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Common Errors in Essay Writing, as Demonstrated by Film Critics, Part 1

July 3, 2013

Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post settled on a theme for her extremely negative review of the new “The Lone Ranger” flick. Indeed, one might argue that developing a unifying thread is an important part of short-form writing. It holds everything together and provides the reader with a single, if stylized, takeaway. He basic theme? That The Lone Ranger tries to combine too many different themes, tones, and film elements. It suffers from such a severe case of summer blockbuster-itis that it pushes through mashup, beyond potpourri, and into full-blown incoherence. As she writes:

What’s more, despite its impressively staged set pieces, “The Lone Ranger” can’t survive the epic train wreck resulting from its own tonal clashes, wherein mournful scenes of genocide and stolen immigrant labor are tastelessly juxtaposed with silly slapstick humor, and solemn historic revisionism abuts awkwardly with overblown computer-generated spectacle.

Now, you might ask, “what’s so dumb about that?” Why, nothing at all. Except….

Rather than simply panning The Lone Ranger, Hornaday feels compelled to contextualize her criticisms in a broader point about summer blockbusters. This is dangerous ground. When my students do this, I call it “unnecessarily raising the stakes.” Failed bids to do this often amount to fluffy meaninglessness, along the lines of starting an essay on the causes of the Libyan intervention with the line: “ever since the dawn of humanity, people have tried to understand the causes of war.” But sometimes the results are far, far worse.

It’s an article of faith in a movie industry obsessed with chasing multiple demographic groups that no summer blockbuster can be only one thing. “White House Down” can’t be just an action ad­ven­ture; it has to be a buddy comedy. “Man of Steel” isn’t only a science-fiction comic book movie; it’s a violence-heavy, special-effects spectacle. “Iron Man 3” isn’t just a special-effects spectacle; it has to have a little romance.

Yes, of course. How strange and confusing to combine an “action adventure” with a “buddy comedy.” How befuddling to make a “science-fiction comic book movie” that is also a “special-effects spectacle,” let alone includes a lot of violence. And throwing in a bit of romance in a superhero story a “special-effects spectacle” is simply beyond the capabilities of even the most virtuoso directors.

Let this be a lesson for students. Sometimes if you try to “raise the stakes,” you just make yourself look like an idiot.

 

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.