On Nitpicking

I watch a lot of movies and thus it follows that I also consume a fair amount of film criticism, mostly through the internets (reviews, forums, podcasts, etc…) One thing I’ve noticed recently in a few high-profile movies is that many reviews resort to long lists of nitpicking. I’m certainly not immune to this tendency – I tried to minimize my nitpicks in my Prometheus review, but if I were so inclined, I could probably generate a few thousand words picking the nits out of that movie. I really disliked that movie, but were the nitpicks the cause? Another movie I could probably nitpick to death is The Dark Knight Rises… and yet, I really enjoyed that movie. We could quibble about the quantity and magnitude of the nitpicks in both films, but a recent discussion with a friend on both movies made me start wondering about nitpicks again. It’s something I’ve seen before, though I don’t think I’ve ever really written about it in detail.

The origin of the term comes from the process of removing the eggs of lice (aka nits) from the host’s hair. Because the nits attach themselves to individual strands of hair, the process of removing them is tedious and slow. You could shave all the hair off and later, chemical methods of treating lice infestations became available. But the term nitpicking has lived on as a way describing the practice of meticulously examining a subject in search of subtle errors in detail. In the context of this post, we’re talking about movies, but this gets applied to lots of other things.

When it comes to movies and TV series, nitpicks can go either way. Some will claim that the existence of nitpicks are evidence that the show or movie is sloppy and poorly made. Others will claim that the nitpickers are missing the forest for the trees. Nitpickers just don’t “get it” and are taking the fun out of everything. In fairness, there’s probably an element of truth to both sides of that argument, but I think they’re both missing the point of nitpicks, which is this: Nitpicks are almost always emblematic of a deeper problem with the story or characters. Oh sure, there are some people who can’t turn their brains off and nitpick because they’re just analytical by nature (one definition of engineer’s disease), but even in those cases, I think there’s something to be said for a deeper dislike than the nitpicks would seem to indicate.

Nitpicks are the symptoms, not the disease. I didn’t dislike Prometheus because, for example, their spaceship was in a constant state of thrust at the beginning of the movie or because there was no explanation for how the ship maintained gravity in space. But both of those things were immediately obvious to me, which tells me that I wasn’t really immersed in the story that was being told. As the movie unfolds, a number of breathtakingly stupid plot developments were continually taking me out of the story. Perhaps if the movie wasn’t so stupid, I may have overlooked those initial observations, but as the nitpicks mounted, it became harder and harder to overlook them. I don’t go into a movie hoping that it will suck. There’s a certain amount of goodwill that a movie has to wear away at in order to ruin immersion, and for whatever reason the quantity and magnitude of nitpicks with Prometheus wore out that goodwill pretty quickly. The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, didn’t bother me nearly as much. In fact, as I mentioned in my review, most of the nitpicks I have with that movie came to light after the fact. It’s what Hitchcock calls a “refrigerator” movie: something that makes sense while you’re watching it, but falls apart under critical examination (while standing in front of the refrigerator later in the night). That being said, for lots of people, that wasn’t enough. And that’s perfectly understandable.

In general, it seems that people are perhaps less objective than they’d like to think. One of the great things about art is that the pieces that move us usually aren’t doing so solely on an intellectual level… and when it comes to emotion, words sometimes fail us. Take, for example, a comedy. The great thing about laughter is that you don’t have to think about it, it just happens. Different people have different tastes, of course, and that’s where subjectivity comes in. But for whatever reason, we don’t like to admit that, so we try to rationalize our feelings about a given movie. And if we don’t like that movie, such rationalizations may manifest in the form of nitpicks. None of this is absolute, of course. Most art works on both intellectual and emotional levels, and as you gain experience with a given medium or genre (or whatever), you will start to pick out patterns and tropes. One of the interesting things about this is that what gets labeled a “nitpick” can vary widely in scope. Nitpicks can range from trivial mistakes to serious continuity errors, but they all get lumped under the same category. As such, I think it can be difficult to discern what’s a nitpick and what’s the root cause of said nitpick.

A few years ago, I was discussing John Scalzi’s book Old Man’s War in an online forum. I (and a number of other forum members) enjoyed the book greatly, but one person didn’t. When asked why, she responded that it was disappointing that, during one scene earlier in the book, a doctor spent time explaining how some machines worked to his patient. This is a nitpick if I’ve ever seen one. What she said was true – it was somewhat unrealistic that these two characters would stop what they’re doing to have a discussion about how certain technologies operated. But I was wrapped up in the story by that point, so I barely even noticed it. Even after it was pointed out, it didn’t ruin the book for me. She was not invested in the story though, so that scene was jarring to her. After further discussion, it turns out that this was a specific manifestation of a larger issue she had with the book, which was that it lazily introduced concepts through awkward exposition or dialogue, and never followed through on any of it. I don’t particularly agree with her on that, but I can see where she’s coming from.

I think the lesson here is that when people are nitpicking a movie to death, it’s not necessarily the specific nitpicks that are so bothersome. Perhaps, in some cases, it’s the combined weight of all the nitpicks that causes an issue, but I suspect that even in those cases, the nitpicks are merely the most obvious examples of a deeper problem. I think both critics and defenders would do well to recognize this sort of thing. It’s fun to list out nitpicks or examples of something you don’t like about a work of art, but that’s not really what criticism is about. I don’t mean to say that you can’t or shouldn’t do this sort of thing, just that it would be useful at some point to look back at that list and wonder what it was about the book or movie or whatever that inspired you to meticulously chronicle minor errors or whatever. This is probably easier said than done. I can’t say as though I succeed at this all the time, but then, I’m just some dude wanking on the internets. Ultimately, all of this is somewhat superfluous, but it’s something worth considering the next time you find yourself cataloging trivial errors in detail.