I love the phrase “There are two kinds of people in the world. . .”, so I will use it thusly. There are two kinds of people in the world; Those that latch on to what is popular, and those that avoid popular culture like the plague. Those that feel vindicated when a movie they like makes a ton of money, and those who enjoy being the only person who knows about a film. Some people are Eloi, and some people are Morlocks.
Ok, despite my love of the phrase, “two kinds of people” might be cutting it a bit too sharply. Lets say that we all get a little excited to see a director that we champion succeed, and we all are a little disappointed when the secret movie that we love is being quoted from by every other person we meet. Irrational though it may be, we end up having a personal attachment to works of art that were not made about us, by us, or for us (At least, not directly).
But is there a rational side to the thought process that things don’t tend to be as good when the whole world loves it, as opposed to a handful of devoted fans? I would say that there certainly are a couple of valid points to consider.
For one, we have to consider the ramifications of popularity. Take, for instance, Star Wars. It’s a very well made film, and full of lots of energy and interesting ideas. Had the movie been a little too strange for people at the time, and flopped, where would we be now? On the downside, no Empire Strikes Back. On the up side, no Prequels or Special Editions. Maybe George Lucas would have drifted back into being an art film director, or maybe he would’ve just been a solid “go to” director for high concept projects.
So, does the fact that everyone loves Star Wars make the movie worse? No. It doesn’t effect the quality at all. However, the popularity of the film started a chain reaction, leading to George Lucas turning out soulless project after soulless project, when he could have perhaps been making some more important contributions to cinema history (Although, one does have to acknowledge his contribution to special fx).
This was the result of Lucas having no naysayers around him, having found too much success too young. I don’t think he intentionally set out to make a terrible product, but his hubris led to the creation of three of the worst movies ever made. But there are some circumstances where success can lead to a very intentional dumbing down of the original product.
Take, for example, the case of the Rocky series. The first film isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but it, like it’s title character, has a lot of heart. There’s a realism to the relationships, to the world, and to the final fight. The film became massively successful, and audiences wanted more, despite the story ending fairly resolutely. Five sequels later, we can see how “giving ‘em what they want” took the juiceless orange, and tried to sell people the rind.
A film’s popularity doesn’t affect my opinion of it, but it does effect how I talk about it. Let’s talk Avatar. I liked it, but didn’t love it. I’d say it’s a 7 on a 10 scale, for me. But due to it’s massive popularity, I feel obligated to play the devil’s advocate with this film. People talk about how 3D is the future of cinema, I talk about how it’s gimmicky and distracting. They talk about the environmental message, I talk about how hokey the story is. If people had hated the film, I would probably spend a little time defending the special fx, or mentioning that Stephen Lang was really great in it. I’m not arguing just to argue, but really to present a separate point of view to someone with a very rigid opinion.
Having addressed the rational side of hating the mainstream, I leave you with the irrational, which resides in every film nerd’s heart. It is cool to be the only one to know about a film, or a director. Film fandom is like treasure hunting; We wade through hours upon hours of crap in an effort to find those rare gems. And, upon discovering them, we’re not so inclined to share. Where were the frat guys on the opening weekend for The Big Lebowski? Waiting a couple of years for their pot dealers to turn them on to it.