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Monday, June 06, 2011

Dan Kois Syndrome (Proud Boredom)

While a few texting-dependent hipsters believe rushed blurbs should be elevated to serious criticism...  the NYT finally decides to make a contribution to last year's "boring" controversy initiated by Sight and Sound (Feb 2010) and Film Comment (Mar 2010). Or is it just a response to something that was published in their very own newspaper (self-alimented fire), one month earlier (1st May 2011), by Dan Kois? When the New York Times is arguing with itself about whether vegetables are healthy or not, you know American culture has serious issues. In any case, we can't say that the print media is on top of the new media reactivity of the XXIst century... 
Dan Kois: "As a viewer whose default mode of interaction with images has consisted, for as long as I can remember, of intense, rapid-fire decoding of text, subtext, metatext and hypertext, I’ve long had a queasy fascination with slow-moving, meditative drama. Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like? [..] As I get older, I find I'm suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables, no matter how good they may be for me... Yes, there are films, like the 2000 Taiwanese drama 'Yi Yi,' that enrapture me with deliberate pacing, spare screenplays and static shooting styles... but while I'm grateful to have watched 'Solaris' and 'Blue' and 'Meek's Cutoff' and 'The Son' and 'Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)' and 'Three Times' and on and on, my taste stubbornly remains my taste."
Apparently this guy didn't read the press last year. What is symptomatic of a very American mentality that tends to take over general culture with the prevalence of subjectivity and the pride of being uneducated, is how he uses his 6 years old daughter anecdote as a springboard. Could it be any more ironic??? I'm not sure he's fully aware of confessing at once to his ineptitude as a cultural critic and demonstrating right there that infantilisation is the rampant evil of American journalism. 
Candidly he equates childhood behaviours (play-pretend to be 1 year older) with subjective punditry (play-pretend to be intellectuals who understand art). Some are just anti-intellectual and make a living of trashing higher-education, art and critical thinking. At least they are being honest with themselves. But others kind of feel guilty and want the prestige of being educated cutural arbiters without the effort of actually getting an education and mastering the objective critical distance (See the Root of anti-intellectualism). Thus they prefer to demolish the educated establishment with its critical standards and claim that absence of values and self-indulgent pleasure is the new establishment.
Becoming an adult implies overcoming this irrational aversion for healthy food. Only immature children would complain about having to eat vegetables. Richard Brody rightly identifies this as a dictatorship of the "Pleasure Principle":
Richard Brody: "A food critic who doesn’t want to eat vegetables would be laughed out of the business—unless he planned to carve out a niche comparing fast-food outlets or criss-crossing the country in search of the ultimate corn dog. [..] It is the age of the specialist; if Kois has, with this piece, put himself out of the running for serious consideration as a general movie critic, he may be preparing to hang out a shingle as a meat-and-potatoes critic—if there’s a comparable cinematic category."
Dan Kois is too puerile to balance his Pleasure Principle with the Reality Principle (see Freud) to defer instant gratification. His narcissistic brains is only able to conceive the concept of "good" as something confirmed by instant pleasure, like "entertaining spectacle". He recognizes that better critics than him recommend these vegetables that are good for him, but he can't get over the fact they are nasty-tasting medicine yielding no visible gratifying results. As a rebellious adulescent who refuses to grow up and embrace a healthy lifestyle, he feels like it's the right thing to declare that, maybe, all things considered, we should be more sceptical about the nutritional vertues of vegetables, maybe we should start to re-evaluate dietetics and trust our guts and taste buds more.
In an interview Dan Kois even claims that a film critic is "not meant to be objective, a critic is meant to be as subjective as possible"! If you are as subjective as anyone else, you don't deserve the right to speak as a "cultural arbiter", which is a title you earn by proving you can supersede your own navel-gazing idiosyncratic taste, in order to deliver a discourse that other people (who are not you) may relate to, for its sharable objectivity and its open-minded tolerance. Objectivity is PRECISELY what distinguishes critics from the "common people"!!! Unfortunately most Americans believe that critics (like their political representatives) should be as dumb as everyone else, not more educated, not more knowledgeable, not more perspicacious, not more competent, not more pedagogical. When you don't respect your intelligentsia, you get the level of cultural discourse you deserve...
Send your ironic thank you notes to Pauline Kael for discrediting intellectual education in your country. Culture, OK, but not more than I can take! Educators, OK, but not smarter than me! Wait till the students hear about that and the schools will be on strike for being forced to learn more than their lazy asses would like...

How could this article be greenlit by editors of The freaking New York Times??? Pandering to the lowest instincts of the masses (anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-culture, anti-journalism, subjective conservatism) is one thing (you gotta do what you gotta do to bait in the advertisers, right?), but passing it as "professional cultural criticism" is demented and irresponsible. I don't think that readers who make the effort to read an intellectual newspaper such as the NYT, need their self-indulgent cultural apathy to be flattered and reinforced. That's a job for the populist press. They must really be desperate for wider readership to expand their tribune to the lowest common denominator type of demagoguery.

