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 email@example.com.
This week’s question:
After looking at last week’s A.V. Club Q&A (lifetime passes), I was talking with a friend about the production of Waiting For Godot with John Goodman as Pozzo. Though my friend was fairly happy with the idea, I’m not so sure—I can’t take John Goodman after Roseanne. Are there any actors, directors, etc. who you now consider blacklisted because of a particular work or group of works? Is there anyone you will take a lifetime pass on? —Terence Praet
Recently, you did an AVQ&A on people you will always respect, but is there anyone you can never admire? Sofia Coppola comes to mind, as I think the general public will always remember her as That Chick Who Ruined The Godfather: Part III, even if it wasn’t really her fault. —Lou Schumaker
Lou, we appreciate you giving us all free rein to declare our hipster hatred for the Tyler Perrys, Dane Cooks, and Larry The Cable Guys of the world, but we don’t want to make this one too easy on ourselves, or too predictable, or too much of a series of cheap shots. So sure, there are plenty of people we’d never admire, and would be happily done with if our jobs didn’t require us to keep watching their films and listening to their music. But most of those answers wouldn’t be all that interesting. So I guess we’re more answering Terence’s question than yours.
And Terence, in answering your question, we further decided to limit ourselves to talking about artists who are relatively acclaimed and respected. At least that way there’s some basis for the kind of discussion and discord we like to see in the comments for this feature, as opposed to just raw vitriol.
All that said, I’m going to go with someone even I’m a little surprised to be saying this about: Guy Maddin. I finally watched Careful a few weeks ago—Scott Tobias’ copy, in fact, the one he just re-watched for his New Cult Canon entry this week—and it was the film that decided me that no matter how much I liked The Saddest Music In The World and “The Heart Of The World,” I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns on his movies, the point where all the pseudo-silent-movie artifice and odd tints and framing and weird audio crackles and Clara Bow acting is getting in the way of my enjoyment of his films instead of enhancing it. I can respect the uniqueness of his vision, but I find it distracting, even irritating, especially when the story that comes with it is fractured or getting close to nonexistent. He’s never done any one egregious thing to offend me, but I find his movies increasingly about style over substance, and I’m just not that interested in watching him further explore that style. And while I’m reiterating things I’ve just told my co-workers today anyway, I’ll add that I don’t feel any particular compulsion to read any more books by Haruki Murakami. I know everyone and his brother thinks The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the greatest thing ever set to paper, but I found it draggy, bloated, and ultimately not very memorable. (Maybe I just read it too soon after a Kazuo Ishiguro binge, and Murakami suffered by comparison.) Neither of these “lifetime grudges” are the kind of things where I’d warn friends away from these creators; they’re just personal choices for stuff I’m comfortably walking away from. There are just too many other things out there I’d rather be reading or watching.
When it came out, I considered U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby an abomination. I wasn’t a hardcore fan of the band, but I loved “I Will Follow” (and just about all of Boy) and their work through The Joshua Tree, but I wasn’t having Achtung Baby. In fact, an incendiary piece I wrote for my high-school paper about how much U2 sucked nearly got me lynched. Although my attitude toward the album has thawed over the years—you can’t deny “One,” though I’ll probably go to my grave hating “Mysterious Ways”—U2 bores me to tears these days. The early reviews I read for No Line On The Horizon gave me hope that the situation had changed, but the record still sounded dull to me. It was the first new U2 album I’d really listened to in ages, and it confirmed what I already suspected: I’m not missing anything. There’s no reason to pay attention anymore, and I was barely doing so as is.
I would say Todd Solondz. When I watched Welcome To The Dollhouse in high school, I enjoyed the movie’s black humor, and felt a little bit more sophisticated after liking it. (This is a compliment to Solondz, not a dig about a high-schooler liking his stuff, by the way.) I loved that he made a movie where the girl you’d normally pity and/or make over could be as big an asshole as everyone else in the picture. Then I watched Happiness, and I felt grossed-out and angry at myself for having sat and watched what to me seemed like a bunch of horribly depraved shit, with nothing really redeeming it. It wasn’t so much the sense of disgust that bothered me, but that I felt controlled by Solondz, like he lifted up a rock to show us what was under it for Welcome To The Dollhouse, and now he was going to force us to dig us much, much deeper in the dirt than before: “If you could take that, how about this?” Right now, the top topic on this movie’s IMDB chat boards is “People who hate this movie are stupid,” and that’s what bugs me—I felt trapped into either appreciating this movie, or being a super-conservative square. But I didn’t appreciate the movie, or enjoy it, or like anything about it. I just didn’t want to be a part of Solondz’s audience after that.
