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  • Writer's pictureTuur Verheyde

#Barbenheimer Discourse

Updated: Jul 27

My thoughts on #Barbenheimer:

Both films are great and flawed in their own way.

Oppenheimer is Nolan as we know him. His weaker points (his writing of women, his plot convolution, his attitude to institutional power etc.) are all present. Nevertheless, I think it's one of his better films. Barbie is a roller-coaster and more bold in its messaging than I would have expected. However, it is still a commercial film, so nothing too radical or complex is discussed. Still, I think it's a great artistic achievement that will prove to be a seminal synthesis of commercial and arthouse cinema.

More than the films themselves, I have been incredibly taken aback by some of the discourse surrounding them. Here's my take on that:

You know, lately I find little joy in reading media discourse. I love media analysis, I studied it, I taught it, but lately I just don’t enjoy reading people’s thoughts like I once did. It’s not just that media literacy and reading comprehension are in decline, that’s been going on for a while. It’s that so much of media discourse feels like a phantom war, a proxy for something else. It’s not even about the media anymore.

People find one flaw and judge it an irredeemable one so they can dismiss something they were always going to dismiss because of the theme, the subject matter, the person behind it etc. People dismiss a piece of art that is about x for not being about y (people wanting every story to indirectly be about them etc.) People dismiss pieces of art for not condemning their own characters for not being morally virtuous, not condemning their own themes for being limited, not condemning their own creation for being insufficiently radical or revolutionary.

It’s like so many people will just say stuff completely disconnected from the reality of creation under capitalism, completely indifferent to authorial & historical & geographical context, genre, subtext, logistics etc. It’s not enough to say that a work has flaws and explain why and what that reveals. The flaws must be irredeemable blemishes that besmirch the moral character of the creators and audience. It is not treated as expression. It is treated as a calculated move in the battle of ideas and must be lambasted or praised not on the basis of artistic merit or analytical potential, but on its position within the discourse.

Media & art themselves are seen as allies or enemies to social and political causes and their evaluation is a strategic manoeuvre to gain clout for or against certain causes or ideas. I just think it’s a shame. All art is political. All analysis is political. But the way interpretation is taking a back seat to propagation is troubling. It decentralises the art and forefronts the viewer, deprioritises questions of meaning over questions political usefulness and salience. Ultimately, it diminishes actual analytical and argumentative skills and massively proliferates bad faith arguments, confirmation bias, rhetorical tricks and propaganda tools.

I think this kind of approach will not work out well, will only lead to more alienation and polarisation, and will ultimately exacerbate the devaluation of any art and any analysis that it is deemed irrelevant to mainstream identity groupings or insignificant to mainstream social and political causes. This will not end well. If we cannot value art that is not of use to us or about us then we cannot appreciate most of artistic history. If we do not value stories that might not ostensibly relate to our own, how can we ever learn to see past difference and choose empathy over antipathy?

This will not end well.

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