January 3, 2010

The Blogosphere Backlash Beast Roars Again

Rarely do the blogging world and the real world seem as distant from each other as during awards season, particularly in the month leading up to the Oscars. Hundreds of millions of "regular" people go about their daily business in January and February, oblivious to the endless debates raging online about whichever movie has captured the hearts of the taste-makers on its way to earning a trophy case full of awards. 

Yes, most regular people (not bloggers) don't care which movies received nominations for which awards, and if they give any attention at all to the Oscars, it's likely by accident on the night of the awards when they tune in and are devastated to learn their favorite primetime drama has been preempted. Each year the Academy Awards ceremony sets a new record for lowest-ever viewing audience, and none of the tricks the show's producers have tried in recent years (the mystery presenters, the Fellowship of Past Winners) has accomplished anything other than annoying regular viewers like me, for whom the ceremony is an almost sacred viewing experience.

Anyway, what's my point - that nobody watches the Oscars? No. My point is that people don't pay attention to all of the pre-Oscar criticizing or defending of nominees (particularly Best Picture front-runners, this year Avatar) that we bloggers participate in each season. So what are we doing? Why do we create a cacophonous echo chamber in which the same arguments are made over and over again with no resolution in mind?


It's only human, I suppose, to get emotional when critics and box-office numbers either support or reject your opinion (particularly when it's a published opinion), but backlash is the equivalent of name-calling at recess because someone is hogging the best swing. You're whining for no good reason. Champions of a movie are saddened to see a film's image tarnished, while critics of the movie gain no satisfaction when the film inevitably wins all the awards. It's a lose-lose situation for everyone involved, and ultimately says nothing about the quality or meaning of the film in question. In fact, most of the time the topics of debate are only about the award nominations for or public reactions to the film, and if you've seen it you're forced to either get on the bandwagon and grin or join the backlash ranks and get mad.

If you haven't been aware of the major movie backlash in the last couple of years, you haven't been paying attention online. Both Slumdog Millionaire and Juno were the biggest victims in 2008 and 2007, respectively, and while I wasn't online prior to 2007, I've since learned that Little Miss Sunshine and Crash were the favored whipping posts in the 2006 and 2005. Of course the fact that I wasn't online at the time is the whole point - the more people who enter the blogosphere each year, the worse the whole thing gets. And I'd be lying if I said I've been innocent in participating in these backlash back-and-forths. I may not have been adding to it much here, but I was definitely active in it by commenting on other blogs (for Slumdog, against Juno).

At the end of the day, what I'm really concerned about is how much online arguing can take away from the movie experience - especially when the whole point, in my mind at least, is for this blogging business to enhance that movie experience. I saw Avatar opening weekend, for example, but I've been hesitant to either read or write anything about it just because I know how contentious it has already become. Whether I loved it or hated it is mostly beside the point (I liked it a lot, for what it's worth) since it's already taken on a life of its own. I don't want to spend time convincing people who hated it that they're wrong, and I don't want to spend time convincing people who loved it that they should ease off on the hyperbole. In a case like this I should just see the film again (I plan to) and let it speak for itself.

Either way, the blogosphere is going to be a pretty poisonous place once again until mid-March.

26 comments:

  1. The fact that you loved AVATAR a lot Dan, really warms my heart. But let's not lose sight of the fact that the film received tremendous reviews from the critics we respect the most, and whatever backlash we see will no doubt be more over finantial success than artistic, a fact you do allude to here in yet another off-best most interesting post.

    Happy New Year's to you my very good friend!

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  2. In a case like this I should just see the film again (I plan to) and let it speak for itself.

    Don't do that. Instead, see it again, write about it, and let your review speak for itself. Write about the film as you react to it, rather than comparing it to its hype (positive or negative).

    Yes, corners of the blogosphere will be poisonous in future months. But you can be part of the solution -- turning it around, focusing debates away from awards to the films themselves.

    In the words of The Road, you can be one of the good guys.

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  3. Thanks, Sam, though I have to clarify that I only "liked" it a lot. ;-P Semantics, of course. Anyway, considering Avatar just crossed the $1b threshold in a matter of weeks, the financial discussion should simmer down pretty quickly. I think most people's problem is or will be with Avatar's Oscar chances. A lot of people hate James Cameron and do not want to give him a "King of the World" moment again.

