New York Times Article(s) Response (A.K.A. In Which Mike Tries to Do the “Smart” Thing)

Earlier today, my friend Colin — whose blog you can see right here (Fuck yeah, promotion!) — sent me a link to an article in the New York Times, which I had not seen or read, because, newspapers, really?

Actually, the real reason I didn’t see it because it was published yesterday, and my family doesn’t subscribe to the Times. We’re a born and bred Daily News family. Plus, if we got the Times, I’d be the only one who read it. And even then only the Arts section and the Crossword, which coincidentally is in the Arts Section (I’m an efficient dude). But I’m sure I’d have seen it by next week when it’ll get posted as one of the bottom links on the IMDB main page (you know it will).

Anyway, this is the article:

It’s a great — well, it’s an article, where Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott offer up their opinions (look at me, trying to sound all official-like — don’t worry, that’ll stop soon. I know me) on Dan Kois’s article from about a month prior.

This is the Kois article:

First let me explain how this happened. Colin sent me the article on Facebook, and said “I’d be interested to read your reaction.” He also wrote “you should blog about this,” but for some reason I skipped over that part and neglected to notice its existence. Otherwise this probably would have been up a lot sooner. But what I did was write out my response right there on Facebook. Which is cool, since now all those stalkers I have can read it, because you think they’re gonna read this bullshit I write all the time? I mean, that’s Facebook, there are rules.

Anyway, I wrote my response to it, to which Colin responded, “You should put this on your blog.” To which I said, “Why didn’t I think of that?” (The answer you’re looking for is, “Because he did.”) But now that I’m writing my response, I felt it was only fair to cite the original article that gave way to the article I’m writing my thoughts on. And since I’m doing that, it’s probably courteous to at least read the fucking thing. You know, give it the time of day. And now that I’ve done that, I feel it only fair to post my thoughts on it too. Which isn’t surprising. I have something to say about most things. Plus, it’s like writing about Aristotle. If you’re gonna do that, you kind of need to know, “Well, he was taught by Plato.” So all I’m doing is respecting the fact that Plato exists and informed Aristotle. But if anyone brings Socrates into this, I’m breaking out the hemlock.

First off, I applaud the dude — this is Kois I’m talking about (I’m no newspaper reporter, so I don’t need to follow any of your fucking rules) — I applaud him for finding an appropriate analogy for this whole thing. Because really, what are most moviegoers than six year olds? Am I right? Yeah! Up top!

Okay, enough glad-handing. This isn’t the Academy Awards.

The crux of Kois’s article — because I assume most people (if any) reading this don’t want to put forth any effort in reading things. I mean — effort? That would be like going to a movie that made you think a little bit. What?! No. — is, his six-year old daughter, who, at the insistance of her seven-year old friend, started watching Phineas and Ferb, which is, as I can gather, is a program that assumes a certain level of intelligence in its viewers. Which he says, is a bad idea. Most people watching the show aren’t that intelligent, so why bother? (I understand. This is how I deal with people.) And the show is so difficult for her to watch that she doesn’t understand anything going on in it. And yet, because someone whose opinion she considers sophisticated said it was a great show, she continues watching it, trying to decipher it and understand its greatness. (I prefer to think of it as making it “tell you its secrets.” Because then it’s a quest. And as we all know, I like Quests. Fuck yeah, promotion.) And he says his daughter goes even further to call the rest of the shows on television, the ones she watched before she started watching this new show, trash. Because, you know, if I have a collection of comic books, and my older brother tells me to read Dostoyevsky, I’m gonna read the Dostoyevsky, thinking this is something I should be reading to make me smarter, and then burn all of my comic books and berate all of my friends who still read comic books, because, “You read that garbage?” I’m seven, by the way.

But I digress, because it really sounds like I’m attacking this dude. I’m not. And even if I am a little bit, it’s valid. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. He could attack me right back and be totally justified. But where would all this constant attack get us? (Note: D.C., probably. They’re all about countering arguments just to do so and never getting anything done.) I actually agree with Kois to an extent. I think what he’s saying is perfectly valid. I just disagree with his opinion and the way he put it out there. But it’s not really worth attacking, because, it’s a proper discussion. I do think people feel the need to watch things they hate because they feel they should, but on the other hand, I also think they’re too quick to watch things that are terrible because they’re easy. So you know, we’ll just work with what we got here.

