Conventional Contrarianism: A Practical Guide

Brevity is the soul of wit, that motherfucker Shakespeare once wrote, and even though he’s wrong, I’ll keep this short.

RogerEbert.com editor Jim Emerson has created the Contrarianism Blog-a-thon. (He chooses to capitalize the last “T” for some reason; I shall not.)

Emerson’s get-together is fun enough, but it doesn’t provide much practical guidance. Being contrary these days is hard work. In this Web-democratized age when every possible opinion already has its champion, how the hell can one be a contrarian? On the other hand, how can one not be a contrarian? After all, whatever you think, you’re fighting against all those who have a different perspective.

I will enlighten you on how to be a conventional contrarian. This handy primer is meant to be a starting point, but it oversimplifies. The reality is that contrarianism isn’t so much a matter of what one is being contrary to, but how one is being contrary to it.

One must craft one’s argument in a credible way, so that it cannot be mistaken for irony or satire. It must be immaculately reasoned and persuasively argued. It must be loaded with six-dollar words and insanely arcane references so that it cannot effectively be refuted without a dictionary and a Ph.D. in comparative literature. And when in doubt, be belligerent and condescending. Shrill bests rational six days out of seven.

Feel free to disagree. I would expect nothing less.

The hierarchy of contrarian opposition:

  1. Canonical works. (E.g., Citizen Kane, The Godfather.)
  2. Recently deceased canonical directors. (E.g., Robert Altman.)
  3. Works that have achieved enough market penetration to be recognized by the culturally literate and have received nearly unanimous praise among serious critics. (E.g., Pan’s Labyrinth.)
  4. Living canonical directors. (E.g., Martin Scorsese.)
  5. The measurably popular that has also achieved nearly universal critical adulation. (E.g., Pixar movies.)
  6. Skillfully made, popular work whose political subtext must be exposed and pilloried. (E.g., Forrest Gump.)
  7. Cult classics — that which was never commercially or critically popular but serves as a marker of contrarian credibility. (E.g., most of the work of Brian De Palma and David Lynch.)
  8. The wildly popular. (E.g., Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.)
  9. Contrarianism itself.
  10. Universally panned crap that few people saw that must nonetheless be exposed for its insidious effect on the culture, an impact that is magnified because the work in question has been thoughtlessly dismissed as harmless. (E.g., Bio-Dome, Gigli, Battlefield Earth.)

The hierarchy of contrarian support:

  1. Uwe Boll.
  2. Punchlines — works that serve as shorthand for “shit” among the culturally literate. (E.g., Bio-Dome, Gigli, Battlefield Earth.)
  3. The popular that is not taken seriously as “art” or as culturally important. (E.g., Pixar movies, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.)
  4. The “lesser” works of revered directors. (E.g., Scorsese’s Cape Fear, Spielberg’s Hook.)
  5. That which was well-reviewed but has become so popular that a critical backlash has “corrected” the consensus. (E.g., Forrest Gump.)
  6. Ben Affleck.
  7. Cult classics — that which was never commercially or critically popular but serves as a marker of contrarian credibility. (E.g., most of the work of Brian De Palma and David Lynch.)
  8. A less-popular piece that serves as substitute for a work that has achieved greater critical kudos and deeper cultural penetration. (E.g., an argument for the superiority of Infamous over Capote.)
  9. Canonical works that must be dissected in new ways to be properly appreciated. (E.g., The Godfather as an extended metaphor for the death of agrarian society, Citizen Kane through the lens of gardening.)
  10. Under-appreciated aspects of respected works. (E.g., an argument that the culturally pervasive jokes in This Is Spinal Tap [e.g., any reference to the number 11 or the death of a drummer] are inferior to its obscure jokes.)

A few other pointers:

  • The ripest, lowest-hanging fruit for the contrarian is that which passes from consensus to conventional wisdom to cliché. For example, at the point that even people who didn’t see Batman Begins were faulting the performance of Katie Holmes, some contrarian should have written an impassioned, rigorous defense of the woman’s work.
  • Never be predictable. One key to being contrarian is consistently defying your audience’s expectations.
  • A good contrarian will anticipate the buzz-and-backlash cycle of popular culture and must carefully position an opinion for maximum contrarian durability. Yesterday’s contrarian can quickly become today’s peddler of safe opinions.

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