The Difficulty of Difficult Media

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(Thanks to Serdar, who inspired me with this column.)

I often hear the word “Difficult” used to describe media with praise. The “difficult” film that supposedly makes you a film buff if you understand it. “Difficult” is apparently a good thing, and I see no reason to believe this.

If a book or movie is “difficult” to understand, is that a testimony to its depth? There’s no reason to assume that it’s any good – maybe it’s incoherent or bad. Perhaps the creator didn’t know how to communicate. A difficult movie isn’t necessarily a mental obstacle course that strengthens you, but just a pointless labyrinth.

Yes, some media is “difficult,” and yes, it takes intellectual fortitude to understand it. I evaluate such media on a case-by-case basis because “difficult” even when properly used doesn’t communicate depth. A clever mystery isn’t the same as a symbolism-packed journey.

I think people love to praise “difficult” media because it says I am smart enough to understand this and you’re not. Claiming something is “difficult” for too many is a way to praise themselves. It’s a way to use a single word to claim one’s intellectual superiority that you “got” it.

I’m always wary of simplistic descriptions such as “difficult.” They quickly become shorthand whose meaning is lost or ignore important distinctions. One word can get in the way of the real experience of a piece of media or a person.

Steven Savage