Super 8: The critical take in defense of nostalgia
Browsing through the reviews of Super 8, it seems like a lot of fans and critics are giving the film -- a pastiche of late '70s/early '80s Spielberg -- a soft critical pass based on their nostalgic reactions to the time period in which it's set and their love of the films it homages (sorry guys, but a feature-length exploration of the idealized memories of the geeks of my generation sounds like my purgatory). Being a film aficionado, a writer (sometimes about film) and an attempted critic/academic myself (my treatise on assholess in movie theaters is up for many prestigious awards), I obviously agree that going easy on a film because it reminds nerds of when they were kids is problematic, to say the least. But it's not necessarily stupid.
I recently found myself in a 140-character debate with Badass Digest's Devin Faraci, who took to Twitter to deem that any discussion relating to nostalgia in a film review automatically invalidates that author's opinion, saying, "I quit reading any SUPER 8 review that talks about fond memories of being a 12-year-old geek," and following up with, "Nostalgia has no place in intelligent reviewing. Nostalgia has no place in intelligent people, actually."
I've been reading Devin since 2004, and the man's opinions can be divisive, to say the least (another bias disclaimer: he's one of my writing heroes, and I can probably count on one hand the amount of instances in which I've disagreed with his stance. In fact, I am scared to death to be writing anything about his writing. Luckily I'm sure he has no idea who I am and no time to read this). But while I disagree with him in this situation, I understand his hardline stance; watching critics review a movie's perceived sense of nostalgia while seemingly ignoring its flaws is frustrating, but listening to the routine Internet troll attack your valid and well-reasoned review of a film with "OMG SHUT UP IT'S SO MUCH LIKE THE EE TEE," while expected, is infuriating.
"Nostalgia," by its classical definition (Greek roots and shit), is a strong longing or yearning for a usually idealized past era. Like everything, language evolves, and "nostalgia" has come to define a more abstract feeling of general fondness for the past. This, however, is a definition Devin has rejected in the context of this discussion, so like envy or hatred, nostalgia is defined as an emotion without redeeming qualities -- "Nostalgia is the sad condition of disliking yourself and your life right now," Faraci posits.
That said, I think it's possible to hold conflicting opinions about my trip to Disneyland when I was 9 (fondness for the Magical Kingdom), and my attitude last month while I was standing in line for three fucking hours in the heat for the new Pirates of the Caribbean (fuck this place). There was an animatronic Johnny Depp standing within earshot that repeated four phrases over and over again. That doesn't mean I'm unhappy with myself or how my life turned out -- in the time that's passed since I was nine, I've been able to see a girl naked.
While there is a difference between being a child and being an adult, it's not based exclusively, or even primarily, on regret and pain. Yeah, it'd be cool if I could have hours of fun rolling down hills, but it's not that interesting to me anymore, and it's not just because I'm smarter now (just barely). It's because things change. My fond memories of being a kid lacking self-conscious restraint don't make me unintelligent or filled with self-loathing (my weight problems fill me with that. They also fill me with pizza). Playing was fun, and pretending otherwise is useless.
That doesn't change the fact that childhood is hard. Honest memories take into account the bittersweet nature of preadolescence: the heartbreaks, the self-esteem bruising, the regrets, the loss. An understanding of this interplay between heartbreak and joy is how one portrays a sincere picture of the past. My fond memories (even yearning) for childhood are not without an understanding of this dichotomy, so it would follow that one can experience nostalgia through a work that presents all the aspects of childhood, including the negative.
The 400 Blows is just as much about freedom, discovery, and optimism as it is about fear, anger, and abandonment. An honest story about childhood, flinching from neither joy nor pain, is inherently universal and nostalgic (other examples include: Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, which explores the unhinged anger of childhood and its accompanying fear, or ET, which perfectly mixes childlike wonder and terror). The blanket statement that nostalgia is dishonest is flawed -- it's not that the unintelligent are nostalgic, it's that the unintelligent are nostalgic about something that doesn't exist.
With that said, Faraci is more than free to dislike nostalgia as either a yearning or a fondness, and define it as a "horrible emotion." The question is if the nature of nostalgia makes it less valid than other feelings. Devin calls it "horrible," but there's like a grillion movies that seek to evoke negative emotions. Films like Funny Games not only present a situation where the audience is coerced into bloodlust, but that emotion is commented upon and condemned in the text of the film. Slasher movies have a fine tradition of including a character who's a fuckin' douchebag so we can fist pump when he gets fuckin' stabbed in his douchebag face. Is actively enjoying the death of someone we think is obnoxious less horrible than yearning for the past? More horrible? Less valid?
