The Magician and the Skeptic

Part 1 – A Short Story

A magician walks on stage. Before him he sees a packed audience. The magician says, “Ladies and gentlemen, what you are going to see is all real. None of this is fake. I am calling upon dark forces to show you feats beyond our world.”

The audience watches. They’re enamored with the performance. They laugh and gasp and cheer.

There’s this one guy in the audience. He fancies himself a skeptic. He’s intensely focused on the magician. He’s trying to figure out the tricks. At one point he turns to the audience member next to him, “That magician isn’t performing real magic. He’s faking.”

His fellow audience member shush him. This skeptic is appalled. Doesn’t everyone want to know that the magician is faking? He’s hoodwinking everyone! It’s not right. Everyone in this audience paid a lot of money for the tickets to this show.

But here’s the thing: The magician knows what he is doing isn’t “real” magic. It’s deception. It’s fake.

The audience knows the magician isn’t performing “real” magic.

The magician knows the audience knows that he’s faking.

The audience knows the magician knows that they know he’s faking.

Everyone is on the same page except the skeptic.

How could this be? Shouldn’t the skeptic be celebrated for exposing the truth?

The one piece of information that the skeptic is lacking is that the audience and magician are engaging in a social contract.

Here is how the social contract works. The magician is an entertainer. He is offering his services to perform in front of a crowd and entertain them. His medium for entertainment is slight-of-hand and deception to create what is known as magic. The audience is paying to be entertained. They are offering up money in exchange for the goods and services of being entertained. This does not mean they are “turning their brains off” nor does it mean they are ignorant to poor quality entertainment. It means they are choosing to sit down and watch someone be entertaining. In this case they are consciously, willingly paying to sit down and watch someone use slight-of-hand and deception to create what is known as magic.

Now let’s talk about plot holes in movies.

Part 2 – The Roots of the Problem

I’m old enough to remember a time before the internet, but I’m not old enough to remember how people talked about movies before the internet. My budding interest in film rose alongside AIM, Limewire, and Cable/DSL.

In fact, full disclosure, I’ve only really been following larger public trends in regards to discussing film for the past five or so years.

Probably the single most defining facet about film discussions on the internet is that of “plot holes.” People looooove to talk about “plot holes.” Countless lists, articles, and forum prompts are centered around finding plot holes in movies.

Why is this? Why are people so obsessed with plot holes?

I can think of a few general reasons.

One

I sincerely think the internet is one of humanity’s crowning achievements. Forget your porn and cat jokes. The internet is the type of invention that appears in sci-fi novels about futuristic societies. A network of interconnected machines that allow just people to communicate with each other across the globe? Come on, how can you not appreciate that?

There is one weird thing about the internet that, in my experience, isn’t talked about a lot.

See, the internet can give a voice to anyone, however, there’s something lost in that immediacy.

Today, in 2014, anyone whether they’re 14 or 50 can start a blog or a Tumblr. They can start typing out their opinions about any topic. Anyone in the world can start a website to publish their opinions on movies. (Like this website…)

There’s no apprenticeship to people’s knowledge when you can just immediately publish a blog. When you go to something like film school you will have a teacher to guide you and help navigate through the wonderful world of cinema. They will help you contextualize films and understand them in a greater capacity.

Learning about film helps you assess film.

This lack of guidance is why I think people gravitate towards pointing out and finding plot holes. The term plot hole has been so bastardized that it is now an incredibly easy thing to do. Plot holes are now basically anything contained within a film that does not sync up with our actual reality. So of course it’s easy to find plot holes within FICTIONALLY CONSTRUCTED UNIVERSES.

Doesn’t matter if it’s a sci-fi opera or a romantic comedy. What you see on film is a fictionally created universe for that particular film. Of course there’s going to be inconsistencies with our reality. It’s a fundamental aspect to cinema.

Two

As I’ve become more seriously interested in criticism — specifically film — I’ve noticed some oddly hostile reactions to critics.

Think of how many times you’ve heard someone say a variation of “Critics don’t know what they’re talking about.” It’s a lot, right? You might be guilty of it yourself.

In my experience, people seem to straddle this weird line where they want to talk about movies in depth but also abhor the idea of being one of those fancy pants critics. For whatever reason people are utterly convinced that critics are not normal people or that a critic’s sole job is to destroy or devalue a movie.

First of all, assuming that a critic would solely want to focus on being negative about movies assumes that a person would willingly want to take a career path focusing on something they dislike. What sort of sane or rational person would want to continually subjugate themselves to something they hate?

Second, I have read many, many, many critics express the opinion that they would rather champion a movie than dismiss it. In other words they would rather write about a movie the perceive as good rather than a movie they perceive bad. They are not setting out to maliciously take down what you like.

