Have we gone too far with the “hipster” labelling?

away-we-go-posterThe 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
– “twee”
– “Wes Anderson-like”
– “‘Garden State’-ish
– “whimsical”
– “hipster film”
– “etc.”

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.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Have we gone too far with the “hipster” labelling?

  1. Oh, rubbish. Not all “popular” things are annoyingly whimsical. Nor does popularity make something “legitimately great”.

    And the fact the Arcade Fire song happens to be about kids doesn’t make it any less obnoxious a soundtracking choice. By the way, “twee” means “excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty or sentimental”, which pretty much sums up this horrible band for me.

    What I said in my review is that I believe these whimsical tropes, if they show up in the final film as they do in this trailer, will overwhelm and cheapen a story that wasn’t about what’s “inside all of us”, but about one boy’s private world of unexpressed rage.

    But ultimately, I resent being called lazy, unimaginative or cynical for not liking the same stuff that you do.

    • Brad

      Hey Mel,
      Thanks for reading the blog!

      I’m not criticizing you for not liking the Arcade Fire. But I do think that using derogatory terms like “hipster” tends to conflate together very different films that share only surface similarities. The “hipster” label is also a fairly reductive way of describing what certain artists do.

      I never wrote that all popular things are legitimately great. In fact, being popular signifies nothing of a artwork’s worth. That is precisely my problem with the term “hipster”. It really only describes popularity within a certain market.

      As for the term “twee”, I suppose there’s a circular semantic debate to be had here but in music, I was under the impression that “twee” denotes syrupy, dainty music along the lines of Belle and Sebastien. I don’t think it really describes the operatic bombast of Arcade Fire.

      As for “whimsical tropes” – The original story is about a boy who retreats into a fantasy world and conquers imaginary monsters. It’s not a documentary. Whimsy is inevitable.

      Finally, I don’t think that the tag line “inside all of us there is fear” means that the film will actually be about the fear inside every person on the planet. But to acknowledge that everyone feels fear is to acknowledge that children have their own dark emotions too. When so many kid’s flicks whitewash the issues actually facing children, I think that in the context of a children’s flick the tagline is pretty great.

      Otherwise, thanks for the debate.

    • darryl

      Mel, is this you? If so, you have relinquished your rights to criticize anything for being “twee” or “hipster” until you grow your bangs back and get some regular person glasses. And is that a scarf?

      That being said, you’re very cute!

  2. I too am sick of people using the word ‘twee’ with no concept of what it actually means.

  3. Everything about this post is amazing.

    Also, I’m incredibly amped about this movie. How did anyone get an opportunity to analyse the trailer? I was too busy trying to keep my heart inside my chest when I saw that bear costume.

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  5. Ben

    While I commend your generosity in giving these filmmakers (or at least their marketing departments) the benefit of the doubt, I pretty much disagree with all of this. I had the same reservations about the Wild Things trailer as the Gawker guys and Campbell, and it has nothing to do with what’s ‘popular’. It’s about what has become cynical, obvious and cheap. ‘Cool’ is just too darn easy. Especially for a movie about childhood innocence. Childhood innocence should be beyond artifice.

    In a way I guess I’ve simply tired of this aesthetic. You mention Wes Anderson, and I’ve loved every one of his movies… but his influence has been a bad thing. It’s saturated the whole ‘independent’ market, and now I’m waiting for someone truly independent to come and shake things up again.

    But moreover, the problem with many of the movies you mention as consistent with the hipster label (such as Juno and Garden State) is that they are completely superficial and smug. The ‘hipster aesthetic’ somehow compliments exactly this kind of vacuity, masking it even as it amplifies it. These movies are trojan horses of banality, dressed up in a cutesy wardrobe and ferried into town to the sounds of a dreamy acoustic lullaby. Like the rock music employed in the service of tele evangelism, these filmmakers are exploiting an artistic arsenal so as to make their poison pill go down the masses throats that much easier. It’s an insidious substitute for substance, and it ultimately hurts the medium of film. I really believe that.

