On Star Wars and Criticism

On Star Wars and Criticism

Film criticism as an institution has been upended from top-down value-creation to a more horizontal format of communal endearment. Your neighbor now makes YouTube videos reviewing movies and they are terrible at it. It’s not so much that the original critics were any better; the lazy and tenured academics can be blamed equally for their regurgitations of yesterday’s lecture.

It is instead that the terrible-ness of the paradoxical “uncritical film critique” has the capacity to spread a thousand times over by the internet. Typing “Rogue One review” in a search engine will reveal an exponentially increasing number of your neighbors producing written, video, and audio content critiquing the latest entry in a billion dollar movie franchise. Note that the movie franchise is worth “a billion dollars” with or without the help of these overlapping opinions.

What makes up the “uncritical film critique” nowadays?

First, the review is split up into two parts: a starting non-spoiler section dedicated to raised eyebrows, pursed lips, and the mental hoops to avoid referring to basic plot points that will nullify the existence of the movie. Per A.O. Scott from the New York Times:

But the injunction not to ruin anyone’s good time by “revealing spoilers and detailed story points” is itself revealing, an indication of the meager and disposable pleasures this movie is meant to provide, and also of the low regard its makers have for the audience.

Should it be surprising that many great films can be fully summarized and also fully enjoyed? That Jaws is about a shark attacking some people and then getting killed is hardly enough justification to skip the film’s actual merits: the audio and visual representation of character’s struggles with each other and with the main antagonist, ending in a climax. This structure should be familiar, and is why audiences find entertainment in movies and any other mediums that present narratives. The revelation of cameo X, plot point Y, or twist Z have hitherto not broken a single quality film’s experience.

But the “uncritical film critique” does not question why a spoiler in fact spoils the film; instead there is a relishing in the comfort that they have experienced the plot point firsthand, and can only conclude that avoiding it like the plague will make cinematic virgins unto the audience.

The majority of the review takes place within the “spoiler-free” section. The reviewer proceeds to qualify themselves as either a Critical Evangelist or the Born-Again Fanboy.

The Critical Evangelist unquestioningly follows Religion, yet entertains the thought that they view Religion critically, and because they have not, are further comforted that they have thought critically yet still unquestioningly follow.

The Born-Again Fanboy is a re-ordering of the Critical Evangelist: either from external influence or pseudo-contrarian thought processes, they unquestioningly rejected Religion until it became internally logical to accept it. Afterwards they become the full Evangelist, empowered by History of having been “critical”.

The resulting critique is the same for both, just with minor variations in beginning remarks: the former will begin with a cynicism as they started the film, the latter will begin with their prior cynicism to the franchise itself. Both will achieve nirvana in their pre-intuited and supposedly disproven misgivings; for they have once thought critically, and in doing so can justify their unthinking love of the film’s experience.

One may surmise that the critique actually hasn’t occurred yet: we have passed the introduction phase, the adamant establishment of the no-spoiler section, and the personal qualifiers, and then comes the gushing over familiar objects and significations of “fun”.

The Critical Evangelist would have worried that X, Y, or Z wouldn’t be executed correctly; they were of course wrong and will explain in detail about how the film skirted failure by including or excluding plot element X, Y, or Z. The Born-Again Fanboy may express their once-dismay over X, Y, or Z, but be ecstatic that X, Y, or Z are now enjoyable objects.

The film is revealed as a suite of ethics: that the product composed itself correctly is a moralism derived from the fictional universe itself; if the internal structures of the universe are intact and expanded upon, the film has become good. If these structures are broken without recourse, then the film will become bad.

Herein lies the distraction of the reviewer from the traditional purpose of a film as a communicative language: the movie is but a product of moving parts rather than an expression of creative individuals or groups. Thus, the “uncritical film critique” predicates itself as a review of expression within the Religion (consumerist/fictional universe): it is a given that the film is subject to a code of ethics proprietary to the Religion, and therefore implicitly universal in morality.

In summary, the non-spoiler section of the critique is an unconscious rhetoric that, instead of asking “does this add to our canon?”, resorts to asking “does this add to its canon?”. In a self-flagellating resolve, your neighbor has ceded the quality of franchise movies to its own existence: there is no question about the Religion itself but instead its interpretations of the source materials. In this reality, one will critique the costumes but not the costume-makers or the industry that hired the designers or the society that birthed the industry. We have placed a capital “F” on Fun, for the doctrine of modern criticism is not about what creative mark we can have on future generations, but what Fun we can have in stagnation.

The spoiler section takes up the last fifth of the review, allowing for further gushing over specific plot points and individual scenes.

The Fun we experience in “spoilers” are magnified by the small exertion over the short picket fence, which we vault to overhear the excited whispers of secrets and revelations. Yet these revelations only present ourselves with profound gossip and the mundanity of the modern critic.

Skating to the Puck in Voice-Driven Tech: Apple Versus Amazon Echo

John Gruber recently posted a link about the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas bringing almost five thousand hotel rooms with the Amazon Echo.

There’s an argument that we’re still in the very early stages of voice-driven personal computing. That, for example, Apple is not too late in putting out an Echo-like dedicated appliance. But Amazon is running full steam ahead here. 5,000 hotel rooms here, 5,000 hotel rooms there, and all of a sudden Echo is the entrenched market leader.

More recently, Gruber responded to a newer headline where authorities are requesting from Amazon any kind of information that the Echo may have picked up from its always-on microphone that scans the room for “Hey Alexa”. His was response: “This was inevitable.”

It was certainly inevitable, and a position that Apple would not want to be in. The early 2016 fiasco in which Tim Cook had to publicly defend the company’s refusal to unlock an iPhone 5c has the potential to put the brand in less-than-stellar taste to the broader public. To broaden the point, remember that a recent photo of Mark Zuckerberg revealed some tape placed over the laptop camera; a technological paranoia has been propagated against hackers, the government, and against the device manufacturers themselves.

Would a company that rides much of its success from brand perception want to enter a fledgling market that is currently rife with privacy and security issues?

Would a company that has for decades eschewed being the “market leader” in most of its devices now stumble over itself in the fight for dominance in a market that could be quickly surpassed by an even more pervasive computing technology?

Neil Cybart of Above Avalon recently brought up a quote that Steve Jobs adapted for the consumer technology industry:

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

The times that Apple attempted to jump on a fledgling market, it faltered (Apple Watch, iPhone 5c). But when it’s late, that’s usually when the product is ready to take the high-end of the pie; to make the technology not only worth using, but a total delight in using it. The possibilities that Amazon Echo signifies is delightful, but the reality of robotic commands and an always-on microphone are not so much. Amazon can afford these dings: its consumer cloud services, Prime video UI, and Fire Phone are forgivable because the shopping company does not have to rely on any single of those products for its branding.

However, Apple is a company that lives and dies by its patience and understanding of the puck. Today’s puck is technological paranoia. Tomorrow’s puck will be positioned in the intersection of cultural acceptance and technological intuition. Perhaps Apple TV will be the Trojan horse, or perhaps the iPhone will be rejuvenated by an enhanced “Hey Siri” function. But if Apple is still Apple, the Amazon Echo is but a beta test for a far more premium experience.