Sunday, May 14, 2017

The original audience didn't know shit

There's a tendency -- or at least, one could argue there should be -- to give movies made in other eras a certain benefit of the doubt. It was a different time, so if you view it only through the lens you have as a modern-day viewer, you will miss the things that appealed to the audience at that time.

National Lampoon's Van Wilder is not my best example of that, only my most recent.

But it is the example that's causing me to question the value of the whole thing.

If you're looking for the best and possibly most extreme example, take silent movies. If you were born after, say, 1970 and take only your current viewing standards as a means of judging the quality of movies, you might not like silent movies at all. You'd say they were too exaggerated, they were racist, they had a goofy sense of humor, the images didn't look good, and they were boring. I mean, if you were a philistine, you could say things like that.

But a certain element of appreciating a silent movie is putting yourselves in the shoes of its original audience. The greatest silent movies rise above even these adjustments, but the ones that are merely good would benefit from a little bit of a perspective shift. Imagine yourself as an audience member of that time, and you'll enjoy it a lot better.

I'm wondering, though, if this causes us to elevate films that truly aren't worthy.

Take National Lampoon's Van Wilder, a comparatively recent film, having come out only 15 years ago. In a lot of ways I think of 2002 as part of this era, not a different era, but watching Van Wilder Friday night reminded me that 15 years can actually feel like a long time in something like cinema, in which trends involving both a film's central elements (like its humor) and its superficial ones (like music or the opening credits) can undergo regular changes.

As I was watching (and not liking) this film, my first instinct was to think, "Well, if I'd seen it in 2002 I'm sure I would have liked it a lot more." And I already felt myself starting to adjust my star rating upward accordingly.

But would I have?

At the time Van Wilder was released, I remember thinking it looked really dumb (which is why I never saw it). But over the years, people I respected started describing their fond memories of it, mostly while being sure to speak of it in guilty pleasure terms, though sometimes not. That was part of the reason I gave it a shot Friday night.

The problem with trying to convince myself that I would have liked it better 15 years ago is that it assumes that I necessarily agree with those people.

Tastes are very subjective, and when it comes to humor, that's even more the case. You'll find yourself wildly disagreeing even with people who share your sense of humor in most ways. Plus, humor is often contingent on the circumstances of your viewing. If you were having a good day or seeing it with people who were ready to laugh, you might really find a movie funny. Without those conditions in place, you might hate it.

So it seems especially tricky to try to decide if something might have been funnier if you'd seen it 15 years ago, because it might have been funnier if you'd seen it two weeks ago, depending on your personal circumstances. And yet humor in particular can benefit from an enforced perspective shift, because something might have been incredibly funny in 2002 because it was specific to that moment. Just because that moment has passed does not mean that it wasn't highly effective at the time it was made.

But what if it wasn't effective at the time it was made?

Original effectiveness is an unsafe assumption to make, and if you make it just because some other people liked it once and because you might be unqualified to properly make that judgment now, you might be artificially championing a film that doesn't deserve it. We need to be able to call a spade a spade. If something seems bad, it might just be bad.

And maybe those people could only call it a guilty pleasure because they saw it at the exact moment of its peak timeliness, after which (or before which) it would have no value at all. "It was dumb but I enjoyed it," you'll often hear people say of movies like Van Wilder. Over time, the only part of that statement that truly endures is "It was dumb."

So how much of this thinking can be applied more broadly?

It's hard to say. It's certainly possible to genuinely dislike films from the earlier decades of cinema history, which you can define to continue as recently as is meaningful for you. If you're a young-un today, that might mean as recently as the 1980s or 1990s. You can legitimately dislike those films just because they might not be very good. Just because some people like them, it doesn't mean you have to.

But I'd say that the older a movie is, the more likely you are to feel the need to give it a star ratings boost beyond your actual feelings for it. "I'd give that movie a 2.5, but since it was made in 1933, it's probably really a 3.5." That kind of logic is pretty pervasive, I'd say, unless you are just so confident in your own opinions or some kind of illusory absolute value of the quality of a film that you feel like whatever star rating something deserves is the one it deserves, no asterisks necessary.

Conversely, as Van Wilder is only 15 years old, I can trust this version of myself to view it pretty similarly to how that version of myself would have viewed it.

There should be a kind of bad, though, that is so clearly bad that it transcends any specific moment in time. The bads that are so bad that no audience could have, or should have, liked the movie in question, whenever they lived. I kind of hope and pray for these types of bad, as they leave me with no ambiguity about how the film deserves to be judged. They're pretty rare, though. More likely you're left with a sense of something seeming just a bit lame, then tell yourself it was probably good at the time.

Van Wilder does not deserve such consideration, I've decided. So I'm calling a spade a spade.

The funny thing is that I am still kind of imprisoned by this mindset, on some level. I toyed with 1.5 stars as its rating on Letterboxd, but ultimately went with two, in part because of that nagging part of me that feels like I would have liked it better 15 years ago.

Still, I think even 28-year-old Vance would have found the sophomoric, obnoxious bro humor and gross-out gags wanting.

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