    Oddly enough I’ve always thought the precursor to this stuff was American Beauty – an emotionally manipulative piece of superficial pandering chock full of the judgmental, trite observations about suburban living that have come to define so much of the genre. It’s fitting that Mendes would now put together a film like ‘Away We Go’, and I hope we’ve come full circle. Whatever my concerns are for Wild Things, I have reason to hope that Spike Jonze will deliver, even if the PR guys dropped the ball. ‘Away We Go’ on the other hand looks like a TOTAL disaster.

    • Brad

      I think we agree on more than you let on. I think there are a lot of bad films that exhibit the hallmarks of “indie” or “hipster” cinema. I also think that cultural commentators can afford a more nuanced reading than kneejerk reactions whenever a cultural product superficially shares indie trademarks. Just as it’s silly to think that a film is deep just because Arcade Fire is on the soundtrack, it’s equally silly to assume a film is vacuous and cynical because it has Arcade Fire on the soundtrack.

      On another note, what is being forgotten is that WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a kid’s film not primarily aimed at the twenty-to-thirty-something hipster demographic. The trailer debuted on ‘Ellen’ and ‘Monsters Vs Aliens’. The kids who see Monsters Vs Aliens are mostly not going to respond to Arcade Fire as a ‘cool’ band. They’re going to be affected by that music on a different level.

      • Ben

        “Just as it’s silly to think that a film is deep just because Arcade Fire is on the soundtrack, it’s equally silly to assume a film is vacuous and cynical because it has Arcade Fire on the soundtrack.”

        It’s silly, but it’s not AS silly. I mean, okay, if it just happens to use that one particular band? …Sure, fine. But a confluence of cliches like those that appear in the Away We Go trailer (which depicts seemingly every indie contrivance of the last decade in only a few short minutes) is at this point almost certainly an indicator of vacuousness. I would be very, very surprised if I saw that film and it failed to live up to my worst expectations, and I think that’s pretty reasonable to say.

        Thanks for responding to my comment.

  6. Brad

    Hey, I’m just that kind of guy!

    Yeah, I have reservations about the trailer for AWAY WE GO too. But given the talent involved (Are you a Dave Eggers fan?), I’m happy to hold off judgment ’til I see how these moments play out in their proper context.

    • Ben

      With the exception of McSweeney’s I have read nothing Eggers related. I kind of resent Sam Mendes schtick enough that, especially combining it with all the seemingly contrived indie stuff in that trailer, this Eggers guy would have to have written one hell of a good script in order to sway me. But who knows?

      There’s a scene depicted in the trailer though that makes me think he may have already broken one of my golden rules of good screenwriting: Never create a character or characters merely to be looked down on by the audience. Obviously its just a trailer, and I don’t know how it all plays out, but that couple who talk smack about ‘pushers’ seem like just such a contrivance. By being so uptight and unreasonable it gives the hero of the piece a chance to be free spirited, unconventional and brave without earning it, in this case by letting the kid jump in the pusher and running around the kitchen.

      Another example of this would be the scene in Brokeback Mountain where Jake G barks orders at his oppressive father in law, who has been a dick for the whole movie only in service of this one crowd pleasing moment in the script. Or in Juno when Allison Janney reprimands the girl giving the ultrasound. These characters are designed to make the audience identify with the hero more by comparison, but its a cheap way of doing it when it entails the manufacturing of strawmen intended to stroke our egos by being so dissimilar to us. It’s perfectly acceptable in say, Animal House, where hating the Dean is half the fun. But it’s sloppy writing in a movie that is supposed to actually be about people.

      Hey look, a tangent.

      • Brad

        The strawman is a pet hate of mine too. I think Alan Ball is one of the worst perpetrators – It’s the main reason I can’t bring myself to buy into the Six Feet Under hype.

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