#140: The art of pandering
On "Everything Everywhere All at Once" and its critics
There is a particular brand of street art in Brooklyn that annoys me. The tags are short, cliché phrases, and they’re all around my neighborhood—things like “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL” or “YOU’RE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK YOU ARE,” stenciled in an extremely clockable font, popular with millennial brands. Something about these tags feels hollow to me, and patronizing, as if someone were cheering me on for simply walking to the grocery store. I’ve wondered at various times if my distaste for them is valid or curmudgeonly. If someone else finds them, who am I to say they’re cheap? It wasn’t until I saw a Pauline Kael quote a la the Pauline Kael Twitter bot that I found the words to describe this particular style of art and why it irks me: “consciously life-affirming.”
Of course I love art that happens to be life-affirming, but the over-conscious pursuit of such a quality changes it. It transforms the art from expressive to prescriptive. When you look at a creative work that’s consciously life-affirming—like say, a commercial for Cheerios featuring paralympic athletes—it’s telling you how to feel. And if you don’t feel moved or uplifted, there is little use in further engaging with it. From a marketing perspective, this is of course useful: If the aim is to win over (and thus sell to) maximum people, being prescriptive is the way to go. This is what separates commercials from art, or in some cases, breeds a combination of the two: commercial art. Although this flavor of street art in Brooklyn isn’t trying to sell anything, it comes off like a sales pitch anyway, even just for itself. In a way, it talks down.
I’ve been thinking about this since the debate surrounding Everything Everywhere All at Once intensified online after the movie swept the Oscars last week. The discourse is a classic struggle of extremes: On one end is the passionate EEAAO hive, some of whom admit to watching the movie every single night since it started streaming, and on the other are EEAAO’s critics, some of whom claim it is a hollow movie for children. (Of course, most viewers probably fall somewhere between those camps, but those people may as well not exist on the internet.) I think EEAAO’s harshest critics go too far, but on one level I agree with them: Everything Everywhere All at Once is consciously life-affirming to a dramatic degree. It spoon feeds its message to the audience (and a slightly pat one, too: kindness can save the world). That’s bound to annoy some people, no matter how cleverly it’s done.
I liked the movie when I saw it in theaters, a bit less the second time. Both times I was struck by the sense that everyone involved genuinely wanted to make it, regardless of how much money it pulled in or accolades it received; a rare feeling these days. I also think it matters that many people felt seen by it in ways I didn’t. But I don’t agree with fans who claim that anyone who doesn’t like it is a grouch or a contrarian snob, desperate to disparage anything beloved. I actually think it’s worthwhile to demand that films feel distinct from marketing, especially today, when it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two. Of course some art is simply commercial, and that’s fine, but EEAAO is being widely celebrated as far more than that—edgy, genius, unparalleled—and I agree with the critics who take issue with those descriptors.
EEAAO enjoys a reputation for being more subversive than it actually is, with its Reddit humor (dildo sword fights), Tumblr tweeness (googly eyes), and Marvel-like storytelling (professing the importance of kindness with wind blowing through one’s hair). This isn’t the movie’s fault; it’s an issue of perception. Or possibly a trick of marketing. Regardless, this reception of the movie—rather than the movie itself—is actually what people are arguing about. “The more I’ve thought about ‘Everything Everywhere,’ for all its undeniable representational significance, the more traditional a best picture winner it seems,” Justin Chang wrote for LA Times. “Beneath its veneer of impish, form-busting radicalism, it’s as epically self-important, broadly sentimental and thematically unambiguous a movie as any the academy has so honored.”
The concern, I think, of a movie like EEAAO being celebrated as one of the best of all time (a frequent remark by fans on Twitter), isn’t over the movie being praised at all, but that as a culture we’ve become too enamored with the marketable, and infantilized in the process. This tension—between those who primarily want to be entertained and those who want to be challenged—represents a broader cultural tug-of-war. EEAAO makes for an interesting avatar of this tension: It’s a litmus test for what you think makes a good movie.
The aesthetic maximalism of the film charmed me initially, and later made me wary. It simultaneously keeps your attention and distracts you from that fact that the moral of the story is fairly elementary. Like jangling keys in front of a baby. As James Grieg wrote in a recent essay for Dazed about how everyone needs to grow up, seeking out whatever’s most palatable and stimulating “makes you a more pliant consumer. … Children are the perfect customers: suggestible, impulsive, driven by an insatiable and replenishable desire for pleasure.” There may be nothing inherently wrong with the accessible and the marketable, but our world will feel a lot flatter if it becomes subsumed by those forces. It’s fun to just enjoy things, but shallow, too.
Whenever I see those big corny tags in my neighborhood telling me I AM ENOUGH, I think about another bit of street art that actually manages to move me whenever I see it. It’s on a blue-painted piece of plywood, part of some scaffolding erected around an apartment that burned down last year, tragically killing a beloved local known as Ms. Pearl, who was 74. People started painting and decorating the wood with tributes to her, and on the bottom right there is a note scratched in black chalk, messy and human:
You were in your 30’s,
You gave me a hug.
And I woke up.
I think about what this poem means all the time. Did its author dream of Pearl being younger, and then wake up? Did this really happen 40 years ago, when the warmth of Ms. Pearl’s embrace, never forgotten, served as some kind of wake-up call? Something else? The words leave so much to the imagination, concerned only with expressing something true rather than aesthetically pleasing. There’s no right way to read them. They invite reflection and curiosity in a way cliche never could.
My favorite article I read last week was “A Coup at the Westview News,” by Zach Helfand for The New Yorker, an incredible story about a local West Village paper, its 95-year-old owner, and the drama swirling around him. Last Friday’s 15 things also included an interview I did last week, my new favorite post-work back stretch, a home product I’d never heard of before, and more. The rec of the week was where to buy great artwork and prints online that aren’t soulless and mass-produced. Thank you for so many great suggestions!!
And in case you missed it, last week’s podcast was 10 mind-bending takeaways from the last book I read about time and our relationship with it. Next week we’ll be recording Dear Danny, so get your calls and questions in now! Write to me/us here or leave us a voicemail at 802-404-BABY. The magic ticket is to get us all the juicy details in under a minute.
Hope you have a nice Sunday!
Cover art by Anna Bryleva care of Getty