Saturday, July 11, 2009

Zeitgeist viewings

There wasn't any part of me that wanted to see Twilight.

Except, that is, the part of me that wanted to be able to reference it.

You see, I have a general contempt for youth culture. I'll be the first to admit it, and I'll also be the first to admit that it makes me just like all those other "grownups" who swore to remain forever committed to embracing what's "young" and "hip." (Or failing "hip," at least "popular.") Well, there's a reason that "young" and "hip" things don't appeal to us that much -- they also strike us as frivolous, as something we'd never have had the poor taste to endorse when we were that age. (This coming from a generation who worshipped New Kids on the Block).

But film critics can't afford to be so removed from "what the kids like these days," because we may review a movie that requires that knowledge at any given time. Just because I, a 35-year-old film critic, am not interested in Twilight, doesn't mean that the person I'm writing for isn't. Even if I'm not actually reviewing Twilight itself.

Okay, Vance, I get why you might need to keep an open mind if you were reviewing Twilight. But why watch it if you're not reviewing it?

Well, because I never know when I might want to make a snide reference to it in some other review, or some other piece of writing altogether. And you can be a lot more confident in your own snideness if you've actually seen the product in question.

I've seen a number of movies that capture the zeitgeist for this very reason. One that comes to mind is High School Musical, which I also watched when my wife was out of town. She wouldn't do anything more than shake her head and laugh, and she'd even get my reasoning. But I would have been self-conscious. It still strikes me as silly in some way, as me regressing into the mind of a teenybopper. So she'll have to check out my "most recently seen" section of my blog if she wants to know I saw Twilight. (Eh, I'll probably tell her.)

Teen movies are one kind of movie I see in this way -- another is movies that ruled the box office. I remember that I had to see The Passion of the Christ (in the theater, no less) because I wanted to get "what it was all about." I felt it was important, as a critic and fan, to have this movie in my personal database. It's for this same reason that I sometimes feel myself moving toward Paul Blart: Mall Cop on the new release shelf. I want to understand what it was that made American moviegoers shell out $146 million in ticket sales for it. (By this same logic, I will eventually have to relent and see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, even after deciding against it upon hearing the hoots and howls over Skids, Mudflaps, and all the other Michael Bay-related ridiculousness).

So of the movies I've just mentioned, how many was I actually glad I saw? Well, all of them, in a way, even though the only one I'd say I liked was High School Musical. (In fact, I may consider seeing the sequels at some point.) I did not think that much of Twilight, at least not after the promising first 30 minutes. The movie has major structural/pacing problems, most notable from the point when the vampires are involved in a casual game of vampire baseball, and then barely 10 minutes later, the plot has progressed to a hurried and silly climax. And you pretty much know the deal on Passion of the Christ -- it's unmitigated masochistic torture almost from start to finish.

But whether these movies are good or not is pretty much beside the point. People have asked me why I would intentionally see movies I know are not good, and usually I can answer that I'm reviewing them, thank you very much. But there are also movies you should see just for the sake of it. It's gotten past the point where this kind of reference would have any currency, but I still feel like I must eventually sit through Gigli, even though I understand it is not "so bad it's good." Sometimes you have to see bad things just because they are bad -- and because famous bad movies are just as important to know as famous good movies.

I don't generally like writers who are always engaged in "cultural name dropping" -- it's a bit like those shows (Psych is one) that think the only thing you need for clever writing is to make as many pop culture references as possible. But a well-placed, relevent reference can really bring something home to a reader. How else could I have ever written this opening line to my review of White Chicks, which I happen to still enjoy, even though my references are totally random?

"There were certain things audiences were just never going to accept: 1) that everyone in Weekend at Bernie's really thinks Bernie is alive, 2) that Denise Richards plays a nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough, and 3) that two Wayans brothers in whiteface, looking more like carnival freaks than drag queens, could be mistaken for prominent teen socialites by everyone in the Hamptons."

Hey, it's not Shakespeare, but it's as close as I'm going to get.

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