Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"A Lesson Relearned"

When Best of the West debuted on TV, the pilot episode received a wide range of critical responses, from gratifyingly positive to deflatingly not great.  (My most memorable recollection of this occasion occurred the following morning.  After I had finished meditating in bed, Dr. M brought me the L.A. Times review of the broadcast, but only after she had taken a scissors and cut out all the negative words and phrases, thus presenting me with a newspaper review resembling a now entirely adulatory doily.)

I know it’s not math.  When it comes to critical reactions, there is no “right answer” –“Two and two equals four.”  However, it is baffling to me that the a single creative undertaking can generate an array of evaluatory responses that are all over the map, shells lobbing in from every imaginable – and unimaginable – direction – “Two and two equals five”, “Two and two equals twelve”, “Two and two equals a corned beef sandwich”, “Two and two equals a 'Bed-and-Breakfast' in Pacoima.” 

How can that realistically be the case?  So many disparate responses to the same piece of material?  This head-scratching observation led me to consider the possibility that professional reviewers, on some unconscious level, were, not reviewing…whatever it was they were reviewing,

They were, in fact, secretly, and unbeknownst to themselves, reviewing…


…is what I concluded.

And I left it at that.

Reviewing – and, arguably, observation in general – is a Rorschach Test.  Your “take-away” reaction is a direct consequence of what resonates with you.

Thank you, and goodnight.

No, wait.  That was actually just the setup.  The following is today’s nugget:

Recently, thoughts concerning this matter returned to me, after reading an article on the rash of unpleasant and unlikable lead characters dominating both the Big Screen (Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Meryl Streep in August: Osage County) and the small screen (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards.)

(I have long wanted to write about what our popular entertainment says about our culture, and, though I know it will  be interesting and provocative – which is easy to say when you haven’t written it yet, though perhaps such lofty expectations go some distance towards explaining why it hasn’t – so far, however, I have yet to find an appropriate and satisfying framework for such an offering.  A “Sneak Peek” on the subject: Today’s audience seems generically dissatisfied with the times we live in.) 

We now return to today’s story…

Particular critical and blogatory hostility has been accorded to the eponymous character in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.  There seems to be a consensus dislike for this guy.  It’s like, if you were considering a Guest List of “Fictional Characters” to invite an actual party, a proposed “What about Llewyn Davis?” would evoke an instant and vociferous ”No-o-o-o-o-o!  I mean, come on, guys!  To paraphrase Roger Rabbit:

“He can’t help it.  He’s just written that way.”

Here’s where this gets interesting.  I am hoping.

I do not believe I am mischaracterizing the vast majority of reviewers I read when I characterize their views on Inside Llewyn Davis thusly: 

“A talented folksinger sabotages his chances of success because of his prickly and irascible personality.”

I look at the same movie, and what do I come out with?

“A folksinger develops a prickly and irascible personality because, deep down, he’s aware that he is not talented enough.”

My being diametrically out of sync with the general perception suggests that, on this occasion, the lesson I am relearning is not about the critics, but is a little, joltingly illuminatingly, closer to home. 


Wendy M. Grossman said...

In considering the influx of unlikable lead characters (adding BREAKING BAD to your list) it's worth noting that I believe this is a trend that began in the UK years, if not decades ago (think TIL DEATH US DO PART, the original of ALL IN THE FAMILY, for example). So if we're going to think about what it means for *our* culture we kind of have to think a little about what it meant for the culture in which it originated, too.

As for Llewyn Davis, I have yet a third take on this, which comes from my own experience as a folksinger. It's a difficult profession, and if you do not start out with the easiest of personalities it's hard to cope with a number of the pressures, specifically the pressure to be someone people like. In the 1970s folk scene, many of the people organizing concerts and coffeehouses were doing so as volunteers, and it's not unreasonable that they should want to hire people who were pleasant to deal with and who were at least somewhat grateful. You could get away with not being such a lovely person if you were talented enough. So my reading (admittedly without having seen the movie) is that he was not talented or successful enough for people to *forgive* his having a prickly and difficult personality. (Neither was I, yes.)

But this seems to me normal behavior everywhere: people do not hire people who are going to be a pain to work with unless they are spectacularly brilliant and able to deliver something (in a musician's case, audiences) that no one else can. Even for a sitcom writers' room.


Canda said...

Good observations by both Wendy, and you, Earl, on Llewyn Davis.

Also, the Coen Brothers have enjoyed much critical success, so the critics were waiting for the moment to knock them down a peg.

As for unlikeable characters, much of the praised television on cable these days also seems to have characters that are blatantly nihilistic and anti-religious, like the one Matthew McConaughey plays in TRUE DETECTIVE. Grimness, and often serial killing, seems to be the fashion. Perhaps that is in a reflection on the bleakness people and writers feel in these times.