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“Did we even see the same thing?” How we watched and talked about movies in 2017

A year’s polarized cinema conversations came in part from the shifting nature of art.

Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Disney; 20th Century Fox
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Did we even watch the same movie?

Readers who disagree with a review often tweet that question at critics. (I should know.) Critics ask the question of one another too. How can we sit side by side in a movie theater and have diametrically opposed reactions? How can I cry while you sit stone-faced? How can I find a movie offensive and you find it insightful? Did we even see the same thing?

In a technical sense, of course we did — everyone who watches the same cut of a movie sees the same movie.

But in another sense, none of us watch the same movie. Art is not quite like anything else humans make. It’s an object, sure (a painting, a song, a book, a movie). But its meaning — its final form, in a sense — is always shifting under the gaze of the audience, which changes with time, never fixed or finalized. What a work of art really is depends on the thing itself, but also on creators and audience members, who bring their identities, points of view, and life experiences to the work.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Mark Hamill in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, one of the year’s most surprisingly divisive films.

Once it’s created, art doesn’t exist alone, in a vacuum. It needs to be seen to really be finished.

For popular art, this raises some questions — including some that were important parts of how we talked, thought, and argued about movies in 2017. If a movie shifts and changes depending on who makes it and who watches it, then does it matter who tells which stories and who watches them? And who gets to say what they really mean?

Those questions hummed beneath many of the conversations about the year’s movies, conversations that often leaned away from traditional formal analysis of a film and toward engaging with the broader culture that surrounds a movie. Those sorts of conversations move beyond the text of the film to see how the creators, audiences, and cultural climate both acts upon and is affected by the movie. And looking at just a few of those conversations shows how difficult (but rewarding) it can be to take popular art seriously, and what we can learn from seeking out perspectives that are different from our own.

A female director shaped how we watched one of the year’s most successful films

One of the year’s most successful movies was Wonder Woman, a tentpole superhero film that made more than $400 million in the US alone. It had plenty to recommend it to audiences — an iconic central character, great action sequences, a bevy of stars — but what people talked about most may have been the movie’s director, Patty Jenkins, who became the first woman to direct a big-budget superhero film (and then signed on to direct a sequel).

Though directors are far from solely responsible for a film’s final state, they are where the buck stops, and a well-directed film often clearly shows its director’s thumbprints. Jenkins’s hand on the film was immediately clear when you watched it. It wasn’t so much in the story — Wonder Woman could never, in all of her history, have been accused of being a shrinking violet — but in the way the story looked, particularly in the sequences on the island of Themyscira, populated entirely by Amazons.

Wonder Woman
Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman.
Warner Bros.

Most moviegoers, however unconsciously, have become accustomed to seeing women through the lens of what feminist film scholars call the “male gaze,” which tends to look at women’s bodies primarily as objects of desire. Whether or not we look at women’s bodies that way in our normal lives, we have become used to seeing them shot that way onscreen. I know I have.

And that’s why I was startled by how moved I was watching the Themyscira sequences. The women were strong, sculpted, and somewhat scantily clad, but I was being compelled to notice their strength, not their sexuality, and that was to the benefit of the story.

As my colleague Caroline Framke put it in her own rumination on watching the movie:

The first 20 minutes of Wonder Woman unfold on Themyscira, a protected utopia populated entirely by ferocious female warriors whose ethos is best summed up as, “Don’t take shit from anyone for any reason, and while you’re at it, show them you can kick their ass.” We get to watch Diana — an adorable girl full of resolve and apple-cheeked smiles — grow up in a collective of women resolved to be the best, strongest, and most decent people they can be. Jenkins’s camera follows warriors like Robin Wright’s smirking Antiope into training and battle with the same giddiness that’s plain on Diana’s awed face, tracking the Amazons’ fearsome spins and relishing their deadly precision.

I mean, come on. No wonder Diana doesn’t bother correcting Steve when he calls Themyscira “Paradise Island” (a nod to the island’s original name in the comics).

Five minutes of this would have been amazing. That Wonder Woman devotes its entire first act to these women and their perfect snarls was all the proof I needed that the movie would do Diana’s story justice.

Seeing the Amazons live and fight and love among themselves feels like seeing another world — and I don’t just mean within the DC or Marvel universe, but in our own. It’s still rare, especially in the action and/or superhero genre, to show multiple women being capable at once.