Here is what I wrote last year, which is demonstrated again now with Dan Kois, his followers and his detractors:
HarryTuttle: "This Film Press drama is so entertaining! These typical controversies are the ones that split the tiny little world of film criticism between the thinkers and the followers. It's the perfect bait to lure the fake-cinephiles to reveal their true colour : only liking "slow Modern cinema" when it's fashionable and turning around when "slow cinema" loses public support from the high-brow magazines.
We can see the comments aggregating after these sententious stances : the low-brow viewers who jump in the polemic to blame film criticism as a whole for preferring depth to fun; and the high-brow viewers who take this opportunity to slam the lax commercial attitude of the cinephile magazines, which tend to support the mainstream fare over anything really subversive. This front-line is all too familiar and predictable. Not to mention all the clueless readers who recount their experience with movies that are not artfilms, nor slow or contemplative! Can't you see this is the timeless clash between the subjective mass and the elite critic? Of course it is anti-intellectual to stereotype the art-cinema scene after a superficial formal aspect related to speed!"


Another symptomatic revelation of this article is that there is this alienating area of cinema that is said to be "great", but that only an elite may "get". A reviewer no longer judges films for their achievements, from bad to good. There is this new anti-intellectual category : "good BUT too challenging for my little lazy self". Either you aspire to higher culture, and take it upon yourself to educate yourself and work your way up to enlightenment, or you refuse to make the effort and you just stay away from any cultural criticism! 

Nobody "has to" watch "intellectual" films (Solaris, Blue, Yi Yi, Tulpan, Meek's Cutoff, Le Fils, Atanarjuat, Three Times...) or "has to" read intellectual literature (James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust, Jean Paul Sartre, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy...), you do IF you want to educate yourself as a spectator/reader. Though, if what you seek is to gain the authority of a "cultural arbiter" (critic/historian/academic), then OBVIOUSLY, you pretty much MUST have had seen most of the canonical work established by recognized cultural arbiters before you. So no need to whine about having to do your homework before being able to publish authoritative statements as a cultural arbiter. The best way for you to avoid watching boring intellectual films is to find another job.
If all you care about in life is to have an entertaining night-out at the movies... you don't need to worry about watching challenging films that make you think rather than generate adrenaline. Just don't discourage others by exposing so indecently and so irresponsibly your own selfish apathy. You're not a cultural critic, you're a self-indulgent infant who cannot transcend the futile guilt of "having to" eat vegetables. Keep aspiring until you earn authority in this domain.
Here is my tip: if you don't find genuine PLEASURE in exploring challenging intellectual culture, you're not ready to judge and write about intellectual culture. Reviewing art is not as immediate and obvious as reviewing fast food menus or roller-coaster rides!

Manhola Dargis: "“Of course, what I think is boring,” Warhol wrote in his memoir “Popism,” “must not be the same as what other people think is, since I could never stand to watch all the most popular action shows on TV, because they’re essentially the same plots and the same shots and the same cuts over and over again. Apparently, most people love watching the same basic thing, as long as the details are different.”
Warhol’s own films are almost always called boring, usually by people who have never seen or sampled one, including minimalist epics like “Empire,” eight hours of the Empire State Building that subverts the definition of what a film is (entertaining, for one). Long movies — among my favorites is Béla Tarr’s seven-hour “Sátántangó” — take time away even as they restore a sense of duration, of time and life passing, that most movies try to obscure through continuity editing. Faced with duration not distraction, your mind may wander, but there’s no need for panic: it will come back. In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.
Thinking is boring, of course (all that silence), which is why so many industrially made movies work so hard to entertain you. If you’re entertained, or so the logic seems to be, you won’t have the time and head space to think about how crummy, inane and familiar the movie looks, and how badly written, shoddily directed and indifferently acted it is. "
She even mentions Akerman's Jeanne Dielman just to confirm that with Dan Kois examples of other "boring art films", this rampant anti-intellectual American mentality (amongst the reviewers intelligentsia!) is definitely frustrated by and defiant of "non-speedy cinema". As if "slowish films" were the only type of intellectual art films. But they just call them "slow" because, on the surface, they really are nothing like current Hollywood, and that's all they care to compare them to. As if this outdated cliché that "European cinema is slow and boring" had never been debunked in the 60ies with the acclaimed superiority of Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson... Film culture already went through this anti-intellectual argument. Are you re-evaluating what was considered great art in the 60ies? Ennui, slowness, scarcity of dialogue, absence of excitation and denouement are, educated critics learnt it, not evidences, in and of themselves, of failure to communicate with an audience. Damn, the audiences in the 60ies were a little more adventurous and curious than today!