So, jumping off that Phineas and Ferb analogy, Kois recounts his experience watching Meek’s Cutoff in theaters and finding his attention — challenged — by the film’s slow narrative. He says he often finds himself bored by films that are similarly paced, yet all his closest friends all love these types of films, so he makes himself go see them, because it’s natural to want to like the same things your friends like. (I have lots of questions at this point, namely, why is it that big a deal that you don’t like something your friends like? Do they not like the other films you like? And do they talk about these films you don’t like all the time, almost exclusively? Because in that case, what’s the basis for your friendship? Why be friends with people who don’t share your interests? But as you can see, this line of questioning goes a lot deeper than this, and this article is one-sided, so I’ll stop before I start.)

He goes on to recount an experience in college, when a friend told him he needed to see Tarkovsky’s Solaris, because he “had to watch it.” And he watched it, found it boring, wondered why it was so great, then lied about his dislike of the film. Which I don’t get, but whatever. Then he says this feeling has gotten worse since he became a film critic (not even gonna start on that one), because he wonders how critics “much smarter than me” (I’d like to know how much of a dig that was) write with such vigor for films that he deems difficult to get through in order to “get to the good part,” and because of that, he finds himself feeling guilty for still trying to “reach for a culture that remains stubbornly above my grasp.” He refers to such “difficult” films as “cultural vegetables.”

So what he’s saying is, vegetables — you eat them because you’re told they’re good for you. But you don’t like them. (I hope you’re intelligent enough to spot the logical flaw at this point. Because it would be really sophisticated of you to do so.) But because you feel you should eat them, you do. And you keep trying to figure out how to like the vegetables, even though you don’t. And that’s how he feels about films. Art films are boring to him (there’s the flaw, the “to him” part, in case you didn’t get it), but his friends love them, so he wants to understand why they’re so great, so he keeps going to see them, only to be disappointed every time. And he wonders why he keeps doing it to himself.

And now my response to that.

First, I’d like to ask, what does it matter? If you like The Hangover, but your friends like Solaris, and you don’t like Solaris, so what? Your taste is your taste, their taste is their taste. You want to talk about what you like, find people who also like it. I have to tell you, as a film major, I had a lot more fun talking to non film majors (and some film majors. They know who they are) about how awesome Independence Day is than I did sitting in class with people discussing the fluid camera movements and visual emotion in I Am Love. (Note: I graduated before I Am Love came out, but, knowing the people I was in the film major with, I can be fairly certain the ones I’m thinking of went positively apeshit over that film.) If a person doesn’t like the same films you do, why not just accept it and don’t talk with that topic about them? Or, how about this one? Ask them.

You know — maybe if they love these films, and you don’t get them — maybe you can say, “Guys, I just don’t get why this is such a great film. Please explain it to me.” And then they can do that. Because, you know, they’re your friends. And then maybe try to see it from that point of view. And if you still don’t get it (or at least, understand and accept it, because apparently acceptance here is completely out of the question), then say, “I guess I just don’t get it” and move on. There’s no shame in saying “I just don’t get it,” especially with film, since it’s all about how you interpret it. Stop trying to fit their interpretation onto yours.

Look, I don’t particularly enjoy a lot of these art films either. You know what I do? I don’t watch them. Of all the foreign and “art” films that come out each year, I generally watch about — five of them. Maybe. Depending on what your definition of art film is (I don’t put Meek’s Cutoff in the same category of that Uncle Boonmee movie.). And the only reason I watch those foreign films is either because, it was nominated or won a major award (mainly Academy), a critic whose opinions I respect has spoken highly of it — also, yes, if someone I trust recommends it, then I will extend the courtesy and check it out — or, most importantly I’m interested in what the fucking film is about! That’s what it comes down to. A film can win all the Oscars and get all the rave reviews from friends and critics that it wants, but if I read that synopsis and it says — “A man wanders around in Africa for three weeks, trying to find a four-leaf clover in the desert” and I see that the film is entirely in Swahili and is shot in one long tracking shot from right to left — I’m not gonna fucking see that film. I’m just not gonna do it. I know I’m not gonna like it.