    Jason - but do I have to carry the "fire inside"? Just kidding, and thanks for the encouragement. I know what you mean and I just have to make a decision about whether to carry the torch for this movie as I did last year, particularly when I didn't respond to it as strongly. In any event I do have some thoughts on it and would like to write them down if only for my posterity. Also, I should emphasize that I don't think arguing about films in general is a bad thing, but when it reaches a certain point about a certain issue it's not worth it anymore. I'll be forever outraged, for example, that Julia Roberts won Best Actress over Ellen Burstyn nine years ago. But convincing people I'm "right" about an opinion on something as trivial as an Oscar just doesn't seem worthwhile.

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  4. Why does conflict=poison? Some of the most interesting conversations I've had at parties recently have been about my comments on facebook about Avatar. We've gotten to talk about things like utilitarianism and white guilt and storytelling.

    When do you get to talk about stuff like that, if not around differing opinions of film?

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  5. Thanks for stopping by, Jeanne. You raise a good point that I tried to get at in my last comment here, and in general you sound like a much more well-reasoned person than most people who like to discuss film.

    But that's just it - you've been rightly discussing the film on its own merit, as opposed to wrongly discussing the film on its box office and/or award potential, which is what I'm getting at here. Most of the commentary about Avatar online is devolving into "How could this win Best Picture over such-and-such critical darling (The Hurt Locker or Up in the Air)?" or "T2 wasn't nominated for Best Picture" or "James Cameron hates your children" or "People are just being tricked by the 3D glasses". Meanwhile, the real points of discussion that you mention are lost in the woods.

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  6. "I saw Avatar opening weekend, for example, but I've been hesitant to either read or write anything about it just because I know how contentious it has already become."

    I kind of enjoy some of the banter - because for the most part it hardens my fidelity toward the films I like. When the banter goes on too long, I just ignore it. When I like a film and am able to express in writing what is good about the film despite its shortcomings, nothing - no amount of blogobanter - can dislodge my feelings about a movie. (And I usually establish those feelings about a movie after one viewing.)

    Just look at how all the criticism of Knowing could not change my feelings about it and stop me from seeing it three times -despite shortcomings that I was aware of.

    As for Avatar, I wrote a positive review of it after one viewing. Since then I have seen it three more times, and I have to say I like it even more - and when I go into the blogs to read other reactions, I am interested in what people have to say but I don't care in regards to my feelings about it. I've liked it enough to see it four times and I am happy with that. No amount of banter - no amount of denigrating it in comparison with The Hurt Locker - can change my mind.

    I'm sure you can formulate an unbiased evaluation of the film's merits and weaknesses as well - despite what others have said. Just go with what you "take home" with you from this film.

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  7. Wow, Hokahey, like a teenage girl going to see Titanic a dozen times - no wonder Avatar is in the money so soon. ;-P

    Great thoughts, and I agree that debate in general can be a positive thing (and a lot of fun, as was had with both Knowing and District 9). The more you listen to the other side, the more you can reevaluate and strengthen your own opinion. We'll see what happens if and when I get something up on Avatar.

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  8. There's a fine line between backlash and simply not liking a film that much.

    When it comes to Avatar, I wrote my critical review the Friday morning it was released before I'd read much of what the pros were saying or talked to anyone about it.

    After that, anticipating that the film was going to be an awards juggernaut in addition to being a critical and popular hit, I flashed back to The Dark Knight and how anyone who expressed the slightest criticism was attacked.

    Somewhat defensively I made one more post pointing out some of the pockets of negativity around the film.

    Other than that, I've kept up to speed on the box office phenomenon because it's interesting regardless of what I think about the film itself. The same will go with the awards season. Since it's a movie I don't love and don't hate, all I can do is deal with the facts as they come in. Whether it's "deserving" of the box office or awards isn't really of interest to me because I don't use either measure to determine my own opinion of a film.

    It would be different if one of the films I AM passionate about had a shot at either box office or awards glory...then I'd have a rooting interest and the gloves would come off. That's not really the case. Inglourious Basterds has a shot at a nomination and a few consider it seriously for the win, but right now it's hard for me to see past Avatar, Up in the Air and Hurt Locker. All three are fine films that I have no desire to see again.

    Anyway, I'm rambling here as I often do. I guess my question is, do I fall under the category of backlash since I didn't like the film that much? Is expressing that opinion backlash? I should add the only place I've really been critical of it is on my own blog. I haven't gotten into any fights with anyone who likes it on their own turf.

