The internet has responded to the trailer for Where the Wild Things Are with almost universal love. But it’s the more cynical reactions which have caught my attention. Richard from Gawker is “a little wary of just how hip it seems” while Mel Campbell of The Enthusiast complains that “what really ruins this trailer is its surfeit of hipster whimsy.” Are the reservations legitimate or has the hipster witch-hunt gone too far?
What I suppose the cynics are taking issue with is that the American indie film have become something of a cliché with an arsenal of familiar stylistic devices: Hand-held camera, young twenty-something protagonists with artistic sensibilities, hand-drawn sketches and titles, pop culture-savvy dialogue, indie soundtracks, a certain shabby chic aesthetic to the production design…. These were once the hallmarks of films that celebrated the individual, that fought to resist the language of mainstream cinema, that were dedicated to a perspective on life that took in its messiness, inconsistencies, disappointments and odd beauty. Nowadays, the American indie film is a market and many studios (heck even lots of independent filmmakers) go to great lengths to dress up asinine, feel-good, implausible narratives with the language of American indie cinema.
We might include within this trend:
- Juno: The tale of a highly intelligent teenager too stupid to use protection who copes with her unexpected pregnancy by name-dropping cool band names and having Michael Cera as the perfect boyfriend.
- Little Miss Sunshine: The tale of a family whose members have all been designated individual Personality Disorders whose problems are solved by the sheer cuteness of their chubby daughter.
- Napoleon Dynamite: The tale of a nerd whose main weakness is communicating solely in catchphrases who wins the girl of his dreams by doodling in his notebook.
The problem with the cynic’s identification of this problem is that their criticism is often misdirected. The lazy cynic’s modus operandi is to identify a trend and criticise it for being a trend without any regard to the worth of the trend. Call it the Stuff-White-People-Like-ification of cultural criticism.
Take Mel Campbell’s review of the Where the Wild Things Are trailer:
Many were excited to see hipster kings Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze take the reins of this project (and recruit their hipster friends such as Karen O, who’s writing songs for the soundtrack), but personally I worried that they would trample with their New Authentic whimsy over a story that’s essentially about the angry, inarticulate parts of the childish imagination.
For me, what really ruins this trailer is its surfeit of hipster whimsy. The twee Arcade Fire song; the deliberately wonky hand-drawn titles; the lame insistence that “inside all of us is HOPE… inside all of us is FEAR…”
By labelling Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze “hipster kings” she has basically identified that Dave Eggers is a popular author and that Spike Jonze is a popular director. She seems to think it’s irrelevant that this might be because Dave Eggers is a legitimately great author and Spike Jonze is a legitimately great director. Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius redefined the personal memoir with playful literary devices aimed at plumming the complexity of psychological motivations that drive the act of writing about yourself. Spike Jonze has not set a foot wrong as a feature director with Being John Malkovich (an exploration of celebrity, ego and gender) and Adaptation (about the intersections of art, commerce and identity).
Campbell identifies the “twee Arcade Fire song”, possibly unaware of what the word twee actually means. Blindsided by the fact that Arcade Fire is a popular band she’s discounted the fact that Wake Up is actually an appropriate artistic choice for the trailer:
If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to rust.
The words kind of perfectly fit the material in my opinion.
The worst bit of Campbell’s article is when she criticises the tag line. I know movie taglines are generally reductionist pieces of crap but Campbell states earlier in the piece that she hopes the film is about the “angry, inarticulate parts of the childish imagination”. But shit, what does the tagline “inside all of us is fear” do but flag that the film explores the darker aspects of the child protagonist’s psyche? Considering the studio tried to have the film re-shot and edited so that it wasn’t so scary, I think anyone hoping for Where the Wild Things Are to work as a piece of art should be pretty happy with that tagline.
In a related note, these cynical hipster types need to realise the difference between the film and its marketing. Most of the time, the filmmakers do not have control over how the film is marketed and often the people in marketing choose to distastefully overemphasise an aspect of a film or completely misrepresent a film. A recent case involves the film Away We Go, incidentally also written by Dave Eggers. The Playlist noticed the level of uninformed snark directed towards the film and quite rightly took issue with it:
Apparently if your picture includes an animated title sequence or utilizes an animated poster that deigns to feature a line-drawing for an indie-drama, it means one must reductively describe the movie as being similar to “Juno,” or any other twelve dozen other indie films that people uncreatively lump together for no good reason other than the filmmakers are generally in the same age group and the stories depict superficially analogous subjects (like life).
Other ways to recognize a lazy, unimaginative scribe writing about Sam Mendes’ “Away We Go” poster or the film — considering the film looks much more like a family drama than any of these tossed off signifiers — is their use of:
– “quirky” or “quirkfest
– “Wes Anderson-like”
– “‘Garden State’-ish
– “hipster film”
The poster (at the top of this post) is certainly annoying but we should really look at the credentials of the people involved. I’ve already mentioned Dave Eggers’ greatness and the film’s director is Sam Mendes whose films to date have all been honest artistic statements (regardless of whether you agreed with their perspective. I have my issues with American Beauty which I suspect has more to do with Alan Ball than Sam Mendes). I certainly don’t expect the film to be a superficially indie film that retains the clichés of Hollywood narratives.
To all you pop culture-savvy media types out there: Please don’t rush to criticise so-called indie films in an attempt to appear more hip than hipsters. It’s lazy writing and you do many worthy films a disservice.