Feb 27 2014

The Virtues of Accepting a Work on its Own Merits

Published by at 11:00 am under Editorials

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“Oh HELL no, you’re not trolling us with Sucker Punch, Verboon!” shout the indignant Unreality readers in unison. Would I do such a thing? I might. Hell, you know I would. With relish. But hear me out anyways. What’s all this nonsense about accepting something on its own merit? Well, this could take a minute to explain. Perhaps an entire article’s worth.

What I’m saying basically is that we are conditioned by various external factors in our life that we’ve internalized to be predisposed to like and not like certain things. Don’t panic, this is normal. For example, when I see Justin Beiber’s face, I am filled with a need to punch kittens. But let’s say the little bastard grows up to star in some of the greatest films ever made. How many of us would either refuse to watch it or actively talk shit about it without having given it a fair shake?

Political values, cultural differences, and other prejudices are often a defining factor in what we decide is the best thing ever and what we will fight to the death to defame. But it doesn’t have to be that way, friends. We can go to the movies or read books or play video games to have a good time and let go of all the hate. Well, most of it.

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Beleib dat!

We need not diss Django Unchained because it’s about killing whitey and Tarantino’s face is stupid, nor despise James Bond as a cartoonish chauvinistic male fantasy. We need not dismiss Ender’s Game because the author is a hate-filled bigot, or claim Sucker Punch is the worst thing ever because anime is for losers, and we sure as hell don’t need to gauge the quality of a film by our ability to ferret out unimportant plot holes.

Speaking of hate-filled bigots, I’d hate to think that a world would exist where I never read the works of H.P. Lovecraft. His tales of supernatural horror were largely a function of one thing: intense xenophobia. Dude was terrified of immigrants and convinced that they were plotting against us with their strange, foreign ways. In fact, they may well be worshipping some tentacle-faced monstrosity and attempting to awaken it to hold dominion over the world!

Can a man with no fears write great horror? Probably not. Should you hold Lovecraft’s racism against his body of work? Only if you want to deprive yourself of some of the best and most imaginative horror fiction ever written. His own fear-filled imagination actually kind of serves as an interesting comparison to modern anti-fandoms in that he took that irrational hatred and twisted it into something unique and creative whereas most of us just act like pompous jerks when we don’t like stuff.

While it’s certainly a positive thing to be able to comprehend the themes and allegories that make up any quality work of art and it’s always good to be aware of the artist’s intentions, I’d argue that whether or not you agree with any of them should not be the deciding factor in how you rate the work. Art is meant to explore and express the thoughts and feelings of an artist. If a work does that effectively, who are you to apply your own personal preferences to assess objective quality?

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            “Those reviews aren’t half bad.”             “Nope, they’re ALL bad!”

Take one of my favorite Asian films, Zhang Yimou’s Hero; a film full of brilliant action, poignant emotions, and intense beauty. It also promotes the value of fascism. Now, if you stacked up all of the things in the world into a pile with things I love at the top and things I hate on the bottom, fascism is at the Earth’s core. Nonetheless, I feel Yimou captured the theoretical idealism that shows the appeal of fascism and in particular the Chinese peoples’ acceptance of it as part of their culture. Rather than allow my personal preferences to dictate my feelings, I accepted the film on its own standards and found it to be one of the most memorable theatrical experiences of my life.

What seems to be the thing is that people project their personal preferences into a work and become blinded when the work isn’t about them in particular. I once read a review of Juno that was pretty much a tearful rant from a woman defending her personal choice to have an abortion and railing against a quirky, whimsical indie comedy for not mirroring her own life experiences. It was a pretty disturbing overshare, but when you think about it a lot of the hate any given work actually kind of resembles a less forthright version of that.

The game Bioshock Infinite ruffled a lot of feathers on both sides of the political aisle with its too close for comfort portrayal of the institutionalized racial oppression that constitutes a large chunk of American history and its subsequent depiction of a bloody uprising that saw the oppressed turn the tables and the revolutionary leader acting in self-interest. Because that has never, ever happened in human history, right? Most revolutions are won with stern words and the new government always turns out to be a flawless rainbow-filled altruistic utopia, right?