These two points lead to a third point: A good percentage of people don’t even understand the point of what a critic does. A critic’s job is to a) assess the work against the medium it is presented in (e.g. this movie is a good movie because it represents qualities of good movies) and b) assess whether the movie has any significant or notable relationship to our society. Both (a) and (b) are important because it leads to c) critics help the audience learn how to recognize (a) and (b) for themselves.

Critics watch a lot of movies, but general audience members are also capable of watching a lot of movies too. The more a person engages in an activity, the more likely it is that said person will want to explore the activity in an in-depth manner.

But they can’t. Because doing so would mean they are a critic.

In the past few years this has manifested itself in people using “plot holes” as an outlet for a way to talk about movies in-depth without talking about movies in-depth.

Three

The internet is built for communication. Communication between people can lead to community building. So the internet is used as a communication platform for all types of communities boasting all types of interests. Whether that’s film, comic books, cricket, sewing, wake boarding, or LITERALLY ANY HOBBY EVER CONCEIVED.

One wildly popular community subset on the internet is Skeptic.

There’s nothing wrong with being a skeptic. It’s important to battle junk science like anti-vaccination, power bracelets, and astrology, among others.

The downside to communities on the internet is that they can very quickly become echo chambers where the same opinions and attitudes are repeated so much that it drowns out any other opinion.

In other words, there’s a time and place for skepticism. When it comes to plot holes, it’s generally not the place.

It seems to me there’s large swaths of communities of people like in the short story above. People who fancy themselves skeptics but are hopelessly clueless about the social contract of seeing a movie.

These skeptics act as if they are crusaders spreading the word that Movies Are Fake. They act unaware that, yes, we already knew that. You don’t need to scream from the rooftops the hero didn’t reload the gun.

Part 3 – Fixing the Problem

So how do we reverse this trend? How do we stop people from spreading the gospel of Plot Holes?

First should be that people need to be aware of the social contract between entertainers and audiences. Unless you’re being Clockwork Orange-ed, you’re probably actively choosing to sit down and watch a movie. That means you are actively choosing to let someone (or in the case of movies hundreds of people) entertain you. You don’t have to blindly love every movie. Nor do you have to “turn your brain off.” Just remember that movies are not 100% accurate representations of the Real World. They are always approximations. (This is especially true with movies Based on a True Story.)

Second is that people really need to understand that critics are not out to destroy the world with their remarks. Only a crazy person would devote their life to writing about something they hate. It’s unfortunate that the word “criticism” has been co-opted to mean “needlessly negative.” Critics are like teachers. They’re just trying to help their readers contextualize the movie. Also, I would like to point out that a critic’s job is not to predict whether or not you’ll like a movie. That’s insane. I have no idea how that perception came to be.

Third is the hardest of all.

Whenever you feel the impulse to point out a “plot hole” in a movie — STOP! Don’t do it. Instead replace that impulse with the desire to figure out the THEME of a movie.

It is far, far, far more important to recognize a theme in a movie. Every movie should have a theme. Whether it’s grandiose — the movie might be a complicated allegory of the Cold War; or whether it’s simple — betrayal. The theme is what a movie’s about. Not what happens in a movie, but what the purpose of the story being told is set to show to the audience.

In other words, the theme should explain why the filmmakers decided to tell this story.

Aside: Another way to increase your “enjoyment” of a movie is to figure out what kind of story the filmmakers wanted to tell and why they wanted to tell it. I do believe that there’s a sense of entitlement of audience members these days where they sit down to watch a movie cross armed saying “Entertain me!” If you meet the filmmakers halfway and try to figure out what the purpose of the story is, then you will have a greater appreciation of the story. It’s not about what you wanted as an audience member, it’s about what the filmmakers wanted to say.

Part 4 – A Quick Interlude

A common cry I see online or hear in person is “I just want to be entertained.” This is actually a perfectly valid way to digest movies or other forms of stimuli — books, tv, opera, etc. The thing is that often times the exclamation of “I just want to be entertained” is really another way for a person to say “I don’t want to think critically about this thing I’m consuming.” Remember: People are irrationally afraid of critics or becoming critics.

It’s a variation on having it both ways. The person who says “they just want to be entertained” will go on to complain about “plot holes.” You don’t have to “turn off your brain” “just to be entertained.” Remember the social contract. Remember that you are willingly sitting down to watch a movie.

The other problem with “I just want to be entertained” is that there’s a slight tinge of entitlement to the statement. “I just want to be entertained” could easily be “I demand to be entertained.” When people are disappointed in movies they’ve seen just for entertainment value, that’s when I see and hear a lot of “plot hole” talk or other surface level criticisms. The reality is that choosing any movie to sit down and watch could potentially be bad. There’s no real way of knowing if you’ll like a movie — or be entertained by it — until you watch it.

