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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Dan Kois syndrome 3

"Anyone who has written film criticism for a large publication in the past twenty years has been told to assume that readers know nothing (even now when it’s easier than ever for them to look up a reference). But reading some of the more earnest Web critics, I get the feeling they don’t believe in making any overtures to readers not already novitiates in the order of cinema. All the serious young cinematic men sound as if they’re writing for each other. Not showing off, but sealed off. The austere Web critics don’t sound as if they’re interested in connecting movies to any life beyond the parameters of the screen. Articles that analyze sequences in terms of lighting and editing and even shot length are presented with the deadly seriousness of a doctoral dissertation. Reading long, detailed arguments about a difference of millimeters in the aspect ratio of a new Blu-Ray disc, the only shrinking millimeters I’m aware of are those of my open eyes narrowing.
When the writer Dan Kois advanced the heretical notion in the New York Times that he couldn’t pretend to enjoy movies he found boring, the reaction he got made it seem as if he had said movies could never deviate from convention and audiences should never try anything new. The film historian David Bordwell even used the word “philistinism.” [..]
It’s much easier to brand people as philistines or to chatter among a small, select group that agrees with you than to make a case to readers that they should seek out something that might at first seem off putting to them. It’s certainly an admission of having no interest or no belief in the possibility of movies as a popular art form. The reaction to Kois was a sustained example of bullying masked as erudition. And though many of these critics would be appalled to hear themselves described as fanboys, this is what they often seem in their adherence to hive mentality. It doesn’t matter whether you’re defending The Dark Knight or The Tree of Life if you declare the people who don’t share your enthusiasm incapable of appreciating movies. [..]
The probable death of movies as popular art, and the retreat of serious critics into contemplation cells, points up a larger problem: the falseness of the claims made for the Web as a new beacon of democracy. In many ways, the Web has been a disaster for democracy."
"The Problem with Film Criticism" By Charles Taylor (Dissent magazine; Fall 2011)
I don't know who this dude is, even though he's been reviewing movies for the past 20 years... but I can tell instantly he doesn't know what he's talking about. Too bad, his complaint came from the right place, or did it? Well defending Dan Kois doesn't exactly fit with the "dissent" of the magazine he writes for. You're in the US of A! 90% of the media (if not 99%) covers and defends popular blockbusters as an "art form"... why do you need the measly 10% leftover to ALSO support an anti-intellectual like Dan Kois, and the "popular art form" that is Hollywood? You don't find it a worthy cause to instead ask the 90% who only watch and review Hollywood, to acknowledge and support the artfilm scene, the foreign cinema? 
There is no dissenting value in defending the majority taste. Is it the dissent against the majority opinion amongst the minoritary sub-groups? I know, since the spin doctors took over politics in the USA, with hollow semantic battles, words lost any objective meanings... People claiming the Sun revolves around the Earth will call themselves misunderstood, oppressed mavericks, and will demand a democratic platform to teach their alternative understanding of the universe!

"bullying masked as erudition" = LOL 
This can only come from someone who doesn't understand the gravity of publishing in the NYT the bullshit Dan Kois did. The lowbrow culture has a freedom of speech and has a wide space in the media hosting its inane drivel. But passing guesstimations, feelings, subjective taste, laziness, sleepiness, boredom as the new rebellious intellectual credo is unacceptable. Keep consumers's feedback in the category of subjective responses where they belong. Sorry it's not and never will be a legit "critical discourse". 

He's a teacher and anti-intellectual... a walking oxymoron I've grown accustomed to encounter amongst the American intelligentsia. Probably a cousin of the other dude who wanted to rid film schools of technical classes. What can you do? They think with their guts in America... Who are these people who feel no shame in shouting on rooftops that culture should be understandable by children or should not be at all??? 
The only value they know is the "popularity contest", from cheerleaders to Box Office top10's... there is no room in their heart or mind for the losers, for the second place, the niche cinema that doesn't win itself a populist award. Here's news for you, art criticism is NOT a democratic vote, voters require a certain qualification to be eligible. Great art is NOT whatever most people thumbed up!
Popular cinema gets the receipts money, the popular acclaim, the mainstream media attention and the zeitgest buzz. What more do you want for crap movies??? Art cinema (or challenging cinema, or serious cinema, or intellectual cinema) gets none of that, it barely gets critical acclaims (when they aren't unprofessional like Dan Kois) and scarce festival screenings. You would like crap movies to steal the tiny niche thunder that the arthouse community keeps from dying out? 

