Written with Ryan Adams
“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection.”
— George Orwell
Wise words, but most of us ignore them. We humans keep reaching for perfection anyway. Especially those rare human artists and human athletes who possess enough talent and ego to believe they can obtain the unobtainable. But even if it’s an artist’s job to seek perfection, it shouldn’t be a critic’s job to demand perfection from art. Very few legitimate critics ever do. Far too many armchair critics do it all the time.
Flawed. Overrated. Two words that often crop up in casual café conversation — and even more often in the virtual café conversations of twitter. The more a movie is praised with great buzz or universally good word of mouth, the more we’re likely to see someone fall back on the default dissent: no, “it’s overrated,” or yes, “but it’s flawed.” The trouble with both these words is that they throw the burden of blame back at the film and filmmaker. Easier for some people to dismiss a movie in those terms than to say, “I didn’t get it” or “I had problems with it.” No one wants to take personal responsibility for raining on the parade — but how does it make any sense to blame the parade and not blame the rain?
Whenever we see a vague reference to “flaws” in a film, notice how we seldom we see any specific “flaws” ever itemized. That’s a good clue that the actual problem is in the viewer and not in the thing being viewed. But that’s uncomfortable. It’s hard for people admit that they “didn’t get” something because that means there’s something wrong with them, so they put the blame on the film, or the painting, or the photograph. Easier to blame the artist, but not themselves.
This is not to say that “overrated” and “flawed” are not legitimate words in the right context. But the overuse of both these words in critical discourse has become annoyingly pervasive. It’s prevalent everywhere, not just in America, land of the branded. In America, it’s easy to see how the illness has spread. Advertising tries to grab our attention with exaggerated hype on every new product that comes out. Consumers get whipped up in the hype so they flock like lemmings to buy a new product. The latest completely disgusting hybrid abomination at Taco Bell, for example. Advertising or excitement, hype or hunger, anticipation or enticement? — most of the time we can’t tell the difference anymore.
In the age of instant customer feedback, ratings are impossible to avoid. In some cases ratings are useful. Ratings based on natural word of mouth can be a great barometer of reliability. For instance, the new ride-sharing service, Uber, really is the coolest thing ever. You register with credit card or paypal, Uber matches destinations, and someone drives you somewhere. I wish this had been around when I was a young adult. No one is ever going to say “Uber is overrated” because it delivers on a specific promise. It works like it’s supposed to work and we know that because real people say it works. The grassroots appeal of Uber is based on actual reports of customer satisfaction. Uber doesn’t need to rely on commercial advertising hype because it has genuine great word of mouth. (3… 2… 1… countdown to the first scary abduction thriller with a perilous Uber premise).
But, in general, we’ve all been conditioned as consumers since birth — so we instinctively know how to evaluate hype and word of mouth, and we understand how to balance those influences with our own personal experience. We recognize the difference between a personal recommendation and a corporate ‘Seal of Approval.’ As well we should. We’re the ones spending the money; we should be getting what we paid for. Much of the time that is not a matter of opinion. The service or product is either delivered as promised or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, the internet provides the perfect way to spread words of warning.
But words of warning are the wrong way to evaluate some things, and movies are one of those things. Yes, on the one hand, many movies are made to conform to a consumerist model — productions are hyped by companies, studios that often reach out to what used to be called “fanboys,” many of whom have graduated (or have been self-appointed) to the realm of legit critics — a select number of VIPs who get invited on junkets, set visits and the like. These first-adapters can offer invaluable hype-assistance for a production, so studios smartly select the friendliest test-drivers. They report back from their insider platforms, most of the time say it’s great, and their like-minded readers trust them. The movie makes a bazillion dollars, and everybody’s happy. So far, so good.
But then… but then when a second wave of skeptical viewers is sucked into the riptide of hype, some will sound the alarm: Caution. Beware. This thing that was over-hyped to the moon is “overrated.” That’s because our mindset is such that we’ve been conditioned as consumers to get what we paid for. We expect to receive what we’ve been sold. The movie either equals or doesn’t equal the hype in our minds. it delivers what it promised or it doesn’t. Though I still hate the word overrated, in a way, I can see it as a valid criticism in this particular case.
The problem is, most of the time it isn’t used that way. Most of the time it’s used to take a dump on a critical consensus — when a whole bunch of smart film writers praise a film, it’s tempting (for various reasons) for other writers to be contrarian. The best contrarian opinions have very little to do with prepackaged studio hype or predictable fanboy-critic enthusiasm, but more to do with meaningful insights arrived upon by people who take their job seriously. Responsible, conscientious critics who endeavor to look deeper can get caught up in the excitement as easily as the rest of us — there’s a lot of satisfaction to be found in discovering a film’s greatness when so many other people agree that it’s great. But those outside that select group, however, don’t always get to feel the same untainted enthusiasm. Very few people who are plugged into the hype machine of social media ever get to experience the pure virginal rush of, say, seeing a movie in Cannes for the first time — those moments when a hush falls over the crowd, with no noise in your head to interfere with your appreciation. Just the sheer unadulterated joy of seeing a work of art, unguided, unfiltered, fresh and new.
