A few years ago, I was on a date that I thought was going really well. I had been (to my mind) cool, charming, collected and had said nothing especially embarrassing. Then, several hours and several drinks into the night, she calmly asked me if I realised how negative I was.
My mind reeled. Any witty replies or pre-planned directions of conversation vanished. I gaped at her like a fish man. ‘What do you mean?’ I stammered.
She proceeded to go through all of our conversation topics; from university to housemates to the state of Melbourne theatre to recent TV shows. I had not, it turned out, had a nice word to say about any of them. I was floored because she was completely right. Suddenly, the date took a sharp turn from what I thought was smooth sailing to something a lot closer to a therapy session. Why, she asked, was that my attitude?
It’s hard to be especially articulate when you’ve only just realised such an unflattering thing about yourself. As dumb as it sounds (and was), the best explanation I had was that I felt like expressing enthusiasm on certain topics in the circles I moved in was tantamount to pouring blood into water full of sharks. At the times when I felt the most secure and happy with myself, I didn’t much care. This wasn’t one of those times. My default defensive setting was negativity.
I did my best, after that, to be more optimistic but in some areas I didn’t have much choice; this was during my time on Movie Maintenance and negativity was kind of my job. After all, you can’t ‘fix’ films if you’re not working from the foundation of feeling at least somewhat negative towards said film. I’m well aware that that inherent negativity turned a lot of people off the show, and ultimately, it was one of the reasons the podcast came to an end; we all got sick of being so critical.
I will always be the first to defend the vocation of a critic and argue that they’re an essential part of the creative industry. Critics create conversation and engagement and that’s important for holding art to account. But defending and appreciating the work of a critic doesn’t necessarily mean thinking everyone should be one.
I used to be vehement and furious when I felt like a movie, book or TV show had wasted my time (see: Jones, Jessica). I was utterly righteous in my belief that not only did I have a right to say what I wanted about properties I disliked, but that given my small following I almost had a duty to. It’s why I spent a lot of last year tweeting micro reviews of every film I saw.
For largely pragmatic reasons, I pulled back on this. It started with my quitting reviewing theatre after realising that the Melbourne scene is small and I was harming potential working relationships by publicly espousing my opinions. Recently, I found myself in a similar position on a larger scale; an exciting conversation with a major industry figure led me to trawl through old Tweets to delete ones where I’d been critical of projects this person worked on. Not that I thought this person would necessarily care or even consider looking, but still; I wanted to cover my arse.
But in a weird way, I think that shutting my mouth about my opinions has been kind of healthy. Being on Twitter and being passionate about film means that you end up exposed to some pretty ugly stuff; some ‘fans’ feel like they have a kind of ownership over big franchises and have no problem abusing the people who worked on them when films aren’t made to their exact specifications. Seeing this now makes me wonder; on some level, during my Movie Maintenance days and before, was I one of those people?
Whatever the case, it’s indisputable that at one time I felt it was necessary to get angry when a movie or TV show wasn’t for me. Again; this isn’t for a second to say that you shouldn’t have an opinion or express that opinion, but there’s nothing constructive about vitriol.
It’s okay if a story doesn’t work for you. I’ve realised that it’s just not that big of a deal for me anymore. I’ll always love good films and roll my eyes at bad ones. But there are so many people out there dissecting, articulating and raging about the merits or lack thereof of every film, and I no longer feel that I have much of value to offer to those conversations. I’d rather create than criticise and while the two things aren’t exactly mutually exclusive, from a long-term career standpoint they might as well be.
Recently Kit Harrington expressed some harsh opinions on critics of Game of Thrones, making the point that whatever they say, he will always know how much work and passion went into the show. I don’t agree with the sentiment; again, I will always stand up for the value of critics, but I get why he would feel that way, and it’s partly the reason I’ve pulled back on expressing every little quibble I have with stories. Somebody works hard on something that cannot please everyone. A lot of people will make their opinions on that something loudly known and the general consensus of those opinions will become part of the product’s narrative. It’s for us personally to decide if adding our voice to the mass of negativity is worthwhile.
Maybe it sounds New Age-y or whatever, but since I’ve started focusing on my positive experiences with the stories I’ve been consuming (please read Tana French) I’ve felt happier. And I’ve learnt that I don’t need to seethe and sneer when I walk out of a bad film. I just shrug it off and think about something else.
After all, why waste energy on something that you don’t like?
Writing words about writing words.