Top Gun, 1989
A number of years ago, an ex boyfriend sat me down to watch the Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer classic “Top Gun”, a movie that he believed was crucial for my pop-culture education which was sorely lacking at the time, and perhaps lacking even now.
However, what he recalled of the film was that it was a film about pilots undergoing competitive training in an elite military program that eventually fought the Russians. To him, he felt the film was epic, and this was the complete storyline. However, when we watched it together, I began to give him puzzled sideways glances, and made frustrated exclamations when I thought for sure Cruise and Kilmer were just about to kiss— and then didn’t. The sexual tension between the two was annoying the shit out of me. I wanted them to “Kiss and get it over with.” At the end of the movie, when the two ‘rivals’ hugged it out but didn’t end up proclaiming their love for one another I was incensed. I like closure in my movies. So very Disney and common of me, I know. But through this experience, my ex saw the movie through my lens, and he realized there was an entire storyline he was missing.
The movie wasn’t just about fighter pilots, competitive nature, and Russians. No, there was an underlying homoerotic storyline. We may have watched the same movie, but it was clear that certain people can perceive the same input very differently.
The Squid and the Whale 2005
This past weekend, I watched “The Squid and the Whale” by Noah Baumbach three separate times, writing him 5 separate emails giving him feedback. This was the first time I had seen it, and I was obsessing. To my credit, it’s because this screenplay could have been an adaptation of my own life… it was as if someone was putting the dynamics of my family on screen, only changing the names and perhaps sexual orientation and careers of the characters.
I had to pause the movie countless times to give commentary. Many intermissions were during parts where I would notice some small, seemingly insignificant frame and I would feel compelled to report the importance of each of them to fellow viewers. No director erroneously places these frames, they cost too much to take, so they mean something. They are clues to telling a story without the aid of a narrator connecting the dots. At the end of the film, I was satisfied by it. But still reeling, because of the hit-so-close-to-home nature of it, and I wanted more. So I googled reviews.
The first review I read was from Roger Ebert. Suddenly, I wanted to turn Rogert Ebert into a fine powder and blow him out to sea, only to find out after writing this post that he’s already dead, and perhaps already blown out to sea.
Not only did he miss the film entirely, I found his remarks to be disparaging, lackluster, and obtuse. The film was rich and dense, but he didn’t see it. He didn’t get it. He missed the clues. He saw a one-dimensional storyline centered on the eldest child and what it’s like as a child whose parents were going through a divorce, and not a psychological drama warranting further inspection. In fact, the film was about the dynamic of the entire family. The subtle subversive nature of a narcissistic father, a mother who was being maligned and marginalized, and two children struggling to find their own identity with a parent who endeavors to mold them into his own self-aggrandized figure. That’s the Cliff Notes version, and still more in-depth than the Ebert review.
I could have been envious of Ebert’s apparent ignorance if I hadn’t been so disgusted by his inability to accurately portray the film. Still a household name, people take his reviews into account when selecting which films to go see, and I find it unfortunate that such a brilliantly-crafted, dynamic film such as this one could be marred by his witless account of it.
In his own review, Ebert noted that he “would have loved to have two writers as parents”, followed by “These kids have it great” — a clear testament to how little he was able to conceptualize this family, or even recognize the destructive and degenerative nature of the characters. Kids who, in the film, ran away, smeared semen on lockers, and plagiarized Pink Floyd songs. I read other reviews, of course, but they were all in the same vein of Ebert’s reviews. And it was painfully apparent this time that I, again, watched a film that nobody else was watching. If Ebert and I watched this film together, his review would have turned out differently.
Which brought this all full-circle for me.
The moral of the story
In our idealism, we lose the ability to recognize the whole gamut of input that allows us to understand fully what’s going on.
Let me explain. If your expectation of a movie involving pilots, male competition, and war with Russians is that that’s all the storyline is about, you’ll see that. Because it’s your idealized version of the storyline. But then you miss the other half of the movie and not allow the blatant sexual tension between Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise to filter through. However, if you come in without expectation, and you carefully dissect every frame, you may find something else.
Ebert had an idealized version of what parents with a PhD in literature are like. If you romanticize the table conversation, and ignore the blatant clues to the narcissistic and perhaps borderline personality disordered father, you may come to the [stupid] conclusion that “these kids have it great.” They don’t have it great in The Whale and the Squid, nor do they in real life. But then, in an idealized and romanticized version of this film, you’ll miss the entire 99.999% of the rest of the movie, and then write a poor review.
This form of idealism also happens in real life. We expect the educated PhD parent to be a strong, positive influence. We expect the parent who attends soccer games to actually care about their child. We even expect hetero married couples to be straight. These expectations hinder our ability to allow other information to filter through, even if it’s readily available. Even if someone else irrefutably points out facts to the contrary. It is for this reason I have such a deep disdain for Ebert’s review, and a deep disdain for those who, no matter what, cannot accept new information due to long-held bias and expectation. In other words, confirmation bias is a bitch, and lends itself to gross inaccuracies of understanding, because it inhibits the ability to take new information into account in forming ideas or opinions. This doesn’t apply just in relationships. It applies everywhere, from science to nutrition, to psychology to medicine, even to agricultural sustainability. Idealism and confirmation bias lend themselves to limited thinking, diminishing other perspectives, and a drag on progress and clear understanding.
And with that, I am reminded to check my own filtering system, as well. /rant