Then come the raves. Those raves can set expectations way too high — so high that a film would need to be ten times better than it actually is to ever meet those expectations. By then our viewing of a film has become entangled — the knotty perception of the film itself tied up in a cumbersome bundle with the unanimous praise of it. It’s hard to avoid bringing a lot of barnacles to the film that it doesn’t deserve. Back in the day, a film would be shown a few days before its release (back when people went to the movies more), the critics would ring in, studios would use their blurbs to sell the film, and you might hear someone say something like “I heard this movie was good.” They would pay money to see the movie to find out for themselves, and they would walk out thinking it was good or it wasn’t good. Back then moviegoers would never use the word “overrated.” Why? Simple. Because no official “rating” had yet been assigned.
The probable cause for ratings obsession these day is that movies get seen and talked about and reviewed and rewarded with numerical scores long before they ever get seen by people all across the country and all around the world. For weeks, all that most people have to go by is the talk, the buzz — not the work itself. Too often, regular civilian moviegoers get shut out of first round of assessment, so they’re robbed of the pleasure of participating. The fresh experience has been stolen. By the time they finally get to see the movie, it can’t possibly live up to their impossibly high expectations. They can feel misled or let down. Therefore, “it was overrated.”
The reason I hate the word is that it comments on the hype and the critics themselves, not on the work. That’s why the word has no place in film criticism — perhaps in casual discussion, sure, but if you are in the business of evaluating a film, should not the film itself be the subject and not a reaction to other people’s reactions to the film? Write a separate piece about that, if you must, but think before you do: does the internet really need another annoying think piece that calls something overrated? I actually saw an article that called Meryl Streep overrated. Dude, if you think Meryl Streep is overrated 1) you should stop writing about film immediately. 2) Go work at Taco Bell.
I think the word overrated is overrated. It simply reveals a person’s lack of imagination, and worse: their willingness to be affected too much by other people’s opinions. It displays an utter lack of original thinking. Think for yourself. Do not write your reviews in reaction to what other people think.
The term overrated has been around a long time, and seems to have its roots in academia — as this scene from Manhattan would indicate. And again, I’m sure sometimes it applies to things that aren’t products sold to Americans via hype and advertising. I’m sure there are some films, musicians, works of art that could be reasonably called overrated. Someone might go after Banksy because his art work is so expensive — that seems legit. But even if it’s true that some things seem rated too highly for your own tastes — please, don’t use that word. It’s a stupid word. It’s lazy. It’s … overrated. It only signifies that you’ve become a victim of the rating machine.
Another word that has crept into conversations lately is “flawed.” Too many film reviewers, often the younger ones, use this word. You won’t find this word written by many seasoned critics. Veteran critics, who have more refined words in their toolbox, would never stoop to describing a film with that term. A critic’s job is to write up a thoughtful criticism with precision, so no self-respecting writer would use a vague, lazy word like “flawed.”
To me a flaw in a film means something that was wrong — a defect, a mishap, a continuity error, a color correction problem, a bad edit, a boom mic shot. The word flawed should not be used to mean: parts of the film that didn’t work FOR ME. Some of the time we can all agree on what “flawed” means. It could mean we all watch a bad movie and think: clumsy dialogue, awkward scenes, unbelievable conflict/resolution, tacked-on happy ending — all of those descriptions are better and far more meaningful than flawed.
I see the word “flawed” way too much in reviews lately, and the second I do I click off of that review. Use of the F-word tells me the writer got lazy, and that the writer believes his/her opinion is more important than anything else. It also sounds arrogant. Because it shows that a writer believes he’s an authority on the Right Way or Wrong Way to make a movie. Why would I care about one person’s opinion? Why would that writer assume that what he/she thinks is a flaw is something I would ever, in a million years, agree with?
If a writer wants to write about a “tacked-on happy ending,” well, that’s something sort of useful and specific. But it is especially glaring and egregious when someone calls a film “flawed” that most people see as an utter masterpiece. It makes me want to rip my hair out. The word flawed is worse than overrated because at least with overrated the minute someone says the word you immediately think, “okay, obviously this person did not understand what was special about the movie” or “alright, this person expected something that they didn’t get.” But “flawed” indicates there was something obviously inherently wrong with the film.
I do feel it’s fair enough to blurt out “it was flawed” or “it was overrated” in a casual conversation. But I still think one should never presume that they know so much more than everyone else that they would used these words in a more formal piece of writing. Please do the world a favor and at least confess, “it didn’t work for me.” I would be happy if the word “flawed” could be stricken from film criticism altogether. There’s no way to prevent anyone from using the word, of course. But in my opinion its use is a worse reflection on the writer than it is on whatever is being written about.
Someone wrote this to me on Twitter about Boyhood.