Wonder Woman isn’t a perfect movie, of course. But watching it felt different, largely thanks to the story being told through Jenkins’s eyes. And that difference paid off; it’s currently the third-highest-grossing film of 2017 in the US (behind two other women character-led films, Beauty and the Beast and Star Wars: The Last Jedi).

After the film’s release, many people wrote about why it mattered that Wonder Woman was directed by a woman — and not just because its success challenged conventional Hollywood wisdom about what audiences want from their movies. It’s not that women are inherently magical, or have a monolithic view of the world. But if what a movie really is arises from the interplay between the creator and the audience member, then it’s not surprising that many audiences (especially female ones) felt like they were watching something new and fresh with Jenkins’s Wonder Woman.

In a post-Wonder Woman world, one has to wonder how different the history of superhero films would be if the talent creating them approached gender parity. Would the audience be even larger? And would the films be more vibrant, rather than the tired regenerations of worn tropes they often have been?

For Detroit, a limited viewpoint also curtailed how well the movie could depict its subject

A completely different conversation arose around Detroit, the highly anticipated film from The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and her frequent screenwriting collaborator Mark Boal. Detroit depicts police raids at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 Detroit riots, during which black men were tortured and died at the hands of police. It’s an extraordinarily difficult film to watch, which is what I wrote about in my review — the center section of the film feels more like brutal home-invasion horror, and my heart raced in a way I rarely experience in a movie theater. It’s violent and graphic and unrelenting, and many of the characters’ actions and statements feel like they’re ripped from today’s headlines.

Like Bigelow, I’m a white woman. And while watching the movie, I mainly felt anger and hopelessness about how little has changed.

John Boyega in Detroit
John Boyega in Detroit.
Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

But in reading critical takes after the film’s release, I realized anew that my own perspective is necessarily limited by the facts of who I am — and that Bigelow’s is too, in ways that are probably unconscious. One of my favorite critics, Angelica Jade Bastién, reviewed the film for and had some harsh words for the film’s depiction of its black characters:

It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin. Watching Detroit I realized that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain. ... Detroit was directed, written, produced, shot, and edited by white creatives who do not understand the weight of the images they hone in on with an unflinching gaze. ...

... What leaves the film feeling grotesque and even a bit exploitative is its soullessness. I’ve had a theory for some time that you can determine how well a film will handle its black characters based purely on how it’s shot. Black skin tones vary widely, but here they’re often ashen, sickly, and lacking the complexity they deserve. ... Bigelow is immensely skilled at action, and watching Philip pick off his victims definitely crackles with energy. But there is a noxiousness to the thrill of these scenes and the extreme close-ups of bruised black bodies, because the characters lack interiority.

Angelica’s critique drew me up short, because it rang true — and yet I hadn’t picked up on it myself. She brought her own experience as a black American woman to the film, and thus its meaning was deepened and broadened in a way that wound up challenging Bigelow’s perspective.

And that raised a bigger question about Detroit: Was Bigelow the right director to helm the film? The answer to that question isn’t easily mapped onto matters of identity — as Angelica wrote in her review, “There are, of course, a litany of films by white filmmakers about subject matter unique to the black experience that I find moving,” including Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple.

But I’m a white woman accustomed over years of working as a critic to watching movies made by, and largely for, white people. I’m well aware of how often I’ve failed to reach outside my own experience. And I hadn’t given much thought to how the skin tones in Detroit were rendered, or what they might say about broader issues of representation, violence, and empathy in the film.

It’s easy to get defensive about your own blind spots, but something that critics should always be doing is expanding our own perspectives on art — and, if we’re doing our jobs well, also giving readers the tools to do the same. So while I can’t ever see a movie through the eyes of a writer like Angelica, I can read what she says about her experience and see how it challenges and pushes on the borders of my own experience.

That doesn’t change the fact that the movie I saw was, in essence, a different movie than what other critics saw. I could only bring my experience into the theater. That was true of Bigelow too. And we both needed to hear how our experience of the story was limited. I benefit from that realization, because it makes me more attentive to how the next movie I see works and what my limited experience means for how I watch it. If I’m doing my job, then my readers benefit too. And I hope that means the art benefits as well — challenging a film is a way of taking movies seriously, and respecting them more fully.