It upset conservatives for daring to portray aspects of our culture that they’d rather ignore, and it upset liberals for suggesting that the world is not the perfect place they imagine even after they overthrow the Man. I would say upsetting both extremes makes you the voice of reason- an exceptional feat for any work of art, much less a mere video game- but for many people it was just a reason to write it off.

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So racist it could almost be an old Superman comic book cover.

And then there’s satire (pictured above), which is essentially an ironic mean-spirited joke that people with no sense of humor will not realize is a joke, thus making it even funnier. Can I explain why taking stupid ideas and following through on them to their illogical extreme to illustrate their stupidity brings me amusement? I suppose I can’t, but I do know that a significant portion of the population not comprehending the concept fills message boards and comment sections on the net daily.

So basically, whether or not something conforms to our own preconceived notions of how things ought to be is often how we intellectually assess its quality. Except that intellectuality is defined by objective analysis and therefore not subject to the pettiness of our own wishful thinking. So if you think elves are lame, homosexuality is an abomination, and we should abort ALL the babies perhaps you could sit out serious discussions about Lord of the Rings, Brokeback Mountain, and Juno maybe? Just spitballing here.

So this brings us back to Sucker Punch. The hate just keeps coming and coming for that one, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a legitimate reason at so why it’s so unwatchable other than the fashion choices. After it was announced that Wonder Woman would be appearing in the Batman/Superman film, I read an article in which the writer began voicing their concerns about whether the macho-leaning Zack Snyder was the right director to bring the Amazon princess to the big screen.

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In 300 nobody got shirts so I can actually see this working.

It didn’t take much for the article to devolve into a Sucker Punch-based rant that utilized the phrase “anime hookers” repeatedly. This is not how you critique a film. That is how you spray cringe-inducing personal prejudices and hang-ups onto a computer screen for other people to uncomfortably read. Anime style may be a mere subculture in the West, but in Japan it’s practically a way of life.

Sucker Punch utilized some visual imagery associated with anime as part of its tribute to hardcore geek culture and the power of the nerd cocktail of video games, sci-fi, and fantasy as an escape from the often depressing and terrifying realities of the real world. The ladies’ outfits were typical of Japanese characters and clearly meant to bring that culture to mind. Wouldn’t that suggest the biggest problem with the movie is the viewer’s own cultural intolerance? Maybe they should consider creating their own horror universe like Lovecraft to turn that tiresomeness into awesome sauce. I can see it now: The Weeaboo Mythos®.

Poor fashion sense or not, Snyder definitely didn’t do himself any favors by putting the word out that his nerdy wet dream was a female empowerment story and then making it so steeped in metaphor and symbolism that most people weren’t going to understand it beyond the prostitution and miniskirts. That was just inviting disaster. He made a geek-flavored acid trip, and that’s all Sucker Punch was; a unique and stylish action film with psychological themes in an ocean of same ol’ same ol’.

But regardless of Snyder’s lack of feministic awareness, is it really worthwhile to expend energy passing judgment on a film that you simply do not understand? A lot of commentary I’ve read on Sucker Punch strongly implies that the commentators either did not watch the film (as its earnings indicate) or didn’t comprehend anything about it beyond the way the characters were dressed.

Personally, if I don’t “get” something, I’m more likely to either put more thought into it, watch/read it again, and possibly research it in an attempt to understand where it is coming from or leave it alone altogether than I am to insist on foisting an uninformed opinion onto the masses in a rush to…I don’t really know. What is the point, exactly?

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Everyone wants to be part of the magic, I guess.

At this point, it appears that prejudice is part of our genetic makeup. Now that it’s not socially acceptable to be abusive to one another based on the color of people’s skin, sexual preference, or gender we have turned to fiction as a scapegoat to work out our personal hang-ups.  We’re so uncomfortable with those hang-ups that we constantly search for them in pop culture to point them out and feel better about ourselves. And if we can’t find them, projection is always an option.

On the other hand, there is no blind eye we will not turn when it comes to something we enjoy. We’ll proudly cite a plot hole as a reason why one film is horrible and instantly dismiss one just as big in a personal favorite. Michael Bay’s Amos and Andy reboot bots from Transformers 2? Indubitably racist, but not the reason the film was garbage. Otherwise, Star Wars and numerous other classics would be right there with it. And don’t even mention Disney.

