Last week I was called a sheep in my Grid class.
I’ve been called a black sheep before but this time it was just sheep – a grown lamb, a gender-ambiguous ewe, that thing Bo Peep lost.
My friend Dylan Sealy and I were discussing movies. I said I usually read the critics’ reviews and try to find out if a movie is good before seeing it.
That’s when it happened. That’s when he called me a sheep. Then it happened two days later in a coffee shop downtown during an interview I invited him too.
I’m starting to think I bring this upon myself.
“Sounds like a misquote,” Sealy said after I re-tell him the story as I have it recorded in my head.
Sealy’s a friend, but when it comes to guide-like figures I could do better. Talking to him is like if Dante pulled Virgil out of bed 30 minutes too early.
But I’ve come here for a reason. There’s a movie out now, Hail, Caesar!, the newest film from the Coen brothers, and I want to see it. It’s a basic kidnapping story set in the ‘50s and is supposed to satirize or celebrate Hollywood at the time.
As of the writing this article, it sits with 81 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes with critics but only a 46 per cent audience score.
Do I have a critic’s sensibility or am I just conforming to hipster mob mentality? Moreover, what does it mean to be a critic? What is the point of criticism?
I feel I should deal directly with the accusations first. I admit I am susceptible to wanting to feel a refined sensibility. Like what can I say? My favourite show is Mad Men. But for me, having “good taste” isn’t about superiority. I’m not a snob! My nose just naturally has an upslope.
I like to challenge myself, try to understand what themes the director is playing around with, and expand my mind. As far as film goes, my base would be Star Wars and The Iron Giant. So I know if Hail, Caesar! has giant robots in it, I’m good.
In film sometimes a stunning image creates a whole new aesthetic or style; when I see that happen I think the world gets a little bigger, and I kind of like that.
The Coens, in my mind, excel at this. From the Dude flying through the sky against the L.A. skyline or Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo being stuck through the wood chipper, the Coens know how to catch my eye.
Dylan tells me I miss out on a lot because of my affinity for reviews. He cites the movie At the Devil’s Door as an example, which has 24 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.
“It seems like, ‘oh that’s a deal breaker,” said Sealy. “I watched it and while not a perfect movie, it did some really cool things. They kept passing off the role of protagonist.”
I get this. Working purely off the critics will never work. But Sealy pushes further.
“Watch bad movies,” he said, referring to the Transformers films. “It is only through watching something bad that you can really get why something that is good is good. It informs your understanding.”
He makes it sound like Taoism. He said he thinks it’s arrogant when people say they know what a bad movie is. While I might not need to see the next Transformers after seeing the first two, he says I can’t give up on bad movies all together– some of them might turn out to be great.
Perhaps as The New York Time’s film critic A.O. Scott said in his opinion piece, “Everybody’s a Critic. And That’s How It Should Be,” the mission of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.
“Criticism has always been a fundamentally democratic undertaking,” Scott writes. “It is an endless conversation, rather than a series of pronouncements. It is the debate that begins when you walk out of the theater or the museum, either with your friends or in the private chat room of your own head. It’s not me telling you what to think; it’s you and me talking.”
This something Dylan and I agree on. There’re two type of criticism, those that stop conversations and those that start them, the hard number at the top of the Rotten Tomatoes page and the in-depth reviews below it.
So, I went to see Hail, Caesar! It was pretty good. Not a perfect movie, a bit bloated in the middle, but I found the story compelling, the dialogue sharp, and the scenes original.
But I was wrong. It’s not really about a kidnapping. It’s about a man, the head of production at a movie studio, living in a world of commerce where everything is bought and sold, caught at a crossroads trying to find meaning and purpose in the stories his company tells.
The question the movie tries to answer is, “why do we tell these stories at all?”
Hell, better than talking about the weather, I guess.
Reminds me of the old joke: There are two sheep in a bar and one leans over to the other and says “baaa.”
And the other one replies “baa,” because they’re sheep.
Hail Caesar indeed.