Can you smell the cannonades? A long-fomenting revolution is underway! Movies are going to be fun again!
Was the Lexington moment when Dan Kois pushed away a steaming plateful of cultural broccoli—that is, the works of art, specifically movies, that are supposed to be good for you, but which no-one really likes—at the NY Times Magazine back in 2011? Certainly it set the think pieces a-marching, and since Stephanie Zacharek has struck back against the perceived dictatorship of opinion surrounding the critical reception of The Master with a manifesto in favor of gut-opinion and against shame-enforced re-viewing, while someone called Jason Bailey at The Atlantic’s website has waved the banner of “Film Culture Isn’t Dead; It’s Just More Fun.” Something like the Voltaire to this American Revolution, Pauline Kael—she of “If art isn’t entertainment, then what is it? Punishment?” fame—is cited explicitly in Bailey’s piece, and implicitly in every sentence that Zacharek has ever written. Watch the tweedy opposition starting to break rank!
A bit of background: As everyone knows, formal, academic, and experimental film have held American pop culture in a stranglehold for—well, for as long as I can remember. I can only relate my personal experience, in hopes that some greater truth can be gleaned through it.
I was born in 1980, a little under a year before the first MTV broadcast, in a medium-sized city in the Middle West of the United States. Growing up in a cable-free household, we only had three networks, public television, and terra incognita of the UHF band to choose from. This was the era of the Sunday matinee, and week after week after week the film programming was the same—in fact, most of my readers can probably recite the names along with me: Straub-Huillet, Bresson, Alexander Kluge, Marguerite Duras, Michael Snow, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg. If you got left of the dial you might dig up something trashy—early Bergman, say—but for a most part, the stranglehold was inescapable.
There was little enough relief to be found in taking a trip to the nearest multiplex. This was the 80’s: Raul Ruiz, Manoel de Oliviera, and Agnieszka Holland were lining them up around the block; Maurice Pialat was on The Tonight Show almost as often as Ed McMahon; Kings Island, the amusement park that I frequented as a lad, opened a six-inversion steel looping roller coaster based on Alain Resnais’ Mon Oncle d’Amerique. How could you hope to hear about the contemporary successes of Paramount Pictures (Flash Dance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cops) when Variety was still running front cover stories on the Zanzibar group?
Of course the works of John Hughes, the Footlooses—“MTV Generation” movies displaying the “pop” sensibility—they were out there, but if you didn’t have an art house or a university film society with an in-the-know programmer within reasonable distance of your home, good luck trying to see them. These are the films that would become the Samizdat texts of an entire generation, swapping bootlegs and quoting Back to the Future to one another, much as early Christians would trace half of a fish in the sand when meeting a possible confrere… And so we waited for the moment when the senescent cultural commissars would be caught dozing…
See what I did there?
The argument whereby a writer positions himself as a plucky standalone David against the Goliath of po-faced film culture is roughly as valid as Bill O’Reilly’s War on Christmas. It is fundamentally false, boorish, and unnecessary, and belies a profound lack in the person making it. “Any serious filmgoer must wrestle with a pervading sense of guilt and fear,” writes Bailey—I would say that guilt and fear are probably universals, though I gather he is talking about the perceived atmosphere of intellectual intimidation around the New York Film Festival. Apparently “serious filmgoer” is functioning here as a synonym for “person with a serious lack of confidence in their opinion.”
As we’ve been repeatedly reassured that film culture, in its self-serious, chastity-belt incarnation, is going the way of the dinosaur, a stagnant pond which has ceased entirely to feed into the great coursing river of pop monoculture, it is curious to note how anxious some are to deal it the coup de grace, as though the very continued existence of such a thing is unforgivable. Thus ever has it been since the days of La Kael, from whose body of work one might very well have taken away the idea that there were an army of academics and bluestockings—her beloved “a professor friend…” straw men—laying siege to the lobbies of America, ready to batter down the doors and pronounce an ukase on fun.
There is a signature moment in the “What do we want? Entertainment!” think-piece where the author pulls the reins and scatters a few sophisto names before their reader, as insurance that they not be taken for mere bumptious lowbrows. For cultural carnivore Dan Kois, it’s Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (A One and a Two); for Zacharek, it’s Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane; for Bailey, NYFF pans like Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet and Leviathan are counterbalanced with measured praise for selections like Antonio Mendez Esparza’s Here and There (“Quietly powerful”), Christian Petzold’s Barbara, and Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (“riveting yet low-key”). Though Bailey has read enough previous iterations of his manifesto to go them one better, adding an extra later of self-conscious reflexivity: “ I can tick off my favorite obscure art films in an attempt to deflect that argument (I even liked the Leviathan directors’ previous effort Sweetgrass—a leisurely documentary about sheepherding), but it’s bound to sound like someone insisting he has plenty of black friends when called on a racist joke.”
In that spirit, I will fess that, per James Chance, “I (basically) prefer the ridiculous to the sublime”—witness this week’s NYFF communique, in which I use Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur as a tawdry, spangled mallet with which to punish Michael Haneke’s Amour, which I have amused myself by rechristening, MAD Magazine-style, A Snore and A Bore. I also hope that I have kept before me the immortal words of Sean Carter—“What you eat don’t make me shit”—and not too freely flung accusations of canting hypocrisy at those who claim to like what I do not like.
I have, incidentally, already used the phrase “canting hypocrisy” recently in this column, as I have compulsively used it in conversation since reading the historian Ben Wilson’s Decency & Disorder 1789-1837, which makes a panoramic study of culture in what Lord Byron called the Age of Cant, and comes to the following conclusion:
“Accusations of cant should be used sparingly. Those who see hypocrisy everywhere and impute it indiscriminately to their opponents place themselves on shaky ground. If cant was so endemic, then what put them in the privileged position of being honest and candid? Those who detested the temper of the age and wanted to be free of hypocrisy and affectation all too often resorted to overacting their part. Their contempt of prudery made them gratuitously obscene.”
This goes for me, you… and everybody who was just a little too excited to learn that Ingmar Bergman’s estate included copies of Ghostbusters and The Blues Brothers, like it actually meant something. C’mon.