Don’t Believe In Hype (And Don’t Conceive It Either)

By  · Published on May 17th, 2016

A critic’s notes on the Cannes Film Festival, hype, and film advocacy.

Every May, one of the greatest rituals in world cinephilia unfolds: the paradisal sun, the yacht parties, world premieres of the best and brightest auteurs . . . that is, if you’re fortunate enough to attend the Cannes Film Festival. Otherwise, it’s a matter of sullenly refreshing Twitter every few seconds, wondering why it’s still only 50 degrees in May, and seething that everyone is getting to see new Kristen Stewart movies before you. This is last is acutely a problem with Cannes because it’s Cannes, but a similar effect plagues any film festival rude enough not to be within, at most, driving distance. The first wave of people to see a movie set the discourse surrounding it: if the prevailing opinion among them is positive, the first negative assessment is immediately called backlash, or worse, sour grapes from verdantly envious Johnny Come-Latelys. Conversely, if the initial word is negative or mixed and later takes are more complimentary and appreciative of nuance, the first screening was clearly populated with reactionary hacks. In short, it’s all a huge mess and it makes talking about movies less fun. I would like to propose a solution.

Before doing so, a minor-ish confession: when accused of participating in or manufacturing “hype,” a lot of film critics will get defensive and insist that they’re just giving forth their honest opinion and that “hype” is just an aggregate effect of a lot of writers simultaneously liking a given film. I’ve made similar arguments when lumped in with a hype collective. The truth is a little more complex. Each critic does make their own argument, have their own take, and so on. But these arguments and takes aren’t free of context, and especially in festivals, there’s one unavoidable factor: advocacy.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but to my own experience with this, in 2015 when covering the Sundance film festival I got an assignment to review a film called The Russian Woodpecker, a non-fiction account of a performance artist-turned-activist, born near Chernobyl in both time and space, who pursues a decades-old mystery stretching to the highest reaches of late Soviet power structure. I loved the film and thought it was great ‐ those two are not directly synonymous ‐ but since too few people were touting it as one of the best in the fest to my liking, I deliberately tweeted more about it than I might have otherwise. The Russian Woodpecker won an award at the end of the festival, so obviously I wasn’t the only person who saw it or liked it. But I would be lying if I said the thought hadn’t crossed my mind ‐ fleetingly, but it still made a full crossing ‐ that if the film became a hit on the awards circuit or something, someone might say “Critic Danny Bowes was [among] the first to herald this film’s genius,” or sentiments to that effect, and that that would be cool. Like I said, I can’t speak for anyone but myself but I would be truly shocked to discover that I had more vivid and consuming dreams of glory than any other film critic on the planet. And, to repeat another point, I would be just as shocked to discover that no film critic hyped a festival movie that they genuinely liked and thought was good.

Being the audience of that hype can, at times, be wearying. This is where it’s important to remember (as I briefly did not, yesterday) that the ninetieth (note: it was not literally the ninetieth) tweet you saw about Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper bearing resemblance to Jacques Rivette, the straw that broke the camel’s back, assuming that you’re the camel in a desert between arthouse oases, with nary a drop of Assayas to drink, was not tweeted by the Borg, but by one person. Whether the thought “hey, this was sorta like Rivette” originated in that person’s head, or whether they logged onto Twitter, saw someone else make that observation, and thought “sounds about right” and repeated it is irrelevant. The apparent waves of hype and the way references become memes are coincidence. As difficult as it may be, individual arguments and takes must be regarded as such, no matter how much one might want to believe critics conspire to shape public opinion. (We do all get bribed by Marvel, though; I’m typing this on a gold-plated laptop on a private jet.)

Read More: Cannes 2016 Coverage

As for that promised solution to the detailed huge mess: when advocating for a film one particularly likes, it’s essential to not overdo it. Especially at the very first screening. When attending a subsequent screening of something initial viewers said was a masterpiece, it’s important to, to the greatest degree possible, form an assessment independent of the “hype.” When trudging to your third or fourth screening in a day, especially if your schedule required you to skip a meal, recall that no matter how confident you are of your own objectivity, your faculties are diminished, because you’re tired and hungry. This is on top of the artificial continuity you form between otherwise unrelated movies simply because you happened to see them all on the same day.

Reverse perspective when determining how to process festival takes as audience: consider what circumstances are informing those takes, and also remember that despite the avalanche of discourse (to flatter social media conversations) around movies months before they come out, it’s best if you try and compartmentalize the conversation from the experience of the movie. Above all, for everyone outside the stratum of film writer who gets to cover film festivals the world over, the key is to be patient. No matter one’s title or how early or late one sees a movie, regardless of whether we see it in a theater or at home on our TV or laptop, we all see movies by ourselves. No amount of hype can change that.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all