Storytelling is an art form that relies on collaboration. The artist needs the audience to complete their intent by engaging the art and reacting to it emotionally. The form engages intellect (to follow the logistics -- plot and character) to create and explore emotional reactions; we can experience fear without being in fear, experience hate or joy without truly feeling hate or joy, all in a controlled and contained environment, allowing us to explore or deconstruct those feelings.
Given the nature of storytelling, it would follow that all emotional responses are worthy of serious discussion. The aim of critical analysis is to speak to the validity of these emotional reactions -- we look at how and why they're created, the intellectual mechanics and processes that inspire the audience to feel. We attempt to define the effects of telling the story in the manner it's being told, and then we look at whether or not those processes are effective in their perceived end-goal, and then whether or not these effective or ineffective processes are simple or complex, cheap or earned. A "dishonest" emotion is rarely that -- it's generally an honest emotion created through dishonest means.
Therefore, a successful critic has to have the intelligence to identify the disconnect between emotion and intellect, because while intellect is independent of memory (no matter what you've done or been through, a valid argument is a valid argument), while emotion has the baggage of personal experience.
A story told in a successful way can evoke universal truths, even if the personal history of the audience is different from the story being told -- the issue is that a story told in an unsuccessful way can still find identification in the audience member that brings the right kind of baggage. Considering the nature of storytelling as a medium that primarily evokes emotion, an emotional response can easily become bias -- especially if it's not dictated by an effective use of storytelling mechanics. It's possible to like a bad movie because something about it spoke to you personally, but the intelligent critic can and should identify this bias, explain it, and move on to identify the more objective nature of what parts of the film worked or didn't. Here's a great example, from a 2008 review of The Wackness:
"To be fair, I'm predisposed to adoring The Wackness -- it's set in New York City in 1994, which was where and when I was living what might turn out to be the best days of my life. But even beyond that, I think the movie is just wonderful and is real, honest, hilarious and even a little bit touching."
The reviewer lays out his nostalgic bias, and then goes on to argue and discuss the effectiveness of the film's mechanics as a tool to create emotion and express truth.
The reviewer is Devin Faraci.* There's a difference between enjoying a film and understanding that it's well made, alongside how and why it's well made. There's plenty of films I appreciate but don't enjoy. Clockwork Orange (the cacophony of it gives me a headache). Black Swan (not sure why, I need to see it again). Short Cuts (kinda just not an Altman guy). I don't especially like these movies, but I understand and appreciate the ways in which they're effective.
I also have no problem enjoying films that have a great deal of flaws, though I understand that my emotional reaction, whatever it may be, doesn't in any way gloss over the film's problems, making it objectively good or well-made. The mere presence of a strong emotional response is not a marker of quality -- it's the duty of the critic to explain the emotional response the film evokes, and beyond that, whether or not it was done well.
It's easy to make people cry. Kill the cute kid, play a sad song, have people look off into the distance teary-eyed. The entirety of a movie like Crash is based on crass and cheap manipulation of simple emotional buttons, impossibly easy answers to difficult questions and unearned redemption. This can be the same for any emotion, including and especially nostalgia, and it would appear that Super 8 suffers by being both simple (it really doesn't have much to say, and when it does, it gets bogged down into an alien story without any real bearing on the emotional throughline), and cheap (there's nothing easier than creating a pastiche from what's become our generation's shared memories of an Amblin-sponsored childhood. Mimicry is inherently cheap, and it creates emotions that are dishonest).
Watch this shit and tell me you don't feel generally moved, even though you don't know who the hell these people are.
In Crash, Sandra Bullock falls down and it cures her of racism. Later she adopts a large black teen and wins an Oscar.
Emotions need to be earned in order for the piece of art being critiqued to truly be "good," through identification with complex, interesting characters that drive forward a logically coherent plot. But if your dad died recently and that means you cry when Martin Landeau dies in the hacktastic Jim Carrey vehicle The Majestic, and that led you to walk away from the film moved, you're not unintelligent. Expressing it doesn't make you unintelligent. Plenty of film critics have had momentary traipses into sharing personal experience in an effort to clarify their emotional position:
"After one of those terrible lovers' quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair, I came out of the theater, tears streaming . . . crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine."
That was written by Pauline Kael.
Expressing your emotional bias doesn't make you unintelligent. You're just a moron if you think that makes the movie good.
*This isn't supposed to be a ha-ha-daily-show-style GOTCHA. Opinions and writing styles change, and this was 3 years ago. It's still an effective example of this identification of emotional response being used by an intelligent critic.
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