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A Novel Idea: See the Movie, THEN Critique It

A Novel Idea: See the Movie, THEN Critique It

Jupiter Ascending” has bombed at the box office and split the people who’ve seen it, who either find the Wachowskis’ space opera dull, familiar and seriously goofy or, alternatively, thrilling in its silliness. As someone who liked the Wachowskis’ previous two films, “Speed Racer” and “Cloud Atlas,” I was sad to find their interests presented in such a flat, pedestrian fashion, and stunned that they’d somehow even managed to jerk the always charming Channing Tatum into stiffness. Only Eddie Redmayne’s staggeringly awful performance as main villain Balem broke the tedium, mostly by showing what happens when an actor without a real sense of playfulness attempted camp. Still, it’s been fun to chat with people who were thrilled by “Jupiter Ascending,” not to mention discuss the value of an original sci-fi film that’s a) female-driven (even if she’s still put in damsel territory), b) directed by a transgender woman, and c) about the importance of non-violent rulers (a notable scene features Kunis refusing to have someone who tried to kill her executed).

Less fun: seeing considerations of “Jupiter Ascending” from people who didn’t actually watch the film. It’s gone from the Twittersphere to publications, as last week Decider’s Olivia Armstrong wrote a piece about the film’s false sense of female empowerment, an issue that’d be worth discussing if not for the fact that Williams fully admitted she hadn’t seen the film. It’s just the latest piece of criticism from a person who hasn’t actually bothered seeing the work in question, a bell that was rung again and again (most notably by the New Republic) throughout December and January for “American Sniper.” 

Jason Bailey of Flavorwire has had enough, and writes that maybe, just maybe, it’d be best to hold off on the hot takes until after the writer has seen the movie they’re writing about:

Sitting and watching a movie is neither very time-consuming (“Sniper” and “Jupiter” both clock in at under 2 1/4 hours) nor particularly strenuous. So the best we can do is chock it up to #hottake culture — that TNR’s and Decider’ss editors were simply so anxious to get these opinions out in the world (uninformed thought they may be) that they simply couldn’t wait the extra day or two for the writers in question to actually put the movie in front of their eye-holes. But that tack, and the inevitable admission that they haven’t taken that most basic step, shuts down any rhetorical power they may hold. Armstrong has legitimate points to make about feminism in mainstream action cinema; Jett’s concerns about “Sniper’s” politics are, at the very least, worthy of discussion. But once that disclosure hits, any reasonable reader walks away; if the author hasn’t even bothered to engage with an artist’s work, why should the reader engage with theirs?

Bailey continues to write that it’s become more common with movies than, say, art exhibits or books, because populist art forms tend to breed the “anyone can do it” mindset. Still, it’s pretty astounding that it even needs to be said: Writing a serious consideration for a work of art requires engagement. That doesn’t mean you need to see everything that come down the line if it doesn’t interest you, either. I haven’t seen the latest “Transformers” movie. My dislike for the first three convinced me that putting myself through another would just be taking time away from movies that I’m more likely to enjoy. But I’m not going to write that the sexual, racial or ideological politics of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” are awful because, while I can make guesses based on the past three, I can’t actually articulate a thing about the new one. Because I haven’t seen it. On top of that, the world is no cheaper because I decided not to see the film and pump out another think piece about it. Plenty of other people did just fine.  

There’s no rule that you have to watch something you won’t enjoy, unless you’re being paid to write about it. Curation is important for anyone trying to engage in popular culture, because it’s close to impossible to see everything. But if, say, something along the lines of “Zero Dark Thirty” comes out and you start to hear charges that it endorses torture, it’s best to wait to see the film and make up your own mind instead of just taking it on faith that it’s reprehensible (especially if, like Glenn Greenwald, the writer has also decided to make a judgment call without seeing the film).

If something controversial, divisive or reportedly awful comes along, then, there are two options for writers, critics and filmgoers:

1. Wait until the film comes out. See it. Take a stance if you feel so inclined. Think it through before publishing.
2. Don’t see the film. Don’t take a stance.

They’re two pretty simple rules, so they shouldn’t be that hard to follow. Save the think-pieces for the post-view.

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