“What did you expect, Citizen Kane?”
I’ve been writing about movies online for about fifteen years now, and I cannot count the number of times someone has replied to a review of mine with that line, or a variation on it. I tend to think that the people who say that have never actually seen Citizen Kane, which is actually a really entertaining film, but are rather referring to its status as “The Greatest Film of All Time.”
This canard has cropped up again in the wake of Jurassic World. My friend Matt Singer has taken note of one aspect of the same debate, the ‘turn off your brain’ crowd who get all huffy when a critic ‘overthinks’ a movie (ie, applies any thought to it at all). You should read what he has to say about it, but I want to pull back the focus a bit and look at the larger implication of the “What did you expect, Citizen Kane?” thing. I want to translate that question to reveal what it truly means:
“What did you expect, it would be any good?”
Yes. Yes, I did. I think every movie should be ‘good.’ Especially really big, expensive ones that were worked on by thousands of people. And I don’t mean great, or perfect or transcendent or Oscar-worthy. When I say ‘good’ what I really mean is ‘competent.’
Yet this bar, low as it is, is seen as excessive by some. Demanding basic competence - that a movie be adequately made on a fundamental level - is a sign of elitism. This bums me out; this tyranny of low expectations is why big movies can be, and often have been, so terrible. Why get the story right when the audience simply does not give a shit about it.
What do I mean when I say ‘good’ or ‘competent?’ I’m talking about the basics of storytelling, more or less. For some reason this is where certain audiences draw the line - asking for good storytelling is just the sort of snobbishness that ruins their fun at the movies! They don’t draw that line at cinematography - if a film were out of focus, or if it were continuously framed in such as a way as to obscure what was happening onscreen no one would say “What did you expect, Citizen Kane?” No one would say that because we expect basic competence when it comes to cinematography or lead acting. It’s just a given - a movie where the camera isn’t focused properly is a movie that wouldn’t get released. But a movie where the plot makes no sense, where the themes are muddled and where the characters have neither arcs or motivation? That shit busts records.
You’re not being a killjoy if you prefer your blockbuster movies to have plots that make basic sense. You’re not asking too much to request that a plot-driven movie have a plot where cause and effect drive things, as opposed to the inescapable gravity of pre-planned action set pieces. This means you want a movie where things happen for a reason, not because they must happen to get us to the special FX. Jurassic World is a film that illustrates that on a micro level - the entire plot is put into motion because no one thinks to check the Indominus Rex’s tracking device before putting unarmed humans in its pen and also because no one thinks to check the security recordings - and a macro level - the idea that this park would be unprepared to deal with an escaped predator, or that the escape would be handled in this way, is patently ludicrous. Not every film needs to have intricate clockwork plotting, but every film needs to make basic sense.
Every film also needs basic structure. Things need to be set up, and those set ups need to pay off. This doesn’t have to happen in a restrictive way - on page 45 of the script the hero must experience a setback! - but all good storytelling is structured, with ups and downs, peaks and valleys that are constructed in a way to bring the audience through the story. This is basic stuff! This isn’t film school business - your story needs a beginning, a middle and an end, and the three parts need to be connected through logic and pacing.
Within that storytelling every film needs characters. Not names attached to roles, but characters. Not every character needs to be a deep study of the human condition and not every character needs to have a compelling and meaningful arc, but the characters should have recognizable elements to their personalities, and strengths and weaknesses. And the lead characters should, in some ways, be changed by the end of the story… because otherwise why are we following them through it?
Again, this isn’t some demand for Shakespeare. This is the bare minimum you should expect from a movie - characters with personalities and goals who change. If you introduce an element of a character's personality it should pay off in some way - any way. Look at the older brother in Jurassic World: what is the point of him wanting so badly to cheat on his girlfriend? What does that tell us about him that matters in the context of this movie? Where does that pay off in any way whatsoever at all?
I don’t mean to pick on Jurassic World here, but it’s a prime example of a film where people use the “What did you expect, Citizen Kane?” line in defense of a movie whose story and characters do not reach the levels of basic competence. If all of the film’s dinosaurs had been wireframe animations there’s no question everyone would have been calling it a bad film, but when the story and characters are as unfinished and crude as that the problems are handwaved.
Movies should be good, and part of what makes a movie - especially a mainstream, blockbuster film - good is storytelling and characters. Storytelling and characters are the basic building blocks of all narrative, and without them you just end up with a montage of sequences that have no gravity, no meaning and no emotional weight. The idea that asking for this much, this small amount of competence, is seen as snobby is truly sad. It's sad because people are settling for bad things, are not asking for the lowest bars to be cleared. They're establishing that they don't care in a really fundamental way, that they have moved the bar from 'good enough' to 'not in your face terrible'.... and even there I feel like the bar is being lowered on the regular. The early reviews of Terminator Genisys have had a uniform attitude of 'not as bad as you might have expected,' and that does not sound like any kind of endorsement to me at all - but the movie's production company has been retweeting these reactions as though they were raves. And in a world of diminished expectations they sort of are.
I spent a whole lot of words talking about this, but a great man once summed it up really succinctly:
People wrote books and movies. Movies with stories, that made you care about whose ass it was and why it was farting.
That’s all I’m asking for. I don’t begrudge the farts. I don’t want to get rid of the ass. I just want to care about whose ass it is, and why it is farting.