It’s Been A While, But I Still Recognize The Place

I have become interested in how our perceptions, past experiences, and expectations effect how we appreciate a piece of art.  When Roger Ebert died I was listening to a podcast (unfortunately I can’t remember which one, but I think it might have been Do You Like Prince Movies) and one of the hosts (film critic Wesley Morris?) gave an Ebert quote that has stayed in mind:  Review the movie you are watching, not the one you wish you were watching.

To me that means going into each movie (television show, book, album, play, etc.) and judge it on its own merits.  Does it succeed in what it is trying to do?  If you are going into a Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson movie, does it succeed at being a Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson movie?  It isn’t going to be Shakespeare, but is it funny and entertaining?

I read fewer movie reviews then I used to.  I used to read a lot of reviews and go to a lot of movies.  Part of the reason I stopped is that I don’t really like most of the movies that are made and get a wide release.  I enjoy a good comic book or science fiction movie, but I also enjoy quieter and slower movies.  In fact as I age, I enjoy those movies more.  So, I don’t go to as many movies and therefore don’t read as many reviews.

However, I read a lot of television reviews and recaps.  With the internet there are dozens of sites dedicated to reviewing and discussing television, some much more intelligently and interestingly then others.  Of the many, many reviewers there are probably only a handful worth reading and keeping up with on a weekly basis.  If you read a lot about television you know who they are so I won’t list them right now.  Even among this select group of smart, funny, and intelligent writers, there is the tendency to go against Ebert’s admonishment.

Often when I’m reading some of my favorites, I get feel they are reviewing the show they wish they were watching and not the one they are watching.  There are two things at play here:  One, the changing nature of television, and two, the fact that even the best reviewers bring their biases and prejudices to what that they are watching.

I have touched on the changing of how technology and visionary creators have started to change how individual episodes are written.  With streaming services, on demand, and the pay cable channels it is possible for a creator/writer to make a show with episodes that are chapters of a much larger novel-like work (If you watched The Wire you know that as Dickensian.).  That changes the nature of the episodes.  In traditional network television, episodes can primarily stand alone as individual works.  Even in the shows that were/are serialized on networks the serialization is mostly a larger arc that is serviced by the characters solving an individual problem over the course of each episode.  That allows you to enjoy episodes with a beginning, middle, and end and still service the larger arc.

Shows on pay channels and streaming services have started to eschew that all together.  Shows like House of Cards or The Wire or Game of Thrones are meant to be watched in a binge.  Each episode is there to serve a larger work of art and very often work badly as stand-alone episodes.  This has made reviewing each episode as an individual episode harder, and sometimes when reading a review you get the feeling that the reviewer is having trouble with this new idea of television.

One writer, who I love to read is Andy Greenwald and he has had issues with Game of Thrones in particular because often individual episodes of GoT are not successful as individual pieces since it is a show that is trying to service many different story threads at once.  That makes some parts seem to have no meaning whatsoever to anything that is happening in that particular episode or this particular season.  Often, these threads have nothing to do with each particular episode or season because it is servicing the totality of the show (and the books) not just this episode or season.

This is an example of allowing expectations to color our enjoyment of a piece of art.  I think Ebert was saying we should be open to the idea that the art you wanted or expected isn’t always the art you are going to get and you should not let that color the quality of the art.  If you go into a work expecting one thing and getting another that can have a negative effect on your enjoyment or it can have a liberating effect upon your artistic/intellectual life.

That is what art should do.  It should challenge your perceptions, past experiences, and expectations.  Art should not always be there to comfort you.  It should also be there to confront you.  To make you see things differently.  To make you think about your life and world differently.

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