“This movie doesn’t like you”*

I rarely see movies, but I know I should. My friend Jason has been telling me so for years, and now that he has a delightful movie blog that I follow, I’m still getting regular moviegoing reminders from him — like he’s still living upstairs from me and forcing me out to the Arclight for new releases. Lately Erik and I have been exploring the collection of the local public library. The DVD cases always seem suspiciously grubby — not quite sticky — but the selection is quite decent.

AwayWeGoLast night we watched Away We Go, and I completely loved it. The main characters seemed very real and endearing, their challenges believable. I felt like the film captured something about my generation. This morning I looked up reviews, and discovered a very mixed collection ranging from outright delighted to deeply disgusted, and a RottenTomatoes rating of 67% — much closer to 50/50 than I would have expected. I remembered my similar surprise three years ago, when I looked up reviews on Amazon after finishing Claire Messud’s book, The Emperor’s Children: at 2½ stars out of 5, that one does clock in at 50/50.

EmperorsChildrenWhile watching Away We Go and reading Emperor’s Children, I really identified with the main characters. They felt familiar, like they could be me or my friends. But the negative reviews called them self-indulgent, arrogant, unlikeable. As I wrote in 2008 after reading the Messud reviews, I once received a parallel response to a character I wrote; now, after seeing this mixed reaction to two other works that I enjoyed, I have to wonder if the world is indeed divided into two kinds of people: those who find this type of character sympathetic and relatable, and those who find such characters odious and abhorrent. And then I have to wonder if that’s how the world sees me, as well.

It’s not mere people-pleaser paranoia to wonder if dislike of art translates into critique of artist. I’m not the only one taking it personally — so are the reviewers! I skimmed through many of the ones linked on RottenTomatoes, and it was startling how many of them brought the director’s (Sam Mendes) and writers’ (Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida) lives into their reviews of the film — both in praise and in condemnation. As with Emperor’s Children, many of the negative reviews sounded so angry, it’s impossible to imagine the writers weren’t coming from some bitter personal experience. In fact, the critiques were such that Roger Ebert felt the need in his review to defend Eggers and Vida as people, pointing out that they founded a national nonprofit and therefore have reason (like their characters) to be proud and self-assured. On some level I am appalled that reviewers feel they have the right to personalize their reviews in this way, but on the other hand, art is personal and we can’t pretend it’s not. If half the population is going to find one’s work shallow and self-absorbed, isn’t that a good thing for an artist to know? and then disregard… or not?

Goodness knows I already think about this way too much in relation to my own art, but these reviews seem to indicate that my instincts are correct: there are people out there who will dismiss me, and dismiss my work, because of my lack of suffering, my financial and familial security, my sheltered life. I understand this. What right do I have to this happy life? None at all. But I didn’t ask for it — I can’t help it. I always want to ask the detractors, what would you have me (or the Away and Emperor characters) do? Does it accomplish anything to take someone who hasn’t suffered and then force them to suffer, for the sake of the suffering itself? Maybe it does; obviously I wouldn’t know. But I don’t criticize those who’ve experienced adversity; why should anyone criticize those who haven’t? They’ve both accidents of fate, and while both parties still live, there’s always the possibility of reversal.

The thing that upsets me most is the anger and bitterness of the negative reviewers for this movie and book, which recalls to me the energetic contempt of my classmate who didn’t like the character I wrote. I think it comes down to the concept of dues-paying. Some people approach it with sympathy, as in “there is a richness of experience you’ve missed out on by not going through such-and-such.” But the scorn seems to come through differently, from a thwarted, furious place of “if I had to go through this then so should you.” And there’s nothing I can say to that; I can’t even speak to it, because according to that attitude I know nothing, end of story. I feel powerless and slighted in the face of such hostility, and maybe that’s the point. But I can’t think that this outlook does anything to move humanity forward. But again, what do I know? To those who feel this way — and I know you’ll find me even more contemptible for spending so much talking about this all the time — I can only say, “Look, you, this is what I’ve got. I can only work with it.”

(You know what? I do talk about this a lot, and it is getting self-indulgent. The next time it comes up, I will leave it in my private journal, or put it in fiction where it belongs. I’ll stop subjecting you to it on the blog. Thanks.)

