatness over all the very clear evidence to the contrary, it’s mythos over logos. In both cases, it seems to me that the real problem here—as it seems to be the problem in so many cases—is that we cherry-pick and favor whichever realm, logos or mythos, supports (or, at least, doesn’t challenge) the thing that we’re really invested in maintaining: white supremacy.

amanohyo
amanohyo
Thu, Jun 10, 2021 4:41pm

Some of this article reminds me of the writings of Mark Fisher (and the comic/film Ghost World which has a somewhat open and ambiguous ending) who argued that due to the plasticity and flexibility of modern capitalism combined with the advent of smart phones, we now inhabit a sort of non-time, where an interminable barrage of “breaking news” and prepackaged, bite-sized entertainment has not only made it difficult to connect in any meaningful way with past traditions (the denial/ignorance of mythos), but also made it impossible for people to imagine a future beyond capitalism or to even exist fully in the present.

Just a couple days ago, I was waiting to turn left at a busy intersection, and the light to go straight turned green. The truck next to me didn’t move, and I saw that the driver was staring at his phone. Normally, the drivers behind would start honking, but when I looked behind the truck, I saw that all of those drivers were also looking at their phones. The light almost completed an entire cycle before anyone moved. It was an eerie example of a world in which people are half-present ghosts following the hazy, listless motions of the people around them. In a world where people have lost all connection to the traditions of the past (everything from the past now co-exists in an undifferentiated internet soup), and are never really present, there are no building blocks to construct a mythos upon which to build a truly new and interesting future. And so, we see popular and even formerly “cutting-edge” avant-garde art increasingly dominated by nostalgia and pastiche (Ready Player One comes to mind).

I read Game of Thrones when I was a teen in 1996, and while I found it entertaining, it was already far behind the times when it came to storytelling and world-building. If you told me then that in twenty years, it would be the basis for a popular television show, I would have been very disappointed. 2015 was the future that Marty travelled to in Back to the Future II. As children, we all imagined what strange wonders the world would produce by 2020. The sense I get looking around at current films, music, and art in general is that time stopped moving around the early 2000’s. I don’t believe this feeling is solely a “these kids today!” old fogey rant (although there is a bit of that of course). Ivor Southwood calls it Non-Stop Inertia. We’re put in a constant state of nervous uncertainty (financial, emotional, physical, political), then told that it’s our job to be flexible, stay current, buy things that make us happy, recycle, reduce our carbon footprint, look at what those idiots on the other team just did, all to prevent us from ever slowing down to think about the broad systemic changes required to alter the future in a positive way or even imagine what that meaningfully altered future might look like.

The constant now is capitalism, and it reduces everything to a number or a ranked list. In addition to the “Ending Explained” and “Everything Wrong” videos, other popular formats are the “$1000 vs. $100 vs $10 (insert consumable item here)” and “Top 10 (insert product here) / tierlist” videos, and of course we have “unboxing” and “mukbang” videos, which are literally consumer sloppy seconds, capitalist pornography. Almost all former sources of mythos and mystery have been flattened into dollar bills – the article mentions the rise of the Prosperity Gospel in megachurches, but even secular spiritual activities like meditation and sporting events have been sapped of tradition and continuity by a desire to squeeze more profit from participants. I still go hiking to feel a connection to something vast, eternal, and unknowable, and I see more and more hikers staring at their phones when standing in front of a truly breathtaking landscape. Personal awe, wonder, and mystery aren’t profitable, but sharing photos to get some eyeballs on ads sure is.

The fundamental issue is that there’s no easy way to monetize individual mystery, empathetic open-ended pondering, or mental exploration. And so you get a society that rewards people who devalue Mythos and instead value moving upward on a well-defined and ranked social hierarchy and those who excel in competition where the strong can exert their will on the weak. These people have very firm boundaries between themselves and others, and between fiction and reality – they like closure, their team is right and should win, the other team is wrong, and should lose. Their dreams are sterile, unambiguous power fantasies like those in Inception. They float through a world of identical non-places like virtual shopping malls, ubers, airports, and chain restaurants. They want to know what’s happening right now, what’s the plot, who’s fucking whom, who’s stronger, who will win, what’s the next thing? There’s no place for theme, historical social relevance, thoughtful transitions, balanced compositions, compromise, nuance, a personally constructed ending to a story built on empathy and a softening of boundaries, those things all take time, time we could be using to pick out which episode, sequel, or remake we need to consume next to keep the hamster wheels of capitalism spinning.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Fri, Jun 11, 2021 8:48am

This is all very wise and perceptive, but I think you’ve nailed it with this:

The fundamental issue is that there’s no easy way to monetize individual mystery, empathetic open-ended pondering, or mental exploration.

If there’s no big money to be made in something, it doesn’t happen.

The sense I get looking around at current films, music, and art in general is that time stopped moving around the early 2000’s.

Agreed. Perhaps we need a huge kick in the ass to start moving forward again. Maybe the pandemic will do that. But unless it happens soon, the warming planet is going to kill human civilization. We really are in a last-chance situation here.

carolthreepwood
carolthreepwood
reply to  amanohyo
Mon, Sep 13, 2021 5:39pm

This is exactly what I hate about modern society. I find it disturbing just how much we are becoming obsessed with ease and convenience; instead of actually living. Is it any wonder that writers no longer really trust their audience when they basically see us as nothing more then consumers that just want the next thing NOW! i hate how it is being programmed into us that we want to live life virtually and want machines to do everything for us. I sometimes feel like I am just rambling with this, but I honestly do think both capitalism and how technology is implemented today is turning us into robots.

Danielm80
Danielm80
Fri, Jun 11, 2021 5:41pm

I read this essay more than 15 years ago, and I still think about it surprisingly often. I thought about it again when I read the piece by McCrea.

https://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/09/magazine/in-the-belly-of-the-beast.html?searchResultPosition=5

carolthreepwood
carolthreepwood
Mon, Sep 13, 2021 5:45pm

I really like this essay; and modern movies, video games, tv shows, and music have been bothering me for a really long time. I am not sure if i am just turning into one of these people complaining wrongly about modern society and “kids today”, but it bothers the hell out of me that a lot of art seems to not trust their audience at all. Like, we don’t want intelligent movies; we just want special effects and to see ourselves on screen! One thing I have noticed, and I am not sure if it relates to this; but so many young people don’t really have any goals or asperations anymore; and why would they? They are always being told that effort is bad, and convience is good. We shouldn’t want to actually know how to cook, when you can just get food quick and easy! Part of living IS taking on challanges and risks! How can anyone be creative if everything is just about consumption?