I guess I should take this personally, since he mentions the dryness of serious analysis. Point taken, the vulgarization of complicated film discourse is the job of the mainstream press (which is not doing it). However you gotta realize at some point that the "students" (the audience who honestly wishes to learn about art) need to put up some efforts on their part too, you need to work your way to the level required to understand what experts are talking about. If you want the theory of photosynthesis in 10 words or less, if you want Jazz improvisations explained in comic strip form it's not gonna happen. Some things are hard to explain and writers can't start from scratch for every new model discovered... Thus the importance of a gradual education, and a specialized press dedicated to each level of apprenticeship. 
David Bordwell's readership knows very well what they're getting when they visit his blog. There are no non-boring, playful ways to tell about average shot lengths and cognitive science... to the contemptuous dismay of Paulettes. This is not to say that Bordwell isn't pedagogical.

However, the reduction of CCC to numerical statistics (insisting in reviews about the run time, number of shots, ASL, or other cognitive patterning) is not something I encourage for supportive articles to the non-initiated public. It only further alienates/intimidates/scares the potential audience.

I readily admit, the blog Unspoken Cinema is NOT meant for beginners, it is not designed to convert Hollywood fanboys into artfilm enthusiasts, it is not trying to vulgarize film theory for the mass, it is not even offering a ready-to-go recipe for imitators. I make sure to stay away from that. This blog is a repository for all things related to "contemplative cinema" that would hopefully help reviewers do a better job at defending CCC, IF they care enough to research their papers before writing them. CCC is a niche acquired taste (unfortunately) and very few people care for these films, it is thus fatally a narrow circle of initiated talking amongst themselves. It's not premeditated, it's a reality.
That's why I call "CCC" what is Contemporary Contemplative Cinema, as a technical monicker between aficionados, a memo for insiders. "CCC" is not a term that should appear in a public relation declaration for the general public to read. This blog is not a role-model for how to review these films for the mainstream press. It is an experimental lab, for preparatory studies (academia), for specialists who wish to develop a film discourse for this type of cinema, that should later feed the vulgarized content of the cinephile press (journalism).
Whatever I write (or cite) here is never in the hope to make CCC more appealing to an Entertainment-indulging crowd. I'm not short-changing these films in order to convince people to buy a ticket for a film experience they will hate anyway. CCC badly needs a larger audience to survive on the commercial circuit, but these economical issues (however crucial and urgent) are not part of this blog's mission. This is not a DVD store, not an encouragement to online piracy, not a ratings barometer, not a weekly releases schedule. There are other places to get that. If this blog doesn't deliver in these areas, it doesn't mean it is hermetic to the non-initiated. Only walk in here when you've cured your Dan Kois's self-indulgent syndrome. 
The target readership for this blog is self-defined as art-friendly intellectuals who are ALREADY decided to read, learn, study, write on the films concerned, and want to discuss ideas, produce content and share contributions. I'm sometimes very serious, sometimes cynical, but I eschew the duty to bring people to the level where they are ready to make an effort. I leave the demagogue vulgarization and the motivational speeches to others more qualified (and more patient) in these areas. 
I can't say the improvement of the film discourse on CCC (whether they identify it as such) has been proportional to the amount of material I and others have amassed here since 2006... "Boring" yesterday, "boring" today. Nothing changed. And supporters didn't become better equipped to produce persuading arguments, unfortunately. I don't think it is tolerable to still reject today challenging art forms after the lessons learnt in the 60ies. Antonioni and Bresson were unjustifiably rejected back then, film culture evolved and corrected this superficial dismissal. Today the film press (at least the serious one) CANNOT use the same obsolete arguments against "slowness", "darkness", "austerity", "minimalism"... We cannot downgrade film discourse back to its pre-60ies level, and start all over again. Sorry. We learnt from History, we start from where ART is at right now, not all the way back from the beginning because we "assume the readers know nothing".
And when I read what is published in Sight and Sound, Film Comment or the NYT... they obviously judge before trying to understand the form. Sure, centuries-old formulaic melodrama doesn't waste as much of preparation time.


