To me, backlash is the most interesting, and unnerving, of commercial responses. When something is popular, there will always be those who think the well-accepted entity is over-praised and unworthy. They will pride themselves on being the only person who ‘hated’ a certain item long before the wave of counterattack occurs, and they’ll smirk in self-satisfied glee when the consensus slowly starts to swing their way. Even when it eventually settles somewhere toward acceptance, the backlasher feels vindicated. As professionals, critics especially like this kind of competitive give and take. Sometimes, we go out on a limb for films (Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Speed Racer) only to see the immediate reaction reject our praise. Oddly enough, months later, these titles get a second chance, gaining a new, often positive perspective with the passing of time.
And so it is with the backlash. There are definitely times when something becomes so much of a social sticking point that the overtly obvious hype and celebration becomes irritating. We might not have actually hated the element in question, but the constant barrage from the media and the marketers of exaggeration keeps pushing us toward dissention. It’s rare when it happens - I can think of only two situations where the deluge of plaudits caused me to reconsider my opinion. The first came with Juno. I really enjoyed the film when it first came out. I thought it saucy and slightly unhinged in its magic realism meets street smarts dialogue. I had no problem with Diablo Cody and her retro-burlesque shtick. Then the Oscar race anointing happened, and everything changed.
It’s a feeling similar to when your favorite band is suddenly “discovered” by the mainstream. Your own private world, the songs and lyrics that mean the most to you are, without warning, unexpectedly streaming out of the mouths of fair-weather fans. They lack the history. They lack the devotion. They lack that personal link. Still, because of the joys of jumping on a bandwagon, or the inherent validity of the item being championed, the object goes from insular to nearly universal. So when Cody was being crowned the new voice of a generation, when Juno was taking nomination slots away from films like Into the Wild, Sweeney Todd, and Gone, Baby Gone, it wasn’t hard to turn on the hate. Now, whenever the film flickers by on my current premium cable channel line-up, I simply continue hitting the remote. I’m not interested in revisiting it - at least, not now.
The other example actually has a link to this year’s Oscars. When Batman Begins was released back in 2005, I was not on the front lines of supporting the film. I wasn’t sure that the Dark Knight needed an update/revamp/reimagining, and I wasn’t sure Christopher Nolan was the man to do it. I had enjoyed his work as a director, but didn’t understand why he (or Darren Aronofsky, or any other current critical cause celeb) would want to dabble in the superhero genre. Convinced that nothing about this movie would speak to me, I purposefully boycotted its theatrical run. Even as praise came pouring in, I avoided the initial release, failing to give the film even the remotest part of my always occupied attention span.
The same thing happened when the DVD was released. I balked at the chance of picking up the two disc special edition, assured it could never live up to my expectations. I shivered as my fellow writers placed the title at or near the top of their year-end Best of lists. As I relished the rapid ascension of cast members like Cillian Murphy, I still maintained an arms length approach (hype can do that to you). Finally, when it was announced that The Dark Knight was finally coming out, and that I probably should see Batman Begins in order to appreciate the two film’s linear connection, I cracked. Seeking out a single disc widescreen copy from a local B&M, I took my perceived dissatisfaction with the film, warmed up the DVD player, and prepared to be disappointed.
Instead, I was proven wrong. The movie was masterful, a unique and often artistic take on the entire hero as everyman mystique. The backlash that I had built up in my mind (though many may now consider it nothing more than an ill-informed dismissal) suddenly didn’t need to be there. In its place was a newfound respect for what Nolan managed to create, and it’s a feeling I carry over to the latest installment in the filmmaker’s fascinating reconfiguration. Along with Oscar front runner, Slumdog Millionaire, The Dark Knight is indeed experiencing a kind of post-party communal rejection. With people pointing out that massive popularity does not necessarily equal across the board appreciation, the argument offered is that, in the case of each film, the overall assessment is out of touch with the true quality present.
Of course, that’s bullshit. Taken individually, both Slumdog and Dark Knight are marvelous achievements. Sure, they may not live up to the overbuilt expectations that have come from a bored press corps pushing each entry beyond their breaking point. When I saw it in theaters back in June, Nolan’s latest Batman movie was 145 minutes of majesty. It was everything you hoped a sequel should be, and much, much more. Slumdog was also a pseudo-shock. While I loved almost everything director Danny Boyle had done up to this point, I wasn’t prepared for such a wondrous, “wow” experience. As every narrative facet unfolded, I was transfixed and transported, moved innately into the world Boyle wanted us to experience.
It comes as no surprise then that 2008’s biggest financial hit and its companion critical accomplishment are receiving so much sanction. With an Internet based almost exclusively on the “look at me” dynamic of dialogue, extreme opinions speak louder than rationality. Being on the other side of the Dark Knight/Slumdog situation means you get to gloat when the Academy snubs the former and finds a way to deny the latter its well-deserved statue. It means standing out from everyone, not based on well-considered reasoning and finely tuned analysis, but just because you’re different. While you are entitled to your opinion, an assertion is not a fact. Let’s face it - if 100 people are standing in a room, and 99 of them love red wine, the one sipping white will become the center of attention. That’s why the backlash is possible - and popular. It doesn’t take much to dissent, and as a result, be different.
I still feel bad about my issues with irrational rejection. I still feel said pangs whenever George Lucas rears his goitered head and starts dishing out more watered down Star Wars product. As one of the teenagers who made this ‘70s idol a fanboy’s dream, I still can’t shake the inevitable sensation of being used - and perhaps, that’s the best way to look at backlash. It’s the feeling that, beyond one’s better judgment, beyond the ability to think individually and stand sensibly away from the rest of the flock, you are mandated to appreciate something that just doesn’t sync up with your sensibilities. There’s no immediate connection, no chance to decide for yourself. Of course, you don’t have to get caught up in the machine. You can simply sit back and enjoy/dislike a movie for what it is and what it means to you. But then that wouldn’t make you special, would it? Ah, the price of ersatz fame.