Actually, I might enjoy that film. The whole right to left tracking shot intrigues me. Like that movie Russian Ark, with the 99-minute continuous tracking shot through a museum. That movie was boring as shit, but the tracking shot was fascinating to watch. But, let me stay on point.

What I’m saying is, sure, if my friends say I should watch a film, I’ll check it out. But my opinion of the film is going to be entirely mine. If I read the synopsis and figure I won’t like it, and then I watch it and don’t like it, it’s not my friend’s fault for liking it. (Also, how many films is this that your friends are recommending to you? Maybe relying entirely on your friends for what films to see isn’t the way to go.) It just wasn’t meant to be. And at least then you saw it and can say you saw it. (The lying bit is totally on you. That’s your fault.)

If you see a film by your own accord, for whatever reason, knowing you won’t like it, then ultimately the fault for seeing it lies with you. It’s as simple as that.

Which brings me to what I think is the underlying cause of this article. It seems the whole thing is part of a self-esteem thing. The author feels he needs to “better himself” in a certain way, in this case signified by seeing films he deems “important” or whatever. And since he doesn’t see why they’re bettering him, because they’re bitter and don’t go down well, he’s taking out his frustrations on the films. He says perhaps the fault lies in his lack of capacity to understand the films, and I think that’s where his answer is gonna lie. If he feels like he can’t understand the films (if there is something to understand — let’s not forget that. Sometimes, those “sophisticated” opinions are nothing more than pretentious piles of horse shit. Case and point: I saw The Departed in theaters, and on the walk home, heard someone explaining how the film is how we’re “departing” ourselves from one another and dividing ourselves as a nation. Did you know it was so overtly political? I rest my case), maybe he should just accept that he can’t understand the films. Know yourself, buddy. Don’t take it out on the films because you want to fit into a culture that you don’t like.

And honestly, if that’s what that “sophisticated” culture signifies — standing in an art gallery with a snifter, talking about Pedro Almodovar films and their hidden critiques of the bourgeoisie — then put me in the fucking bar down the corner, drinking whiskey and talking about how fucking awesome Transformers is. (Note: Anyone wanna go do this right now? Because you pick the bar, I’ll be there.) I’d much rather be king of the idiots than a wannabe sophisticate. At least, my way, I can maybe get some of the people who only watch the “lower” films to meet me in the middle. Because, really, no one should be at either one of these extremes. Which bleeds into my reaction of the other article, so I’ll stop there.

One last thing before I move on to the next one. Kois makes a passing comment about all the Hou Hsiao-hsien fans who get upset every time a Pixar film comes out. My question here is: what does it matter if people want to marginalize themselves by not seeing a particular type of film? Let them. It means more seats in the theater for the rest of us. Just because someone wants to be so narrow-minded as to completely marginalize an entire section of the population (Note: World War II), does not mean it’s the right thing to do. I’ll tell you — I despise half the films I see (mostly because I try to see most of the wide releases that come out each year), but I don’t care, because I love movies. I could just not watch them at all. But I watch them all, because you never know when one’s gonna teach you something you didn’t expect or didn’t know before. You never know when you’re gonna find a film you’re gonna enjoy for the rest of your life. And for that, I’ll sit through some ones I don’t like, because, you know what — I could like them. I could learn from them. Anything is possible.

And yes, if I know for a fact that I will not like something (I’ve already skipped both Red Riding Hood and last year’s The Milk of Sorrow recently), I simply just won’t see it. Because I don’t need to see it. I’ll see it if, in the future, something tells me, “You know, maybe you should actually see that one.” That something would be, if it continues to hold up as a great film, is mentioned by all the critics and people I trust in their opinions, or, yes, if a friend of mine whose opinions I trust says I should see it. (A note on that: When a friend suggests a film to you, shouldn’t you take into account how your taste matches theirs? If I have a friend who watches German art films, and I don’t like German art films, and he suggests I watch a German art film he liked, I’m gonna say, “Well, it’s a German art film. I don’t like those, so I’m gonna skip it, because I know he likes those more than I do.” However, if he says, “No, dude, you really should see this one. It’s just like (some other type of film I like),” then I’ll be more interested. Generally friends know what you like and don’t like. It’s been my experience that they won’t just force a movie onto you without taking into account your feelings. Then they’re not friends. And like I said, the lying business is your fault.)

