Starbucks, Rogue One, and That Unmistakeable Feeling That You Might Be Too Pretentious

January 5, 2017

Starbucks gives me an odd feeling every time I enter it. Before I always assumed this was because of the corporate-ness of the entire franchise–the marketing-by-bureaucracy feel endemic to large chain stores. But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t get the same feeling by McDonald’s, Target, or Taco Bell, even though they all have their own branded aesthetics.

Furthermore, I don’t have any particular value case against corporate branding. While I don’t love it, I also see how it’s necessary. Even ignoring the pragmatics that it probably works well (or so many successful companies wouldn’t do it), I understand how hard it must be to keep any kind of quality assurance in a multinational chain of businesses.

Maybe it’s the specifics. But the specific details of Starbucks are all fine too. The lighting is soft and warm, the pleasant smell of coffee emanates throughout, the drinks satisfy that milk/sugar/coffee flavor urge I occasionally have, and some kind of soft acoustic music is always playing in the background.

Okay, the specifics aren’t perfect. The drinks are mostly dessert disguised as beverage, they probably sell them at a massive profit margin, and the fact that the music playing in the background is for sale near the counter is certainly hokey. But this doesn’t bother me that much. The music thing I ignore, and I actually like the drinks, even as I recognize that they’re certainly not fine dining.

What causes the odd feeling I get every time I enter Starbucks? First let’s back up a bit.

This post is an attempt to think through a debate that has been going on in my head for a very long time. I like to enjoy things at a high level. That is, when I delve into something new, be it movies, tea, board games, etc, I like to find out what people consider to be the best of that thing, experience it, and figure out why it’s considered the best. I like the entire process of it. Typically I also tend to begin enjoying the “best” things, too, even if I didn’t at first.

Of course the problem is when I begin to appreciate the best things in their class, I stop appreciating the entry level/lower/worse things as much. This always seems like an acceptable trade-off, because the quality of my enjoyment of this category of things has increased. At least that’s what I tell myself. In some cases it’s merely a matter of scale. While I’d love to drink fancy Belgian beers every day, I buy Yuengling and enjoy it quite a bit, just not as much as the theoretical Belgian. In other cases it seems to be a more sharp divide. I very much enjoy Chinese whole-leaf tea. I cannot stand the bagged stuff, no matter how much I try to enjoy it.

But why is my enjoyment of aged Pu-erh better than the enjoyment the person who drinks Lipton every day gets from their brew? There are a couple of effects at play here that I think contribute:

1. Because I spent time, research, and relatively more money acquiring my aged Pu-erh, I have a psychological debt to it that tricks me into liking it more than I would otherwise. This is, as far as I understand, undoubtedly something that happens psychologically. It’s been studied with wine tasting1 when people rate wine more highly when it’s given a more expensive (false) price tag. More anecdotally I see it with board games that were produced through Kickstarter. The ratings for those games tend to start off extremely high when backers get their first-wave copies, and then taper down as people who didn’t pre-order play it.2 In this case, the cause of my enjoyment is somewhat of a placebo. But if a placebo works, shouldn’t it be treated the same as other “types” of enjoyment? Honestly, I have no idea. It certainly doesn’t feel like an equally good kind of enjoyment, but I also don’t know how much of my enjoyment of this tea is caused by this. Maybe being aware of it negates it.

2. Related to point one, maybe some of my enjoyment is due to me feeling better than people who haven’t discovered it, or don’t like it. Again, like point one I am aware of this and try to negate it. I would love if everyone drank great tea, because it would be easier to find. Or would I like that? I hope so. It’s hard to self-analyze the extent of psychological effects like this. Regardless, this kind of enjoyment seems bad because it’s at the expense of other people.

3. There could be something objectively better about the tea leaves themselves. For example, someone could enjoy owning a conflict-free diamond because of the fact that it’s conflict-free. With tea, I tell myself I prefer whole leaf because it maintains the delicate nature of the tea, which prevents bitterness. (Ever get that bitter, fuzzy feeling in your mouth when drinking green tea? That’s because it’s either chopped up, brewed too long, or at too high of a temperature–or all three.) But maybe I get some kind of naturalistic enjoyment over the fact that it’s whole leaf, like it’s more pure or dignified or something. Doesn’t sound like me, but it’s possible.

4. Finally, there could be something about the flavor that is demonstrably better than Lipton tea. This is what I have always told myself. The tea I drink is less bitter, more complex, and has a more interesting variety of flavors. The problem is while it’s easy to say words like “complex” and “interesting”, it’s hard to justify them as either existing or being a positive attribute. Now I find complex and less bitter tea to be better, but is that because complicated beverages are somehow more enjoyable on a general physiological level, or is it because I, specifically, find them more enjoyable. And if it’s me, specifically, is it because I’ve been somehow pre-wired that way, or is it because of the influence of reasons 1 and 2, above, which I have already determined to be not actually good reasons?

I think I have more to say here, but I can’t articulate it without tying myself into knots. Maybe I’ll elaborate more in the future if I can get my thoughts together.

Anyways, my solution to this dilemma has been to push it to the back of my mind and resolve to try to get as much enjoyment out of these recreational things as possible. This means understanding the cognitive barriers that might be at play, and trying to mitigate them. I never want to be the snob who looks down on people who enjoy “lesser” things. I want to be the evangelist who tries to generate excitement for the things I like, and communicate why I like them so much, so as to share the enjoyment with others. I also what to be open to that kind of evangelism from others.

