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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dan Kois Syndrome 2

Ask Michelle Obama or Jamie Oliver if children in American schools have been force-fed vegetables... you poor thing. Is it wise for adult intellectuals to publicize silly arguments like eating vegetables might not be a must? How irresponsible is that? That is not information, that is not journalism, that is not criticism!

I bet the burden on the anti-intellectual majority imposed by the intellectual minority is unbearable in the USA. How can you escape the injunction to cultivate yourself? Especially all these "boring" films that are not even screened anywhere! Who fantasizes about being threatened by highbrow arts in the USA... seriously? Nobody is threatening mediocrity in the USA, don't worry about it. Even Film Comment, the NYT, Cineaste... they are supposed to defend art cinema because nobody else does, and all they do is spend their time championing Hollywood lowbrow (as if it needed additional support from the intellectuals) and denigrating the artfilm circuit (festivals, arthouses celluloid screenings, filmmakers for being out of reach). You don't need to exonerate or encourage lowbrow consumption, guilty pleasures, junkfoodism... it is already the MAJORITY. People who don't care for culture are doing just fine (if anything they are not pushed around nearly enough yet to tap out!). If you're a critic, a cultural arbiter, an intellectual, you're expected to defend, promote and educate about what is hard to reach, underexposed, invisible! If that's not what you want to do, just do not fucking write for the NYT and do not complain about having to research your subject before publishing an authoritative statement... 

Education and culture is not innate, instinctive, intuitive... it comes with patient learning, lots of reading, experience and reflection... you can't trust your gut feeling on that, especially not when it draws you to instant pleasure with the least amount of effort. Which leads people like Dan Kois to stand up and dispute culture if there is no fun in it. So if you "feel" that a book, a film, a piece of music, a museum exhibition, a critical analysis is too long, too tedious, too boring... make sure the problem is not YOU, before accusing the artists/authors/critics. You may challenge the value of art only if you didn't sleep through it.

The problem with cinema : everyone thinks the "customer" is always right. If you judge a movie on its cost-benefit ratio for YOURSELF, then yes, watch whatever you want, and only what you want.
But criticism isn't about individual customers and their private consumption. Critics aren't out there to TELL you what is your favourite colour, when are broccoli-days, and which wallpaper shall be on your laptop. Too many reviewers believe their job is to direct readers towards the box office with the approved film title of the week. I'm sure the publicists are happy about that. Critics are not going to find silly spectacles awesome just because you wish to see them without a "guilty" conscience. Go have fun! Watching crap is OK, you don't need canons, expert's awards and deep analysis, so don't read THAT. Critical standards aren't about "fun", about what to see or not to see. However, stating crap is masterpiece is not OK. Don't you read the press to learn about things you don't know? It shouldn't be to seek confirmation of things you want to hear, to reinforce your own taste, prejudices and worldviews!
  1. What pains me the most is how the defenders embrace the word "boring" imposed by the anti-intellectuals, instead of rejecting it.
  2. Most movies are made and consumed for pure entertainment, but it doesn't mean ALL of cinema should be judged by instant pleasure and worthwhile distraction.
  3. Culture doesn't have to be entertaining, sometimes it takes effort and time to discover a work of art, for a more enlightening reward than fugitive pleasure. Sometimes it takes more than one try!
  4. Cultural rewards come to patient, committed and enthusiastic spectators.
  5. "Aspirational viewing is not acceptable if the films recommended do not suit my taste". What is aspirational and elevating about it, if you only go for your acquired taste?
Sometimes vegetables are more than vegetables...
The NYT opens the debate to readers after Dan Kois' infamous article and Scott-Dargis's rebuttal. They even promised the critics will reply to readers question the following week. In fact, they completely ignored the feedback of over 200 comments posted on the various pages (except 1 one-liner cited by Dan Kois here), and what we see is a complete reversal of tone. It seems that the quarreling critics have been convoked by the head of the newspaper, like pupils in the principal's office, to apologize and make up. They publish a joint statement to show there is no animosity between NYT employees : show solidarity over independence of thought. In this new article, somewhat of a "conversation" between Kois, Scott and Dargis, they are just agreeing to disagree, or more exactly, agreeing to agree that cinema can be really boring at times, that Hollywood crap can be really fun at times, that NYT critics are not there to force-feed vegetables to its readers. What a shame. What a spineless bunch of pundits, they can't handle the pressure of having to defend the minority taste... They must pander to the anti-intellectual America (who doesn't even read the NYT!).
Source: Sometimes a Vegetable Is Just a Vegetable (AO Scott, Manohla Dargis, Dan Kois; 17 June 2011; NYT)

