No, I Don’t Have To “Turn My Brain Off” To Watch BlockbustersPosted: June 16, 2015
So apparently Jurassic World made a metric ton of money last weekend, and I’m going to guess that every single person reading this contributed to that box office haul. Besides that, it also seems like many of you enjoyed the film, and much more than I did. And part of me greatly envies those who were able to enjoy Jurassic World without reservation and not be bothered by all of its missteps. But as much as I lament the film’s flaws, and my own inability to see past them, I am also greatly annoyed by the return of the “Turn Your Brain Off!” defense that is often deployed in the name of big blockbusters like this. To those that make such an argument, I would respectfully refuse, and I’ll explain why.
As a committed student of film, I try my best not to be judgmental of how more casual viewers watch movies. I think it’s obnoxious for more intellectualized moviegoers to be critical and dismissive of the masses that see film as just a short-term piece of entertainment. However, I think it’s just as obnoxious for fanboys whose interest never goes beyond the surface-level aesthetics to scoff at any sort of deep-tissue analysis of the craft of storytelling, or the themes these stories are built on. For example, when Birth.Movies.Death and The Guardian published negative responses to Jurassic World based on factors like character development, story structure and theme, they received responses like:
And when I groused about Jurassic World topping Avengers for biggest opening weekend, one of my coworkers pointed out all of the other people in the office that liked it and weren’t bothered by the same things I was, as if that trumps my informed perspective. The thing frustrates me most about conversations like this is the apparent assumption that moviegoers on my end of the critical spectrum go into a movie looking for problems, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I don’t choose to find flaws in a film at this point; they either naturally occur to me or they don’t, whether I want to like the movie or not. In the case of Jurassic World I was desperate to like the movie, and there were plenty of moments that I thought were compelling or fun in and of themselves. But overall it basically felt like the film kept going out of its way to kick me in the head with its flaws. Having spent as much time as I have studying movies and learning about story structure, if a film doesn’t follow those rules and doesn’t arrest my attention through action and momentum I can’t help but notice it. Sometimes I can still appreciate a flawed film because it has such a level of fun or enthusiasm or commitment to itself that I can ignore the flaws, at least until the film is over. But if I find myself analyzing the movie’s missteps while I’m still watching, it usually means the movie has fucked up and my instincts have kicked in to understand how and why. If I love a movie though, I don’t think at all about the story structure or any of the craft in the moment. I only think about that stuff after the fact, as I’m coming down off the high and I’m trying to articulate what made the movie good.
Telling someone like me to “turn their brain off” when watching a movie is useless because you’re basically just asking me to suppress artistic instincts that I’ve spent years honing and developing, which isn’t really something I can do. Furthermore, it’s something of an entitled perspective to have, because saying things like the above seems to suggest that you think “Well I liked the movie so if you have reasons not to like the movie you’re wrong and stupid and actively trying to ruin my good time just by voicing a separate opinion from my own”. If you are the sort of person who just uses movies as disposable, momentary entertainment and nothing more, that’s totally fine and I don’t want to judge you for it. But if someone else wants to actually give the same movies real critical analysis and attempt to dissect the craft behind it, how exactly does that affect you? And the fact that something entertained you doesn’t preclude it from having flaws or mistakes, and me pointing out those flaws isn’t an attack on you for liking it either.
What I sometimes find ironic though is how “turning your brain off” is sometimes just as prevalent among the arthouse cinephiles as it is among the casual moviegoing masses. When you hear pretentious hipster indie people criticize Marvel movies or other mainstream blockbuster efforts as being shallow or mindless or interchangeable, it feels to me like those people have gone out of their way to not give these films further thought. It kind of feels like arthouse fans go into blockbusters expecting nothing but hollow sound and fury and don’t even attempt to process any greater depth or thematic/stylistic specificity. The end result of course is that they end up in the same boat as the mindless consumer masses they regularly dismiss, but without the excuse of not knowing any better.
I point out that last part to hopefully demonstrate that I’m not trying to be elitist or pretentious about my taste in movies. I have a particular perspective on film, one that celebrates and enjoys mainstream blockbuster films but also expects them to put a certain amount of effort into their characters and themes. And I am just as annoyed by the arthouse fiends that dismiss tentpoles for lacking depth as by the casual moviegoers that won’t accept deeper analysis of those same movies. We can all certainly like (or dislike) what we want on whatever terms that we want, but as always I think it would behoove all of us to remain open-minded to the alternatives because who knows what might broaden our horizons next?