This week’s question comes from reader Chris Arp:
It’s time to confess something that has been weighing on me for my entire adult life: Mitch Hedberg does not make me laugh. I have lied about this so many times. And here’s the strange thing: I totally get why he’s great, and I like everything about him, including the short jokes, the attention to words and their misuse, his whole laid-back vibe. When it comes to Mitch Hedberg, the fault is entirely my own. Despite numerous attempts, I have simply failed to appreciate to a good thing. Are there any artists/bands/performers that you cannot connect with, despite knowing full well that they are great?
This may get me shamed out of The A.V. Club headquarters, but I struggle to understand St. Vincent. She’s unquestionably talented, and I don’t hate her songwriting or anything, but I just don’t get it. I’ve listened to her music and I’ve even seen her live twice (at nice small venues, not festivals). Some of her songs are fine, I just haven’t connected with them, or with her, in the way that apparently every single other person on Earth has. The worst of it is that she should be right up my alley—female vocalist, a little weird, sometimes cinematic, has used a fucking theremin onstage, for pete’s sake—and I really want to love her. Alas. It’s not you, Annie, it’s definitely me.
I’m already ducking from all the tomatoes that are going to be thrown my way for this, but I fell out of love with Wes Anderson after The Life Aquatic. I’m not saying he’s not a good director—the artistry is obviously there—or that he hasn’t created a signature visual style. But where many find his genteel quirkiness endlessly charming, I find it irritating, mostly because the novelty of his visual motifs wore off for me a while ago. (Another fetishistic tableau of perfectly symmetrical everyday objects? How whimsical.) And yes, I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Ralph Fiennes was really good in that movie, and it did deserve to win the Oscar for production design. Like I said, I appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into it. But can you imagine sharing an office with Wes Anderson? He’d spend half the day sharpening the pencils on his desk so they lined up just so. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
As an on-the-record advocate of nerdy, meta nonsense, the games of Hideo Kojima should be right up my alley. One of the most recognizable names in gaming, Kojima’s the man behind the endlessly influential Metal Gear Solid games, a series where elderly antagonists die if you leave the game off for a week, and the ghosts of your enemies remember if you committed accidental cannibalism against them. That’s the sort of thoughtful insanity I crave, which is what makes it so weird that I haven’t completed an MGS game in something like 14 years. Sitting down recently to the intro of last year’s Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, I kept asking myself what my problem was. This was fun! Silly bad guys, over-the-top dialogue, a lot of hammy grumbling about geopolitical warfare. Then, Big Boss hit the ground, and my smile started to fade, as alarms rang out, bullets flew, and Game Over screens loomed. I don’t hate stealth, necessarily—Monaco is a personal favorite—but I hate MGS stealth, which is full of too-smart guards, too-little information, and failure states that are too hard to pull out of and get back to the fun. Every time I try to connect with one of Kojima’s games, his genre of choice drives me away, and I’m left to appreciate his work from afar, through shame-tinged TV tropes binge and the occasional Let’s Play watch.
As much as I dearly love music made by sad androids, I’ve never been able to get into Radiohead. When Pablo Honey, the band’s first album debuted, its single “Creep” played on near-constant rotation on MTV. The song irritated me, but instead of bothering to explore the album further, I simply decided with a teenager’s idiot certainty that the band was terrible and I would never bother listening to it again. Over the years, I’ve been exposed to the band’s music by others more open-minded than myself, and, not surprisingly, Radiohead is far smarter and inventive than 16-year old me would have thought. But though I can listen to Kid A or OK Computer and understand how layered and thoughtful the music is, my appreciation doesn’t move beyond a wall of objective approval. I just don’t feel it any deeper than that. As a milk-pale Midwesterner of central European ancestry, I’m as close to a robot as humanity has bred. The group’s pensive bleeps, blorps, and cold soundscapes should be my native language. But I think my window for becoming truly engaged in Radiohead’s music passed me by a dozen years ago.
Nick Currie’s long-dormant click opera was to the blog what Achewood was to the web comic. Currie—an eccentric, eye-patch-wearing Scottish expat culture writer, journalist, and occasional performance artist, prone to posting shirtless PhotoBooth pictures of himself—turned interest-exhibitionism into something like an art, writing succinctly and often wittily about graphic designers, commercial architecture, art movements, life in Japan, and whatever else he might be thinking about it. (It helps that Currie is into very boring things like chairs and wholesale food markets, and anyone who can write in an interesting way about the dull is all right in my book.) But as much as I’ve come to enjoy reading his perspective on things, I could never get into the guy’s music. See, Currie has been putting out records for almost 30 years as Momus—a name I first encountered as a teenage CD clerk, when he was still indie-notorious as a coy, hyper-literate singer-songwriter of sci-fi sex ditties. And as much as I share many of Momus’ influencing tastes (Jacques Brel, David Bowie, etc.), I’ve come to terms with the fact that I find him extrapolating on said tastes more compelling than what they’ve produced. I appreciate it when I hear it—especially the starker, more self-serious early stuff—but never feel the urge to seek it out. (The exception is “I Want You, But I Don’t Need You,” which I sometimes find myself humming.) Funny how that is.
