The Job of Understanding

I am profoundly worried. To be honest, I have been for some time now. More and more often, film critics are dismissing films because, as they say, “I didn’t get it”.

This sheer idiocy is depressing. People called Transformers 2 an incomprehensible mess, and while I agree with the latter, I understood the story just fine. Yes, the story was terrible, but there was never a moment where I didn’t understand what was happening.

The reason I bring this topic up is because of Inception, the newest film from Christopher Nolan. I could tell from promotional material that the film would be rather high-concept, and I immediately thought of this issue. Nolan is famous for making films that can’t be fully appreciated on the first viewing, Memento being a great example, so I worried that critics would dismiss the film simply because they couldn’t understand it.

My fears were confirmed by the early reviews of the film. Of the first forty or so, there were seven negative ones, and more than a few of them focused on not understanding the film. The one that popped out to me was this one from noted CD thief Rex Reed. Here are some highlights:

Inception, Christopher Nolan’s latest assault on rational coherence, wastes no time.

Like other Christopher Nolan head scratchers-the brainless Memento, the perilously inert Insomnia, the contrived illusionist thriller The Prestige, the idiotic Batman Begins and the mechanical, maniacally baffling and laughably overrated The Dark Knight-this latest deadly exercise in smart-aleck filmmaking without purpose from Mr. Nolan’s scrambled eggs for brains makes no sense whatsoever.

It’s difficult to believe he didn’t also write, direct and produce the unthinkable Synecdoche, New York. But as usual, like bottom feeder Charlie Kaufman, Mr. Nolan’s reputation as an arrogant maverick draws a first-rate cast of players, none of whom have an inkling of what they’re doing or what this movie is about in the first place, and all of whom have been seen to better advantage elsewhere.

Now, Leo and his team of special “extractors” must achieve “inception”-meaning that instead of stealing dreams, they must plant some. If you’re still awake, you’re one step ahead of me. I dozed off ages ago.

None of this prattling drivel adds up to one iota of cogent or convincing logic. You never know who anyone is, what their goals are, who they work for or what they’re doing.

Excellent! We’ve hit on the problem. First of all, you wrote a very positive review of Memento, you liar. Second, let’s not waste any time in saying this.

It is not the job of a director to pander to the audience and tell them everything. It is the job of the audience to figure out what the director is telling them. If this were not true, movies would not be interesting to watch.

Was that clear enough for you, or do I need to repeat it? One of the reasons that I love David Fincher’s Fight Club so much is because it doesn’t just keep a few secrets to itself, it patently refuses to spill those secrets, and allows intrepid viewers to enjoy discovering them. I would hate to watch a movie that simply tells me everything, that’s no fun at all.

The point it, if you don’t “get” a movie, that’s your problem. The movie can’t be at fault for that. Especially if you are a film critic. If you are so, it is your job to pore over a film, and try to figure it out, or at least check online to see if someone else has, and draw conclusions from that. If you won’t even do that, then you are lazy, and there is no other way to put it. I’m sure Rex Reed would have hated 2001 as well, and he would have been wrong.

That brings me to my next point, which also has to do with Toy Story 3, in a minor way. I have no problem with someone disagreeing with me about a certain film. I respect their opinion. However, when over 200 critics have universally decided that a film is good and 3 people disagree, we have to question that. They may simply be contrarians, like Armond White. But if they aren’t, then what are they? Are they bad critics? Is it possible to be a bad critic? These kinds of questions tend to baffle me. So far, there have only been about forty reviews about Inception, so the praise can hardly be called unanimous. However, the positive reviews have been exceptionally positive, and the negative reviews have been extremely negative. What can we make of all this?

I think that it all comes down to this. Critics are more “right” about good films being good than they are about bad films being bad. Critics should be discerning and picky people, so when they give a film a good review, they should really mean it. Therefore, it stands to reason that critics would be more reluctant to praise films then they would be to pan them. Therefore, if Inception happens across a completely split critical base, I’ll probably have to side with the “positive” people. Even if I don’t like the film. After all, if so many people loved it, there’s a chance that I’m missing something, and I should at least go back and check.

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Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

2 thoughts on “The Job of Understanding”

  1. It seems to be more commonplace for people to not be patient enough to think through a film that isn’t “go to point A, shoot 25 bad guys, get the briefcase, go to point B, bonk that chick, etc.” Like you said, it’s laziness. And our culture is aiming more and more towards laziness.

    One thing that bugs me about Reed’s little blurb about Inception is the mention of “None of this prattling drivel adds up to one iota of cogent or convincing logic.” Considering this is a movie about briefcases containing liquids that can make a person have lucid dreams within dreams, I can’t imagine that logic would truly reign over a film like this.

    Reed may not be a bad critic (as far as I know), but he certainly is one that has an axe to grind with Nolan (as far as I can see from that little quote up there). And he got attention because he disses a man that has garnered so much hype in his career. After all, that’s how you gain attention. Either you write something spectacular that gets everyone support and makes you instantly quotable, or you write something that makes everyone believe that you are the most ignorant man in the country. Either way, the goal is to gain the attention from everyone. The only difference between the two is that it’s far easier to say “Inception sucks” than to expand upon that thought.

    People are getting lazier. The problem, however, is that the lazy people are getting the same air time/attention that the non-lazy people are working hard to maintain.

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