While “flawed” isn’t usually associated with the same impulse toward meanness the way “overrated” can sometimes be, it simply does not do the writer any favors. It presumes we all have our own definition of what flawed would mean. An airbag doesn’t open on a car, say, or the coffee spills when you try to drink out of the plastic lid. These are clear-cut flaws. With art, we’re talking about a subjective interpretation of things that either work for you or things that don’t work for you.
Calling Boyhood “flawed” would be in keeping with what a few the film critics have said about it, in trying to explain why some of the scenes felt contrived (to them) or awkward (to them). Those things amount to the modern writer’s formulaic notion of something “flawed.” As though perfection were a quantified set of rules that cannot broken. As if fulfillment of those formulaic rules were the end goal.
A screenwriting teacher at UCLA named Richard Walter once told me that as long as a person doesn’t fuck up the key moments of a film, then any “mistakes” can be forgiven. Imagine today’s set of blogger critics seeing Vertigo for the first time. Or, god forbid, any John Waters movie from the early days. Hell, imagine them seeing Jaws. “The shark looks so fake in the last scene!” Ergo, the movie is flawed. You see, time smooths out the wrinkles so that perfection is no longer a requirement. Is the movie good? YES, by god, YES. Does it have moments that seem fake occasionally? Sure. Are there loose ends that aren’t exactly tied up? Absolutely. Is it a good movie? YES. Is it a great movie? One of the greatest.
Are there perfect movies? Yes. Citizen Kane is a perfect movie. I’ve watched it upwards of 200 times and it has only a single moment that doesn’t quite work and it’s one line said by Joseph Cotton when you can tell he forgot his line. Another perfect film is David Fincher’s The Social Network. It is perfect. I’ve watched it over 30 or 40 times and it has not a single “flaw.” Would people say both of these films are “overrated,” yes, they would. Of course. Because they aren’t seeing what other people see, they assume it is the fault of the film and not something they ought to look more deeply within themselves to discover.
It is an endless cycle of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone naturally assumes each new film that comes out is the Emperor. They decide whether he’s wearing clothes or not and they cast the blogger/critics as people who imagine they’re seeing clothes or not. While that is a brilliant analogy and applicable to many things, only occasionally can it ever be applied to film.
Let’s take a movie like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. People see it, they rave about it, they add their own interpretations to what they think it’s about. You could put forth the argument that many films ARE open to interpretation — many films by David Lynch, or Fellini, or Godard or any absurdist filmmaker, for instance. How people respond to these films, and the praise or criticism of them, is often an example of The Emperor’s New Clothes. They don’t get it but they don’t want to look stupid so they say what a great movie it is, etc. There are many on the internet who want to be that guy (or girl) who says, “look, the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!” The trouble is, art — the criticism of it, the appreciation of it — is often open to interpretation. It isn’t as simple as saying he’s wearing clothes or he isn’t. A film can make you feel something even if you don’t understand it. It’s okay to come out of it saying, “I have no idea what the hell I just saw.” So you go back in and you watch it again or you file it away somewhere in your mind as something you did not like.
But to write off a group of people for being stupid enough to be fooled by the Emperor is, I think, damaging to intelligent film discourse all the way around. So do the critics get caught up in the hype of the moment and lift something to epic proportions so that it has no chance of living up to that high high praise? Yes. Does that mean the work itself is overrated? Some will probably will think so. Should those people write that in a film review? No.
To sum up: If you think you see a “flaw,” please be aware that the flaw is apparent TO YOU based on your own personal perception. Don’t write that in a film review. You think it’s overrated? Fine. Don’t write that in a film review. Or some dumb click-bait piece with an annoying slideshow to get hate comments. Why pollute the internet more than it already is?
Every year during Oscar season, another great movie is punished for being too highly praised. That movie is almost always knocked out in favor of the scrappy more mediocre movie standing behind it, the wallflower no one was ever paying attention to. These are years that ALMOST ALWAYS produce a winner people regret later. They don’t like picking the movie everyone already likes, but instead go for the one they can feel good about choosing because no one’s paying attention to it and “IT’S SO GOOD!” Those films rarely make it onto the best films of the decade list. People agree they are good, would watch them in a heartbeat, see them as films without flaws that aren’t overrated. But are they great? No because great got kicked to the curb a mile back.
And so it goes with Boyhood. Right now, Boyhood is the belle of the ball — so critics are already sharpening their scalpels to dissect it in reassessment mode, writing think pieces about how it’s good but it’s not THAT good. It can’t just be allowed to stand as something a lot of people love. Last year, 12 Years a Slave was the critics darling, earning a record number of 100s on Metacritic. That then meant that the big city critics were afflicted with “overrated” syndrome, and were not going to let that be a foregone conclusion. They therefore did not choose it for a single major award, except New York which bestowed Best Director honors on Steve McQueen. New York, Los Angeles, National Society of Film critics — none of them choose the best-reviewed film of the year for Best Picture.
There are many films that remain to be seen this year. Already the Boyhood backlash is starting. When I hear people say Boyhood is flawed or overrated I always think of this Rilke quote, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”