Kois : "So often the things we write sort of flicker and die, and it’s been gratifying to watch this discussion spreading across the film-loving parts of the Internet."
Let's publish controversial crap just to get lasting attention! lol (not a first in the NYT)
He backpedals and pretends he "made jokes" (that reminds me of Nick James' backpedaling last year!). Now he says that "noncritics" (which he's not) have to make choices because they pay the admission and have a limited time to dedicate. Well culture is not defined by what one given individual can take in... A busy life shouldn't make cultural arbiters reconsider what is worthwhile culture or not!
He uses the tribune of an intellectual newspaper where people go to to find INFORMATION, to give this non-information to the world : 'Hey people with a genuine cultural curiosity (NYT readers) can I have your attention please? I would like to have a thought for people like me who are too bored to open a newspaper. Sorry for wasting your time, you may now return to your regular cultural aspirations'. Thank you mister Kois, you really nailed those "overzealous intellectuals" who only care about educating themselves! (sarcasm intended)

Kois: "Are there styles of filmmaking or individual directors you simply can’t access, but keep sampling in hopes of finally breaking through?"
Yes that's what aspirational viewing should be. Waiting for visible results or enlightenment or "fun"... shouldn't make it a failure. If you cannot invest a bit of yourself in reaching for higher culture, you'll never get to the top shelf. Giving up after falling asleep shows a clear laziness and a lack of proper ASPIRATION. Why are you even talking about "aspirational viewing" if what you aim for is all fun and no pain? Is that your idea of cultural education and critical standards? Why would spoiled brats deserve an endorsement by the NYT?

Scott: "So I don’t want to get pigeonholed as a snob or an elitist, or as someone who believes that one kind of movie is a priori better than another. Thinking in categories — high and low, trash and art, entertaining and “serious” — is a shortcut and an obstacle, and it leads inevitably to name calling and accusations of bad faith. “You’re a snob!” “Well, you’re a philistine!” "
Sure dude (he defines himself as a "freethinking, curious, pleasure-seeking human being")... If you're afraid to pass as a snob, maybe you shouldn't write in the fucking NYT! Sarah Palin doesn't even read it. You think the average American buys the NYT for the lowbrow reviews??? Look around you dude, you are part of the elite, and you write for the elite. The regular blockbuster crowd doesn't give a shit what the NYT thinks of the movies they want to see. Get out of your rosy bubble already.

W.H. Auden: "Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible."
That explains why the most vocal masses of happy spectators are the ones at the cheapest movies... Pleasure is an indicator of pleasure, not a golden standard for artistic worth, or critical achievements. You had to quote that Scott??? What are you, a hedonist or a critic? That's what you get when "film page employees" believe their job is defined by "pleasure evaluation", "pleasure prescription" and "pleasure providing"...

Dargis : "The critic who insists that every movie in an art house is art and that every major Hollywood release is trash just reaffirms prejudices"
What a disingenuous strawman! You are creating extreme categories of reviewers with inflexible taste, imaginary conservative scapegoats. There are no elitist cinéphile out there who never watched and enjoyed a Hollywood movie (be it Welles, Hitchcock, Scorsese or De Palma). You gotta realize that when intellectuals oppose the mass market refered to as "Hollywood", it's about "studio mediocrity". Forget about the words "Hollywood" and "arthouse" (if you don't understand the relevance to incompatible production systems), what matters is whether you support good films or bad films. That's what critics argue about. Inventing nonexistent territorial battles will not cop you out of the fast food/vegetable debate. Because vegetables are intrinsically healthy for your system whether you like them or not, and junk food is intrinsically hazardous whether you like it or not. Summoning the "vegetables" metaphor doesn't imply a high-low divide, or the Hollywood-arthouse rift... that's what YOU brought into the debate. There are sweet vegetables and sour or bland vegetables... regardless for the pleasure of ingestion, we know they are nutritious! CULTURAL CINEMA is nutritious, we are not arguing whether they are high or lowbrow. The job of a critic is not to point to the sugarcoated food, the movies the easiest to ingest, but to inform readers and audience about the various nutritious values of ALL movies on offer, the bad ones (labelled as FAILURE TO DELIVER whether they are high or lowbrow) and the great ones (labelled as GREAT ACHIEVEMENT whether they are high or lowbrow). Is it only in America where good/bad have interchangeable meaning depending on their use by lowbrow or highbrow people? Biased partisans use words to alter reality, not critics.
Now if you define failure/achievement by the single criterion : entertainment (like Dan Kois), then you are not "open minded", you may determine a certain partial critical standard for spectacle, but it's far from fair or comprehensive. Entertainment is not the full picture. And that's where the problem lies, not in the entertainment v. art imaginary war.