* * *
[..] A sound piece of advice [Tarr Béla: "Try not to be too sophisticated"], but not easy for all cinephiles to follow, especially if the "sophistication" resembles Dan Kois's pseudo-populism masquerading as common sense in The New York Times Magazine ("Eating Your Cultural Vegetables," April 29). Going beyond the usual middlebrow philistinism, Kois's position suggests that audiences supporting art movies by Akerman, Costa, Kiarostami, Reichardt, Tarkovsky, or Tarr (strange bedfellows, these—back in the Sixties would have been Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Dreyer, Godard, or Resnais) must be masochists wanting to impose their self-inflicted punishments on others. Factored out of such reckonings are those who regard Star Wars, Amélie, Slumdog Millionaire, Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, or even The Tree of Life as obligatory cultural vegetables. Meanwhile, denying that sensible individuals can find pleasure in Tarr films ultimately means attempting to outlaw the possibility that any might do so. Part of America's eccentric mistrust of art and poetry is bound up with a bizarre association of both with class; the usual pseudo-populism deems such pursuits excusable only when they're interlarded with reli­gion and/or "entertainment" (which in most cases entails colonial conquest, revenge, violence, and/or some form of mush). To fail in this sacred duty apparently means to make films that are lethally boring, so that Rivette's 13-hour Out 1, even as a serial, allegedly can't be fun and games like Twin Peaks. Why, then, did I wind up at all three screenings of The Turin Horse in Wroclaw, three afternoons in a row? Largely because of my fascination with how a film in which practically nothing happens can remain so gripping and powerful, so pleasurable and beautiful. [..] The world of The Turin Horse isn't unveiled or imparted or recounted or examined or told; it's simply there, at every instant, as much as possible and to an extent that seems more than we can think to cope with, daring us simply to take note of it.
 Jonathan Rosenbaum (Film Comment; Sept-Oct 2011)
Finally, 4 months later, the (English language) specialized cinephile press takes position on the Dan Kois Syndrome! Better late than never. 
First, why does he add Akerman, Kiarostami and Tarr to the pilori??? Dan Kois never mentioned them. Which makes this epilogue of a Turin Horse review quite odd. Did you imply this film was boring without an anti-intellectual pointing finger at it? Costa is only cited (negatively) by AO Scott (in the follow-up), and Akerman (positively) by Manohla Dargis. I don't understand either the listing of Star Wars, Amélie, Slumdog Millionaire, Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, The Tree of Life... are these "mainstream vegetables"? The last title certainly isn't.
I note that for once, Rosenbaum puts Dreyer and Bergman in the same sentence, as both victims of the anti-cinephile crowd.
The socio-political analysis of class-struggle seems also far-fetched... how is "religion" a class determinant? This goes all over the place... And to use the over-long duration of a 13h marathon serial isn't exactly the best example (unnecessary hyperbole) to convince the lazy audience that art is not boring... everyone can and should find a 13h-long marathon, long, by definition. Dan Kois didn't complain about movies longer than 2h30... he complained about boring 1h30 movies where "nothing" happens.
How ironic that Dan Kois and Charles Taylor feel bullied by intellectuals, while Rosenbaum says the opposite, that bored people make intellectuals masochists. Which one is the martyr of the other?
Other than this collateral nitpicking, I appreciate the contribution of Rosenbaum to take position (on the right side) for this cultural clash, in a publication that doesn't quite play its role in the endangered American artfilm scene. But why amputate an article on The Turin Horse (his LAST film ever to be reviewed in FC!!!) and mix together on the same page Tarr and Dan Kois, like Robert Koehler mixed Tarr and Adam Sandler? I believe Tarr deserves his own space, without his moment of glory being tainted by the vain controversies popping up backstage. Are we to believe that the editor didn't allow a separate page for your Dan Kois response? Kent Jones had his own (amidst a summer movies free-for-all mood piece). Did you guys have to sneak in a comment that wasn't requested by Gavin Smith? 

