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Rogue Mutt Classics: Are You GETting It?

August 8, 2011

You know, if I had actually seen the movie when I wrote this, I probably would have supported Knowles more.  I think you had to view “Kick-Ass” as a parody of comic book stupidity and excesses in order to GET it.  Sure the 11-year-old getting beat up (though I think Ebert exaggerated the extent of it) is terrible, but is it any worse than Robin or any other kid sidekick?  I would say no.

Again, another one I should have dusted off when that “book reviewer” didn’t GET Kurt Vonnegut.  Is there a lamer reason to claim something sucks than, “I don’t GET it?”  Again, I would say no.

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This last weekend there was a slight controversy over the superhero film “Kick-Ass.”  Venerable critic Roger Ebert savaged the movie for its violence and blood, especially given that most of the participants are children.  In response, venerable Internet guy Harry Knowles said that Ebert didn’t “get” the movie.  My take is that if I don’t “get” the amusement of kids slaughtering people and being beaten to a bloody pulp I’m more than OK with that.

Anyway, the concept of “you don’t get it” is one that’s often used in criticism of any art form.  The idea is to imply that you’re stupid or ignorant or out of touch with the latest fashions–or sometimes all three.  A lot of times this reasoning seems to be the final fallback position to defend a piece of crap.  I’ve seen it many times in writing critique groups where someone who’s received a bad review will say, “You just don’t get it!”  Sometimes they’ll go further by saying you don’t get it because you’re dumb or because you’re a guy or because you’re too old or because you’re too young or because you don’t like vampires.  My response would be, “Maybe, but I know shit when I step in it.”

There is some validity to the concept of not getting something.  It’s true that I am a guy and I don’t like vampires, so if you post some kind of vampire chick lit story then obviously I’m not going to be overly entertained by it.  And if that’s all I were reviewing it based on then it would be fine to dismiss my criticisms.  But it’s also possible that even a guy who doesn’t like vampires can have some objective opinions that are valid.  Just because I don’t like vampires doesn’t mean I can’t spot illogical story development, plot holes, cliches, and other things like that.  A writer receiving a review should never throw the baby out with the bath water (to use a cliche!) by dismissing someone’s criticism because they aren’t in the target audience.  If anything, someone who isn’t in your target audience is often in a better position to see what you might have missed because they aren’t reading it solely for entertainment.

Really in my opinion no one in a critique group should ever throw out the “You don’t get it!” excuse.  It is common sense that not every story can please every reader simply because of our differing backgrounds and moral sensibilities.  Still, when you use that line to me it makes you sound like a sullen kid, harrumphing and tramping up to his room because Mom said to clean up his room or finish his peas or something.  The best thing is to say, “Thanks, I’ll take that under advisement.”  Then in private you can dismiss it if you want.  Of course that’s really hard to do because as writers we’re emotionally invested in the story and even if it is dreck we usually think it’s pure gold.  Certainly in this case do as I say and not as I do because I’m as prickly as anyone when it comes to criticism, if not more so.  (For instance if you say that you’re pricklier than me I’ll say, “No way!  I’m a lot pricklier than you!  Wanna fight about it?”)  What you don’t want to do is burn bridges because a group doesn’t get something because you might change your mind in years to come.  Right now there’s a whole generation of kids screaming that their parents don’t get the Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber or Hannah Montana or whatever but I’m willing to bet in five years those kids will change their tunes.  Especially if you’re young you have to realize you don’t know everything and that sometimes the old fogies really do get it because they’ve been there themselves.

At the same time, reviewers need to make sure that they are being as objective as possible.  If you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t go off on someone because they have characters having sex out of wedlock or homosexuals or swearing or anything like that because they aren’t writing a Christian story.  Just like I shouldn’t say how idiotic I think most vampires are if someone posts a vampire story.  (What I’m more likely to say is, “Yawn.  Another vampire story.”  Or, “You have a teenage girl meeting a sexy young vampire and they fall in love?  How original!”)  When critiquing you need to try and leave the personal biases out of it and focus on whether things make sense and if there are any grammatical problems or things like that.  Like if I post a baseball story there’s no point telling me that sports are stupid.  There is a point to saying that in the seventh inning I have the home team getting four outs.  The former is useless and will just provoke an angry response while the latter is helpful and will help me fix an oversight.  So when I’m reading a vampire story I should try to put aside my personal biases and just focus on the more objective, quantifiable stuff.  Instead of saying, “Great, another vampire story” I should point out that cutting someone with a spear blade isn’t as effective as stabbing them with the spear.

