As a film student, I love the word “overrated.” I use it all the time. That filmmaker is overrated. That movie? Completely overrated. It’s a word that even makes its way into my daily vocabulary on a plethora of different subjects. Fedoras? Overrated. Trench coats? Overrated. Pulling off a convincing Humphrey Bogart? Priceless. But in all seriousness, it became numero uno on my top-ten list of favorite words, which is also something that I once considered highly overrated.
But I soon realized that this is not, nor has ever really been the word that I’m meaning to use. Not that I can’t find a use for it. I just want to find the proper use for it. So, that means I’ll have to turn to the correct definition of “overrated.”
tr.v.o·ver·rat·ed, o·ver·rat·ing, o·ver·rates: To overestimate the merits of; rate too highly. – via The Free Dictionary
So, in looking at that definition, I need to look at the merit of the subject in question. I’ll start off simply. We’ll go back to my fedora example. Now, the fedora is a hat, which is used for two primary reasons: that of fashion and that to cover the head. The fashion branch is a subjective one, pertaining to an particular statement of style. The act of covering the head is objective; something all hats should do whether in style or not. Now that we’ve broken down those two, quite obvious pieces, let’s go a little deeper.
But to keep it interesting, and considering this is a pop culture site, we’ll turn our focus to film. Namely, directors. More specifically, a chap named Christopher Nolan.
I will not lie to you. I’m far from a Nolan “fan.” Especially when his writing is concerned. I find it clunky, unnatural, and incredibly, unabashedly expository. But if you ask me if I think he’s a good director? I’ll tell you that I think he’s one of the top ten contemporary filmmakers of this day and age. And I’ll tell you that because he’s a practical director. He films on film (though digital directors produce great work as well), sparsely uses computer generated images unless absolutely necessary, and dedicates himself to his projects entirely. As a director, he takes a stance on being genuinely inventive and outgoing with his work. In doing so, he provides half the definition of what I consider a great director.
The other half is that of entertaining. Because it makes no sense to have what Nolan has and then produce complete schlock. Schlock without merit, without credential, and without standing doesn’t get you an audience. Nolan is successful because his films do have a major audience and that audience wants to see more of his work. So, how does this play into the definition of “overrated?”
Nolan is a director who, objectively, fulfills the first part of a director’s duty when it comes to the process of movie-making. Painstakingly incorporating inventive vision, mechanics, and techniques to narrative storytelling that he, in his mind and position, will produce the optimum entertainment through his medium for an audience. That is his job, like that of the hat covering the head. It’s where we get into the subjective of whether his films entertain you is the issue. Your taste.
But before I go into that, I have to ask (and I hope you’ll be honest with yourself): is single, subjective taste enough to warrant something of being “overrated?” The word seems to have connotations of being outdated, unnecessary, and unwarranted. For a single person to stand above a crowd and say, “Shoes are overrated,” in the midst of people standing on hot coals, surely one would see the absurdity and likely be vocal about it. A member of the crowd states, “Why are they overrated?” and the opponent shouts back, “Because they’re ugly!” It’s a matter of opinion vs. practicality. And though it seems like an extreme, ludicrous example, is it far from what happens with film? How often have you heard this:
Citizen Kane is overrated! It’s slow, boring, and there’s nothing about the story that seems refreshing or new!
But this statement seems to completely overlook the practicality of what Citizen Kane did for the industry. It’s no secret that Kane was predominantly lambasted at its initial debut. But it’s studied for being a technical marvel and for being inventive with camera angles, set design, and narrative storytelling. It’s often dissected into its elements of directing, acting, writing; but its place in the history of cinema is mostly cemented by how the film was made. And because that feature has been studied time and time again and remains a crucial part of the cinematic school of thought, it’s fairly impossible for it to be “overrated.” By its own objective merits, what it has already accomplished and inspired has bonded itself to be a necessary component of the history of film. It’s perfectly fine to dislike Kane, even by those objective merits. You can think of them in subjective terms. But to deny the movie’s influence is absurd and ignorant. And influence is what keeps it from being “overrated.”
“Overexposed,” however, is free game. You hear Citizen Kane raves from your pompous film friend all the time. It’s on everyone’s favorite lists, normally near the top. Or “Christopher Nolan is the world’s greatest director!” is all you read on comic sites or movie forums. “Spike Lee is the voice of my generation!” and you never stop hearing about Spike Lee. When you’re constantly being thrown opinions about a director or project or any subject, it often doesn’t matter how well-merited it is; you can still be put off by it. Because “overexposed” looks into the subject not necessarily as it’s perceived, but as it’s documented. And as human beings, we can’t constantly have the same thing shoved down our throats all the time.
You can like The Avengers without thinking Joss Whedon needs to take on Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. You can think what Nolan did with Batman was the best thing to ever happen with that franchise. But no one will blame you if all you’re hearing is “Nolan this” and “Whedon that” 24/7. It’s a case of overexposure. It may have next to nothing to do with their abilities as filmmakers. You just need something new and fresh.
Shakespeare is not overrated, though he may be overexposed. Michael Jordan is not overrated, though his basketball legend is overexposed. Daniel Day-Lewis is not overrated, though he may get overexposed.
Can movies and filmmakers still be overrated? Yes. They can. But the word is more-often used in a subjective sense than one that looks at the big picture. It’s important that we look into the full merits and credentials of the subject we volley as “overrated.” Because if their influence is, indeed, overrated, unhelpful, and completely perverse, then we have lots of schools of thought to reestablish.
This article was first posted on November 17, 2012