Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you'd like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, another reader question:
Maybe you never understood why critics go apeshit for The Velvet Underground and Nico. Or maybe you didn't think that No Country For Old Men was that great. Whatever it is, everyone has at least one work of art that they just don't understand the hype about. What are yours?
Editor's note #1: There was some concern that this question overlapped too much with another recent AVQ&A, on art we've resisted. So we pinned down the difference between the two: That was specifically about films or music or books we've refused to try for whatever reason. In all cases, these are respected parts of the cultural canon that we've tried, often at great length, but have just been unable to get into to the same degree as our fellow cultural commentators.
For a while now, Jacob, we've been kicking around the idea that we should do a list of "guilty displeasures" to go with our guilty-pleasures list—critically lauded things we feel at least vaguely guilty about not enjoying. This question seems like the perfect excuse. The one that most stands out for me is Dr. Strangelove, which I've just never enjoyed either as comedy or as drama. I've read the criticism explaining its place in the canon, I'm all about the Stanley Kubrick otherwise, I've even read what my fellow A.V. Club writers have to say about its genius, including Nathan's smart quickie analysis in this week's MYOF. And yet apart from a few indelible images, it doesn't do anything for me. And yeah, on some level I feel guilty about it, and feel like I just need to see it one more time, and maybe it'll click. I'm a lot less guilty about my other canonical divergence, though it seems pretty damning for an A.V. Club film critic: I just don't get the love lavished upon the films directed and produced by the Judd Apatow machine. Knocked Up, for instance, struck me as shallow, shrill, and hateful to a comedy-killing degree. There's a film that earned near-universal critical praise (85 score on Metacritic, baby) that made me feel like I was taking crazy pills, because I clearly didn't see the same movie as all my fellow critics.
Although Keith gives me an expression of pity when subject arises, I just can't get into Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. Every few years, I give Pet Sounds another chance, and I barely make it through the whole thing—if I can. I'm not completely impervious to its charms—I like "Wouldn't It Be Nice" just fine—but it doesn't move me, no matter how much people go on about the harmonies. I remained similarly unswayed by SMiLE, and the overwhelming cheese I heard in tracks from last year's That Lucky Old Sun—hello, "Mexican Girl"—embodied what turns me off about Wilson and The Beach Boys. But I'm about due for another re-evaluation, so there's always a shot. It's the same reason I keep a lot of Neil Young on my iPod, even though I'm not a fan: Maybe one of these days it'll click.
What always troubles me the most is when I encounter things that, by the accumulated logic of my preexisting taste, I ought to love. I've never put it to the test, but I'm guessing Pandora and iTunes' Genius feature would tell me I'd be really into Scott Walker and The Go-Betweens. Heck, my own logic and a lifetime of embracing eccentric singer-songwriters and melancholy pop bands tell me I'd like both. And every once in a while I try again, but the breakthrough never happens. It's not that I think either is bad at all. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say I like both. But something tells me we should have a much deeper relationship than we enjoy.
I'm having a hard time with this question. Am I a soft touch, an uncritical lover-not-fighter, or a sheep following the critical consensus? Either way, it's difficult for me to think of a universally acknowledged masterwork that I actively dislike; I think there's something at least interesting, if not admirable, about the staples of various artistic canons, and I tend to assume that the consensus that heaps praise on the lauded cultural artifacts of the day probably does so because, y'know, they really love them. And what I want to discover is why they love them, especially if it's not immediately evident to me at first glance. In fact, I'm currently reading as much as I can of MLA's 100 best books (fiction and non-fiction), and enjoying myself immensely. (You know what's a truly wonderful novel? David Copperfield.) Instead of dividing the world into "things I like" and "things I don't," and taking some sort of contrarian pride in the cultural prominence of items on the latter list, I prefer to try to expand the range of "things I like" by learning to appreciate what doesn't push my innate pleasure buttons. Nothing in my upbringing taught me to like Bob Dylan and South Park (seriously, nothing at all), but I proceed on trust that since they're widely acclaimed, there must be something there.
Okay, enough of this non-answer. I don't get Forrest Gump and industrial music. But it's not like I've really tried to get them; that one viewing of Forrest Gump with a sprained ankle before I got pain medication hardly counts as an attempt to appreciate it. And I'll bet a couple of hours' tutelage with a knowledgeable guide to the clank-and-buzz scene would lead me, if not into the light, at least to a place where the light was visible.
At the risk of flaunting my cultural ignorance, I have never cultivated an appreciation for either free jazz or poetry. I understand why people devote their lives to them, but they've just never really spoken to me, except in ways I found either shrill and grating, or silly and ridiculous. I once attended an open-mic poetry night at a coffee shop in small-town Tennessee while attending a literary conference, and a gentleman who appeared to the be a Faulknerian idiot man-child read a poem of his that, to my untrained ears at least, was no better or worse than the poetry spouted by his non mentally challenged peers. As a form of compensation from the gods, the town hosted a chili cook-off (chili cook-offs: now there's an all-American art form we can all appreciate and get behind) earlier that day that ranks as perhaps the most awesome thing I've ever been a part of. When I die and my life flashes before me, it will occupy a place of pride in my pantheon of treasured moments. For those keeping score, it's poetry nay, all-you-can-eat-chili-for-a-dollar yay!
