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The Problem With ‘The Problem With…’

The Problem With 'The Problem With...'

Earlier this week, Deadspin’s Drew Magary argued that “The Internet Has a ‘Problem’ Problem

Now 90 percent of all internet thinkpieces are dedicated to explaining why you should have a problem with something you originally had no problem with….  There’s a whole black hole of the internet that spends all day up its own ass, endlessly worried about approving of pop culture rather than actually fucking enjoying it. This is shitty, pointless writing. You think something is racist or sexist? Say it’s racist or sexist. Don’t hem and haw and say you something “bugs” you like it’s some kind of yet-to-be-revealed magical revelation. And if something does bug you, it better be a murder spree, or a mass recall of Funyuns, or something that MATTERS. 

And today, the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg details “What ‘What X gets wrong about Y’ pieces get wrong about pop culture“:

When observers go digging, they inevitably find something that went factually wrong. And if they were fact-checking biography or history, these discoveries might be proof of shoddy research or a flawed thesis such that the work ought to be rejected out of hand. But with fiction, diversions from fact are not disqualifying. Instead, they invite further questions. Do writers know they have diverted from the facts? If they do, why did they make those decisions? Are the changes matters of storytelling economy, or pure dramatic bang for the buck? Or are the creators trying to say something significant about the world we live in and the alternative they are imagining into being?

I’ve advocated before for the death of the “expert review,” the process whereby a purported authority is assigned to vet the accuracy of a work of fiction. But as Rosenberg argues, what matters is not how fiction diverges from reality, but why: What reasons might the creators have for altering the facts or the laws of physics, and, more importantly, what do those alterations produce? If you knew only the true story behind the movie “Foxcatcher,” you would be surprised to find out that Dave Schultz, widely considered the best wrestler of his generation, and the central figure in the movie’s real-life tragedy, is a supporting player, but the decision to focus on the relationship between Dave’s brother, Mark, and the eccentric millionaire John du Pont is a deliberate creative choice, one that turns “Foxcatcher” from a true-crime into a story of neglected men bound together by their shared feelings of abandonment. You can certainly quarrel with that choice, which some think warps the story sufficiently that it should have been wholly converted into fiction, but you have to acknowledge a choice was made, and if anything is “wrong,” it’s the reasoning behind it.

“Reality” can be an elusive concept: Slate’s Phil Plait attacked “Interstellar” at length for distorting its physics, and then had to recant when it turned out he’d started with an incorrect assumption about the nature of the movie’s black hole. And a good deal of the “Interstellar” nitpicks have been carried out in bad faith, accusing the movie of getting bogged down in exposition in one breath and criticizing it for not explaining details in the next. But Neil deGrasse Tyson, who’s become something of a freelance movie fact-checker, was largely laudatory in his Twitter comments, acknowledging its concessions to movie cliché — “On another planet, around another star, in another part of the galaxy, two guys get into a fist fight” — while noting that the ideas behind it are solid, even if their application has been tweaked for dramatic effect. Sure, in real life, you couldn’t get close enough to a black hole to noticeably slow the progress of time without being torn apart by gravitational forces, but it’s a vivid illustration of the principle in play, the narrative equivalent of a scientific thought experiment.

In other words, the problem with “The problem with…” isn’t pointing out issues, but suggesting that art should be devoid of them, that it should only answer questions and never pose them. You can take aim at an 18-year-old Chris Rock standup routine, or you can look at its place within Rock’s career as a whole, and his arc from criticizing “bad blacks” to adapting Eric Rohmer to making jokes about 9/11. Art — good art, at least — isn’t meant to be submitted for an up or down vote. If it is, then the problem is us.

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