* * *
"His [Dan Kois's] musings on the pitfalls of 'aspirational viewing' are on the level of an editorial in a mimeographed middle-school newspaper circa 1973, albeit possessed of a creepy undertone: these are the prose stylings of a media practicioner on whom it has suddenly dawned that his own puerility is marketable. [..]
What is interesting is the impression of a giddy, widespread abdication of all time-consuming enterprises, from building an argument to watching a movie, and the accompanying implication that anything beyond an immediate gut-level response is suspect. Sometimes the abdication and the uses to which it is put are 'market-driven', sometimes angst-driven, sometimes politically cunning, and sometimes, as in Kois's case, gleefully nonchalant. [..]
the long-held dream of a critic-proof movie industry has at last become a reality. [..]"
Kent Jones (Film Comment; Sept-Oct 2011)
Kent Jones tears a new one to Dan Kois as well, ironically, in the form of Tweets, with the obligatory "Summer blockbuster" publicity pictures. Giving exposition to crappy Hollywood... without making it too obvious. ;) At least, he's showing some critical scrutiny, although not enough to my taste. He still tries to find redeeming qualities to Hollywood by matching the mediocre against the utter failures, and call it a win. That's the level of discourse for the mainstream press... I expect a higher standard in the specialized press (if FC is supposed to be that).
However he thinks that Manohla Dargis and AO Scott's responses were "intelligent" (see my debunking here), so I'm automatically doubtful of his own analysis of the situation... It must be a mismatch of the imperial system with the metric system of values.
"Recognizing you have a problem is the first step to recovery" he cites about Twitter addiction, that's exactly what you should tell yourself about the American Film Culture (film production, exhibition and literature). Because the American film press does have a problem! and it'll take someone who is aware of it, to start working on its solutions. So far, nobody cares, and nobody even suggests recovery. The loud reaction to Dan Kois might be some form of hope, a step in the good direction. But a lot more people need to acknowledge the dysfunction in an honest way, without wasting so much time and effort apologizing to the offended entertainment-fans and the Hollywood share-holders. Screw the leisure business! and focus on reanimating your zombie CINEMA CULTURE. But I digress...



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4 comments:

HarryTuttle said...

"It Ain't the Meat (It's the Motion): Thoughts on movie technique and movie criticism"
By Jim Emerson on November 14, 2011

HarryTuttle said...

Dan Kois's Top10 Best Films of 2011 (indieWIRE):
1) Weekend
2) Attack the Block
3) Take Shelter
4) We Were Here
5) Bridesmaids
6) Jane Eyre
7) Pariah
8) A Separation
9) A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas
10) Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Best Director
1) Kelly Reichart, Meek's Cutoff

Best Cinematography
1) The Tree of Life

Apparently this guy who never apologized or corrected what he said in his "Cultural Vegetables" article, continues to look over the shoulder of his colleagues with higher taste to fill in his indieWIRE survey... cause he just want to sound like he knows what great cinema is, even though he uses the NYT space to expose his indifference for it.

For reference, his ballot for the 2010 poll (much less worried of displaying lowbrow taste) :
1) Toy Story 3
2) I Am Love
3) Black Swan
4) The Square
5) Fish Tank
6) Carlos
7) Jackass 3D
8) The Kids Are All Right
9) A Prophet
10) Another Year

LOL

HarryTuttle said...