If we could do that on both ends then we’d probably never hear that old whine of “You don’t get it!” except when someone’s at their wit’s end for justifying why a story is as awesome as they think it is.  But then again this is the real world and so some amount of prejudice is always likely to remain.  It’s up to the writer who receives the critique to sift through what isn’t helpful to find what is helpful.  And there are always going to be some things that we just aren’t going to get no matter how hard we try.  Here’s some things I don’t get and probably never will:

  • Vampires
  • Romance novels
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Quentin Tarantino movies
  • Frank Miller
  • American Idol
  • Poetry
  • Jane Austen (and pretty much the rest of 19th Century literature)
  • Modern art
  • Rap/Hip hop
  • Country music
  • NASCAR
  • Most anime

Any of those things you can probably go on and on lecturing me about them and I still won’t ever get it.  If you hector me enough I might pretend to understand, but I’ll never really care in the way you do.  And you’ll never probably care about things I like either.  To each his/her own.

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9 Comments
  1. Vampires eh? I guess you’ve softened your stance a bit on that. Still, I do think when I say I don’t get something it can mean one of two things. 1) I don’t understand the appeal because I find it nonsensical, or 2) I don’t understand the cultural or intellectual references well enough to appreciate it.

    It’s up to me to determine which definition I’m following, and I might think it’s reason number 1, but it’s really number 2.

    So, anymore I say ‘it wasn’t my thing’ and am done with it.

  2. I’m torn by the whole “failure to understand” thing. Part of me wants to blame the author of the work and part of me wants to blame myself. For example, I really struggled to find meaning in the movie “Mulholland Drive”. David Lynch is one of those directors that I feel drawn to because his work is so compelling that I can’t pull my eyes away until I think I’ve figured out what he is doing on the screen. The thing is, I’ve wasted hours watching Mulholland Drive (I think I finally know what it’s about) and it makes me feel smarter knowing that. But I can understand people that say it’s a terrible movie because they don’t “get it”. Hell, I don’t know. I want to understand everything…I really do.

  3. My brother wrote a screenplay (well, more than one, but…) and he let me read it when it was finished. It was about war. I don’t get war movies, but it was my brother’s, so I read it anyway.

    When I reported back to him the next day (it didn’t take long to read), I started with the comment that it wasn’t really my type of story. But it drew me in and kept my attention anyway. I kept my comments to how to make the story better, and I kept an eye on where my prejudices were (I commented that there was way too much swearing for my taste, but as a war movie, it was probably appropriate).

    IMHO, saying you don’t “get” something is lazy critique. Usually.

  4. I had all kinds of things to say, and then Rogue mentioned naked Naomi Watts, and now I’m useless.

    As far as not “getting” a genre– I don’t typically like romances, but “The Notebook” was one of the better movies I’ve ever seen, because it was a very good movie. So saying “You don’t get it” is not a defense to a bad review/critique, because if something is done exceptionally well, it’ll generally appeal to those outside of the pure genre-lovers. Sweetie saw “The Dark Knight” and loved it despite not liking superhero movies. (She felt the same about “Iron Man,” for what that’s worth.”

    So authors, etc., who dismiss a bad review with “You don’t get it” don’t themselves get it: they failed to do anything new or unique or well with their genre and are simply dismissing your critique because they’ve failed.

    But if you really DON’T get it — like me and “Mulholland Drive” then I think it’s a failing on the author’s part. I read a lot of poems that I don’t get at all, and I think it’s the poet’s fault for not expressing themselves in a way that can be understood. If your intention is to communicate (anything – either a high-minded moral or simply an enjoyable story) and I don’t get the message, then the author hasn’t done his or her job.

    So, again, saying “You don’t GET it” is an admission of failure.

    • Now we seem to be getting back to a couple weeks ago with the post about “meaning.” I think some things like David Lynch, “The Tree of Life”, Kurt Vonnegut, etc. want to challenge you and kind of make you work to understand them. There’s no doubt Lynch could just come out and say, “The movie is about this” if he wanted to or “The Tree of Life” guy (I’m not looking it up) could say it’s about whatever, but they don’t. Maybe they think their message is clear enough or maybe they want you to rattle it around in your noggin and come up with your own conclusions. I think the latter is the more Socratic approach of trying to coax you into coming up with the answer instead of it being fed to you.

      Incidentally, when I watched “Donnie Darko” the first few times I liked it because it was weird and creepy and I wasn’t sure what was going on. Then I went to IMDB and read the writer/director’s explanation and it took away some of the fun of trying to figure it out. Once it made sense then it was just a movie instead of a guessing game.

    • Briane, you just reminded me of The Art of War. (No, I didn’t read it, but I saw something about it on the History Channel.)

      If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders ARE clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.

      Applied to the topic, if the story is not well-told, then the writer is to blame. But if the story is well-told, then a review of not “getting it” is just lazy. Or maybe not. It’s funny what connections my brain makes in the randomest moments.

  5. Well, I have to agree with you on country music and NASCAR. I guess I “get” how people might like country music although I believe it is a nurture over nature thing, but NASCAR? My tiny brain will never understand.

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