Sharply polarized opinions show that we really don’t see the same movie

How the experience people bring into the theater with them shapes what they see became an especially fraught topic with the release of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, probably the year’s most controversial awards-season film. For some audiences, it was a seething (and maybe empathetic) encapsulation of rage against an unjust world; for others, it was a reprehensible attempt to shallowly redeem a white cop who had brutalized black characters that not only was hopelessly bad on race and wildly tone-deaf but defanged its exploration of female vengeance. (I didn’t love the movie, but I also didn’t detect any redemptive notes in the characters’ arcs myself; in my review, I noted that its broken, absurd universe seemed in harmony with Flannery O’Connor’s idea of moments of grace.)

The extent to which the movie was both lauded and despised was a true “did we see the same movie?” moment. How could the same film prompt such polarized responses?

The answer, once again, had everything to do with how the work of art shifted under the eyes of whoever was looking at it. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a flaming ball of emotion, and it tended to tap into the dominant emotions of whoever watched it. Frances McDormand’s performance as a furious woman hit a lot of people where they were at near the end of 2017, a year of women’s rage onscreen and off — but the movie also tapped into how that rage frequently excluded people of color. What you brought into the movie theater helped shape what movie you saw.

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Fox Searchlight

The issues around Three Billboards were serious, extensions of conversations about power and injustice that were happening nationally all year. But though it differed in social import, a similar (and surprising) polarization happened right at the end of the year around Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which left some critics and audiences (including myself) elated with its wit and expansiveness and also brought down wrath from some fans, a segment of whom felt the series had “betrayed” them.

The varied reactions to these two films (which could not be less alike if they tried) was more evidence that we don’t, in reality, see the same films at all. And because of that, there’s a degree of validity to every honest reaction to a work of art.

And yet there’s something troubling here too. I don’t know if it’s a result of the clipped pace of discourse on social media, increased social polarization, aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes that flatten critical opinion and enable questionable audience opinion, or the politicization of American society — or maybe I just haven’t been paying attention until now. But it often felt like the year’s most exhausting film conversations were drawn along sharply dichotomized lines: Either this movie is great or it is terrible. That left little room to acknowledge how a work of art is rarely an either/or proposition; sometimes a movie can be good at some things and bad at other things. It can get some things right and stumble on others.

There’s always going to be a place for raves and pans of films, and the internet favors strong opinions loudly expressed. But the less complex film discourse becomes, the more film as a medium suffers — and we suffer along with it.

Why does this matter?

But is one person’s reaction “better” or “worse” than another’s? In other words, is one person’s opinion about a movie more valid than another’s? I struggle to answer this question, because it puts fences around some creators and some audiences that can hamper both the creation of art and the dialogue about it.

The more important question to me, as a female critic in a male-dominated profession — but also a white critic in a largely white profession — is how much my experiences are shaped not just by my own limitations, but by how those limitations overlap with those that have been part of the film world for a long time.

This rose to the front of my mind later in the year, when the cascading series of sexual harassment and assault allegations against a number of powerful players like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and James Toback started to show how some people (particularly but not exclusively women) had been pushed out of the narrative for not complying with predators’ desires. That seemed like a clear corollary to the ways that other predators like Leon Wieseltier, Mark Halperin, and Matt Lauer shaped both women’s careers and larger narratives in political journalism.

Harvey Weinstein in May 2017
Harvey Weinstein in May 2017.
Jacopo Raule/Contributor/Getty Images

The history of Hollywood is rife with people who had to put up with predatory men or get out of the business, not often by choice. But it’s not just predators and sexual assault that has shaped the business of movies — it’s also just true that the people making decisions about who gets to make a movie, and shaping the narrative around who will watch it, have dictated the way the business is run.

As a critic in 2017, I’m learning how much my assumptions about movies have been molded by those same people. I’m learning not to be surprised when movies that are expected to appeal only to niche audiences (which often means “just women” or “just black people”) turn out to be massive hits.

And most importantly, I find myself thinking about how those narratives can be challenged when they need to be. This is slow work; it means that the people who work as critics have to become more diverse, and that the success of movies like Coco and Girls Trip needs to be seen as an industry dictate and not an anomaly.

But most of all, these conversations have reminded me that by nature I’m limited, as a critic and as a human. And so are we all. I need to read more widely and absorb more opinions that challenge and even oppose my own. I need to seek out (and champion) movies that aren’t in my comfort zone. And I need to encourage and boost those who do the same.

Because after all, a great work of art isn’t a static thing. It’s dynamic and vibrant. And it’s only by encouraging a greater variety of voices — both creators and critics, who are by nature attentive audience members — that a work of art can start to reach its full potential.