So yeah, it’s probably time to admit that everything is horrible and racist and sexist and riddled with errors, and once we get over that fact we can be free to enjoy and ignore what we please instead of chucking double standards all over the place in futile attempts to distract other people from the unwatchable crap we enjoy ourselves. Everybody has something ridiculous that they enjoy, be it mindlessly saccharine rom-coms, grindhouse boob and bloodbaths, cartoons about giant ninja robots piloted by Japanese schoolgirls, mind-numbingly existential  arthouse fare, or anything involving Justin Beiber. But seriously, f**k that guy.

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Sign iiiiiiiiiiit…..

Obviously, all of that stuff is up for discussion but a little tolerance could go a long way when it comes to other peoples’ taste (or lack thereof). Just because the internet allows any jackass to post any thought that pops into their head the second it pops into their head doesn’t mean you have to be that jackass. Just like in real life, any kind of love is better than every kind of hate. If something is clearly not your thing, there’s nothing to be gained by harassing the people who enjoy it. Unless, of course, those people are Twi-hards. Their tears of emo rage are both delicious and nutritious.

(Editor’s note: Nick has been fired for liking Sucker Punch and claiming it has merit, in any form)





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28 responses so far

  • Indy Z

    “Personally, if I don’t “get” something, I’m more likely to either put more thought into it, watch/read it again, and possibly research it in an attempt to understand where it is coming from or leave it alone altogether than I
    am to insist on foisting an uninformed opinion onto the masses in a rush
    to…I don’t really know. What is the point, exactly?”

    Great question. I’m right there with you being mystified. Maybe it’s so you can feel like you’re at the cool kids’ table? I do this with reality TV; despite never voluntarily watching reality TV, it’s my go-to target for hyperbolic vitriol. Truth be told, it’s hard to imagine how to enjoy it on its own merits, because it has none. Dang! Did it again.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      Yeah, I’m the same way. I avoid that crap like the plague and I avoid discussing it whenever I can. If I can do that with Duck Dynasty when it’s flippin’ everywhere, how do people have time to seek out bad movies?

      • cypher20

        :-O

        If you are missing Duck Dynasty you are missing a funny show sir!
        Naw, to each their own, I’m just saying I love me some Duck Dynasty. On that point, have to watch Sucker Punch to see if I think it is as bad as the rest of the internet seems to think.

        • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

          To be fair, I’ve never watched Duck Dynasty so I can hardly criticize it, but in general reality shows based around laughing at rednecks isn’t my cup of moonshine.

          • David R

            Not that it matters a ton, but Re: Duck Dynasty: They’re just funny guys, period. I’m sure some people use the show to belittle rednecks but they’re missing the point, to the degree that there is one. Not sure how much of the show is “real” but their charisma certainly is.

  • Mike Hewitt

    I think you are missing a rather large block of the criticism for Bioshock in there. The biggest issue with Infinite’s racial overtones is how superficial they were. They were used for shock value rather than for actually exploring any greater issues. At any point in the game did you hear the N word uttered? No you didn’t, because that would be going to far. I’m not saying that a game needs to have the N word or anything like that, but by all measures life might actually be better, and people more tolerant, for black people in Columbia rather than on the ground.

    Same with the revolution. It was easier to depict them as an ideological extreme rather than employing any sort of nuance. “How do we make them seem bad? Let’s have them kill a child!” The game is trying to bash you over the head with whatever emotion it wants you to feel at that specific time.

    And can’t Sucker Punch just be a bad movie? You seem to take issue with the reasons some people have for not liking it, but the one thing that is generally agreed upon is that it just isn’t good. On it’s own merits it’s poorly paced, poorly written, and poorly acted. I don’t think expressing your feelings on specific instances within a work is a bad thing. Your experiences inform how you feel and, a lot of the time, it is the only thing you bring with you into a theater.

    • Nick Ramsay

      I think the part of the game where they try to force you to assault a man for interracial marriage is worse than the casual use of the N word.