Also, if I do see a film for one of those reasons, it’s on me. I’m not obligated to like it. If I like it, I like it, and it’s its own thing. If I don’t end up liking it, rather than say, “I can’t understand how they can like/understand it,” why not just put it back in the bunch (of whatever grouping of films it’s in) and know, “Okay, maybe I don’t want to go back for another one of these films as quickly next time.”

I’m not gonna say, “Oh, fuck, this is boring, I don’t know why I watch these boring fucking movies!” I’m not gonna take out my problems on a film just because I feel inferior to others who saw the film and “got” it. I’m not going to assume it’s the film’s fault, or the fault of the genre or “type” of film (meaning: slow, meditative, blockbuster, whatever), because what’s the benefit of that? What I’ll do, is push the film aside and politely say, “No thank you.” I’m not gonna throw my vegetables against the wall and go, “I don’t want it!” I’m gonna say, “I’m sorry, I don’t like peas. I’m a carrot man.” Which brings me to article 2…

Now, the second article is split in two parts. I guess I’ll summarize each separately.

First is the Manohla Dargas part. She responds to the Kois article (after summing it up) by saying the films he finds boring are the films she finds fascinating. The films he (seemingly) loves are the ones she finds boring. One thing she does that I didn’t mention in my response that I’ll say now is: yes, your mind may wander, but it’ll come back. And that thinking during a film is what they want you to do. And also, thinking during a film gets you to start thinking about how poorly it’s shot and acted, and all that other stuff. Fuck, am I changing my opinion on this article after the fact? Maybe it’s because she’s the lesser of two evils from Kois. Or maybe it was the Kois article I was responding to all the time. Whatever, just read the article, you’ll see what she says.

Now, the A.O. Scott half, which seemed to be the most sensible argument put forward, said, basically — for some reason movies are the only art form that, at every level, from studio to audience, it’s considered a bad idea to try to aspire to a higher level of artistic achievement that isn’t simply “entertainment.” He says, even though almost nobody will see art films (as their box office receipts can attest), people feel the need to drag them out and be like, “Look at the little fancy pants film!” — the kind of behavior you see from uneducated people whenever someone tries to aspire to something more. Ever see the film Educating Rita? Oh, maybe I shouldn’t suggest it. It might be a “vegetable” to you.

But at the same time, he says, the other side of the equation is at fault to. There are all these highbrow critics who dismiss a movie if it doesn’t reach heights that is acceptable by their standards. Scott mostly talks about their tendency to risk “throwing out quite a few masterpieces with the bathwater.” He really doesn’t really talk about the tendency to dismiss the “boring” movies on the other end of the spectrum — the Hangover movies. But he does mention it.

Here’s his final paragraph, which I’m just gonna post in full, because it’s really the most logical thing anyone can say here:

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? It seems unlikely, to say the least, that films like “Uncle Boonmee,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “The Tree of Life” or Jean-Luc Godard’s recently and belatedly opened “Film Socialisme” will threaten the hegemony of the blockbusters, so why is so much energy expended in defending the prerogatives of entertainment from the supposed threat of seriousness? I certainly don’t think fun should be banished from the screen, or that popular entertainment is essentially antithetical to art. And while I derive great pleasure from some movies that might be described as slow or tedious, I also find food for thought in fast, slick, whimsical entertainments. I would like to think there is room in the cinematic diet for various flavors, including some that may seem, on first encounter, unfamiliar or even unpleasant.

That’s it. That’s it right there. But, of course, I have my original point to get to, which was posting my original response to this article. So I’m gonna go and do that. Here it is. Whether totally in response to the article or not, it does display my sincere opinion about every side of this argument. This is my real answer to all of this, not just the specific words or phrases used by people. This is what I think about this whole thing (though I will say, I don’t find Manhola’s views as extreme on the second reading. But I’ve been at this for a while. Maybe I will find it so tomorrow. We’ll see):

It seems the answer is somewhere in between. It’s always gonna be personal preference. Of course, as always, A.O. Scott is the more rational of the two. Manohla is just way too extreme. Arguing the opposite of the other argument doesn’t help anything at all. (And here we’ve figured out why politics are for shit today.) A.O. seems to have it right. Why is serious bad, and why are we ridiculing either side?

