At The Week, Movie Mezzanine’s Sam Fragoso takes on the issue of contrarian criticism, specifically whether drawing attention to reviews like Kyle Smith’s pan of “The Lego Movie” does more harm than good.
Attention was lavished on (and traffic was directed to) the snide words of a critic who is noted for strained, attention-getting contrarianism, and who clearly failed to fully engage with the film. Meanwhile, reviews like Dana Stevens’ at Slate and Scott Mendelson’s at Forbes, both of which said genuinely insightful or engaging things about “The Lego Movie,” were less noticed.
Unfortunately, the blow-up over Smith’s review is not an isolated incident. The response it received is a textbook example of an internet cycle in which unthinking negativity receives exponentially more attention than thoughtful discourse. It’s an environment in which a bomb-thrower like Armond White receives an abundance of attention when he trashes “12 Years a Slave,” while dozens of more reserved takes get a tenth of the readership. This isn’t to say that critical dissent isn’t important to the conversation — writers like Calum Marsh have built careers on smart, incendiary takes that go against the grain — but focusing on the writers who don’t work with the same care and intelligence does everyone a disservice.
I share Fragoso’s frustration with clickbait contrarianism, while admitting that I’m open to the charge of occasionally practicing it. But at the same time, I’m not sure I can subscribe to the notion that if we ignore bad criticism we can make it go away. It’s a nice idea, but it didn’t work with grade-school bullies, and I’m not sure it works now. For one thing, it’s a trifle too convenient to label pieces that diverge from the critical norm, no matter how overwhelming, as thoughtless: Smith has written more than his share of offensively simplistic, attention-grubbing pieces, but I don’t think his “Lego Movie” review is one of them. It’s not the most thoughtful piece on the movie, which inspired a surprisingly robust debate on whether commercial movies can be used to critique commercialism and the ascent of remix culture, but it’s not simply snarky and dismissive. Nor, for that matter, is Armond White’s dissent on “12 Years a Slave,” which while loaded with his characteristic bombast nonetheless raises worthwhile questions about the film.
Fragoso is on more solid ground with Chris Nashawaty’s review of “Under the Skin,” which goes four of its five paragraphs without even mentioning the film. Nashawaty has defended the piece by arguing that it was never meant to be a straight review, and is labeled as an “essay” in Entertainment Weekly‘s print edition, but if it’s not a review — and the C+ grade affixed to it says otherwise — it at least takes the place of one. (Update: Some time between last night and this morning, EW removed the grade and changed the label on Nashawaty’s piece from “Movie Review” to “Movie Article. A cached version of the original is here.) If Nashawaty didn’t intend to review “Under the Skin,” the magazine should have assigned the film to someone who would, and run his essay as a discrete feature.
I don’t want to reward thoughtless or simplistic writing; I initially chose not to write about Nashawaty’s piece, or even comment at length on Twitter, because it didn’t prompt any thoughts beyond, “Huh, that’s not very good.” But bad writing matters, especially when it’s in a major national outlet. And not all contrarianism, even the (apparently) willful kind, is without merit. At best, it presents a viewpoint from outside the echo chamber of one’s peer group; at worst, it clarifies your own views in response. Taste is a matter of what you hate as well as what you love, and though I’d much rather spend time honing in on the the latter, there’s something to be gained by thinking over why a piece of writing doesn’t work, just as there is in pondering the failure of a bad movie. To a certain extent, the worry over contrarian criticism is overblown: The “Jesus, did you smell that?” reaction to an infuriating piece may fire up social media’s outrage machine for a short period, but the attention doesn’t last, which is why the traffic gurus at BuzzFeed shy away from the attack-dog approach. (Fragoso’s “one-tenth the readership” scenario is more an article of faith than fact.) Thoughtful dissents sustain, but shallow negativity spikes and then dies off. Contrarianism pays, but it’s a short-term investment.