*The last line of A O Scott’s NYT review of Away We Go is, “This movie does not like you.”


Tomorrow’s Open Mic will feature a lovely guest post from Alison Higuera, just in time for Mother’s Day! See you then!


13 responses to ““This movie doesn’t like you”*

  1. Good lord! I loved “Away We Go,” too! And I felt all warm and fuzzy to have spent time with it. Funny, but I thought it liked me too, so A O Scott must be an extremely observant genius — NOT!

    Here’s my perfect world journalistic publication: four reviewers (with equal professional qualifications) for every movie, book, or visual artwork. They must each have a different basic personality type. Readers could choose to read all of the reviews if they want to see how the works translate to different people, or just read the review by the one closest to their own personality type to get a better feel for whether they want to see/read/experience the art. This would be way easier (and cheaper) than searching various publications for a reviewer you can trust.

    The Chicago Tribune has finally found another movie reviewer that I happen to trust. But sometimes I start to read a new review and it feels so weird that I remember to look at the byline, and then realize it’s one of the other reviewers. (If I remember correctly, one of “the others” was upset about some of Big Bird’s lines in one of the Muppet movies..!?! I hate reading her reviews.)

    Funny business aside 🙂 , I understand why you’re thinking today’s subject was self indulgent, but I have to say that I don’t think that’s necessarily so. Not in the broader sense. I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t accept other people’s points of reference. They only believe their own point of view to be valid and worth recognizing in other people. They are reluctant to receive things, unless what they see and hear echoes their own specific experiences, or meets their own desires. I see this as a pretty universal topic. I understand that you may be tired of exploring it here on your blog, but when I’ve read these posts, I’ve thought of how it relates to the problem humanity is having with the rampant lack of empathy that’s going around. Sometimes when I read reviews that hate people who I feel a sort of kinship with, I wonder how many people there are out there who would hate my personality. Then I try to resist the urge to go back to bed and pull the covers up over my head.

    • Ré, I am so glad to know the movie made you feel warm and fuzzy too. 🙂 I hear you on those urges to retire to bed and pull covers overhead! Oy. On the other hand, lately I have been having an unexpected problem with empathy too, which is difficult to articulate but I might try to do it in a post sometime this week. I think I feel misunderstood so often, that when people do seem to understand me, I go totally in the other direction and start thinking I’ve found the friend who’s going to “get” me for life. Then when there’s any point of disagreement or disalignment between us, it makes me feel all lost and lonely and weird again. I mean, I know this is life, but it’s been happening so often lately (and so unspectacularly — less earthquake than barely-detectable tremor) that it makes me think I must be unearthing something new about myself and that’s why I suddenly feel so disjointed with so many other people. (Not you, FYI. Not anyone who reads this blog, I don’t think.) So in this case it’s not lack of empathy that’s the problem, but our limited ability to empathize entirely or at every moment.

      Anyway, I love your multi-review idea. 🙂 If you ever want to start a group-authored blog, that sounds like a great way to do it. 😉

  2. I loved the movie and it loved me, so there.
    But I too have been thinking about this topic– from a slightly different slant. I feel like ever since I started a blog, my slip has been showing. Something about a blog requires exposure of my personal life that I’m not completely comfortable with. The confessional nature of it. The publicness of it. Is this what is required of a writer these days– must we all have prominent, “likable” personalities, a la Eggers et al? I think so, to an extent. Old days, more writers were private and did not divulge much. It was acceptable, even assumed, that they would not gush or natter or confess. Now, they need an image, a sexy, persuasive story, they want details. The only way to get attention as a writer is to weigh in on that scale. If they like you, they’ll like your book. Ugh. So I wish I could disagree and assuage your worries, but I guess I’m right there with you.

    • Anna, I’m delighted you loved it too. 🙂

      Mmm, I see what you’re saying about your slip showing. (Lovely way of putting it.) It hasn’t bothered me because I’m confessional by nature, but I do see what you mean. It does seem like everyone expects writers to be all public these days; in the recent O interview with Mary Oliver, she said she was surprised to be called a “recluse” because she has a perfectly normal community life, she’s not in hiding, but she rarely gives interviews. I don’t know if it’s so much that writers are expected to be likable (unpleasantness also begets fame) but that they are expected to live their lives publicly, as other celebrities do. And yes… I don’t mind it now, but if I ever do get famous, I don’t know how I’ll feel then. 😉

  3. PS That line about the movie liking you says it all. It’s a personality contest. It’s an in crowd and outsiders. It used to be that you liked the movie– we could like it or not like it for myriad reasons, some of them personal. Now, we wonder if the movie likes us, if we fit in to that world, if the world is cool enough to want to enter. What a weird turn-around.

