“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.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! is like Porky’s with a brain, which is like a refrigerator with a built-in bidet. Who needs it? I suppose a thinking man’s take on straight men’s tireless pursuit of sex is supposed to be endearing, but so is a scene where a carful of white guys (and their black friend) recite “Rapper’s Delight” for way too long. Spoiler: It wasn’t endearing. The protagonist spends almost the entirety of this movie trying to get laid, whereas if Some!! were as gay in spirit as everyone said it was, that would have happened in the first 10 minutes, leaving plenty of runtime for more stimulating pursuits. Oh. Well.
I heard it was good. It was OK.
The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story
How dare Cuba Gooding Jr., show up to play maybe the most famous American public figure of the past 25 years and do absolutely nothing to alter his affect or appearance? “When you see my performances... you have to get over the fact that I look like Cuba Gooding Jr. But once you find truth in the performance, if I’m doing my job right, you believe everything,” he told Vulture earlier this year. Bull. Shit. His was one of a few terrible performances in a show that was a mixed bag of ‘em (Sarah Paulson’s great, obviously and always), but that also served to bring a camp element to one of the most heinous multiple murders to have received the public scrutiny that it did. I’m not usually sensitive about such matters as a viewer, I love exploitation cinema, and this was too crass even for me. All of this on top of the fact that Ezra Edelman’s 467-minute documentary O.J. Simpson: Made in America said everything this show did more thoroughly and insightfully and didn’t make me feel like I needed to wash the blood off of me after every episode.
Stranger Things is guilty of something that TV does that people seem to overlook readily—it stretches itself thin over way too many episodes for the sake of dignifying its existence as a show. This easily could have been half as long and no one would have noticed (among the things Donald Glover’s brilliant half-hour Atlanta underscored is that it’s always better to leave ‘em wanting more). As it was, Stranger Things took a bunch of ‘80s b-movie archetypes and instead of investing in these characters’ development within a long-form medium, just had them do their thing over the course of six-plus hours instead of 90 minutes. And so, Winona Ryder did her wild-eyed Shelley Duvall impression over and over and over again, as just one example. (Has her acting ever been less convincing?) And don’t even get me started on the zygote of a character that was the beloved Barb, whom viewers flocked to because... she was frumpy? Had funny glasses? Held her books in that way? After watching the first three or so episodes enthusiastically, the charm of Stranger Things wore off with each episode to the extent that I fell asleep while watching the finale with my boyfriend and never went back to see what happened. In fact, when he recapped it the next day, I zoned out and I still don’t care! Say in the Upside Down or don’t, just please be succinct about it!
There are so many things about this show that made absolutely no sense to me (no one in the lab was going to question why the engineers were spending to much time conversing with and catering to Maeve, not even those engineers themselves whose motivation was never quite clear?!)—I routinely felt like a fan at a sci-fi convention asking pedantic questions during a Q&A with a creator, but no one was there to answer me back. For example, what if Host A were knocked out of her loop by accompanying a guest on his narrative and she witnessed the death of Host B, who then restarted his loop? And then what if Host B were taken on a narrative by another guest and crossed paths with Host A, who thought Host B had been killed? Then what?!?!?!
(Note: I have not yet watched the last two episodes of the first season, and you know, I might never!)
Maeve’s cool tho.
Frank Ocean’s Blonde
This is one of those albums that I see on every fucking publication’s Top 10 list (more of those albums: David Bowie’s Blackstar and Beyonce’s Lemonade) and several people whose opinions I trust swear by it. OK, I guess! I lost my tolerance for lo-fi guitar strumming with virtually beat-less arrangements when I lost my baby legs, and I was genuinely surprised that so many R&B fans were able to hang with what sounds like especially meandering early ‘00s indie rock. Whatever, have your things! Blonde is challenging to the point of alienating, but no one else seemed to think so and embraced it immediately. Lots of “A MASTERPIECE”-ing on this one too. I guess my New Year’s resolution should be to get my ears cleaned out.
Remember when you played this? No, you don’t. You threw your life away while walking into trashcans.
I love a hot Christmas toy (Talkboy for the win—it was actually useful, especially when you wanted to make a hotel reservation without your parents’ knowledge), but Hatchimals make Furbies seem like PhD candidates giving dissertations. Last month I had a dream that I was in a toy store and there were a bunch of hatched Hatchimals on the counter that nobody wanted because once these fuckers have hatched. (That this is what I’m dreaming about is another story in need of its own analysis.) It’s kind of brilliant marketing—people love unboxing, and here is a toy that integrates an element of unboxing even after it’s out of the box. Mamas, don’t let your babies get duped by toys that are over as soon as they’ve hatched.
Haha, just kidding. Not on Jezebel!