2 September 2010

I Don't Get 'You Don't Get It'

Crash, bang, geddit

Just recently, when Scott Pilgrim vs the World was released and the largely positive reviews started coming in, a few irritated responses began filtering through whenever there was a less-than positive or shrugging verdict of the film. It's certainly not the first time I've read this kind of thing: I remember hearing (usually online) similar cries on perusing reviews of the likes of Donnie Darko, The Dark Knight, Irreversible and (500) Days of Summer (and, barely a month ago, Inception) but some reactions to Scott Pilgrim have proven to be the most visible recent examples of folk rebutting a less-favourable review with: 'You don't get it.'

The critics less impressed than most have seen their Pilgrim observations met with that much-loved, though increasingly shopworn, phrase - occasionally with 'if you're over thirty' tagged on the end of it. Why thirty? What has that age in particular got to do with it? Is the cut off point for Pilgrim enjoyment twenty-nine? Surely there are many folks both under and over thirty who the film will and won't appeal to. Whatever it is, I'm not sold on any of that 'You (just) don't get it' malarkey when someone is talking about someone else's (yours, mine, anybody's) reactions to a film.

I'm guessing that it's an off-the-cuff and defensively reactionary remark, but why do some folk feel the need to be defensive in the first place. If you liked it, be happy about that. Don't worry if the next guy or girl didn't like it. (Although maybe it's anger at the higher-profile critics getting to see films first, and delivering their tuppence-worth earlier than most, that doesn't keep in line with fans' high expectations.) But saying it is pretty useless, and actually suggests a juvenile superiority complex to go alongside that defensiveness on the behalf of those that do. What it really means is: 'I am better than you because I "get" this film.'

"Oh, the woe of not 'getting it' is no joke"

People - critics or audience members - 'not getting' a film doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong. (This is another, more significant, implied denotation of this phrase). Maybe they just didn't like it. Some people perhaps just don't want what Scott Pilgrim has to offer - could that be what it is? But it's all just reaction and counter-reaction anyway. If someone does 'get' a film - and they truly feel they understand that it's speaking directly to them (and in some cases they may feel it's speaking to them alone) - all it says is that they've been cleverly aimed at, nicely ensnared in the filmmakers' cross hairs; they match the most likely target viewer squarely. It's worked for them; they 'got it'. That's great. But it doesn't mean that those not 'getting it' are way off the mark. It's not concrete proof that the film was genuinely any good because of a single-line rebuttal to a response.

The phrase also implies, 'it's not for you: it's mine/ours - not yours.' It's a derivation of that old redundantly groan-worthy 'I claimed it first' tack. Oh, how dare a thirty- or even forty-, fifty- or sixty-something - even consider watching a film clearly aimed below their age bracket. Keep to your age zones, people. And good lord! you'd better tell all those critics who are paid to review the latest Pixar and Disney releases that they're sadly unqualified to do so, too. How does one decide that a film generally, loosely aimed at a twenty-something should only be written about by someone of an equivalent age to its generally, loosely intended audience? And how does one work that out anyway?

The whole thing is baffling, needless and beside the point in the act of film watching. It's far from a good enough reaction to someone's observations on a film. I know many sixty-year-olds who may very likely adore what Scott Pilgrim has to offer. Maybe a couple of, oh no, seventy-year-olds, too. If the over-thirty lot won't 'get it' then the septuagenarians are royally buggered. Stick to watching Ladies in Lavender Gran, and don't let me catch you putting The Dark Knight into your DVD player either! Older audiences may not totally relate to the game-heavy nostalgia - I don't either, and I'm a year younger than Scott Pilgrim's director, Edgar Wright - but that doesn't prevent anyone enjoying sharp comedy, engaging performances and directorial flair.

"Do you "get" it, red-haired girl?"

I've never thought whether I 'get' a film or not. How does one 'get' a film anyway? There's been many films which have contained passages or sequences that I may have not fully understood, but whether I 'get' it or not doesn't enter into it. I've never really cared if someone else didn't think the same way I did about a film I liked. It's a pleasurable feeling if and/or when somebody does, but no big deal if not. It's, of course, all merely preference and taste anyway. Like. Dislike. Yes. No. (And occasionally Hmm and Maybe.) It's that, and all the tricky complexities of unravelling a film's particular resonances and mysteries contained within the liking or disliking of a film. There are a thousand undecided feelings hidden beneath those nos and yeses which a 'you don't get it' could never verbally illustrate. The proof's in the watching, anyhow; and if further proof is needed, well, that's in the glorious variety of responses on offer from critics and audiences alike.