Just wanting to be entertained is a bit of a paradox. Unless you’re watching a movie you’ve already seen, there’s no true way to predict if you will in fact be entertained. The social contract says that patrons will pay entertainers to provide the service of entertaining. It makes no mention of the quality of said entertainment.

Part 5 – But Wait.. There are Plot Holes

I wanted to save this for last because I didn’t want to mix my messaging of this essay.

Yes, there are actual plot holes in film. They happen sometimes. Sometimes it’s because of sloppy filmmaking other times it’s an accident. Whatever the case they do exist.

But before you dismiss all of what I say just keep this in mind: it’s far more important to focus on THEME than plot holes.

I’ve heard some people express the opinion that “plot holes take them out of the story.” To my ears that just means that they are people who do not realize the social contract of watching a movie and do not realize that what they see on film is not a 100% accurate representation of our world.

There are times when a film is so poorly made that it has no redeeming values. It happens. Not every movie is going to be a winner. However, I’m willing to bet that no matter how bad a movie is, the plot holes aren’t the sole thing that made it terrible. Look to things like: Is the movie clear in its direction; can you follow along with what’s happening visually? Does the acting help you immerse yourself in the story or is it distracting? Does the music fit tonally with the story at hand? Is there a theme to the story? Is the dialogue pleasant to the ear or does everything sound stilted?

In these instances the filmmakers have failed you. They have not earned your respect or admiration. They have failed to create a work of art that has any meaningful benefit to society as a whole.

However, I would like to say that I think in our current climate audiences are really quick to claim a movie is a failure. Maybe this is a by-product of criticism being co-opted to mean excessively negative comments. In the past few years it seems like people are always itching to claim whatever movie is the new disaster and dog pile onto it.

So in addition to being quick to exclaim a movie is bad because of “plot holes” we also have people quick to exclaim a movie is a failure in general. These attitudes are not healthy.

What I find people are lacking these days is faith in filmmakers.

The whole movie going climate is so drenched in negativity that audiences have forgotten that the vast, vast, vast majority of people working in the film industry are PEOPLE WHO LOVE MOVIES.

We’re all (not so) secretly attracted to the idea that Hollywood is populated with people who make movies just to make money and more-or-less trick audiences into paying for a ticket. While there are movies that are blatant cash grabs, there are also an equal number of movies being made because there is a passion for the material. Marvel makes a shitload of money with their current crop of movies, but you can also tell they put a lot of passion into what they’re selling. It’s a win-win.

If you want a glimpse into what tricking audiences is actually like then look no further than Asylum. Asylum is a production company that churns out movies with similar titles and premises to upcoming blockbuster movies. Examples include Alien vs. Hunter, Atlantic Rim, and Transmorphers. None of these movies have excessively high budgets. No one in their right mind would give an excessive amount of money to Asylum for the purpose of confusing and tricking people.

So next time you go to watch a movie just remember it’s far, far, far more likely that the people who made the movie were passionate about it. Even if they weren’t die hard passionate about the material, for them to make a good movie means they can continue to work in the industry. The motivation is to do good work.

Also, quick side note. We’ve gone through a paradigm shift in regards to movie distribution. Video On Demand, iTunes, and other services are quietly revolutionizing the way filmmakers can distribute their movie to audiences. So if you only rely on actors appearing on talk shows to determine what movies to watch, you’re gonna have a bad time. Yes, it’s more work for audiences, but you need to learn to find outlets other than billboards, commercials, and talk shows to find new movies to watch. The independent film scene is reveling in the new ways of distribution. I’m not saying all independent film is great, but these outlets like Video On Demand are places where you can see novel movies that do different things that what’s be advertised on talk shows.

Part 6 – Conclusion

There’s an old saying that goes, “Documentaries are for facts; Movies are for the truth.” (This isn’t a steadfast rule. It’s more of a rough sketch to illustrate the differences between movies and documentaries.)

The gist is that movies expose emotional truths about our world. They are made so us humans can express emotions like greed, lust, friendship, or empowerment to other humans. That’s why the most important part of a movie’s story is the theme.

Making movies is a social act. Hell, all types of stories are. We tell stories to each other as a way of bringing ourselves together. When you watch a movie with a character who is experiencing frustration you should focus on how you relate to the character’s frustration, not about how he lives in New York City in a huge apartment and is supposedly poor.

The point is that movies are powerful tools that can help us contextualize our world and humanity. Not all movies will have deep themes. Some movies are just like amusement park rides. But that’s okay. It just goes to show that humans like to experience something thrilling.

But when you solely focus on plot holes as an entry point for criticism you’re only inhibiting yourself. You’re reducing down this wonderful medium that can transport us to space, the distant past, and into other human’s eyes into whether or not it is a true, 100% accurate reflection of our reality.

-Harrison

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