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The Loathing of Ron Burgundy: Anchorman and Consensus

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On Wednesday evening, Will Ferrell - in character as fictional news anchor Ron Burgundy - announced that Paramount has officially greenlit a sequel to his much-loved 2004 comedy Anchorman. Ferrell broke the news during a brief appearance on US talk show Conan, leaving the stage to rapturous applause from the studio audience. To refer to the internet's collective response as 'enthusiastic' would be an understatement.

Take a cursory glance at film and entertainment blogs, or search Twitter for the hashtag #Anchorman2, and it soon becomes clear that there are very few people objecting to this sequel. My own reaction, however, involved several expletives and a contorted face.

I loathe Anchorman, and dislike the majority of Ferrell's work. Christmas for me has become an annual struggle to avoid watching Elf. These opinions have often been met with incredulity, and are frequently followed by a relentless barrage of 'hilarious' quotations from the film in question. Unsurprisingly, this only exacerbates how I feel.

The purpose of this article, however, is not to tear Anchorman to shreds, assert my own views as gospel, or speak ill of those who do like Will Ferrell. Rather, this seems an appropriate opportunity to reflect on the ways in which our responses to cinema - or indeed any cultural object - are increasingly forced to operate in relation to consensus.

Would any die-hard Michael Bay fan really feel free to vocalise their love of his work, knowing how much the director/producer is despised by cinephiles? Why do we not hear from more people who think that Van Gogh or Eisenstein or Mozart is rubbish? I seriously doubt that this is because those people do not exist. Taste is often talked about as being subjective; of course everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But if that really is the case, why is it so difficult to admit when our views go against (what seems to be) everybody else's?

Toy Story 3 is arguably one of the most striking recent examples. The animated sequel was almost unanimously lauded by critics, nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and delighted global audiences to the tune of more than a billion box office dollars. There were, however, three critics who disagreed, and all were berated by bloggers and online commenters for doing so. As one writer put it, "Most of the time film is subjective. This time it's not."

Users of the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes were particularly angry, demonstrating their colourful use of the English language and accusing the men of being deliberately contrary. The message was clear: If you disagree with popular consensus, you are either an attention-seeker or an idiot.

In the interest of transparency, I should add a caveat to my stance on Anchorman. It was three years after the film was released that I finally saw it, and everything I had heard before then had convinced me I would hate it. Its alleged brilliance had been impressed upon me by too many people, and I had heard the most popular lines countless times already. My response was also unquestionably shaped by my viewing context: I watched it half way through a 24-hour coach journey, surrounded by people that I didn't like. I mention this not to explain away my 'misinterpretation' of the film, but to highlight the relationship between taste and context.

Our cultural preferences - for art, fashion, music, hobbies - are closely related to how we see ourselves in relation to other people. But which people? Lamenting the existence of Justin Bieber seems to be a favourite pastime among users of most of the websites I visit, but clearly there are copious online and offline spaces where he is unequivocally adored.

Central to this question of subjectivity versus consensus, then, is visibility. The reason why I feel so strongly about Will Ferrell is because I'm constantly faced with people telling me how funny he is. It is not the opinion itself that bothers me, but the fact that I feel unable to escape from it.

Accessing or producing online content is becoming cheaper and easier, and the internet's increasing ubiquity is in some respects making it harder to ignore the views of others. Just how representative (or even genuine) those views are, however, is another matter. In the opening paragraph of this article, I used the phrase 'the internet's collective response' to make my point. I return to it now to make a different point: my use of it was incredibly misleading.

The internet is by definition a system of interconnected networks, which perhaps explains the tendency to think of it as a singular entity. In reality though, it is like any other audience - extremely diverse and difficult to understand as a whole. Condensing audience data and presenting it as consensus removes this complexity, which in turn skews results. As Nick Davies puts it, 'omission is the most powerful source of distortion.'

In one of Anchorman's most-quoted moments, Ron Burgundy proudly proclaims that he's 'kind of a big deal'. He appears to be telling the truth, but as we have seen, consensus is at least partly an imaginary construct. Maybe there is hope for me after all.

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