I fall exactly between the two. I thought The Hangover II was boring as shit. That said, I find a lot of art films and foreign films boring as shit too. Granted, I loved Solaris, and I loved Stalker. But the other Tarkovsky stuff? Nostalghia? The Sacrifice? Made me want to chew my fucking eyeballs out. That’s just how it is. I thought Enter the Void was one of the best films of last year. It was brilliant. I guarantee you a lot of people will find if boring because it doesn’t make sense and nothing happens. At the same time, I had a ball at Pirates. I thought that was great. But I will say, I’m not nearly as into the art films and the snobbery as some of my film major contemporaries are. You know this, I’m sure. But I’m also not on the other extreme either. You know my opinions on a lot of these recent films. I accept that I’m gonna like some films, I’m gonna dislike some films. But I still see everything, don’t I? This is why I can love Enter the Void and The Last Dragon at the same time and not complain too much in either direction (and why I never actually talked film with at least half the film majors).

My one real complaint with the film industry isn’t that they make such lowbrow entertainment – it’s that they make so much of it. I’m cool with most of the summer films, but my opinion has always been, they should cut off one of them a year, take the $200 million and finance a bunch of $30 million or less projects. You know how many smaller films you can make with that money? And you let them have some more freedom with their choices, and then you get a nice mix of art films, blockbusters, and shit in between. As an Econ major, I’m sure you get what I’m talking about. It’s a middle class thing. Because if they do that then they could please almost everybody. Anyway, back to the argument.

I am somewhat guilty of both sides here. I complain about the shit they put out (though, really, I’d stop complaining if they did what I said above), but I also don’t watch a lot of current art films because I know I’m gonna find them boring. However, I will watch old art films and foreign films, because THOSE are my vegetables.

That’s what I don’t get. Why are Tree of Life and Meek’s Cutoff the cultural vegetables? Shouldn’t Citizen Kane and Casablanca and Gone With the Wind be our vegetables? Shouldn’t those be what we find ourselves forced to sit through, whether we like it or not? New films come down to whether you like it or not. Films like Casablanca are “culturally” good films. Those are the ones you must sit down and take in, no matter what. After you see those, then you can decide whether or not you want to see Meek’s Cutoff. Appreciate why you need your vegetables, then you can decide, “I don’t like peas.”

There are always gonna be art films. Some of them will be good and some of them will be boring as all hell. I don’t want to sit through Uncle Boonmee because I know I’m gonna find it boring. I’ll sit through Scenes from a Marriage though, because history and the film community has dictated that as a classic film. I might not be happy about it, but I understand that it’s good for me. Then after I’ve seen it I can say “Good god, that was boring.” Because those are my vegetables. I won’t complain about peas as a child, but now, if I eat peas, I’m not gonna stop and say, “Why the fuck did I eat peas?” I know I don’t like them, so there’s no reason to eat them.

The difference here? In all likelihood, no one will be talking about Meek’s Cutoff in a couple of years. So the people who went to see it because they felt they needed to, knowing they’d find it boring, are idiots for going to see it. And the people who won’t go see Thor because they think its trash are also idiots. So, really, the only vegetables that matter are the tried and true classics. Once you get through the vegetables, then you can choose your own diet. We need to be at a point where we say, “This film wasn’t for me,” rather than “All these films are fucking stupid.” THAT’s the real answer here. Every film is taken on its own terms. If you don’t like one type, don’t watch them, but at least be able to appreciate that other people do like them like a rational fucking adult.

One last thing with Meek’s Cutoff. I haven’t seen it yet, but I have seen the director’s previous two films. Old Joy was boring as fuck, and I hated every minute of it. I saw it on the Film Series (naturally), and could not wait to get the fuck out of there. However, Wendy and Lucy, I liked a lot. I thought it was great.

So, really, everyone needs to shut the fuck up, and if they don’t like a movie, say, “It wasn’t for me.”

That was me trying to sound smart. How’d I do?

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