A.O. Scott: "MOVIES may be the only art form whose core audience is widely believed to be actively hostile to ambition, difficulty or anything that seems to demand too much work on their part. In other words, there is, at every level of the culture — among studio executives, entertainment reporters, fans and quite a few critics — a lingering bias against the notion that movies should aspire to the highest levels of artistic accomplishment. [..]  But lately, I think, protests against the deep-dish and the highbrow — to use old-fashioned populist epithets of a kind you used to hear a lot in movies themselves — mask another agenda, which is a defense of the corporate status quo. For some reason it needs to be asserted, over and over again, that the primary purpose of movies is to provide entertainment, that the reason everyone goes to the movies is to have fun. Any suggestion to the contrary, and any film that dares, however modestly, to depart from the orthodoxies of escapist ideology, is met with dismissal and ridicule. [..] Why is it, though, that “serious” is a bad word in cultural conversations, or at least in discussions of film? Why is thinking about a movie an activity to be avoided, and a movie that seems to require thinking a source of suspicion?"
Don't worry, he's only talking about American audience. The rest of the world is not yet totally plagued by anti-intellectualism. And France is definitely not, I can testify. We still have art-friendly filmmakers, producers, distributors, press and audience. But it's nice to see such things published in the NYT for once. I hope the intellectuals won't be afraid/ashamed to speak up against self-indulgent consumerism in the future, anytime it is necessary.

Source :
Eating Your Cultural Vegetables (Dan Kois; NYT; 1st May 2011)
The Pleasure Principle (Richard Brody; The New Yorker; 3rd May 2011)
In Defense of the Slow and the Boring (Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott; NYT; 3rd June 2011)



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4 comments:

HarryTuttle said...

A.O.Scott, omniscient head editor at the NYT movie pages, believes "the great boredom debate of 2011" only started with Dan Kois... apparently he doesn't read Sight and Sound, or his memory doesn't remembers as far as 2010, a debate he didn't take part in!

HarryTuttle said...

Should we stop forcing down cultural vegetables? (May 25, 2011) CBC radio
interview with Dan Kois

Dan Kois : "I think everyone has movies or TV shows or books or albums that lie outside of their cultural comfort zone, that they know going in they're not going to get or they're not going to be able to process, the way that smarter people always seem to do. But many of us consume them anyway, we aspire to be the kind of person who can watch an arduous foreign film or read an experimental novel with the flare and skill of someone whose taste we aspire to match. [..]
For me the kind of viewer I always wanted to be was the person who could watch Solaris for example, and feel at every moment like I'm being richly emotionaly moved by it, instead of just dozing off dozens of times like I actually did when I watched Solaris. [..]
It's a movie [Meek's Cutoff] that I'm more grateful for having had seen than I am eager to see it again. [..]
For a lot of people, me writing this in the NYT, is akin to claiming that anyone saying that they like The Tre Of Life or Meek's Cutoff, or any of the movies that I discuss, is faking it or is lying. But I think that's not the point I'm trying to make. The point I'm trying to make is that for people who don't have that natural affinity for slow moving drama, a choice has to be made for how often you are going to challenge yourself with works that you know you won't be able to access on first viewing, how often you're going to eat those vegetables. [..]
A critic isn't meant to be objective, a critic is meant to be as subjective as possible. [..]
My lack of affinity for those movies is no different than Richard Brody's (The New Yorker) lack of affinity for comic book movie. We both come into some movies feeling we might no be able to process them at a level of full enjoyment. But as long as we're both willing to let a movie surprise us, or to think hard about who a movie is for and who might really appreciate that, I think we're both doing our jobs. [..]
Every once in a while you end up eating something or viewing something or listening to something that really qualifies as cultural junk food, you know, cultural crap. Something that really makes you feel guilty afterwards. Something that you can't believes that you are really the kind of person who would watch The Hangover part 2. Everytime you have an experience like that, it may make you feel better to consume a cultural vegetable. Go find something that you are pretty sure you won't quite be able to access but that you think that make you a better person. Find something that people are talking about that you are interesting in but you're not quite sure you'll love, and see if there are things about it that make you interested, drive you into it. [..]"
Q: What was the response like from general readers to your argument? Did you find that there were people out there looking for permission to consume a little bit more of comfort food?
DK: "Yeah, or at least to be a little bit more choosy about the vegetables that they consume. A lot of the responses I got was that I articulated the kind of cultural fatigue that they're feeling too. And keeping up with that entire world of culture was harder and harder. And it was nice to hear someone say they are allowed to be choosy. [..]"

HarryTuttle said...

Finally Manohla Dargis has remembered to read Sight and Sound before writing another article on Dan Kois!


Manohla Dargis (NYT, 17 June 2011): "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 as films that are “poetic, contemplative — cinema that downplays event in favor of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality.” He added, “Such films highlight the viewing process itself as a real-time experience in which, ideally, you become acutely aware of every minute, every second spent watching.”
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.”"

HarryTuttle said...

"David Carr and A. O. Scott discuss the things we are ashamed to read, watch and listen to, but love anyway. Share your guilty pleasures in the comments box below."
The Sweet Spot (27 July 2012) 6'