I didn’t pay much attention when Rise of Skywalker was released. I had already decided, skipping the trouble and expense of actually seeing it, that the movie was better than The Last Jedi but not exactly good. There was, of course, too much talk about the movie to entirely miss it. A word kept recurring in the discussion: nostalgic. It rang critically, and even people who had liked the movie sometimes used the word with an air of apology: It was nostalgic, but … Implicitly and explicitly, the nostalgia of Rise of Skywalker was put in contrast with the subversion of The Last Jedi. The movie wasn’t new, wasn’t different, didn’t try to be revolutionary. It tried to be like the original Star Wars movies – you know, the ones people actually liked.
It was at this time that I realized that I took nostalgic in the opposite sense that the critics meant it. I understood that I was meant to take it as a bad thing. I thought instead that it was, or in any case might be, a good thing. I’ve reflected since that there are other popular critics’ phrases to which I gave a different connotation, and sometimes a different meaning, than they do.
One of these is gritty realism. Somehow this phrase evokes a mental image of dirty concrete, which is not attractive but neither really relevant. As far as I can tell, gritty realism means something along the lines of “entertainment that you probably could not comfortably watch with your grandparents”. It is, perhaps, gritty in a moral sense. But as always in entertainment, the realism is optional and, even when existing, qualified. Much of the violence so lucidly presented by Hollywood is not, thank God, realistic. Gritty realism is generally used positively. But I don’t believe the assertion of realism, and the grit is not in itself impressive.
Feel-good is another well-worn shorthand. Often the term itself is criticism. Even when not exactly derogatory, it is usually condescending. A feel-good movie is well enough in its place, the attitude goes, but it’s not a very high place. Feel-good entertainment is not serious, not deep, not art. I am wholly in favor of that stern, clear-sighted moral point that many things that feel good are, in fact, bad. Yet I can’t agree with the negativity associated with the feel-good label. I don’t see why art that makes people feel good should be any lower than art that makes people feel bad. And do you know, I sometimes watch movies with the deliberate object of being made to feel better, and I do not dismiss entertainment because it is “feel-good”.
Here’s another one whose promise never moves me: action-packed. This has been used as a recommendation something like a million times. And I believe it. I also believe that being action-packed is the leading flaw of many action movies. I am not going to fault action movies for having action, but I think they could leave more time for the characters to do other things, like think. In some movies there is barely enough plot to string the chase sequences and fight scenes together. Action-packed? Yes. Always, these days. But is there anything more?