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Why ‘Overrated’ Is a Garbage Word

Why 'Overrated' Is a Garbage Word

At Little White Lies, Clarisse Loughrey asks, “Is the Word ‘Overrated’ Ruining Film Criticism?”The occasion for her concern is the Guardian series “My Most Overrated Film,” which has thus far given seven writers the opportunity to take a purported classic down a peg or two. 

Here’s Peter Walker on “There Will Be Blood,” who starts by apologizing to Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw:

“I’m sorry, Peter. I’m sorry, everyone else. It’s a stinker. And that stink emanates almost entirely from one element: the bow-legged, squint-eyed, Selleck-moustached, fruity-voiced Daniel Plainview, as incarnated by modern cinema’s greatest exponent of industrial-scale ham, Daniel Day-Lewis.”

Here’s Alan Evans on “Gravity“:

Many reviewers and commentators have praised it as a rare example of a strong female lead character in a Hollywood movie. But they must have been watching a different film, because “Gravity” embraces all sorts of gender stereotypes. Often clueless, Stone is the very model of the damsel in distress. She is repeatedly rescued, but always by men or by chance – she never escape catastrophe thanks to her own ingenuity. Plus, there are more unnecessary lingering shots of Bullock in her underwear than you’d find of models in a Pirelli calendar.

And Xan Brooks on “The Searchers“:

“The Searchers” is a landmark Hollywood western from John Ford, probably the best of the bunch. It’s a Technicolor marvel in shades of psychological grey, a revisionist take on the myth of manifest destiny. It’s full of savagery and tragedy, blood and thunder. I know this because I’ve read all about it and this made me feel I knew the film in advance. But either the critics were wrong or I had bamboozled myself. “The Searchers” was my all-time favorite western until the moment I saw it.

As it happens, I agree, broadly speaking, with all three of these verdicts: “There Will Be Blood” feels more like an ersatz masterpiece than the real deal; “Gravity” uses dazzling visual to distract us from its single-ply script; and “The Searchers” wrestles with America’s long history of racism and loses, failing to outrun the tropes it ambivalently criticizes. And yet, I find little of use in these essays, which are more preoccupied with proving their authors’ superiority to the dolts who find merit in the movies in question than mounting a compelling argument against them. What’s the problem? In a word: Overrated.

As Loughrey writes, “If we work within the traditional image of the film critic as the modern day arbitrator of taste, the declaration of ‘overrated’ seems nothing more than a feat of bold, unashamed arrogance” — an arrogance that, I’d argue, is not incidental to the project of “taking down” a widely beloved film, but required by it. There are good reasons to criticize any of these films, or “The Dark Knight,” or “Billy Liar” or “Silver Linings Playbook” or “A Most Wanted Man,” although by the time you reach the end of that list, the movies barely qualify as “rated,” over- or otherwise. But sending critics into the arena with the express mission of taking those gullible rubes down a peg forces them to start on the attack, and the “Most Overrated” tag forbids them from admitting any hint of doubt. (This also represents roughly the 7,000th time some brave soul has stepped up to argue “The Searchers” doesn’t deserve its place in the canon, but I digress.)

I understand the impulse behind wanting to call bullshit on the movies that it seems like everyone else wrongly loves; we all do. There’s a value in pointing out how groups, whether composed of other critics or civilian moviegoers, may have gone along with the herd, failing to stop and consider whether a given masterpiece-by-acclamation really deserves its hallowed status. There’s little to be gained from sneering at “Citizen Kane,” but neither is there in locking it away in an airtight box, to be admired from afar, like the Mona Lisa. Great movies don’t need to be shielded from criticism; the proof is in how well they stand up to it.

But the aim behind declaring something “overrated” isn’t prompting a reconsideration: It’s proving (so to speak) that those who esteem it are wrong — or rather, since there’s no way to prove that point, drowning them in enough contempt that they’re too ashamed to fight back. It’s a garbage word, conveying attitude without argument; it’s a placeholder for actual thought, the rhetorical equivalent of a “Scene Missing” card. It is, for lack of a better word, overrated.

The thing is, we don’t lack better words. There are thousands of them, just waiting to be woken from their slumber on the day that “overrated” finally goes back into the deep freeze. 

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