Thursday, July 26, 2007

Why I Can't Tell You It's Overrated

Weekend Assignment #176: Tell us of one piece of culture -- book, movie, album, painting, play, architectural "masterpiece," whatever -- that you think is wildly overrated. Note I said to focus on an object, not the artist: for example, explain why Sgt. Pepper's is overrated, not The Beatles, or The Godfather, not Francis Ford Coppola.

Extra Credit:
Have you ever changed your mind about how good a book, movie, etc., was? You know, you read a book once, hate it, come back to it several years later and find out it wasn't so bad after all.

This is going to be one of those Weekend Assignment entries in which I explain, earnestly and at great length, why I can't comply with the assigned parameters, and therefore must tweak it to suit myself. Still, I think it's going to be a bit more interesting than me picking some bit of literature or pop culture and running it down from a position of ignorance. Because that's what the alternative would be.

Here's why I can't honestly tell you something is overrated:

1. If I think something is overrated, I generally avoid it, because I've concluded that whatever-it-is holds little or no appeal for me. Therefore I don't watch it, read it, or listen to it. Therefore I don't have an informed opinion about it. Therefore I can't tell you, with any authority whatsoever, that the thing is overrated! Some of the many artistic works that fall in this category:
  1. Scalzi's example: The Catcher in the Rye. I think I got up to about page five of this book, my senior year in high school. I found it boring and annoying, so I went back to reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes.
  2. The Godfather. It seems a travesty to me that it's now ranked ahead of Casablanca on the AFI list of greatest films. But what do I know? I've never seen it!
  3. Titanic. This is also higher on the AFI list than seems reasonable. Again, I've not seen it.
  4. Remembrance of Things Past. The fact that Harlan Ellison once ordered me to read it very nearly ensures that I'll never bother.
  5. American Idol. It doesn't appeal to me, so I've only ever watched a couple minutes at the end when it runs over into the House MD time slot. Maybe there's a legitimate qualitative reason why people seem to care more about this show than they ever did Star Search or Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour. But if so, I'll never know what it is.
2. A lot of the stuff I consider deeply flawed (and therefore don't rate highly) is rightfully thought of as flawed by the culture at large. Some examples:
  1. Star Wars. It's a great film in many ways, with fun dialogue, iconic characters and groundbreaking effects (original and upgrades). But few people (I hope) think that there's nothing silly, juvenile, stilted or derivative in the film and its sequels. I'd say it's overrated only by the most willfully blind hardcore fan.
  2. Survivor, Big Brother, and other reality shows. They've been wildly popular in their time, but they play on the most negative aspects of human behavior. Karen does not approve - and therefore did not watch. But all along, there has been far more negative criticism of such shows than kudos, so there's little chance that they're overrated.
  3. Enterprise (or Star Trek: Enterprise). Somebody somewhere probably liked this show a lot, but overall it got iffy reviews and poor ratings compared to its predecessors. Scott Bakula played the least likable lead character of his career, and the whole thing was a bit of a downer. It got a bit better at the end, but it was too little, too late. It wasn't overrated: the critics and the public got it right.
3. Classics that I'm tempted to call "overrated" were products of their time. As a child of the late 20th Century, I lack the context to judge them fairly. No, really. I tend to feel that every book written before A Study in Scarlet is a waste of my time. The language has shifted, making the prose inaccessible. Times have changed in other ways, too, so that customs, clothing, transportation, communications etc. that the work's original audience took for granted are all a bit of a puzzle for us. Even some 20th Century works are hopelessly dated, with stylistic choices or sensibilities that seem shockingly backward. Is it all irrelevant now, but still being taught because it's "wildly overrated?" Let's take a quick survey:
  1. Hamlet. I find most Shakespeare a tough slog, but none more so that this one. I find myself wanting to tell the hero to be less depressive and more proactive, and a lot nicer to his girlfriend. But if I were to read it again now, and with real comprehension despite the language, I would probably discover that people are right to consider it one of the greatest plays of all time. Meanwhile, I much prefer The Tempest, As You Like It or A Midsummer Night's Dream.
  2. McTeague by Frank Norris. An uneducated brute of a man sets himself up as a dentist, but eventually it all falls apart. Things go from bad to worse for him and his horrible, greedy wife, leading to a horrible, hopeless end in the Mojave Desert. Blecch. Actually, if this is highly rated by anyone other than my American Realism course instructor circa 1978, then yes, it's wildly overrated. Same goes for several short stories by Stephen Crane.
  3. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. A woman wanders listlessly through several hundred pages of no plot, and then drowns herself. At least that's how I remember this book. Same verdict as McTeague. Really, the theme of that entire American Realism course was, "Life sucks, and then you die." None of the characters take successful action to make things better. Phooey.
  4. Madama Butterfly. I like one of the melodies, but I suffered through this opera back in 1974, absolutely hating it. Part of it was the language barrier, but mostly I was offended by the whole premise of this woman being utterly destroyed because some guy didn't treat her right. Where's your self-respect, woman? Is that a fair assessment on my part? Probably not. I might appreciate it more if I truly understood the language and cultural mores of Puccini's audience.
  5. Grimm's Fairy Tales. Okay, so I haven't read them all, and there are certainly the seeds of some classic stories here. But many of these folk tales are rhymes or nonsense, or full of death and violence, and few have anything like a conventional plot as we know it today. Are they overrated? Dunno. Who is doing the rating?
Eh, that's enough. I could tell you why I dislike Hemingway's short stories about Nick Adams, or why Battlestar Gallactica just doesn't work for me, but that's all down to personal taste, isn't it?

Extra Credit: if I didn't like it the first time, I seldom give something another chance. John recently rented the first season (or Best of, or something) of Get Smart. I remembered most of the gags in the first episode, which I liked a lot when I was, let me think, about eight years old. When I saw the show again as an adult, I found it stupid and annoying, just not as good as it should be. When John played that first episode a couple of weeks ago, I was kind of thrilled with the old familiar jokes that made such an impression on me 42 years ago. But it's still not a good show!



Carly said...

Hi Karen

The Godfather is really worth a chance, so is Titanic. Between the two, I think you would probably enjoy Titanic more. It is a love story, just as it was promoted as, but it is so much more. It was a realistic look at the class struggle of the early 20th century, and it will make you think, as it tugs at your heart strings. It also gives the viewer a look at how selfish or generous people can be under extreme circumstances.

The acting was so well done, especially impressive was Kathy Bates as Molly Brown. It's more than a fictionalized account of the sinking of Titanic. It is one of those rare movies that left me wanting to see what happend next.Just a thought... it's perfect on a Sunday afternoon, with a big tub of popcorn or whatever snack strikes your fancy.


Becky said...

For Scalzi... "What she said!"

I couldn't have expressed it better myself. You sound like you were a fly on the wall when I was talking to my John about this weekend assignment. See, I don't have time to do them any more so I just read it aloud to John and tell him what I would have written, if I had the time. LOL!