Sometimes when I read reviews, the reviewer will say something like: “I really wanted to like this, but… blah, blah, blah.”

This phrase really annoys me. Taken at face value, it seems like an attempt of the reviewer to place the ultimate blame for his disliking on the creators. After all, how can it be the reviewer’s fault if he wanted or tried to like it? What more could be asked of an audience member?

I would ask audience members to be not so self-conscious of whether or not they like something; just let the artwork affect you in whatever way it will, and you’ll find whether or not you like it by the end without even having to think about it.

You don’t get any credit for wanting to like something. Of course you wanted to like it; finding some kind of pleasure in the experience of art is the reason we put ourselves in the position to experience it in the first place. But one should always realize that the possibility of disliking something is there and beyond one’s control. You can’t predict how certain pieces of art will affect you; that’s one of the really fun things about experiencing it.

Ideally, one shouldn’t go in expecting to like something. That way, one won’t be disappointed with the occassional but inevitable disliking. Of course, this is easier said than done; there’s always some reason we’re interested in a particular piece of art; there’s always some quality about it we think we have a good possibility of liking. But we can and should still manage our expectations realistically, realizing that they won’t always be fulfilled exactly as we naturally daydream them to be. (Mentioning this reminds me of my older post about goals.)

When you dislike something, the fault is yours and the creator’s. That’s OK. You don’t have to be ashamed of that. You don’t have to make excuses about how you “tried” to like it. Everyone has different tastes and backgrounds they bring to the experiences they have, and while some would like to think of their tastes as being better or more sophisticated or more real than someone else’s, there really is no basis for thinking such things. We can claim another person’s tastes are immoral if there’s something someone else likes that we think they shouldn’t on moral grounds, but this has nothing to do with sophistication or intellect (as we tend to assume it does because of observed behavorial correlations, but that’s another matter). There’s also the possibility that you won’t like something because you’re not experienced enough with the piece’s background, or what material it references, or what historical influence it had. Some academic snobs might look down on your opinions for your “misunderstandings” of such great works of genius and claim that your low opinions of the piece are invalid because you are dumb, but they’re wrong. Yes, your ignorance (and your past experiences) will affect how you respond to a piece, but how does that make your natural emotional reaction any less valid? The validity of your liking or disliking does not get to be decided by a show of hands or a scholar’s analysis. How much your liking or disliking might predict someone else’s future emotional reaction can certainly be debated (such as: “Oh, I disagree with Roger Ebert 70% of the time, so I’m not worried that he didn’t like this film I want to see…”), but not your opinion’s validity. It’s not as if your emotional reaction is somehow faked by your ignorance.

Finally, how do you actively “try” or “want” to like something while experiencing it anyway? Do you consciously ignore stuff you don’t like in hopes you won’t notice them anymore? Do you think of pretty ponies prancing through the praries in your head? Do you eat loads of candy hoping to trick yourself into thinking that the joy of devouring sugar is actually from the art you wish to like?

My main point is this: you can’t control your emotional reactions to works of art, and should therefore not be ashamed of liking or disliking something. It may be informative for you to think about what specifically you didn’t like and what you think would’ve made something better. But you never need to try to justify your response. Such justifications will be invalid anyway; nothing justifies your response other than the fact that it was truly your response. Your desire to like something is irrelevant, and it’s silly (if not just plain stupid) to mention it.

Thanks for reading this post; I hope you liked it, or at least tried to…


5 Comments

Scott · January 6, 2012 at 1:40 PM

I’ve used the phrase “I wanted to like it, but…” before in reviews, especially of things that were remade from my childhood, like the X-Men movies. I really did want to like them because they brought back characters and story and themes that had positively shaped my childhood development, but when they cast Halley Berry as Storm and Anna Paquin gives a terrible performance and the stories made no sense in the scheme of things and Cyclops was there (he’s not important enough to remember the actor’s name…), there was just no way to maintain a positive view of it, even after I excused many many bad creative decisions that were made.

At least for me, the phrase is used to express my disappointment that, even when allowing for it to be significantly different than initial expectations, it still utterly disappointed me.

And after 1960, the fault for a movie being bad or disappointing should be placed on the creators… prior to that year you can usually blame the audience for not liking it. I mean, if you don’t like Cassablanca, Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, (or movies closer to the time frame I indicated, like…) North By Northwest, Spartacus, or Psycho, the problem is with you, not them. The exception to this rule being for people who don’t like movies simply because other people do like them… but anyway, I digress.

S P Hannifin · January 6, 2012 at 4:52 PM

I don’t understand how the idea of “allowing for something to be different than your initial expectations” is relevant — it’s just part of your judgment process. It doesn’t make your judgment any more or less “valid” than any else’s, and you can’t truly judge a piece of art by any standards different than your own.

I can understand the concept of there being elements that you don’t like but are willing to excuse, and there being just too many awful elements to excuse them, but I don’t understand how this is a matter or “wanting” or “trying” to like something; it’s just a natural part of someone’s complex emotional response to something.

