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.
Last 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.
While 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.”