    What about Juno? I disliked that movie before it was even released and panned it in my review. Since I predated some of the hype (not all of it, it had been brewing since Toronto), is it still backlash?

    Slumdog I'll admit to a little backlash, though it was pretty tame. The thing with that movie is that I actually did like it, but it got irritating after awhile as it rang up award after award. When the hype over a film exceeds the quality by all reason, it's hard not to lash back a little bit.

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  9. You know, sometime during writing this I actually thought, "Crap, Craig will probably read this and think that I'm calling him out because of that Avatar post." Fortunately you are mature enough to know that's not the case. Fact is that you were definitely way ahead of the backlash curve on both Juno and Avatar. I would not qualify anything you've done as backlash, even if it's the word you used in that follow-up post. Slumdog on the other hand, well you admitted as much and we've been around the block on that one already.

    In any event, your definition is key: "When the hype over a film exceeds the quality by all reason, it's hard not to lash back a little bit." That's exactly how I still feel about TDK, but was afraid to say anything at the time so as not to be accused of the backlash I'm complaining about here.

    Bottom line is, it seems criticism only turns into "backlash" when it's about a movie that you really care about.

    P.S. I have like two weeks worth of news to catch up on at your place...

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  10. Bottom line is, it seems criticism only turns into "backlash" when it's about a movie that you really care about.

    Not that this cancels out your definition by any means, but when I use the word backlash it's usually in regard to situations where the success of a film (at the box office, across the critical community, at the Oscars, etc) is held against it. So it's one thing to hate Slumdog or to think that it really, really, really shouldn't be Best Picture. But it's another thing to hate it more simply because it won Best Picture. The movie is what it is. Period.

    That backlash pattern seems to happen every year, and that's the stuff I get tired of. As annoying as it is to read fanboys anointing a film they haven't seen (Avatar), it's just as annoying to see people hold a film's hype against it (Avatar). In my book, that's where the backlash term best applies.

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  11. Yes, you've flushed out the definition even further, and my reason for writing this in the first place was because I saw the pattern emerging once again. And it's just really frustrating that it's so predictable. It's like the worst parts of the internet (anonymity, namecalling, baseless accusations, hyperbole) are applied to your favorite hobby, and it's hard to step around it. Worse still, I know I've participated it in it, and probably will continue to do so when Iron Man 2 makes the internet explode with giddy excitement in a few months.

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  12. I think the biggest thing that concerns me these days is how much earlier the backlash seems to be brewing.

    Was it my imagination or this year were the usual suspects chirping about PRECIOUS and UP IN THE AIR before either had even had a wide release???

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  13. "Wow, Hokahey, like a teenage girl going to see Titanic a dozen times - no wonder Avatar is in the money so soon."

    Daniel - A confession: I saw Titanic six times in movie theaters. But no offense taken. At my school, there's a teenaged female student who is very well read and who sees a lot of movies, and when I said I wasn't a big fan of the film Mean Girls, she was surprised and said, "But, Mr. B., you're such a girl." I took it as a compliment. I suppose seeing films through a girl's eyes makes me a feminist! (And back in the 70s I used to be called sexist!) As for seeing Avatar four times; I guess that makes me a little boy sci-fi nerd too. Seeing movies through different eyes - I guess that gives me more movies to like.

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  14. Hatter, you are not imagining things. Well I don't know about Up in the Air, but Precious certainly had its detractors by the time it reached even a limited release. However, I wouldn't call its initial criticism (e.g., Armond White's) backlash - just straight criticism. Were Precious a bigger Oscar contender right now I think people would definitely be ready to lash it. But it seems like the ship has sailed on that one - maybe a couple acting nods and BP slot, but I can only see Mo'Nique winning, and even then it would be a surprise.

    Hokahey, glad you can have fun with it. I'm a huge proponent of seeing movies in the theater, so one time or 50 times, at least you're seeing it in the right place. Oh, and I'm not a huge fan of Mean Girls either, for what it's worth...

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  15. I'm not even all that interested in debating the debate (not to take anything away from your cogent post, Daniel). I've not been sucked into an argument about a film's worth in a long time, though I'm happy to debate it in an intelligent manner in which both sides make their points and some real knowledge and POV is communicated. I've long been uninterested in the Oscars, which are just a marketing gimmick anyway, made even more so by the walking mannequins for fashion and jewelry. If you read the Siren's post on Luise Rainer, you'll see the Oscars were seriously rigged in the Golden Age, so the awards have never been an unblemished reflection of merit. On my blog, I simply delete rude or reason-free comments; thankfully, those are very rare. To me, the film blogosphere is still a friendly place.

