by Sam Rees
Re-evaluating irony is difficult. Deconstructing the deconstructed arduous and complex. The cultural artefacts of postmodern iconoclasm are themselves shifting from the center of the zeitgeist to a place in which their aesthetic and social compositions can be attributed to a specific era. As such, the retrospective examination of flippant, rebellious and pop-cultured-oriented art has begun. And it is proving divisive. Part of the problem is also an issue of legacy. Popular films of the late nineties and early two-thousands are seldom disaggregated from the often inferior and irritating work they come in turn to inspire. We can see this in music as well. For instance, I count myself as one of the legions of twenty-something kids who owes a great deal of their sense of nascent identity to the Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines and The Strokes. But between them, those three groups have in turn given rise to some of the most vapid, uninspiring and aggravating imitators to ever abuse the word ‘indie’, leading to a new genre which inserts the word ‘landfill’ before it, to explain away such abominations as, for instance, Razorlight.
It is from this dual complexity that I can understand the chagrin directed at Shrek, which turns twenty this year, and is a film so irreverent that it stakes part of its entire formal approach on undermining the traditional tropes of fairy tales. We must also bear in mind that in so doing, the film does not set out to deliver a particularly progressive re-hash of these tropes, as for instance does Frozen, but rather seems to revel in their undermining for its own sake. This irreverence is in itself a hard thing to pin down, and as I say, leads us into the sticky situation of re-evaluating irony, deconstructing the deconstructed. How, in essence, can one be ‘serious’ about a film like this? The legacy problem is also alive and well within conversation about Shrek. It is hard not to blame the film for the birth of, if one cares to remember, such a misdirected flops as Shark Tale or Chicken Little. Unwrapping it from this responsibility is necessary but difficult.
It is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, because Shrek points towards a major advance in computer animation which ought to be respected as such. There are individuals far more clued-up on this aspect of its legacy than me, however, and it isn’t my central reason for writing this article. As said, although Shrek’s anarchism doesn’t get us very far by way of social commentary, there is something contained within its aesthetic approach which signals what we might term a more democratic mode of media consumption. We are not in a picture-perfect Disney idyll, there is no beautiful castle full of beautiful people, the film’s center of gravity is a swamp, and the ogre who lives in it, both of which are played up at every possible juncture for their gross and vulgar potential. If I was feeling particularly ‘film-school’, I might even suggest that the slew of vibrant and diverse fairy tale characters with whom the viewer is acquainted throughout the film do themselves gesture towards a more multicultural concern within the movie, one which in itself breaks down the white hegemony of golden-era Disney. The moral emphasis within the narrative is certainly on the celebration of otherness, difference and non-conventional standards of beauty. All of this should be celebrated and is, in my view, a wonderful and valuable use of the filmmakers’ commitment to aforementioned concerns for iconoclastic narrative methods.
In short, Shrek is at its best when it breaks things for a reason.
This is the vital question, both with respect to the creation and dissemination of art and culture, but also in relation to debate around its reception and evaluation. I think also that this is at the root of the problem we face in contemporary life: how do we suppress the influence of certain material conditions in the dictation of cultural discourse? In other words, film criticism, like all criticism, is at its best when it breaks things for a reason. There have been any number of reappraisals of classic or canonical films in the last few years which critique the works with a revitalized (or newfound) sense of social justice. These critiques question in particular the propagation through mass media of harmful stereotypes regarding protected characteristics. I find no fault with these ‘takes’, obviously, and would go so far as to say to those who worry that they are at times provocative and unproductive that that can be the point too; the idea is to broaden certain conversations, and these sorts of arguments help to do that.
What I do have an issue with, however, is the growing appetite for counterarguments to well-worn, long-ago-decided appraisals of works of art, not in order to shed light on a blind spot, not to reimagine our thinking in more inclusive and progressive ways, but simply to have a contradictory opinion, simply to go against the grain, and simply, in short, to ruin things for other people. This becomes all the more complicated when discussing a work like Shrek for the very reasons stated above-part of its joy is in pulling this particular magic trick on its audience itself. Shrek delights in the profoundly childish, in the elegantly flippant, it is above all else the urge to make a fart noise in class, to draw a bum on the school desk. This ruinous energy is totally valid because it is in essence creative rather than destructive, it allows for new forms, new plots, new adventures to take shape. Watching the film back it always feels that in its (totally innocent) impetus to rip off the corset and fling off the armor, Shrek finds access to a tremendous release of creative energy.
When rereading Scott Tobias’ po-faced and humorless hot take annihilation of the film in The Guardian, it struck me that above all else the worse thing about this new contrarian need for an alternative opinion on everything is that when the opinion is as counterintuitive and rarely held as Tobias’ is, there are good reasons for this. The article is in itself very well written, but one cannot escape the fundamental truth that the critique is pretty baseless and in order for a reader to be sympathetic towards it, it would require said-reader to be as puritanical and boorish about ‘toilet humor’ as Tobias apparently is. If one is okay with the occasional fart sound or shot of an ogre being gross, then there isn’t much else to relate to in Tobias’ critique.
We need to start reckoning with the marketization of opinion. Click-bait culture is driving polemic writers into more and more deranged corners. When one combines this with the platforms on which these articles are widely shared, perspectives become even more bizarre; anyone familiar with the Twittersphere knows that the surefire way to go viral is to come up with the most contrarian position you can find and defend it as virulently as you can.
I am not suggesting that Tobias’ article is the pinnacle of all foolishness on the internet, but this quote, for instance, demonstrates how intense the demand for marketable opinions is (no matter how completely devoid of any substance they might be):
‘It’s hard to account for why Shrek hit the cultural moment as squarely as it did-other than, you know, people seemed to enjoy it’.
Now, call me old fashioned, call me reductive or simplistic, but I would like to suggest that that’s a pretty good reason why something hit a cultural moment so squarely. It is hard, after all, for things to hit a cultural moment when people dislike them. The fact that this line was deemed an acceptable facet of Tobias’ argument should show how paper-thin his perspective on this is.
I feel passionately about this (which is more than can be said for Tobias) because I, to some extent, understand the issue here, and it is a media-wide one, baked into the fabric of how we do commentary, whether for The Guardian or a site like this one. I understand Tobias’ problem, because it’s the problem of anyone working in this field. Nobody has that many strong opinions. It is far easier to note this with a demagogue such as, say, Jeremy Clarkson, someone who in his columns makes it plainly obvious that he is nothing more than a rant for hire. But honestly? It is true of everyone in this ecosystem. Thus, the jobs go not to those with the most interesting, original or insightful perspectives on the world, but to those who can muster up the energy to bash out a few thousand words every few weeks, and do so in a relatively entertaining manner. In this sense it is, I am afraid to say, a problem first and foremost, of the market.
I do not want to make some lazy case here for higher standards of journalism, an argument that has been made a million times before. We all know that courting controversy is a sad necessity of the current media landscape. But perhaps we could all, as a culture which now has the ability to broadcast our opinion to potentially uncountable numbers of people in an instant, make an informal commitment to not be losers about it. Let’s not spoil other people’s fun for the sake of it, especially when (looking at you Scott) we don’t really hold that opinion particularly strongly ourselves. There are enough legitimate and real reasons to feel guilty in this world, to reflect on what and how we consume, to try and do better. Let’s not be laying into a fun, interesting and innovative family film to seem big and important.
As said, if we must break things (which we must), then let’s break them for a reason.