Danny Bowes

Film & TV critic and journalist, novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter.

HOW WE (ARE TOLD TO) MOURN

Critics often run the risk of coming across as cold, emotionless killjoys, for nothing more felonious than looking at what a thing actually is and passing judgment. Never is this more acute than when we critique something designed to have a purely emotional impact on its intended audience. One such is a one-panel cartoon that's been circulating around the Internet—that I'm not going to link here in the interests of not encouraging misbehavior—of Roger Rabbit crying, meant to prey on, evoke, and exacerbate the feelings fans of the actor Bob Hoskins on the occasion of his death.

 

People mourn in their own ways, and there's no right or wrong way to do it. As long, that is, as one is actually mourning. The Roger Rabbit panel, which appears to be fairly skillful fan art, is the latest in what's becoming something of a trend in Internet mourning. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died, someone made a thing referencing the famous Big Lebowski line about tying the room together, with Hoffman taking the place of the rug. Harold Ramis' passing was marked by a well-drawn yet abjectly hideous panel of Peter Venkman and Ray Stantz standing by a ghost trap above which a spectral Egon Spengler floated. And now Roger Rabbit shedding a tear for Eddie Valiant.

 

The offensive aspect of these “tributes” is their insincerity, and their perfect confluence with two particularly troubling Internet trends: the first being the ongoing project, most popularly advanced by the website Upworthy, to perfect an algorithm to shortcut the part of the brain that develops interest in things autonomously and compel attention without the use of a substantial object, and the second being the looming end of net neutrality and the resultant forced commercialization of the Internet. The cheap, empty-calorie emotions which are Upworthy's stock in trade are extremely effective at circumventing the part of the brain which thinks, as tears both literally and figuratively obscure sight. The Hoskins, Ramis, and Hoffman tributes may not directly be the work of Upworthy—in fact, their very nature as something created rather than appropriated suggests they're not—but their creation and distribution are being done by people hoping to attain even a degree of the success Upworthy has had in getting clicks. It's a rank exploitation of the legitimate emotional reactions fans have to beloved pop culture figures, all in the service of a ravenously desired virality.

 

The irony of it is, the reason this appropriation and commodification of emotion appalls me isn't because I'm some kind of unfeeling robot, but because I genuinely loved the work these people did, and intensely. I'm an extremely emotional person, at times dramatically so. If something is genuinely touching, it's going to touch me. I openly and proudly cry at the movies. I'm not Tweedy McHeartlessdick over here. But I hate being exploited. Oh, do I hate being exploited. This is why when I get the sense that a thing's sole reason for existing is to make me cry, I get angry, because the artist isn't playing by the rules. And it's not like the rules are complicated. They are, in their totality, as follows: 1) is this thing making me cry because its origins are in something real, and experienced, in the world? If yes, 2) well done, I'm crying. If no, 3) you're a cynical piece of shit.

 

The crying Roger Rabbit thing (assuming it wasn't taken by some aggregator without the artist's intent) blatantly fails the first (and only) rule. Its process is: “Hey! Bob Hoskins died. Here's an image from his most popular movie. It's his co-star. CRYING. Heh, this is so going viral. Now cry.” No, I don't think I will, thanks. I don't want to reward something so cynically and basely conceived, violating the good faith most people grant the apparently emotionally derived, which is to say assuming similar good faith in the creator. It would be a lot easier to believe that this was a spontaneous creation of a decent illustrator who was genuinely mourning the departed if this didn't happen every single fucking time an actor from a popular movie dies.

 

I don't require everyone to get as mad about things as I do, because blood pressure shouldn't have as many digits as a phone number, but what I will ask is that we all consider motive, and remember that anything someone puts in front of you on the Internet is selling something. Even this piece is selling, for free-ninety-nine, an all-caps “THINK ABOUT AND QUESTION THINGS.” Think about what surrendering the entire Internet to people with (albeit limited) mind-control powers, and the rich people who employ them, gets us, as a human race. We don't need to come to the same conclusions. We don't even need to ask the same questions. Just ask some.

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