As a devoted horror fanatic, I’ve long questioned my apathetic feelings toward David Cronenberg. The maestro of body horror should be right up my alley. I enjoy a cerebral thrill over the visceral and viscera, and conventional wisdom places Cronenberg alongside Kubrick, Polanski, and Friedkin in the shortlist of meditative, intelligent horror filmmaker greats. While I admire Cronenberg’s ideas (Videodrome’s voyeuristic social satire and A History Of Violence’s aggression deconstruction are particularly pointed), I’m never actively engaged. There’s just something too cold and clinical about his aesthetic, and I’ve always got the sense that he thinks movies shouldn’t be fun. The Fly stands out as the one time Cronenberg seems to be enjoying himself, marrying lofty ideas, sympathetic characters, and a playful B-movie sensibility with plenty of gooey gore. With every release I keep coming back, but with the diminishing returns of Cosmopolis and Maps To The Stars, I think I might sit the next one out.
In 2007, cineastes everywhere were in a heated debate over which great American filmmaker(s) had delivered the bigger masterpiece: No Country For Old Men, or There Will Be Blood? For me, the choice was easy. I’ll go see anything the Coen brothers do as long as they’re making movies, but for the life of me, I can’t stand Paul Thomas Anderson. I did like Boogie Nights, but not as much as the critical consensus. It was a collection of scenes—some of them fantastic, mind you—but it never quite held together as a whole. And then there’s Magnolia. He opens the film with a meditation on stunning coincidences, to prime us for a film without a single coincidence. There’s no one to root for, as Anderson seems to hate all of his characters. Every single woman in the film is shrill and hysterical in every scene, as if he decided coked-up Julianne Moore from Boogie Nights was how all women act all the time. And the plague of frogs was just plain stupid. I did intend to give the director another chance, but then he cast Adam Sandler in his next movie, and he lost me for good.
This is a tough question because far more often than not, I’m convinced that my reasons for disliking something are quite good, even if it’s something I know is “objectively” good, or has some kind of merit. For example, I wouldn’t call my indifference to the films of Shane Carruth irrational or strictly personal. The flat, muted delivery of his actors (including himself!) renders both Primer and Upstream Color harder for me to follow (or feel invested in, or stay awake during) than they should be, and I’m not convinced that the overcast digital-video cinematography of Upstream Color is as aesthetically beautiful as so many of my fellow critics seem to think (and I have no beef with digital video; I’ll go to bat for late-period Michael Mann). But while I wouldn’t say Carruth makes “great” movies, I will say that there’s an obvious vision, craft, and voice in both of his features so far. It feels especially weird to not connect with a visionary and uncompromising filmmaker who makes indie sci-fi movies, especially one about time travel; on paper, Carruth’s work sounds perfect for me. Instead, I’m left understanding that, okay, his work is certainly perfect for lots of other people.
I’m usually someone that likes a distinctive singing voice, but I have a very hard time listening to Tom Waits. My ears just don’t like that gravelly growl, and while I admire the grit and pain in that sound, it’s not something I find appealing. That’s unfortunate, because I have a lot of respect and appreciation for his songwriting. I recently saw a production of The Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare Theater that used songs by Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan to set the mood and elaborate on different elements of the story, and I was amazed at how much I wanted to hear those songs again when they were sung by two women with smoother voices. I connected with the lyrics more when I wasn’t trying to jump the hurdle of Waits’ voice, and it made me ache for a good Waits cover album by female vocalists.
I know damn well that Led Zeppelin are Norse gods put on Earth to bring the rock. I know that Robert Plant’s voice is as pure and powerful an instrument that exists in pop music, with the possible exception of Jimmy Page’s guitar and John Bonham’s drums. I know that Led Zeppelin are legends who tower over the sum of pop culture as one of the all time greats but for whatever reason I have never gotten into them. It’s my fault, really, but I haven’t ever been inspired to get the Led out during the first 39 years of my life, and I doubt I ever will.
Ramsey Campbell is a smart writer working in one of my favorite genres. His novels come recommended by Stephen King and other horror luminaries, and the few novels of his that I’ve managed to read have had well-crafted prose and effectively eerie subject material. Yet no matter how hard I try, I can’t really enjoy those novels, or count myself as one of his fans. I respect him, and can completely understand why people love his work, but to me, his clinical, icy, borderline cruel view of humanity is intensely off-putting. Reading his writing is the closest I’ve come to watching something like the original The Office in print, but The Office leavened its akwardness with comedy and surprising compassion that Campbell’s writing seems to lack. He’s not a nihilist or even misanthropic exactly; there is some sympathy in the way he depicts weak and foolish people marching toward their doom. But the merciless tone never sits right with me. (Although they work in different genres, Ian McEwan’s writing often hits the same chord—maybe it’s a British thing.)