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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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