Death of the Critic

Lighten Up

Written by: Tom Blaich

Sometimes we are sad. Something happens. Big or small. And it just hits you. You yearn for the familiar comforts of home. A warm hug. A bowl of soup. Something familiar or happy.

Movies have always been an outlet of mine. Something that I can use to decompress. To enjoy myself. To occupy a space that needs to be filled. There is something comforting about having that presence of someone else there. Over the years I can think of dozens of films that have kept me company, and I fondly remember them.

But it feels like something is changing. Movies are becoming more serious. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The medium has created some veritable masterpieces over the last decade and a great many of them are very serious films. We can even see it in children’s films. There was always a sad moment in an animated movie. Maybe the friends had a falling out. Maybe someone was lost. But there was always a light at the end of the tunnel.

This last fall I saw
Inside Out. It positively blew me away. It was an amazing movie dealing with depression and growing up and was one of my favorite films of last year. But watching it something felt different. Maybe it was because I am an adult now. Maybe it was that I’ve started to study films in the last few years. But this remarkably mature film seemed to speak differently to me than Pixar films used to.

It was no secret that it was a sad movie, continuing a recent trend of Pixar films that tug at the viewers heartstrings, allowing the audience to identify with the film. But it seemed different than the animated movies that I watched when I was younger. Maybe it was that I simply failed to understand these films as a child, but thinking back to the original
Toy Story, I don’t get the same feelings of sadness. As we have grown as an audience, our films have grown with us, bringing us shockingly mature and well-made movies but at the same time, it seems like some movies trade the well-made part for the shockingly mature part.

It just feels like something has been left behind. Something has been lost, some bit of our childhood innocence that we used to be able to turn to these movies to find. In our endless desire to grow up, to become more mature, to elevate the form, we have lost something.

Where did the whimsy go? Where did the lighthearted enjoyment go? Is it possible to turn on a film now and be greeted with something genuinely happy or lighthearted?

I was talking to my mother the other night. I had stopped by her house to pick something up and I sat with her on our couch as she knit. Our cat lazily looked at me from the other side of the room. She was watching
Modern Family. And it seemed like every time that I came home she would be watching it. “I can just enjoy myself. I don’t have to worry about a child being killed. Or someone being kidnapped. Or some poor woman being raped. It’s just nice.”

I hadn’t really thought of it that way before she had said something to me, but her words made me think. Normally I’m a champion of serious forms in media in general, brushing aside more lighthearted fare, but it’s made me think. Does everything need to be serious, all of the time? Or can we simply have an enjoyable movie, dumb as it may be, that isn’t critically panned for what it is?

And it’s not just children’s movies. It’s movies of all shapes and sizes. I’ve always loved dumb action films because they don’t take anything seriously. Even while the mad villain wants to destroy the world, or hunt down his hated enemy, you can take it with a grain of salt, laugh at the ridiculousness of what is going on in front of you. Look at
Commando, the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that is the height of 80’s action schlock.

There is a scene where our hero, John Matrix, which incidentally might be the greatest action movie hero name of all time, uses different tools in a shed to wipe out a small island’s worth of mercenaries. He chucks saw blades and axes with reckless abandon, and at one point a pitchfork makes a deadly appearance. This is all leading up to his climatic knife fight with villain Bennett, where he finishes by javelining a steam pipe through the man’s chest and chain mail shirt, quipping, “let off some steam Bennett.”

It’s amazing. It’s terrible. It is the height of the gloriously bad action cinema to me because it so clearly doesn’t take itself seriously. Terrible lines and amazing action sequences litter the film like cigarette butts outside of a Starbucks. Even when his young daughter is kidnapped you don’t fear for her safety, or worry about her in any way, because you, the audience, knows that John Matrix is going to bust onto scene and kick some major ass to get her back, all without a scratch on her.

But now something has changed. Our action stars need to be brooding. Tormented. Haunted by some event in their past that they simply cannot get over. Their female costars need to be constantly threatened with sexual violence, hoping that the hero can save them before the deed is done. The bad guy needs to kill children or torture people to show just how bad he is.

Gone are the days of anonymous South American island dictators with dreams of grandeur, or evil scientists with a grudge, of disgraced military commanders with a stolen weapon. Gone are the days of black and white, good and evil. Your hero is now an antihero. Your villain now might be right about some things.

I should clarify here by saying that this is in no way a bad thing. Adding dimension and depth to our characters only makes them stronger by allowing us to question motives and seeing an arc playing out on screen. We can witness redemption and revenge, the growth of a character in front of us, something that many early action movies were lacking.

The problem with this trend is that if a movie tries to emulate this old action cinema, it is critically panned for being unintelligent, for dumbing down the form, for not being original. Look at
The Expendables, a movie which I unapologetically love in that it is something that I don’t have to think about and that I can simply enjoy. They tried to fit in a deeper story with Mickey Rourke, but in the end it was still a bunch of action movie stars blowing things up, and it was a whole hell of a lot of fun to watch.

But I guess what I’m asking for is the ability to go to a movie theater and enjoy myself. To go there, sit down and not be sad when I’m done with the film. To not think about the consequences of what goes on, on screen.

Pixar has tried recently with
Cars, but while it achieved mainstream success, critics were not as supportive, citing a lack of originality that made the film feel lesser than its predecessors. We are so preoccupied with looking at the art and importance of our films that sometimes we forget to simply sit down and enjoy them. Cars isn’t the type of movie that you watch in a film class to dissect, or talk seriously about in a written piece, but sometimes you don’t want that.

I wish we could take ourselves less seriously. I wish we could put aside our pretensions sometimes and simply remember to enjoy ourselves. Because it seems like we forget to do that. This doesn’t mean that we should stop making films like
Inside Out. It just means that we shouldn’t be afraid to make movies that aren’t Inside Out.
Sometimes you want to sit down under a warm blanket and laugh at jokes you think are dumb because there is no one there to judge you. Because it’s ok to be sad sometimes.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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