I’ll go ahead and answer with the name of a recent A.V. Club interview subject: Bret Easton Ellis. At first, I was fascinated by his rise to stardom: as a young fiction writer, I was thrilled that someone so fresh and inexperienced rose to such lofty heights so quickly, and I was moderately obsessed at the time with seeing “our” generation produce its own literary movement. Unfortunately, I had to go and actually read his books, and I count his early efforts—the hugely overrated Less Than Zero, the witless, self-impressed American Psycho, and the utterly abysmal The Rules Of Attraction—as three of the worst novels I’ve ever read. Anyone can write a hack genre novel and have it turn out awful, but it takes extra effort to produce utter garbage that thinks it’s groundbreaking and brilliant. Ellis’ early work reads like anti-Dostoyevsky: completely self-absorbed, insular instead of universal, shabbily written, and containing absolutely no psychological insight whatsoever. I’m assured that The Insiders marked a major improvement in his work, and I’ve heard some respectable critics say good things about Glamorama and Lunar Park. But even if I believed those books were any good, which I don’t, I already gave the guy three chances, and each time, he demonstrated that he might just be the worst “serious” writer alive. If he produced the next Ulysses, I’d never know it, because I have no intention of ever reading anything he ever writes again.
Jack Kerouac. Though I appreciate the entertainment value of his conservative phase (or just it peeking out from his beatnik cover), when I hit college it seemed like every fifth Facebook profile (yeah, I’m that young, yeesh) had the damn Roman candle quote under their favorite quotes to signify their specialness. (You know: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”) Aside from the irony of thousands of young Americans uniting in their desire not to conform by all choosing the same quote (which they probably never read in context in the first place), it’s insufferable; these were the people who got drunk and insufferably earnest really fast. Kerouac hasn’t worn well (for some quick proof, watch the smug, overrated “Pull My Daisy”—routinely chosen as the key beatnik short movie), but his acolytes’ regurgitated, carefree, unthinking Love Of Life is pretty unbearable. And the fact that every fifth person on the subway seems to be reading The Dharma Bums doesn’t help much either.
When this whole Billy Bob Thornton radio-interview thing happened a few weeks ago, I surprised myself a little by thinking “I will never be able to enjoy another Billy Bob Thornton movie again.” Like most of you, I’ve learned not to expect anything approaching decent human behavior from celebrities. But I can usually separate the person from the art, if you can call Mr. Woodcock art. Sure, Shia LaBeouf seems like a douche, but that won’t stop me from enjoying a movie he’s starring in. Tom Cruise was great in Tropic Thunder, and I can enjoy that, even though it’s fairly clear that he’s probably a dangerous person. But that radio interview, in which BBT berated a perfectly genial Canadian host who was actually trying to play by the ridiculous rules that Thornton had established—just turned me off completely. Not only will I not be able to enjoy anything that asshole is in in the future, but I think I’m going to retroactively suspend all the enjoyment I got from Sling Blade and Bad Santa. Like I said, normally I wouldn’t get my panties in a bunch about something a celebrity did in real life, but, umm, fuck Billy Bob Thornton. Fuck him right in his eye.
Do I really have to retract what I said last week about everyone having a potential for an artistic revival? I hope not. I don’t want AVQ&A to make me a pessimist. That said, it’s been painful to watch the progress of Liz Phair. I don’t believe that later, shoddier work can erase previous greatness, or that musicians have to adhere to some notion of indie purity in order not to be blacklisted. The term “sellout” is thrown around far too loosely, and always has been; “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” does not cancel out “Maggie Mae.” And yet, sometimes the indie-cred border patrol has a point. I’m a fan of Liz Phair’s first three albums, and her 2003 album Liz Phair and its 2005 follow-up Somebody’s Miracle fill me with no end of pain. The calculation. The dumbing-down. The empty provocation. It’s the sound of an artist knowingly watering down what she does best. It was great the first time around, but I don’t hear it the same way anymore.
I’m with Keith on this one. As My Year Of Flops and Dispatches From Direct-to-DVD Purgatory attest, I am not one to give up on things easily, no matter how bad their reputation. That said, there are definitely filmmakers whose films I loved who made a film (or films) so agonizingly awful and misguided, it called their whole oeuvre into question. Three that jump out at me are Neil LaBute, the Wachowski brothers, and Cameron Crowe. I found In The Company Of Men to be a bracingly nasty, darkly compelling post-Mamet look into the shadowy abysses of masculinity at its most warped and vile, and thought Your Friends & Neighbors was extremely underrated. All bets were off after that. I thought Nurse Betty was a train wreck. The Shape Of Things was a forgettable exercise in a writer with a distinctive voice spinning his wheels, and I couldn’t bring myself to see Possession, which just looked dull. But I lost most, if not all, respect for LaBute after The Wicker Man. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s a hoot. But LaBute set out to make a serious film, which makes me question his judgment, sanity, and talent. As for the Wachowskis, the Matrix sequels and Speed Racer all but negated my love of The Matrix. And Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, although sweet and earnest, was so daft and self-indulgent that it made me wonder if I’d overrated everything Crowe had ever done. I’m not giving up on any of these directors, but I will be going into their films with drastically lowered expectations.
