Saturday, January 7, 2017

Mailanka Rants: It's okay to like bad movies

So, a friend recently linked me to this guy's channel on movie editing and criticism, and he gets into some pretty deep stuff, but the one that leapt out at me, that I felt demanded greater discussion, was this video.  The question he is asked is this:
Jurassic World: I liked the movie because it felt like a bad B-movie.  Do you think movies can be genuinely good because of their "badness"?
 To which Folding Thoughts stumbles a bit, because how can you call something good because of its badness?  Then he begins to discuss genre, but I think his initial confusion signaled something important: the questioner framed his question badly, and I think I know why.

The question isn't really "Can bad movies be good?"  but "Is it okay for me to like a critically panned movie?"

The answer is yes.  It's also not the point.

The Emperor's New Clothes and Status Anxiety

Perhaps I'm just projecting, but I often see this sort of question crop up, where someone will criticize a movie and those who genuinely like it will bristle and rise to its defense.  They might even hurl abuse at the critic.  Alternately, someone will pretend to dislike a movie that everyone else dislikes, because they do not want to seem to be foolish. This last, this appearance of foolishness, I think, drives the question.  Our audience member likes a film that the critic thinks is very bad.  Is he, then, a fool?

As a species, our desirability as mates is often tied to how smart we are and how much status we have, but these things are fundamentally abstract and hard to pin down.  If we want to know whether you or I are stronger, we can see who can lift the heaviest object and then have an objective notion as to who is stronger.  But what about who is smarter or who is "better" as a person, more virtuous and wiser?  Maybe you're more feminist than I am, but is that actually virtuous?  Perhaps you know more scientific trivia than I do, but does that really make you smarter?  We don't know, because it depends on too many other factors, many of which we do not (and maybe cannot) know.

This struggle drives the story of the Emperor's New Clothes, where the con artists argue that they'll create a garment so fine that only the wisest and best of people will be able to see it.  This highlights our insecurities: we secretly fear that we're "not good enough" and we fear to admit this.  What if you're the only person who cannot see the Emperor's New Clothes? If you admit it, then people will think you a fool, and we'd rather secretly be fools than admit that we are fools.

So let's get this out of the way right now: are you smart?  Are you high status?  Chances are, if you're reading this, you're probably of about average intelligence, like everyone else.  If you are smarter or stupider than everyone else, chances are that it's not by very much, because intelligence lies on a bell curve: most people are about equally smart.  Are you high status?  That rather depends on what you mean.  Chances are, if you're reading this, you're not desperately poor (by which I mean, you're not someone starving in a developing country), but you're probably not the king of the world either, just from the sheer fact that most people are not the king of the world.  Chances are, you are not Bill Gates, Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump.  Chances are, you do not have millions of dollars or the  regular opportunity to sleep with super models..  Chances are, you are average (for someone in a  country with regular internet access and the sort of free time necessary to read blogs).

But the cool thing about intelligence and status is that they can improve.  By "intelligence" we often mean "knowledge and wisdom" and we gain those by learning.  Status often reflects the results of our knowledge, as we put lessons into practice and expand our personal power.  This is a key distinction, and why our vlogger gets flustered, because he's talking about a completely different thing than the audience member.  The latter is seeking justification for his taste, while the former is trying to improve your knowledge on film making.

"Objectively good."

Essentially,all models are wrong, but some are useful.
-George E.P. Box

Folding Thoughts mentions the phrase "objectively good," which is a troublesome phrase.  People will begin to discuss personal taste and such,but he's likely not concerned with this for the same reason I often am not when I discuss "how you should do X", not because we're stating that we know what your taste should be, but because we're working from a model, and the purpose of that model is to entertain you.

Certain things generally work better than other things.  Do you prefer toast or bread? One of my favorite sayings is "With so little effort, bread and water can become toast and tea," which is lovely for reasons I'll get into some other time, but it assumes that toast is better than bread.  Why is that?  Well, the heating of the bread both caramelizes the natural sugars in the bread and creates a maillard reaction with the proteins, both of which are flavors that humans have evolved to love, creating a super-stimulus of better bread.  It's why you like the thin crust on the outside of a well-seared steak, or why people love fried chicken, and its the basis for why gravy is so good (if made properly, from fond).

But some people like untoasted bread.  In fact, some people like bland, spongy, white wonder-bread, preferably with the crust cut off.  Are they wrong?  Are they stupid?  Well, no.  Heck, I'll eat straight bread dough and like it. So what's wrong with us?

Some of this is a matter of taste.  There's a nice TED Talk that neatly skewers the idea of the "best" of anything ("There is no best spaghetti sauce, there are best spaghetti sauces").  Different people want different things, or the same person wants different things at different times, and this is part of what Folding Ideas means when he dives into genre: what you want out of Pacific Rim is different from what you want out of Citizen Kane.  What makes one a good movie would make the other a bad movie.

