Dear Moviegoers and Cinephiles,
One of the more interesting bits of culture clash going on these days is the contrast between fan centric entertainments like Deadpool, and films like The Witch, Crimson Peak, or even last years’ Under the Skin—films that spring, unasked for, from a singular vision.
It is true that very few people were clamoring for a film like The Witch: a historical psychodrama involving puritans, witches and the most talented goat ever to grace the screen. Conversely Deadpool only became more than Ryan Reynolds’ wet dream because its creators were able to convince their studio that a significant audience for their product already existed.
I’m not sure there is a better way to describe the difference between a work of art and a competent piece of entertainment. One is something you weren’t even aware you needed, while the other’s success is often dependant on being exactly what you expected.
This difference is also why after-movie polling (things like Cinemascore and its ilk) are only useful in the case of films where the audience is sure of what it is they’re getting themselves into. The Witch, Crimson Peak and Under The Skin, critical darlings all, drew poor Cinemascore ratings at least partly because they confounded and subverted the expectations of a large segment of their audience. Deadpool, on the other hand, seems to have been what people wanted when they walked into the theatre.
One of the downfalls of tools like Cinemascore and even Rotten Tomatoes is they aren’t much use once you step outside a very narrow band of genre entertainments. In fact they’re usually misleading, because what they measure has far more to do with expectations than quality. A lot of the negative backlash directed towards The Witch, in particular, seems to come from people who were expecting a genre exercise like Insidious, and instead were faced with something far more complex and subtle.
Part of this negative response is born out of how pre-eminent trailers have become as a way to sell your film. While Deadpool was laser sharp in selling itself as a seditious and bold piece of R-rated insouciance, the film was actually designed specifically to fulfill audience expectations. There was nothing at all surprising about it—every bit of marketing was aimed at reassuring a potential ticket buyer that this is your Deadpool. And the degree to which that campaign was successful was measured in how much the promise of the trailers manifested in the finished product. But there is no way to encapsulate The Witch in a couple of minutes because most of what makes the film compelling is irreducible. There is no elevator pitch that can really do it justice.
However, more and more it seems like some significant percentage of the audience are basing their enjoyment of a film on whether or not it fits a certain predetermined criteria. Part of this is because we have become used to consuming entertainment in a way that doesn’t necessarily require our full attention. So many people multi-task their entertainment time, scrolling through Twitter or Instagram while half-watching something, that it is perhaps too much to ask for some to engage with a film that doesn’t simply check some boxes.
This isn’t new. There has always been a push and pull between movies, books and music that comfort and reassure us with their familiarity and works that unsettle and upset, leaving us with far more questions than answers. And in some real ways the avenues open to individuals to create that second variety of art are easier to negotiate now than ever before. But that kind of work will also rarely pass a particular commercial threshold, because it requires more from audiences than most people are interested in investing.
So it isn’t necessarily a zero sum circumstance—The Witch and Deadpool both have their place. The squawking between tribes that seems to fuel much of social media is perhaps more sound than fury. But there is a disquieting narrowing that seems to be happening, at least in the conversation surrounding the two different modes. In the same way that political differences seem to have become more acute—at least partly abetted by the kind of insulating bubbles that social media seems to encourage, or at least facilitate—there seems to be the cultural equivalent lurking in the darker recesses of twitter, tumblr and all the other various forms of social media. And sadly, because most of this discourse seems like the ill-informed ranting of small children, I think a lot of people dismiss its power.
Cumulatively the group-think that often surrounds these kinds of social media conversations—so much of what is deemed “good” is the result of a kind of bullying sophistry rather than actual persuasion or even revelation—is becoming more and more influential. And it sometimes feels like the creative process is being steered by a committee of millions.
The critic and the audience are fundamentally important but their influence should be at a remove from the actual creative process, otherwise the whole procedure is circumscribed by exactly the sort of people who really shouldn’t have that kind of influence. How interesting can any kind of creative output be if it is nothing more than transcribing someone else’s idea—to the letter, if they had their way.
I tend to think that my responsibility as an audience member is more about broadening and simultaneously refining my own aesthetics. Improving my capacity to recognize something that has some value, after the fact, is far more useful than trying to directly influence the process as it occurs.
There is no way to game the system so that you will be guaranteed what you’re spending your hard earned money on is going to be what you expected, at least without seriously diminishing one of the things that makes any kind of art valuable—its capacity to surprise. So while I’m happy that Deadpool, and cultural products like it, are part of the landscape, I sure hope that particular species of entertainment doesn’t become so ubiquitous that it blots out everything else. Because, for me at least, if it ever does become that zero sum, I would rather a world filled with The Witch than its smart-assed, low stakes alternative.