But when it comes to movies, I find myself becoming more and more picky about them. I absolutely adore a great movie experience. I long for those films that surprise me, out-think me, and delight me with their cleverness and beauty. The problem is that I find it harder and harder to have those experiences. So many movies, even when I do enjoy them and have a good time viewing them, seem so hollow. I suppose the Marvel franchise has heightened this feeling, since it so consistently pushes out perfectly fine movies. But I find myself wanting to see them less and less. Even the ones I enjoy more than average (Avengers 1, Captain America: Civil War), I enjoy them almost despite of themselves. I can feel the tension between the formula/design by committee, and whatever interesting idea the director is desperately trying to squeeze in the cracks. But I find myself getting jealous of the people who see these movies and have a great time–who come out of the theater smiling and consider these films the highlights of their cinematic experiences. I find myself wanting to get that out of more movies.

The trade-off, as I said before, is that my experience of great movies should be so great as to exceed the joy I’d get in ignorance. I don’t know. I just find myself doubting the veracity of that trade-off more and more.

Anyways, Rogue One is the Starbucks of movies.

The main criticism levied against The Force Awakens was that it was far to derivative of its own source material. This criticism is well-taken, although I can see the reasoning behind treating that film as a sort of reboot of the franchise. The fact that they apparently needed to compare appendages by creating an even bigger and more death-y death star is ridiculous and has been rightly mocked. I found it an easy flaw to ignore, particularly given how great the characters were. After the movie I wanted to jump right into the next adventures of Rey, Finn, and Kylo.

The Force Awakens also had some great small touches that went beyond the fan service and callbacks that comprised most of the run time. The shot of the landspeeder crossing in front of the star destroyer wreckage, the scrap-for-food economy of Jakku, Finn flirting with a no-nonsense Rey, the Apocalypse Now visual quote, the fantastic quick zoom on the Falcon as it flees enemies–all of these moments stay with me still. My single favorite bit is Kylo Ren frenetically beating his abdominal wound as if to squeeze out more pain he can channel into his dark force powers.3

If I remember any part of Rogue One with the same fondness, it’s going to be Donnie Yen’s monk-like character. The idea that civilians (for actual Jedi have been purged) have tried to protect the temple with a devotion to the force they only obliquely understand is a great addition to the lore. On top of that, Donnie Yen is a legitimate martial arts master4 and I’m glad his main fight scene was mostly untarnished by sloppy quick-cut editing.

Speaking of which, have there ever been so many handheld camera shots and close-ups in a Star Wars movie? I might have to go back to see if Lucas compromised in the prequels, but I don’t think he did. I bet Rogue One has more handheld shots than the entire other 7 Star Wars films combined. Star Wars was inspired by a very classical style of filmmaking. I know these side-films are supposed to be unique, and I love the idea in theory5, but going with the bad visual style du jour reeks of laziness. The visual style was incredibly uninteresting.

So were most of the characters. They seemed much more interesting in the trailers. The only characters that were remotely interesting to me were Donnie Yen’s, which I’ve already mentioned and Forest Whitaker’s kooky rebellion rebel. The wisecracking droid gave a couple chuckles but isn’t nearly as memorable as CP3O. The two leads were rote and boring. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor but isn’t given very much to do in the film.

The plot hits all of the same notes we come to expect in an action adventure film. You can see exactly where it’s going to go every single step of the way. It culminates in a promising action sequence that takes up the latter third of the movie that is better in theory than it is in execution. Everything felt very expected and rushed. As soon as something interesting happened–quick! Move along to the next thing. Most infuriating to me was a beautiful shot of star destroyers colliding, echoing a similar moment from the original trilogy, that is about 1 second long, when it should have lingered for much longer. Finally something wonderfully framed, highlighted with a fantastic musical shift, and quick! On to the next thing.

Sometimes what might be called “efficient” editing makes a movie significantly longer and more dull than it would have been if there were another 10 minutes in there to let the audience breathe and appreciate a composition. Rogue One is one of those cases. Instead of telling a story, it was telling a collection of plot points.

Maybe I’ve been too harsh. I did enjoy the movie. It was fine. I smiled multiple times while watching it. I’d probably give it a 6/10. But I don’t see myself thinking back to it at all. I don’t see myself viewing it again.

Strangely, though, it gave me that odd Starbucks feeling. And I think I know what that feeling is now. It’s not the corporate, designed by committee feel. Or at least not just that. It’s the feeling that the product was intentionally made very specifically for the kind of person I am. In both cases, I am the target demographic–20-something, somewhat educated, middle-class. It’s a feeling of expectation, of over-expectation, of a product its designers are displaying with a large “LIKE THIS” sign on them, specifically for the kind of person I am. And of me not getting it. I don’t get the enthusiasm at all. Starbucks and Rogue One are fine.

I suppose the feeling’s a kind of loneliness.

1. Even though I recognize that there’s valid information to get from these types of tests, the way they are presented via social media/news sites as “expensive wine is no better than cheap wine” is complete bullshit. Don’t even get me started. Actually, I’m going to note that down as a potential topic for another post.

2. Reasonably, games are going to get higher ratings from people who were inclined to preorder them, because their interest in the theme/previews was high enough to warrant backing it in the first place. But I’d be willing to bet that this effect is more pronounced for Kickstarted games.

3. I don’t actually know if this is the reason he’s doing it, according to the script. But I refuse to research it because I want to believe my interpretation is true.

4. Check out Ip Man!

5. Speaking of unique Star Wars movies, all I want in life is a film noir in Coruscant.

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