More than that, consider the intent of art.  An artist attempts to convey an idea while entertaining you.  A chef tries to make a meal you will enjoy.  If you liked what the creator gave you, then the creator succeeded.  Period.  The point of a model is to have a mental grasp of what people will probably like.  If you have guests coming over, you're probably better off feeding them toast and tea than bread and water, as in you'll have a higher probability of pleasing them, and so we say that this is "better," not because toast is fundamentally and always superior to bread, but because a loose collection of statistics and experiences have given us this rule of thumb.

When a film critic like Folding Thoughts expresses what generally works and what generally doesn't, He's not staking out critical ground and saying "Only fools like this", but rather, he's pointing to techniques that work and do not work.  If you're going to make a movie, you're probably better off listening to him than you are discarding his advice.  But if you're an audience member, his advice is mostly good for getting a sense of whether or not to take a risk on a movie, not whether or not you should like it.

If we want to discuss flaws, of Jurassic World, I can totally cite some.  Given that the original Jurassic Park was a celebration of what we knew to be accurate about dinosaurs, why aren't we updating the series with the latest paleontologist finds (such as feathered dinosaurs)?  What's with the excessively long death scene of the children's care-taker?  It seems almost pornographic to have that death go on and on in that daisy-chain of murder. And why is it relevant that the monster is "part velociprator?"  Humans aren't part velociraptor yet Chris Pratt can control them and we spent the first half of the movie establishing that a relationship is vital to controlling them, evidently unless you have the right snippet of their DNA in which case you get magic powers over them.  And then, why do they suddenly become good at the end?  Nothing changed, as far as I could tell, other than that the writer first wanted a cool human to control velociraptors, then scary velociraptors killing people, then finally an awesome scene of velociraptors killing the big monster.  And what does it say about the themes of the film when we have a strong working woman who is shamed for her lack of attention towards children and her romantic frigidity towards a man, only to have it melt when he rescues her? 

At the same time, I definitely enjoyed Jurassic World more than I thought I would.  I liked the forays into genetic engineering and the creation of monsters from a pulpy perspective.  I'm also more politically conservative, and thus I'm less interested in feminist themes, and I must admit I quite enjoy the sight of an attractive woman fleeing monsters in a jungle while in heels (I also very much enjoy those old-time jungle movies where Tarzan rescues Jane from whatever, and this movie certainly had that vibe, which probably part of what appealed to our audience member, what might be one of the things he meant by "b-movie").  I also found it visually exhilarating, and it tugged on some nostalgia for the original Jurassic Park.  So I liked it.  It worked for me.

Could it have been a better movie?  Sure.  And it's important to see how, to take lessons from things that didn't work or were unnecessary.  Perhaps the movie says something about the continuing appeal of a damsel in distress, if done right (and murdering a damsel in distress over several minutes is probably not an example of "done right.").  Did the movie really need villainous velociraptors?  If you want to have a discussion about man's relationship with dinosaur, why not go deeper into that, in a more consistent way, instead of making it the side-show to the film?  In fact, if you dive into what Folding Thoughts has to say about films, you'll find most of his criticism has nothing to do with what you know or understand about film-making.  He'll dive into the details of film editing, for the most part, much of which is very new to me.  By listening to his criticism, I'll learn more about what would make a better movie than I did before!

I thought this was an RPG blog?

What I want you to take away from this is the realization that the point of "rules" and "what's a good movie or not" aren't there to tell you what you're allowed to like and what you're not allowed to like.  They're there to advise you on the creation of quality content, and to warn you away from content that's probably not great.

As a role-player, you create content.  We know GMs do this, but even players do it.  We have whole books dedicated to "doing it right" or entire swathes of criticism about which RPGs are good (GURPS is one, BTW) and which are bad (Rifts, totally Rifts).  These offer guidelines and observations.  Does it mean you and your group are "wrong" for "enjoying bad games" or for "playing wrong?" Of course not.  If it works for your group, it's fine! The advice might be wrong, or maybe it's trying to take your game to the next level: The games I ran as a teenager worked.  The games I run now are better.  They have tighter flow, better characterization, smoother mechanics.  It's not a binary question of good or bad, but a messy graph with an axis of "better" and "worse" crossed with axes of taste, genre and interest.  "Quality" is a rich, complex map that's difficult to navigate, and criticism offers some useful directions to explore.

Remember when I discussed how intelligence and status are both abstract and can be improved? If you take criticism personally, if you curl up defensively against criticism to protect your fragile status, then your status will never improve, and you'll never grow as a person.  If you learn to unclench, if you realize that criticism cannot hurt you, only improve you and you use it to improve yourself in your own way, your intelligence will grow, and your ability to make things happen (your power) will also improve, and people will appreciate you more (that is,you'll gain more status). Good criticism is not an attack, but a gift!
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