Lastly, I completely disagree with your last paragraph. When you experience any art, you are attempting to use your tastes, past experiences, desires, expectations, interests, personality, etc. to receive something from those of the creators. Your interests and desires, etc., must, on some level, connect with the creators’. (Not to imply that such a connection has to be completely intended by both parties.) To blame the failure to connect on a single party is not only too simple an explanation, it’s a bit pretentious, as it supposes the existence of objectively right tastes and interests, which there is no logical basis for.

That said, I do not think the fault for a movie being bad is itself some objectively bad thing. It happens naturally due to people’s wide variety of tastes and interests. “Fault” and “blame” are often rightly considered objectively bad when used in speaking on matters of morality (“It’s your fault he’s dead!” is most certainly objectively bad), but in matters of interests and tastes, there are no rights or wrongs, therefore “fault” and “blame” are (or at least should be) perfectly acceptable.

S P Hannifin · January 6, 2012 at 5:00 PM

Actually, to get a bit semantic, perhaps “fault” and “blame” are the wrong sorts of words to be using, as they probably imply intent, and people’s tastes and interests are not the products entirely of intent. However, I’m not yet sure what word or words might be more appropriate…

Scott · January 6, 2012 at 10:57 PM

Well, the allowance for differences to your expectations is completely relevant. It means that you have some sense of what you want before you start, or at least that you have a pre-formed opinion of what is to come (positive or negative… I expect bad things from movies all the time and am occasionally pleasantly surprised that I’m wrong). “Wanting” to like something is having high standards prior to watching it and, knowing that it couldn’t live up to them, lowering them (also prior to viewing it) in order to hopefully have an enjoyable experience. the “but” comes in when the movie is so bad that it still can’t live up to your already lowered standards.

The point of my last paragraph was to say that there are objectively good movies, which cannot be disputed. The point that they all came out pre-1960 may be debatable, but I developed that standard based on the general downward spiral that started back then and is now producing 400 teen movies that lack plots per year… so many in fact that they have to lower the standard of what is an “actor.” I also stand by my statement that the problem when people don’t like movies like Casablanca (spelled it wrong before and didn’t notice when editing) is that they are either trolling, ignorant of what a good movie is, or utterly tasteless, and that neither the film itself nor its creators can be blamed. That isn’t to say that all pre-1960s movies are superior to those coming after, I was merely pointing out an objective difference in quality (story being the primary quality sought and acting second… all the rest is tertiary) that favors the older generations.

S P Hannifin · January 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM

But “allowances for differences to your expectations” is part of your judgment process; it is not a bonus add-on done after-the-fact to help you brighten your own opinions, and therefore counts for nothing. Also, everyone allows for differences naturally anyway. Emotional reactions happen naturally; they do not stem from a conscious decision to hold a certain experience up to the standards of pre-decided expectations. The only thing you can consciously control (at least to a certain degree) that may or may not end up affecting your emotions later on are your expectations themselves. (Hence the idea of: “He who expects nothing shall never be disappointed.” Though of course that’s not entirely true.) (You might not necessarily disagree with me here; I’m just picking nits.)

Also, you can not have a “pre-formed opinion of what is to come” … rather, you have a pre-formed opinion of your own expectations. You can’t have a true opinion on something you have yet to experience.

I don’t understand how lowering one’s expectations would lead to greater happiness later on. If greater pleasure later on is the goal, I think it makes sense to change expectations, or get rid of them altogether, but lowering implies an objectively comparable contrast between one set of expectations and another; that is, the previous set of higher expectations must still exist for the second set of expectations to be considered, by comparison, lower. Since both sets of expectations will still exist, they will both be used to judge the experience, and nothing will have really been achieved in terms of natural emotional reactions. The reviewer will only consciously forgive or excuse certain shortcomings, but, again, he can only do that for the sake of things he liked, not for the sake of a greater pleasure in and of itself. (Otherwise one could easily become a lover of every experience merely by excusing every negative element he finds himself responding to.)

I completely disagree with your last paragraph again. There are no objectively good works of art in all the arts. (The only things that can be objectively good or bad are morals, the differences between right and wrong, but that’s a separate philosophical tangent.) Yes, they can all be disputed by the mere fact that one cannot know how another emotionally reacts to any given piece of art.

What objective standards can you provide for judging any film (or other work of art, perhaps) to be objectively good? Any honest standards one provides can only be subjective, based on one’s own emotional experiences. (And one’s emotional responses to one’s own emotions — for example, some people genuinely do like movies that make them feel depressed, at least if it’s the right kind of depressed. And I have to add the word “honest” because it is entirely possible for people to lie to themselves and others about their natural emotional reactions — that’s what peer pressure does, even if it’s subconscious (as it is when it’s most effective). “I must like Twilight because all my friends like it.” Which could, after time, lead one to genuinely enjoy such things, unaware that one’s initial emotional reactions weren’t even coming from the experience itself. That is, we have natural emotional reactions to what we think our emotional reactions imply about our social statuses.)

(On a side note, this point might actually make an interesting blog post in and of itself; I was reading a blog post by a famous author about the objectivity of award-giving that also reminded me of my somewhat unpopular ideas on this notion complete non-objectivity in the arts.)

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