      • Mike Hewitt

        That’s the perfect example of what I’m talking about. Do you really think that a racist populace would react to interracial marriage with a carnival event? No. What would have actually happened is that those two would have been handled by a lynch mob–tared, stripped naked, and hung from a tree. The entire sequence is done solely for the shock value. At best, it’s a juvenile depiction of racism.

        • Nick Ramsay

          I think it was an effective juxtaposition of the pageantry of the American utopia against the stark reality of the racist undertones. It worked for me.

          I’m sure if it had just been a “typical” lynching it would have had far more shock value.

  • SydBob

    Thank you for so perfectly wording the gripe I always had with most critics and ALL the comment sections.

    Btw, since Unreality change the comment section with the sign in, a LOT less people are commenting. It’s the only place I know on the web where people where behaving and brought something interesting to the discussion. Unreality lost a bit of it’s soul. Please Paul, can you fix it?
    Pass it along to him please…

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      He’s reading. Dude runs a tight ship. You make a good point, but spambots and the like make anonymous comment sections a major pain. I like that I get email when someone responds to my comments too.

      • Nick Ramsay

        My uncle’s next-door neighbour’s dog made $2.50 last year on the internet. He’s a lazy dog. Find out how at spamware&viruses dot com.

        • Indy Z

          That made my day :)

      • SydBob

        That’s what I figured when I saw the changes, but I guess I miss the old days! hahaha.
        Anyway, I don’t know why there’s less comment because it’s pretty easy to sign on with Facebook or Google. I can’t possibly fathom that someone who read this site doesn’t have one of those…

    • paultassi

      Yeah the old system had its advantages, but Disqus exists for a reason. We were having a lot of problems with spam and this fixed that. But glad to see we are still able to have substantive discussions even this new era. Hopefully more people will be able to adjust.

  • SydBob

    Hahaha Nick, I just realized when I clicked on your name beneath the title that you are Trashcanman! Are you THE Trashcanman who consistently commented on the site and was very critique of everything Paul said?
    If so, I just love life little irony’s.
    Anyway, you’re a good writer so I’m glad you write for my favorite site!

  • Paulie

    I’ve said it a hundred times, I’ll probably say it a hundred more, but just because something is “bad”, doesn’t mean you can’t like it. Appreciation and enjoyment of something is completely personal. 2 cases for me-Sucker Punch and Dylan Dog. Critics and audiences seem to agree that they’re both “bad” movies, yet I enjoyed both. Mainly as pure, straight-up shut the brain off and relax for a bit films. Does that mean that my opinion is invalid, as most of the internet seems to make me think? Or is it simply that, for whatever reason, I just like things? Likewise, there aee movies that people think are amazing, but I watch and think suck. Personal taste, live and let live, and all that. At the end of the day, does it really matter what I enjoy compared to what you enjoy? To try and boil it down, some people are Star Wars, some people are Star Trek, and some people are both. Just because I’m a serious Star Wars fan and don’t really like Star Trek doesn’t mean I’m going to deny you your opinion or think less of your tastes as a Star Trek aficionado. Just means I won’t be watching the same movie as you. Doesn’t mean we can’t both go grab some dinner afterwards. We like what we like, let others do the same. Thanks for this article, man, nicely written, I think.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      I was expecting more hate for this…does this mean my article is bad or good? I’ve confused myself. I’ll one up your Sucker Punch and Dylan Dog and raise you The Spirit. I actually enjoyed that piece of barely-thought-out random crap. And yeah, it is objectively bad. So bad it’s kind of amazing.

      • Paulie

        Yeah, I liked the Spirit, too. I think your article’s pretty good. It’s what I think a lot of people think, but don’t say. Defenders of “crap” try to say this all the time. Every piece of entertainment is different to each person. Exact same content, different eyes experiencing. But it’s easier to bag on someone for their opinion rather than accept another point of view. People want to feel validated and important, whether that means tearing someone down for what they enjoy, or a film for not living up to what they believe it should be. Take Man of Steel. I tried to stay spoler free for it. When I finally saw it, it was not even remotely the movie I thouhht it would be. But I still sat and watched, kindof amazed at what I was watching. Instead of Superman, I got a man trying to reconcile his alien nature with his human upbringing, finding the balance of where the two halves intersect. Other people took away something different, but that’s what I saw, based on my own experiences. Ok, I’ll stop rambling now. Thanks for your time if you read this. I appreciate the chance to put in my two cents.

        • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

          Thanks a bunch. I’ve never heard another person admit to enjoying The Spirit before. I always have to be that guy who opens his yap to stir up the hornets nest by defending stuff nobody else likes and bagging on stuff everybody else likes. It’s like the Minor Threat song, Out of Step With the World.

          • Paulie

            It’s not just you. I’m always that guy. I like what I like. I’m a chef, and on the line we’re always discussing movies, video games, comics, etc. I’m always the guy that brings something up, and production stops as people just stare at me like i kicked a puppy. For example, Phantom Menace. I liked it. Quite a bit. Were there parts that I didn’t like? (Jar jar, midichlorians). Absolutely. Did it ruin my life? Nope. But there it is. Other people lost all respect. Me, I just went back and fell in love with the original all over. Another is Alice:Madness Returns. I love the work Spicy Horse does, but other people just wanted another Alice. Me, I enjoyed it for what it was.

  • David R

    The most convincing criticism I’ve heard on Sucker Punch is that it’s basically trying to have its cake and eat it too. Sort of the same problem that Man of Steel had, where the movie is obviously mostly there to indulge the audience in a pretty shallow way, and unsuccessfully tries to work backwards and justify the indulgence as something profound.

    Your thesis gets a little hazy in here, but you almost seem to be arguing that nothing is truly bad? I think for me it’d be better to say that nothing is truly *worthless*. A good conversation can be had about any work, regardless of final quality. Sometimes that conversation can be about whether, how and why a failure occurred, but failure is still most definitely a thing that happens.

    Prerequisites for a good conversation, though, include not being dismissive or belligerent or caught up in your own head. So on that count we agree.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      Once again I had more to write than I could fit here so sorry about the haze. I try to balance between real life examples and experiences, semi-philosophical musings, and a little bit of ironic humor to avoid boring people, but then I start approaching the 2000 word mark and worry about length.

      I mostly just wanted to facilitate conversation and thought, but I guess the premise I never ended up outright stating would be that different people measure quailty in different ways, but there are some yardsticks that don’t really make a lot of sense to me like fashion choices and the creator’s personal life and views.

      • David R

        Fair enough.

        The other danger of dragging a creator’s personal preferences, whatever those may be, into a discussion is that often public figures get cartoonified or outright misrepresented along the way. Like, I’m constantly fighting the war on the Star Wars Prequels and it’s so hard to get past people’s (mis?)preconceptions of Lucas as an artless, money-grubbing businessman. It’s dangerous to categorize people we know in real life, nevermind people we haven’t met. And yeah, disagreeing with someone about one issue shouldn’t mean jettisoning their thoughts on everything.

  • cypher20

    I will say I struggle with the question of artist intentions and motivations. On the one hand, if you can pull something good out of a work, even though you don’t agree with the creator on everything, why not do so? I don’t agree with Ayn Rand or George Orwell on every facet of their personal beliefs, but I still can agree with some of what they write.

    On the other hand, take that reasoning too far and it seems to me that you could make anything say anything. Thus, you have people applying all sorts of crazy Marxist theory and other such things to works and making them say things the authors never intended in the slightest.

  • Remy Carreiro

    Diggin’ it. This piece took some balls.

  • Uriel Zetazate

    I just have one question: Can you do this with music?

    I generally don’t have as much of a problem accepting movies, games, or TV series for what they are, but my blood really boils whenever someone tells me they like modern pop music with a straight face. I think the closest I can get to accepting pop music on its own merits is to remember that more often than not, they’re just stage personas. For example, I can accept that Kesha is actually a genius in real life, Lady Gaga is talented, and they just choose to make those kinds of music for their own reasons; but that doesn’t mean I have to like them.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      I agree. I actually enjoy a lot of Gaga’s stuff, though. Girl can write a hook. But most modern pop music is so empty and cynically constructed by corporations for precise demographics that you literally do have to shut your brain off to be able to stand it. There is just no way for me to understand how a person comes to the conclusion that Taylor Swift and the Black Eyed Peas are good and Rush is bad. That’s why I just avoid that kind of crap altogether when I can.

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