"Overrated" vs. "Misunderstood"

by Bill Gibron

3 April 2013

Can something considered a masterpiece be overrated, or is such a reaction merely the height of crass critical insularity?

A debate has been raging on the Internet over the past two weeks, a war of words between a certain select group of critics and their equally astute peers. It all centers around a recent poll by Indiewire (as part of their Criticwire brand) dealing with, and we quote, “Overrated Masterpieces.” Now, if that tag isn’t confusing enough (if something is considered a “masterpiece,” can it really be “overrated?”), many of the answers were. As pointed out by Calum Marsh in his Film.com response “The Movie Isn’t ‘Overrated,’ You’re Just Lazy” several of the opinions offered were nothing more than dismissals and assertions. While the framework of the piece may have allowed for such shortcuts, Marsh argues that many of the conclusions can be summed up in the following way: I’m right, everyone else is wrong.
All of which leads to a very interesting point, aesthetically speaking. Is something you don’t get, or fail to find as artistically compelling, really ‘overrated,’ or as Marsh prefers to put it, ‘misunderstood?’ Dealing with the logical fallacy of some of the responses (the whole “one opinion vs. decades of consensus” thing) he goes on to say that:

“To use the word “overrated”—as opposed to, say, mounting a considered argument against a film that happens to be well-liked—is to orient oneself deliberately in reaction to something perceived as somehow disingenuous, which has the simultaneous effect of both handily erasing mountains of discourse without having to properly engage in the discussion and, more gallingly, conferring upon the wielder of the word an unwarranted sense of superiority. “Overrated”, simply put, is a term of smugness, of such arrogance in distaste that the prospect of appreciation seems laughable.”

This goes to the very heart of the dispute. As with any argument based on a resolution, the wording is everything. Had Indiewire phrased their inquiry in the following manner, “Masterpieces Which You Feel Don’t Deserve Said Label” or “Overrated Films that Others Consider Masterpieces,” you might have some contrary wiggle room. Instead, the use of a simplistic “Overrated Masterpieces” tag allows for something akin to, as Mr. Marsh infers, self congratulation. Such blatant dismissal, without the least bit of buffering analysis (though, granted, some did offer more than a mere “meh”), is indeed, lazy.

It’s reminiscent of the firestorm that arose when the British Film Institute released their Sight and Sound list of the Greatest Films of All Time. After decades sitting at the top of the heap, Citizen Kane was dethroned by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and around the critical community, you could hear the mutual “harrumph.” Many chalked it up to an influx of new voices, those with a perspective that can’t reach back as far as Welles’ early ‘40s classic. Others felt vindication, relieved that a movie unfairly made the champion of all others was finally taken down a notch. While the Top Tens, both general and filmmaker, generated a great deal of buzz, including the standard slams over inclusion/exclusion, few found folly with the compendium in general. While they may have disagreed, there was little disrespect.

Apparently, it was all being saved up for this specific Indiewire poll. As Mr. Marsh points out, there are some head scratchers (La Dolce Vita, 8&1/2) as well as some questionable references (Star Wars? The Sound of Music? We Need to Talk About Kevin? Masterpieces?). Drew Hunt, of the Chicago Reader, went on a spree, including such noted works as Chinatown, Touch of Evil, The Deer Hunter, The Graduate, and Apocalypse Now, while John Lichman took down Taxi Driver. On the other hand, Jordan Raup of The Film Stage seemed to “get” the question, and pointed to Braveheart and Gladiator as two ‘highly regarded’ films that left him more than a bit cold.

Of course, context is everything. With the Internet allowing for a great deal of cinematic specialization, a critic no longer has to have a ready knowledge of the entirety of the medium. Instead, they can focus solely on horror, or the fascinating film noir of the ‘40s and ‘50s. While home video and cable have made access to the past even easier, it has also created an obsessive culture which suggest a soapbox without any specific limits. As we have said before, one can name any movie from the last few years and there is probably a website out there dissecting it and championing its inclusion in the pantheon of favored films. Heck, just this past week, Room 237 offered up a collection of said thoughts, all centered around some “unique” theories on the true meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.

It’s the bigger picture here that’s more disconcerting. While one doesn’t have to “love” any of the movies that are considered classics (entertainment is personal, as is the reaction to and opinion of same), to argue that they are overrated means, as Mr. Marsh points out, a knowledge above and beyond those who’ve fawned over the film for years. It’s reminiscent of a discussion that circled around the mid-‘90s in reference to what is, arguably, the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time, the Beatles. While N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys were leading the whole cyclical teen idol thing, those in the media were arguing that John, Paul, George and Ringo were the ultimate example of same. Really? A band that literally changed both the musical and cultural landscape were in the same category as premade musical groups manufactured out of Tiger Beat focus group results?

On the other hand, maybe these contrarians are right. After all, we saw a shift in Sight and Sound after decades of dedicated stagnation. Maybe it’s all part of what we said before, the democratization of the critic game. As the likeminded gravitate toward their own aesthetic kind and leading voices—the Eberts and the Scotts—slowly fade into the old school woodwork, a new generation (not that everyone in the Indiewire poll represents this group)could be showing us the future. And remember, they have more access to movie than any one of their prominent predecessors. On the other hand, such insularity does breed one thing, a certain narrowmindedness that can’t be ignored. “Overrated” may not have been the right word, but “lazy” does seem to fit rather well.

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