    • Good thought on us, the audience, having to pass muster with the movie instead of the other way around! It is a weird back-and-forth isn’t it? I see a lot of people my age or younger — I was thinking about this quite a lot around my recent Vegas trip — basically aspiring to the lifestyles they see on TV, and that struck me as such a hopeless aspiration. It’s all staged, even the reality shows and documentaries! And fiction is just as staged.

      I suspect this isn’t quite what you meant, but it’s what came to mind for me.

  4. Oh Lisa, thank you for the lovely shout out for my blog. I wish you did still live downstairs because you have missed some good movies! But I understand not everyone can (or would want) to consume movies as ridiculously as I do.

    I liked “Away We Go,” but have to admit I didn’t love it. Not because of any problems with the characters (I found them charming too), but only because I felt like the movie got a little long, like they visited one family too many. The structure got a little stale. That said, I understand why some viewers would be turned off by the self-aware hipsters, smugly driving hybrids and toting canvas bags to the grocery store to buy organic foods. You relate to these people. A lot of people don’t. They see it as a conceit, as an implicit critique of their non-green, high school educated lives.

    I can’t blame them for this position. Heck when I’ve seen old Nazi propaganda movies I might admire the technique or an actor’s performance, but the whole anti-Jewish things turns me off. Now that’s an extreme example, but we’re all going to respond differently to culture based on our outlooks. “Away We Go” may have been winsome for us, but it suggested something less wholesome and more preachy for others. (This is something I see sparksinshadow touched on in the comment above.)

    Don’t be discouraged. I generally like A.O. Scott (despite his ridiculous praise for “Avatar”), but he’s wrong about this. Not because he thinks the movie is bad (it was for him), but because, based on all the science, philosophy, advertising material, mathematics, history, fiction, and cookbooks I’ve ever read, a movie cannot like or dislike anything. It has no consciousness; it is, after all, just a movie.

    • You’re very welcome! I do love your blog, I hope you know that!

      It’s good to hear your take on the movie. We were wondering, after we watched it, whether this was going to be one of the ones where your response is totally different from ours. 😉 I can never predict our divergence! You’re right, it is definitely an issue of relatability in broader culture and not just within this film. Reviewers wouldn’t be so mean about the characters if they didn’t also feel personal/emotional conflict toward their real-life counterparts. That still makes me feel weird, but it does create another level of divide between movies and real life, and that helps with the anxieties I mentioned in this post.

      I’ve been suspicious of A O Scott since he loved the Harry Potter film I hated (or was it the other way around?). 😉 Funny you should mention Avatar, though — I was just thinking about it the other day and wondering if I should watch it. (My writing workshop’s most recent instructor has been filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, and she made us all come up with film ideas. Watching the Avatar trailer was part of my research.)

      Love your last paragraph, in total. So, no placing movies over matter? 😉

  5. I am a bit late to the table on this blog but have to agree that “Away We Go” was way better than the movie reviews suggested. I have a specific somewhat quirky taste in movies that lends itself to movies like this one, it reminded me of “Garden State” a bit (which was both a great movie and a great soundtrack). I have given up on movie reviews to decide whether a movie should be seen and now only read them after the fact to see what others had to say. However, Roger Ebert is still god to me…his reviews are just so well written and I love Denby from the NYorker, but I take all reviews with grains of salt and sugar combined. BTW, I checked out the movie blog you referenced (Movie Matters) and loved it! Cheers! JEM

    • Ooh, I should watch Garden State sometime. I’ve heard good things about it from other people I trust, and definitely I’ve liked a lot of the songs on its soundtrack. 🙂

      Good reviews are such good reading — saying so much that I don’t bother to articulate — that I find myself going to them again and again after viewing. But yes, as you say, AFTER viewing, only. 🙂

      Glad you checked out Jason’s blog! I love it too!

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