Whoa, Nathan, dismissing poetry as a whole is like dismissing the English language, or maybe the aesthetic of the English language. (One of the most moving things I've ever experienced was hearing Stanley Kunitz read "Touch Me" a couple of years before his death. I will therefore defend him as if he's my sweet, dead, poetry-writing grandfather.) Transition: I hate South Park. I could never get past the characters' voices, which are annoying enough to make me shut the show off around the 30-second mark. They sound like chipmunks sneezing, but not in a cute way, because it's over and over and over. Terrible. I'll also throw in There Will Be Blood and all of Monty Python. Booor-ing.
I'm a sucker for all things animated and irreverent, but Lord help me, I just can't get into any of the Adult Swim original programming. Not Aqua Teen, not Metalocalypse, not Venture Bros., and not even the non-animated-but-still-insanely-annoying Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, which I actively avoid, even though it routinely features some of my favorite comedians. (Josh went through a phase of playing the "Cops And Robbers" song at top volume because he knew I hated it so.) The problem might be that all these shows are fucking ugly as sin to look at (and often to listen to). But I can get over aesthetics, as my love of South Park attests. I think the bigger problem is that, as far as I can tell from my limited exposure to them, there just isn't much storytelling or characterization in any of these shows, so they all feel interchangeable, and ultimately disposable. (I'm only talking about original Adult Swim content; I'll still watch for American Dad and King Of The Hill reruns. Hell, I'll even take an old Family Guy over any episode of that show with the talking ass.)
I'm with you, Emily. There Will Be Blood is probably one of the most boring movies I've ever seen. I wouldn't consider myself a film buff by any means, but I know when I'm getting bored and my ass is getting numb during an overly long, full-of-itself, self-proclaimed pseudo-epic. Sorry, everybody: I didn't drink the Kool-Aid on this one. You know what else I can't stand, that apparently Tasha and I are alone in? All the recent Judd Apatow movies that have been heralded as "saving comedy." I'm not sure what 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman, and Talladega Nights have rescued, except for countless of dollars from mouth-breathing folks who love potty humor and bro-dude jokes. And to prove that we don't all have a hive mind, perhaps now is the time to confess my newfound hatred for Spaceballs. Although I grew up loving it, watching it again a few years back shook me of that notion. It's boring, repetitive, and idiotic, even for a Mel Brooks movie. So don't trust your memories on this one, folks. To get back to the more traditional things to rag on, let's throw Carlos Mencia and Robin Williams on the fire, because, well, have you ever seen Williams' epic two-hour appearance on Inside The Actors Studio where he riffs on the endless comedic possibilities of a hand towel, or any of Mencia's "comedy"?
I'm surrounded by lots of smart, witty people who read things that I constantly joke are written for children. These things are called comic books, and I've never understood the appeal. There was a time in my life where I tried, when the indie-rock crowd was all gaga for EightBall and Hate, but even though I found those amusing, I never felt compelled to go back to them. I'm not sure if it's the exaggerated drawings or simply the way stories are told (why would I want to read this animated script instead of just watching a great movie?) but they've just never done it for me. Maybe I'll try Watchmen, since Nathan, another non-comics guy, seemed to like it. Or maybe I don't need another thing in my life to gobble up time.
With all due respect to my colleagues, I take no pleasure in witnessing the slaughter of sacred cows, and even less in reluctantly wielding the ax myself. I'm feeling a bit like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, ready to drag out Marshall McLuhan from behind a theater standee to tell everyone why their opinions are so painfully wrong-headed. For the most part, I don't feel guilty in being displeased by things many respectable people like, because I'm confident enough in my judgment to recognize that a revered work like, say, Network, is in fact a leaden, indigestible hunk of social commentary populated by straw men (and women) and noble martyrs. Still, I do feel guilty when confronted with a film—usually a hyper-arty, abstract piece of festival fare—that for whatever reason zips right over my head; as a critic, it's a panicky moment when you react poorly to impenetrable festival fare like Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos or Carlos Reygadas' Battle In Heaven, and have trouble articulating why they didn't connect. Also, Shakespeare sucks. (j/k)
You know what I don't enjoy? Lists like this.
Editor's note #2: This was our most contentious AVQ&A to date—even more so than the argument-inducing one about movies that induce arguments. Unfortunately, we don't have an extensive e-mail back-and-forth to present to you here, as the debate mostly consisted of raised voices and shaken fists in our weekly production meeting, where we got into it over whether the tone of the responses was even-handed enough, or we'd be seen as casually group-dismissing integral parts of the cultural canon and lowering the tone of discourse on our site. As a result, look for next week's AVQ&A to tie into the emotional backlash that results when we start shrugging off each other's sacredest cows as unworthy and uninteresting. Just a li'l heads-up.