When Brilliant Things Become Overrated
Friday 13th October
Some people think abstract art is rubbish, a sham even. It's easy to be put off when trying to find meaning in the scribbles of Kandinsky
or the splashes of Jackson Pollock
Especially in abstract art, this reaction is all too frequent. Just by design the form is demanding, hard to access, deconstructed. Just enough remains for someone who knows how to look, to be able to see. When audiences aren’t familiar with the surrounding material, who can be expected to understand?
At first glance how could anyone be expected to see the genius in Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow
? What is so special about a bunch of coloured squares you might ask? But if you were to first see his tree series
, then his Pier and Ocean
and finally his Broadway Boogie-Woogie
, your experience might be different. You might start to picture a Manhattan crossroads behind the lattice work. As the lines and squares start to dance like pixels in a primitive digitised view of the world, it all starts to make sense. You start to understand why it’s been reproduced across design and fashion worlds so many times over.
This might sound inaccessible, elitist even. But don’t be put off. Overlook if you can, the surrounding attitudes that adhere to highbrow fallacies. Art, intrinsically, is not elitist. It can be misleading, or disguised, or in languages that aren’t familiar. But just because it’s not seen by all doesn’t mean it’s not there for all. Some of the most rewarding mysteries of the world are hidden in plain sight, there to be discovered only by those who know how to look, by those who are ready to see.
Have you ever seen a film or read a book at exactly the right time you needed it? It instantly becomes important. For some reason it sparks your imagination, it sums up all the things you think a good book, or a good film should be.
The person who reads Catcher in the Rye
at a young age, for example, might experience something like this. Themes of alienation, superficiality, authenticity are likely to resonate with someone thinking about where they fit in the world. But if you’ve never read it, and you go back years later, your experience could be completely different. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, or even that it’s ‘overrated’ it’s just that the context is entirely different.
Every now and then a film enters the cultural consciousness and blows audiences away. It oozes with excellence; everyone loves it and it’s clear that it’s a cut above the rest. Think about the effect Parasite
has had recently. But in 40 years do you think new audiences will appreciate it as much as we have done now? Have we at all over rated the film in our reaction to it's clear brilliance?
No matter how much recommendation that surrounds it, if you apply a different context, even art once considered ground-breaking can look immensely out of place. It’s true when they say, context is key.
might be the most overrated film of all time. Not because it’s not good, but because it’s at the top of almost every list titled ‘films you must see before you die.’ To someone just starting the explore film history, it’s often one of the first films you watch.
Which is ridiculous when you think about it. No fresh-faced film enthusiast should watch Citizen Kane
after something like Pulp Fiction
, or The Shawshank Redemption
. With over 60 years of cinema to navigate between, the things that make Citizen Kane great, at least superficially, are vastly different to the triumphs of modern cinema. The experience would be entirely underwhelming.
Nor should it be compared to other ‘pre-demise-essentials’ like 2001: A Space Odyssey,
or Seven Samurai
or 8 & 1/2.
All brilliant but distinctly different creations, with different histories, different influences, different contexts.
Films like these gain elite status almost by reputation alone. As a result audiences are all too often left underwhelmed. It's a shame, because despite the reels that have been written about Citizen Kane
, it's not an especially complex films, it’s not demanding or something only certain people can understand. It’s often just been viewed grossly out of context.
If you were to see it in comparison to the top 10 films that came out that year, or the 20 years before it, or the other films of Orson Welles
, or Joseph Cotton
, you might start to see it as a special film. If you watch Citizen Kane
alongside say The Magnificent Amberson’s
or Shadow of a Doubt
, you'd see it stand out. It’s just made of different matter. Every little cinematic detail has been masterfully executed to the highest degree possible for a film made in 1941.
Similarly, watching something like Chinatown
(1974) today you might think, ‘Yeah, that is nice enough, the plot was unpredictable, the acting was good.’ But watch it alongside old noirs like The Maltese Falcon,
or The Asphalt Jungle
, or 70s detective films like The Long Goodbye
or Death on the Nile
. It’s a different being entirely. Again, each little cinematic moment is bursting with depth, from the characters to the framing, to the pacing, to the plot. Executed to the point when the film is practically humming on a new visual frequency. It’s just made differently.
Great films are rated highly for a reason. I believe that there is context in which everyone can enjoy films like these and truly appreciate them. But sometimes it’s just not going to be of interest. These kinds of films are so often lost on viewers, simply by being highly rated. If you have to search through the annals of time to appreciate Citizen Kane
, is it really worth searching for?
It’s admirable and encouraging to want to read and watch everything, but it’s all too easy to dive off into the deepest depths of somewhere strange and drown out of context.
It’s strange on one hand to write so passionately about great films but then to say, don’t watch them. What I can advocate is to make your own lists, find your own recommendations, follow your own threads of intrigue. Don't feel the need to head down every trodden path, If there is something important out there, it is bound to circle back around again. Films like these are often better at the end of journeys than they are at the start.
If, on the other hand you’re interested in the catalogue of Orson Welles
, or 1930s Hollywood, or RKO pictures
, or a post-war view on the future of journalism, or the emergence of a talented director with an artistic appreciation for all things cinematic. Then you might find it just as brilliant as those who do put it top of their own lists.