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  16. Thanks to people like you it is, Marilyn, and by and large I don't get flamers and trolls and rabble-rousers here, either. I didn't know about the rigging of the Oscars, but each year I think I'm getting wise to the game about what is nominated and why. Fortunately the Oscars don't affect what I think about a movie, only what I think about the voters and popular opinion. Meaning, I think bad things about voters and popular opinion.

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  17. Thanks, Daniel. I only hang with civil bloggers like you. Again, thankfully, there are more than enough to make for a very nice community. I'm in an odd position right now where I'm voting with other online film critics for our own awards. I'm not going to say that we are any better or worse than other such societies, but I've never been a fan of mainstream movies. I don't normally see more than 10 (usually less) a year. Now I'm bunched with critics who see all the new releases as part of their job, and those are the films that are dominating the ballot. I've put my best effort into calling attention to smaller films of worth, but if they haven't seen them, not much chance of that going anywhere. So I vote in the few categories I know, and wonder what membership will mean to me in 2010.

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  18. Well I can understand where you're coming from - I'm a voter in the online Muriel Awards and I already know I'm way behind my peers in 2009. I saw fewer new releases this year than possibly any in the last five or six. My plan is to vote with what I saw, but my Top 10, as it were, is being drawn from a significantly smaller pool. I don't know any way around it, but I think I'll still be satisfied to give some lesser-known films at least a plug, if not an award.

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  19. Phew. I'm glad I didn't come off too defensive in my comment! I was feeling a general twinge, but not necessarily directed at you. I just wanted to feel out where I stood in your opinion.

    As for Slumdog, under Jason's definition I definitely fall into the category of a backlasher. I turned a little sour on that film after the wind caught its sails and everyone was going on about it. Even so to this day I admit that I liked the film.

    If anything, it made me realize how painful a year 2007 must of been for you poor souls who didn't love No Country for Old Men!

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  20. Well the worst position to be in is lashing against a film that you liked. I almost did that with Juno, but then I realized I didn't like the movie that much so I could guiltlessly lash away at its hype.

    And people who didn't love No Country for Old Men, well...boo to them!

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  21. For me, commenting online where cyber friends are likely to read what I say is just as much a social judgement call as discussing a film with someone in person. In both cases expressing negativity about a film that others have loved can cause them to respond with irritation and defensiveness. However, it is harder to make the right call on this front online because it is more of an open forum for expressing opinion. Sometimes I make the right call - I held back in my criticism of some aspects of Inglourious Basterds when I saw how enthusiastic about the film many cyber friends were - sometimes not. Other times a film so annoys me (like Michael Claymation) that I want to eviscerate it regardless of others feelings for it. I think the best we can do is put thought into how others are responding to a film (how emotionally invested they are in loving or hating it) and to express opinion in a way that emphasizes it is a personal judgement and that acknowledges the legitimacy of alternative takes.

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  22. Thanks for the personal insight, sartre. I often find myself hesitating for some of the same reasons. I don't want to get into some big thing with someone who is much more emotional about a film than I am, but there are some I'll stick up for (which reminds me, I think you were a real champion for Slumdog at LiC last year, if I remember correctly).

    Definitely disagreement is what makes blogging and reading blogs interesting, but I prefer reading and writing about more personal reactions to films (my "Taking It Home" reviews) instead of traditional discussions making objective judgments about the art of a particular film that just can't be "proven", no matter how much evidence we think we've provided.

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  23. Avetar sucked and you all are morons for even takling about it!!1! It deserves Razies!



    ;)

    Sorry, I couldn't resist.

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  24. Haha, nicely done. Should probably be in all caps, too.

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  25. Too funny Fletch.

    Daniel, I wasn't so much a champion of Slumdog but I did come to the aid of Pierre in an epic debate he had about the film's worth with Jeff McM and a friend of his. I thought the first half of Slumdog was very strong but I couldn't quite go with the fairytale ending.

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  26. Ah yes, I had you and Pierre mixed up then. In any case, as its place here suggests I went for both halves of Slumdog.

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