“A MASTERPIECE” reads the poster of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea in a font larger than the title. It’s a font so large that the blur of motion doesn’t render it illegible—it’s in, I think, every subway station along New York’s L line, which means I’m confronted at least a few times on most days with “A MASTERPIECE” as my train slows, speeds up, or stops right in front of it.
My soul callouses a little more every time I see that poster. In effect, the press campaign for Manchester by the Sea has given me more empathy for the kind of emotional disconnect Casey Affleck’s character experiences than did the movie itself. This quote is attributed to three different outlets—Rolling Stone, AP, and Entertainment Weekly—and the gushing consensus alienates me further. Everyone’s having a great time with this miserable movie about the unending nature of grief, as expressed in the sort of vehement praise that comes as a side effect of the internet’s ever-expanding, overly effusive hive mind.
“It’s not a masterpiece. It’s not a masterpiece,” I think as my train leaves the station, with the same melancholy that one mutters, “Lowenstein, Lowenstein.” I fight the urge to turn to the person next to me and say this out loud. “It’s not a masterpiece.”
Sometimes I use Snapchat to cope.
It’s not a masterpiece. There’s not quite enough in the realm of new ideas (aesthetic, thematic, whatever) for it to be a masterpiece. Men have a hard time displaying their emotions, coping with death is difficult, being an adult imposes challenges that you’d rather not take on, frozen chicken is overwhelming, blah blah blah. I’m not mad if you relate to this or appreciate the craft at hand (good performances, sure!) so much that you want to overlook Casey Affleck’s sexual assault allegations. It’s a free country (in this realm at least)! Do whatever you want. I’m mad, though, if you led me to believe what I would be seeing is a masterpiece and not something that is likely to come and go like so many dramas that pop up around this time of year and seem like a really big deal until the next awards season cycle comes along with its own bigger-seeing deals (which are, almost invariably, not masterpieces). When’s the last time you decided to revisit In the Bedroom?
Manchester is just one movie that’s been deemed a masterpiece by critics this year. La La Land is a masterpiece according to The Guardian (or so says a pull quote in the movie’s advertising campaign). Arrival is a masterpiece, says our sister site Gizmodo. Zootopia is a masterpiece according to Studio Ghibli’s Toshio Suzuki. The Witch is a masterpiece of atmospheric horror, says Rolling Stone. The Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece according to one of its actors, Katie Garfield. I’m sure everyone’s mothers are very, very proud.
I’m wary of the tossing around of extreme praise that tends to take place on, and as a result of, the internet (specifically on Twitter, a platform devoted to brevity so that tell-don’t-show expression is the law of the land). We’ve heard stories about people being banned from screenings for being overly negative. Though there’s more space than ever for our opinions to intermingle, there’s also more opportunity for readers to respond in a public fashion. More and more, it feels like there are right opinions and wrong ones, and no one wants the headache of being on the wrong side. Masterpieces do happen, of course, but it’s hard to believe they do at the frequency with which the hive mind would have you believe.
This is not to say that I never find myself on the side of critical consensus—I do more often than not, probably. My favorite movies of the year—The Handmaiden, The Love Witch, Elle, Moonlight, Embrace of the Serpent, Cemetery of Splendor—were all acclaimed to various degrees. But there’s something particularly frustrating about being on the other side, of being indifferent or worse regarding that thing everyone says they love. It can make you feel alienated from humanity, like you’re from some other planet and have not been gifted with the gene that allowed everyone else to experience the pleasure at hand. It can make you very suspicious and cynical of anything that looks like groupthink.
See, the reason I’m suspicious of this way of thinking is that I’m susceptible to it, too. I like to think that when I enjoy pop culture that’s critically acclaimed, I do so organically. But I know that when I see something that doesn’t wow me after hearing how amazing it was—Manchester by the Sea is a perfect example—an extra layer of disdain accompanies my critical assessment. It’s a multivalent frustration—at the movie, at the crowd, at myself—like being in a room where everyone is laughing and not getting the joke.
With that said, and the understanding that my experience in these matters can often be solitary (and not intentionally contrarian for the sake of it), below is some of the pop culture from 2016 that transfixed the masses but left me clenching my fists.
La La Land
Mediocre singers (who happen to be superstars) sing mediocre songs that string together a mediocre love-or-money plot that is mostly anodyne when it isn’t on its white-man-saves-jazz fantasy subplot. That I will never watch this movie again is one of the most certain and comforting things I can say about my future on Earth.