Ever since The Slim Shady LP, I have been unashamedly defending Eminem to anyone who would listen. Not as some misunderstood genius (he isn’t), or by taking the hyperbolic, painfully academic Greil Marcus route by comparing him to Bob Dylan (which he totally did), but by recognizing that, like a lot of my favorite hip-hop artists, he was prone to—and allowed—the occasional “just playin’” goof and/or out-and-out misstep without it taking away from the power of his more serious tracks. I mean, I love Biggie like the brother-who-would-have-hated-me I never had, but I still usually skip “Fuck You Tonight,” unless I’m trying to make my wife laugh. On a similar note, Eminem’s lamer moments (and every album had at least a couple) didn’t take away from his oft-wasted gift for clever wordplay, or the way he sounds thrillingly, nihilistically unhinged on stuff like “Kim” or “Amityville.” But Jesus Christ on a cracker-rapper, has that dude ever made it hard for me to listen to him ever again, beginning with the extended fart joke/MadTV skit that was “Just Lose It,” and continuing right up to the squirm-inducing travesty of “We Made You,” which is like hearing the TMZ comment boards set to music. I’m not quite to the stage where I can’t still squeeze some enjoyment out of the tracks of his I used to enjoy (although I definitely do so much more privately now), but if this is what he’s going to be from here on out—some lazy, self-satisfied, infantilized, rap version of Perez Hilton—then maybe I’ll take his advice, put his tape back on the rack, and go tell my friends his shit is wack, because now it’s me who just doesn’t give a fuck.
At this point, picking on George Lucas is the great American fanboy pastime. But beneath all the geeky hairsplitting about Jar Jar’s lameness and Greedo shooting first is a profound, culture-wide sigh of disappointment at just how poorly Lucas has piloted his Star Wars franchise. Granted, in hindsight it’s easy to see that the series started nose-diving almost as soon as it was airborne. Like most fans who came of age along with Star Wars, however, I was prepared to cherish the original trilogy not just as a sacred chunk of my childhood, but as one of the greatest damn stories of all time. Then came the horrid digital reupholstery (and, in some cases, wrecking-ball stupidity) of Lucas’ Episodes IV through VI re-releases. Then came Episode I. And II. And III. Each prequel—in its own unique, excruciating way—reneged on Star Wars’ glorious promise. And if I held any lingering hope that Lucas might someday revive the greatness of his creations, along came The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Not only is it the hands-down worst movie I saw in 2008, it showed me once and for all that any goodwill I ever had for Lucas has forever crossed over to the Dark Side.
I’m generally too insecure about my own judgment to cling to any hard-and-fast rules, and deep down, there’s a part of me that kind of wants to enjoy everything. (Wouldn’t life be so much more fun? And there’d be unicorns!) I do have passionate likes and dislikes—it’s just, I’m so easily led that I’ll re-examine anything if people I respect (or anonymous voices on the Internet) tell me I should. Sometimes my insecurity has led me to new discoveries (I used to hate David Lynch), but every so often, I get to a point where even I have to draw the line. The most recent example of that would be director Zack Snyder. I saw his Dawn Of The Dead remake in theaters; I thought it was fun but hollow, and a definite dumbing-down of the source material. 300, I didn’t get around to ’til it was on DVD, but I had high hopes—I figured it would at least be exciting. It wasn’t, and to this day, I still don’t get what the big deal was. It’s loud, relentlessly jingoistic, stupid, and the fucking pacing! Snyder follows the Michael Bay school of “glorious moments” filmmaking, where rhythm and scene-building are ignored in favor of 10-to-30-second-long trailer-clips, edited together with all the subtlety of a shotgun blast. I find that sort of thing tedious as hell; it ruined the action sequences for me, and without action sequences, 300 is just a really long ad for the National Guard. Then came the news that Snyder was doing Watchmen, and it was not very good news at all. Still, I saw it in theaters, and for the first hour or so, I was enjoying myself; the adaptation was really just a shallow regurgitation of the book, without much in the way of grace or wit, but it did look awfully pretty. But it just went on, and on, and on. So I started getting annoyed, and that was pretty much it for me and Snyder.
Just to be clear: I don’t think anyone is wrong for enjoying any of Snyder’s films, and the guy obviously has talent. It’s just not for me anymore. I’ll probably watch Watchmen again with my friends when it hits Blu-ray, but I don’t think I’ll ever get excited to hear his name attached to a project.
I’m too curious to ever refuse anything on principle, whether conventional wisdom is giving someone a second chance, or it’s a chance to rubberneck at a sure-fire entertainment train-wreck. If Ashton Kutcher directed and starred in a modern-day remake of Shakespeare’s Troilus And Cressida set in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, I’d feel compelled to experience it, whether it was the year’s most shockingly critically acclaimed hit, or so bad they wouldn’t even bother to put it on DVD. I would do this even in the full knowledge that I can never, ever receive that time back. I just hope that on my deathbed, I’m not too bothered by all the time I’ve wasted on things I shouldn’t have.