"Meek's Cutoff is one of the finest, most thrilling films I saw in 2011. I'm bemused, therefore, at how it's become a whipping-boy and/or poster child for something called "slow cinema." The category debate was fanned into an uproar a year or so ago with essays by Jonathan Romney, Nick James, Matthew Flanagan, Harry Tuttle, Danny Leigh, Dan Fox, and many others, even argued in the pages of the NY Times after Dan Kois savaged the category in the magazine only to be answered by Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott in a smart discussion, "In Defense of the Slow and Boring." Numerous other critics have since engaged in the debated [sic], and Meek's Cutoff has come up a number of times. I admit to being flabbergasted. The last time I witnessed this sort of football-fan-rancor in film circles was back in the 1970s over Chantal Ackerman [sic]. I can remember when there were something called "action movies," a disparaged genre of commercial entertainment. Now, evidently, all movies are action movies and those few that aren't, well, are sneeringly tagged "slow cinema." Am I the only person who finds these so-called "slow cinema" works to be gripping, engrossing, highly crafted, meticulously calibrated films? Surely there is still a place in cinema for films that move to other rhythms, that avoid the predictability of three-act structures, that resist the need to goose the audience every ten minutes so nobody channel-surfs away? I find the new "action movies" are just today's movie-theatre offerings to be generally tedious and predictable. Fast is not automatically interesting, to say the least. So spare me the new "anti-elitist" rhetoric that's being used against many films which I for one don't even consider slow. To borrow a term from my academic colleagues, these are merely "non-normative" films that are being trashed for adopting dissident aesthetics, structures, or narrative pacing. I thought Meek's Cutoff was all-involving and fascinating, and I'm tired of seeing opinions get labeled as facts."

B Ruby Rich (indieWIRE 2010 poll)

HarryTuttle said...

“Is there a difference between loving a movie and loving the experience of watching?” Stephanie asks in her excellent dispatch, and that’s a question that’s been much on my mind this year. In my experience, there is. That’s why on my ballots in the Indiewire andVillage Voice polls I named Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff) my best director. The austere, challenging (for me, anyway) Meek’s, a sort of handmade Western starring Michelle Williams as a pioneer wife whose little party is lost in the Oregon badlands, was a fine example of a film that, in the end, I liked quite a bit, even though I had trouble enjoying the experience of watching it. I liked it because it has specific artistic ambitions and because it fulfills those artistic ambitions, in part, by frustrating the audience’s viewing experience. It’s a unified piece of work; Reichardt’s accomplished something real that stuck in my head for a long time—that even forced me to wrestle, publicly and embarrassingly, with my own shortcomings as a viewer.
Entry 4: Can you admire a movie without enjoying it? (Dan Kois; The Movie Club; Slate; 4 Jan 2012)


Dan, I love the way you so euphemistically referred to your “own shortcomings as a viewer” in reference to your now infamous (and, to me, captivatingly honest) New York Times Magazine riff on your struggles in watching certain slow-moving vehicles. It was the piece that launched a thousand outraged tweets, and quite a few longer retorts, most of which ran along the lines of “What?! But slow films are rewarding!” Which was part of your point, but never mind. I referred earlier to the idea of loving the experience of watching a certain movie. But one of the great things about your piece was the way it allowed that movies can take on all sorts of shapes in our minds after we’ve watched them—so often, a movie doesn’t assume its real shape until that point, anyway. (Or it assumes no shape at all.)
There’s also this fallacy that embracing slow-going movies, just for their slowness, somehow makes you a better moviegoer, a better critic, a better person. My former colleague Laura Miller tangled with this issue in a different way in a marvelous piece in Salon earlier this year, arguing that reading great books doesn’t necessarily make you a better person, but more likely reflects fragments of things that are already there inside you: “Isn’t it just as likely that many people who are already empathetic and moral will be drawn to literature because they’re curious about and interested in how others think and feel?”
Entry 6: A defense of The Artist, offered without disclaimers or shame (Stephanie Zacharek; The Movie Club; Slate; 4 Jan 2012)