The whole 'you don't get it' thing surrounding Scott Pilgrim certainly does lose all credibility and reason faced with the knowledge that Edgar Wright is 36 years old. Surely if someone 'got' Scott Pilgrim it's him. Other than that, I don't get it.


  1. I totally agree. I'm always weary of things that proclaim "I/you don't get it." Like you said, I can see people not understanding a film or parts of it, but to say "you don't get it" just makes it sound like only certain people are capable of enjoying the film. Its really irritating.

  2. I agree that "you don't get it" is a way of dodging disagreement, to refuse to engage with another critic's observations. And then I remembered that in my own review of the film I used a similar phrase:

    "If you need to ask yourself why these people are fighting, and why wussy Scott is suddenly an awesome, mangafied warrior 20-minutes in, you’re not getting something. And it’s probably nothing wrong with you. It’s just a groove you skipped."

    I didn't mean it to denigrate those viewers, more to suggest that the film is doing something very particular that requires a certain approach. You're not "wrong" for preferring a different approach, but the film deliberately targets an audience with a particular set of cultural references. On reflection, I think you can either be "with" Scott, or you can mock him for his insularity. So, yes, there are different ways to "get" the film.

    I didn't find the film too young for me, either. On the contrary, I've had my intelligence far more insulted by films aimed at adults recently. But can we "get" or "not get" a film in the same way that we might "get" a joke? Probably. It's all about how texts call out to audiences and we all find our niches. Maybe we should celebrate that a film as idiosyncratic as SPVTW got such support from a major studio.

  3. drnorth - Nothing here was in response to your review, so please don't think I've earmarked you as one of those types who say 'you don't get it'. (The comments that nudged me to do this were mainly from a couple of US writers/filmgoers, which for the life of me I can't track down now - I would've inc. links) I liked what you had to say on SPvtW and thought you were spot-on about it overall.

    I don't think your comment denigrates viewers at all. You suggest (if I may take a stab?) that SPvtW sets its world up from the off and if someone is lost some way into it - and questions its plot turns - then it could be a lack of familiarity with the source material or general disinterest in its paticular rhythms that's the issue. You contemplate the issue, not look down.

    'Getting' a film or joke may be similar. But there could be a form of condescension even in someone 'getting' or 'not getting' a joke - it would depend on who's telling it and if they see themselves as superior if they 'get' it and the other person doesn't. But an entire film is (obviously) bigger and more complex than one joke. I think whether it simply connects or not and what someone takes away from it, without need for defensive reaction, is what matters. I've always thought connecting with a text is quite different from 'getting' it.

    But it's in the way the 'you don't get it' phrase/sentiment is aimed that I find baffling. Those comments I refered to pop up every so often with some films/people's comments and it always perplexes me why some folk feel as if they need to be defensive. Some folk are almost dumbstruck if there's a person out there who doesn't like the same things as them. It's odd.

    I'll certianly praise a film which managed to take a different stance to a familiar genre, and thank the support it received to get there.

  4. Jason H - thanks for the comment. It's the attitude that comes with a saying like that that can be so irritating. It's like those folk are afraid of having their favourite films smeared by negative comment. It's very daft.

  5. Enjoyed this post, Craig. I was waiting to respond until I'd gathered my vague thoughts about it into some kind of order, but I think I'm going to just acknowledge that's never going to happen.

  6. Hi, Craig. No problem at all - I perceived no slight in your post.

    Most film criticism is not written to a chorus of approval, and nor is it designed to persuade viewers to see or avoid particular films (as is often thought to be its purpose), but to encourage people to see those films in a certain way. It provides a useful service, so to say that your potential audience "doesn't get it" is a lazy way out of that act of persuasion and illustration. None of this has to happen - we could all just accept that we have different tastes, but film fandom is often so territorial. Take a look at message boards for any big movie these days and you'll find a war of lovers and haters even before the film is released. The film might represent them in some way, especially something like Scott Pilgrim, which flatters a particular sub-cultural attitude. What I wonder is if these people don't want others to "get it". They want their film to be a niche thing rather than Universal's latest mass-marketed product.