Kois: "Like most thoughtful readers, though, I usually read writers whose insights give me pleasure, not guilt"
Again, he persists with his Pleasure principle! Now, "thoughtful readers" is defined as "self-indulgent" : I will only learn from the press if they do not patronize me about knowing more than me. lol (see previous article: Dan Kois syndrome (proud boredom))

Kois: "‘Tulpan’ would be a 10-minute nightmare of tractors and bad haircuts, followed by a 90-minute nap."
How terribly superficial, stereotypical with a condescending tone for foreign cinema that looks so different from flawless Hollywood stars... Sad and shameful.
Scott: "I don’t feel guilty about not caring for “Last Year at Marienbad“ or persisting in my skepticism that the films of Pedro Costa are as transcendent as some of my colleagues believe. But until I can argue my case, the benefit of the doubt goes to Mr. Costa and the burden of proof rests on me."
At least he acknowledges the critic needs an educated point before trashing the reputation of a film/filmmaker. Thanks for that.

Ultimately, Dargis makes the first valid point : appreciation and enjoyment are two different words for a good reason, they are not synonymous! Going to the movies expecting worthwhile distraction for a ride, is different than meeting the work of an artist to learn something, to get immersed in another universe, to educate yourself, to aspire to higher thoughts, hopefully to approach enlightenment or epiphany. Why should these two distinct practices/activities be judged under the same rules/standards/values? Why must everything in life be EASY, FUN, INSTANTANEOUS? Not all cultural achievements in your life will come with an orgasm, a cocaine high, or a giggle.

Dargis: [..] Duration is a crucial issue here, and some of the recent discussion about slow (if not boring, at least to some of us) films revisits arguments over what has previously been termed Slow Cinema. In the February 2010 issue of Sight and Sound, the British critic Jonathan Romney characterized Slow Cinema [..] [see: Wasted Time]
As with other critical coinages, Slow Cinema can easily become misleading shorthand for work that is very different. The truth is that questions of time have preoccupied filmmakers long before Kelly Reichardt, the director of “Meek’s Cutoff.” Filmmakers isolate time (as in the empty hallway shots in films by Yasujiro Ozu, images in which nothing appears to be happening); embody time (the “tirednesses and waitings” of Antonioni, as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze put it); make time stutter (the jump cuts in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless”); slow it down (the long takes of Bela Tarr); and deconstruct it (as the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs does). Without going too deeply down an academic rabbit hole let’s acknowledge that when we talk about ostensibly slow and boring films, the terms of debate extend beyond issues of entertainment.
Deleuze, for instance, distinguishes between pre-World War II cinema, in which time was subordinate to movement (the passage of time obscured through classical techniques like those of continuity editing), and postwar cinema, in which a direct vision of time emerges. In this new cinema — with its discontinuities, sense of interiority and seer-subjects — time appears “for itself,” becomes something movies confront even if their characters (and maybe we too) don’t know what it means. And so characters in “L’Avventura“ wander around and forget that a woman has disappeared, and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, stuck in her horror of a life turning tricks out of her dismal middle-class home, makes a meat loaf in real time we share. They are, as Deleuze puts it, “struck by something intolerable in the world, and confronted by something unthinkable in thought.”

Thanks for catching up with the year-old debate about boredom and slowness, Manohla! Good luck not getting pigeonholed as a snob by citing Deleuze in the NYT...

Dargis: "Sometimes a slow movie is just a slow movie, but sometimes it’s also a window onto the world." 
Unfortunately she concludes with a disappointing truism that characterized the superficiality of Nick James last year : "Sometimes it's worth it, sometimes it's not" We don't need critics to give us such poorly thought out obvious tautology. The indeterminate nature of art is precisely why we need critics to parse it and evaluate it. We don't need to be reminded that art sometimes doesn't work, just assume it and go directly to the part where you actually assess what that work is about, its intentions and its achievements. Being "slowish" is not an achievement per say. Leave this adjective to detractors who refuse to give it a chance. Critics should be able to articulate what makes a film different and less successful, beyond a mere observation of its relative speed... 



HarryTuttle said...

"Life is too short to deal very much or very long with crap, and is much better spent considering the good work, and why it is good. Most American criticism is not founded on this principle; rather, it tends to be dominated by a consumerist mentality that says that all films which can be seen commercially should be written about, and those that can’t should be ignored. [..]
Much American criticism does little more than watch the rubble move. [..]
The “big” movies [..] deserve the big treatment, the “small” films less, and the “unknown” films none at all."

Robert Koehler, What matters at the Los Angeles Film Festival (Film journey; 21 June 2011)

That's what film criticism would sound like EVERY WEEK, if there was an activist pocket of intellectual resistance within American culture, to defend art against the dominant a-culturation.

HarryTuttle said...

- What You See Is What You Get Manohla Dargis (8 July 2011, NYT)

- Good and good for you
David Bordwell (10 July 2011)