Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ignoring Ignorance

My omniscience is boundless. My premonitions are endless. I am a pop culture god. And, more than likely, so are you.

Ask me about David Fincher’s upcoming blockbuster film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It hasn't been released in theaters yet, but I already know it’s great. No, I haven’t seen it. But it currently sits at a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ website. Entertainment Weekly gave it an “A.” The Guardian gave it 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not too surprising either; Fincher is a great director, and the book was very, very good. And no, I haven’t read it.

Ask me about El Camino, the new album by the Black Keys. It came out on December 6th, but I knew around Thanksgiving that it sounded amazing. Metacritic gave it 85 out of 100. Rolling Stone gave it 4 out of 5 stars. Spin gave it an 8 out 10. It didn’t really matter that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it once it was released. I already knew how I was going to feel.

With the way pop culture is covered today, in terms of music, movies and television, it is nearly impossible to consume or experience anything without entering into it with very strong and pre-determined opinions. Everything is reviewed and judged by critics and professionals before the general public has access to it. Everything is already digested for me before it even reaches my plate. It’s one thing to assume that I will like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I’ve liked Fincher’s past productions, or to get excited for the new Black Keys album because I was such a big fan of their previous releases. Nowadays, my own preconceived notions are essentially worthless. I might as well just adopt those of someone else, smarter and more informed than I am. What I think is no longer as important as what I know.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not condemning critics or journalists or reporters of that ilk. They are simply doing their job. Heck, I might even be doing that job someday. But it’s all just indicative of a culture in which people seem to react to things based more on what they are told than on what they actually experience for themselves, if only because being told happens faster. I’m just as much a product of this as anyone. I could avoid reviews and reactions to all of these mediums fairly easily if I wanted to. I could remain skeptical to any word-of-mouth or advising from others until I saw the movie or television show or listened to the album for myself. I could relish in my own ignorance and rely solely on my own responses, and it wouldn’t be all that difficult. I just choose not to.

It is often said in the “internet/social media/24-hour news cycle” of today that things are chewed up and spit out the moment they occur. But with things like movies, TV and music, it might be more accurate to say that things are chewed up and spit out before they even occur. My level of excitement toward an upcoming episode of “Modern Family” is contingent to some extent on what the TV critics I follow on Twitter are saying about it during the days leading up to air. My anticipation for a new album is influenced not just by my musical affinities, but by what the reviews are saying about it. Two months ago, I would have openly admitted that seeing the upcoming Sherlock Holmes movie was far more enticing than checking out the impending Mission Impossible chapter, based purely on my own feelings toward the previous installments I had seen. But after checking out the critics’ takes? I think my feelings have changed. It’s oddly fascinating, in a twisted, Orwell-ian sort of way.

I’m not just a vessel – some empty, vapid, pop culture consumer that can only recite or communicate what others have told me.  I’m not the pony-tailed, sweater wearing chump from Good Will Hunting that Matt Damon verbally undresses in the Harvard bar (pronounced “Aahhhvaahhd baaahhh”) because all I do is adopt and regurgitate the opinions of respected voices. I have my own thoughts and outlooks and reactions to the culture I consume…but I can’t help but wonder how much I’m influenced by media and critical responses. Yes, I really like the new Black Keys album, and I would happily share my thoughts and offer it as a recommendation to peers and colleagues. But would I feel differently about it if the exact same record had received mixed or negative reviews? And yes, I actually found Friends with Benefits to be one of the more enjoyable and entertaining romantic comedies of recent years. But did I think that because it was more witty and funny than mushy and idealistic (while also allowing me to stare at Mila Kunis for two hours), or was it because I knew going in that Rotten Tomatoes had given it a 71% rating, when most movies from that genre are lucky to break 20%? It is undoubtedly a combination of the two, I’m just not entirely sure which is weighted more heavily. True, it’s idiotic to base your opinions only on what those “in the know” have bestowed upon us, but it’s na├»ve to pretend the impact is insignificant.

I suppose all of this is part of the reason why I (and countless others) find sports to be so intriguing. No matter how much we analyze or predict what will happen in each game, tournament, or event, the outcome happens live for everyone at the exact same time. There is no way to know for sure what will occur until it actually takes place, consumable to everyone in a solitary moment. The smartest college basketball analyst in the world was just as shocked as I was that Butler made two NCAA Championship games in a row. My mom and Lee Corso were more or less equals when Michigan State upset Wisconsin in football this season on a last-second Hail Mary. No one predicted the Packers to go undefeated this year, but it could very well end up that way. (Ed's Note: Guess not...) In sports, the element of surprise is always possible. Ignorance is a constant. Few other things within today’s entertainment culture can make that claim.

Critical reception within pop culture is not all bad. I would have never watched the new show Homeland on Showtime (which I really enjoy) without the hype that was surrounding it in the critical community. And I can even stomach sitting through something like the movie Greenberg (which sucked) simply because it received good reviews. But what’s missing is that feeling of uncertainty, of judging something based solely on my reaction as opposed to how I think I should react, or how I’ve been told I should react. That independence is both enlightening and captivating, and yet I strive to attain it far too rarely.

Case in point: the movie Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. Released in September, critics were raving about it from the start. Its score on Rotten Tomatoes was hovering close to 95% and people like Peter Travers of Rolling Stone were pegging it as a possibility for “best movie of the year” (a status which Travers just recently bequeathed upon it). I was very much looking forward to seeing it at the time, until a few of my friends and family had a chance to check it out. People that I considered to be smart, pragmatic movie watchers (including my father, who I generally trust in situations such as these) were telling me how awful and terrible the movie was. I was hearing two very different interpretations of the film. I had no idea what to think. So I had to decide for myself.

Upon going to see the movie, I had no assumptions or preconceived notions, as everything I had heard previously was too disjointed to take a stance on. And after seeing the movie, I realized that how I felt was more or less entirely separate and unique from what I had been told. I liked it a lot better than my dad, but certainly not as much as Peter Travers. I thought it was smart and understated, but a tad too artsy-fartsy to deem “great.”

And what made it different was the fact that my feelings toward the film were entirely my own. It was a singular feeling that I rather enjoyed – unencumbered by outside authorities – and one I hope to encounter far more frequently in the future.

Unless, of course, somebody suggests otherwise.

Thanks for reading

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