The New York Film Critics Circle held their vote today to award the best in the movie business over the past year. Some choices were more expected than others but what really stuck with me as I followed the event on Twitter was the way several critics prefaced their thoughts with warnings over hype. Some told their readers to ignore the hype and backlash while some lamented how the very act of acclaim would lead to countless think-pieces on how the critics got it all wrong and that film everyone loves really isn’t all that. The cycle of hype, acclaim, backlash and backlash to the backlash (say that three times as fast) that surrounded the release of Interstellar unfolded faster than Matthew McConaughey piloting a shuttle through a wormhole. It seems as though hype is something we’ve become increasingly fearful of.
There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of scepticism when it comes to criticism. It’s one of the crucial elements of forming your own opinions of culture. There’s much to be learned from reading the analyses of others, processing them and filtering said thoughts through your own unique lens. Getting a wide range of opinions is also key, so perhaps that’s why we’re so suspicious when a film or book receives universally rapturous acclaim. Surely it can’t be possible that so many critics with such varying interests and opinions could so enthusiastically champion the same thing? Such instances are also often seen as evidence of the supposed disconnect between the “elite” critics circles and the “real” or “normal” consumers of pop culture, implying intellectual differences and a brand of snobbery I’ve never been particularly comfortable with.
It’s natural for there to be differing opinions amidst as sea of praise, and it’s understandable why said voices may feel frustrated. For all the claims that it’s the cool thing to be the hater these days, it’s always disappointing for me to find myself at odds with a popular trend. Sometimes, you just want to scream (or capslock) “Why don’t I get it?” or “Why don’t you all see what I see?” You present your opposing case and hopefully great conversations can take place.
In the age of click-bait and the oversaturation of the blogging market, particularly when it comes to pop culture, writers are always on the hunt for what will bring them the most page views. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just how the business works nowadays. Sites have bills and staff to pay too. It’s a disheartening necessity that we have to live with, and we always have the option not to read them. Of course, we all know that’s not quite how it works. Sometimes we can’t help but be taken in by such click-bait, especially as it seems to take over every site. Whether you like it or not, and whether you’re even aware of it, you’ll be taken in by it at some point, particularly if the piece is so obviously contrary or designed to elicit outrage.
Let’s be clear – not all such pieces are explicitly designed to get people angry. This is an accusation a number of critics have faced recently due to their less than 100% positive reviews of Interstellar. Your opinion may be one that’s outrageous or even Armond White-esque, and it’s still your opinion, but it’s worth acknowledging the readership boost that comes with such pieces. Everyone’s aware of them, and with the proliferation of websites and need to stand out in the crowd, there’s also a race to be the first to start the so-called backlash. Couple that with Twitter and social media speeding up the natural news cycle and you’ve got a lot of noise.
So it should be no surprise that we’ve become so irritated and allergic to any kind of hype. We’ve psyched ourselves up so much to prepare for the inevitable kick-back that when something does come to the forefront of critical adoration, we’re immediately suspicious. We can almost set our watches to the backlash, artificial or otherwise. It’s not just that backlash has become expected – in some instances, it seems as though many see it as somehow owed. Websites speculate when certain acclaimed filmmakers will receive it while others proclaim pushback to be well overdue. To say it’s confusing and exhausting barely covers it – how can we have decent conversations about anything if all issues are presented so starkly in black and white?
I must admit, I hesitate to use the word ‘backlash’ because it feels like a word to easily used to describe what is often just solid criticism. The recent controversy surrounding the podcast Serial is a good example. A number of writers who are people of colour discussed what they saw as racially problematic issues with the series, only to be accused of pot-stirring in a number of prominently published pieces described as “the backlash to the backlash”. The very act of defining people like Julia Carrie Wong’s words as backlash devalued them in an attempt to reduce her very worthwhile argument to some kind of pop culture point scoring. It’s a common tool to disarm your debate opponent – call their intentions into question, play the jealousy card, claim it’s all for attention, and suddenly you win.
Purveyors of such entertainment can enjoy hype – despite my better judgement, I’m fully caught up in the excitement for The Force Awakens – but we don’t need it in the same way as certain publications. That hype can create an awful lot of content in the time between the announcement and the release and resulting discussion. There’s a reason that new Star Wars trailer has 4 page posts dedicated to dissecting every minute element. I’m expecting an equally verbose article on backlash in a couple of months’ time, well before the film’s release.
What’s that? “The Force Awakens backlash” already has 764,000 Google results? Never mind.