Fluxing miscellany. If you're looking for top 10 film lists, click here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Re: Dan Kois/Vegetables

This is intended in no malicious spirit, rather as an instantly piqued riposte to Dan Kois' article "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables" — not so much for the article as for the general tone, which seems pretty emblematic of a lot of cultural memes at the moment. The brief nub is that Kois is an "aspirational viewer": one who aspires to admire the slow-ass, pleasureless, essential but antiseptic movies/TV shows/books/et al. that excite his (our) fellow critics, yet generally leave him cold.

It's my experience that after high school (or, at latest, college), few people bother pretending to like things they don't actually enjoy in the hope of impressing someone. The dynamic behind that transaction's always confused me: assuming we're not all perpetual adolescents (no comment), who's the nebulous person being impressed by a declaration of love for the plainly unlovable? Why would someone bother lying about how they liked something obviously unlikable? Blatant insecurity? (Kois cites a collegiate acquaintance approvingly noting Tarkovsky's Solaris as "so boring...you won't get it," which inadvertently sums up the snobbishness of a mentality that only half-understands its own aspirational goals, an attitude people generally seem to figure out is as unlikable as you can get. Most people get over this, right?)

An AV Club comment I can't track down once noted the writer hated Chuck Klosterman for acting like hipsters were chasing him down the street, forcing him to listen to Sonic Youth, which encapsulates what I'm trying to get at: unpopular culture almost never takes an aggressive stance (unless it's socially confrontational, and even then the audience is largely self-selected). "Difficult" film lovers generally have normal friends uninterested in the glory of five-minute tracking shots of someone's head, and can coexist in peace and harmony without wandering around trying to tape people's eyelids open and make them watch Solaris.

On the low (non-high?) cultural side, I don't think it's controversial to state that the vast majority of the population doesn't need to be convinced that they're in the cultural right in preferring the trashy/instantly gratifying/easily viewed. I find it inexplicable when super-right-wingers claim that America's being dominated by an academic, "post-modern" elite. Similarly, there's zero reason to claim that "cultural vegetables" are being shoved down the public's throat. (It's actually easier to argue there's more overqualified liberal arts majors half-jokingly analyzing reality TV and sitcoms online than earnest bores dissecting vegetables, but let that be.)

The tone of the article isn't totally antagonistic; to be fair, it doesn't accuse anyone of bad faith, except implicitly. What bugs me are the twin assumptions that:

a) most things are exactly as they appear to the "average viewer" (or the "many viewers" Kois admits using as a stand-in for his personal discomfort/boredom with something he suspects may be objectively worthy): that no one could possibly enjoy this stuff (whatever the example is) in good faith, that ascetism is the end of pleasure and that's the end of discussion.

b) that therefore, someone is lying.

Of Meek's Cutoff, Kois notes that the film's "as closed off and stubborn as the devout settlers who populate it: "('Pleasureless,' raved David Denby of The New Yorker! 'There is not much action,' noted A. O. Scott of The Times!)." There's no way to argue with this: either you enjoy Meek's Cutoff or you don't. (NB: I know I'm not exactly breaking new phenomenological ground here. Bear with me.) My point: Meek's Cutoff is, for this viewer, the best movie of the last two years. (That I've had a chance to see, anyway.) I thrilled to the boredom of " long dissolves from one wind-blasted plateau to another" — not because I'm a fetishist for non-action, but because I was viscerally moved/jolted by every composition in the film. Note that this wasn't my intellectual response: I'm not really crazy about Reichardt's ideology, but in every feature she's shown the near-Spielbergian talents of a natural filmmaker, one whose understanding of framing and editing is almost preternatural. The climactic sequence of wagons transported down a steep slope with life and death stakes induced something close to shortness of breath, and even before then I was Moved — in a way that was often at odds with Reichardt's political agenda. Plus: it's been 27 years since Stranger Than Paradise: minimalism is no longer a striking anomaly. (Even beer commercials have Sundance rhythms now. )

Kois says Meek's is arid, "closed off," etc. These are subjective impressions, but the implication is clear: who could enjoy these vegetables? There are other examples, all clustered together: "'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." As far as those five examples go: I'm not sure what (respectively):

a) a USSR-made film, rejected by a commisar with the pithy comment "What's the use of humanity traveling through space if they drag their shit from one planet to another"

b) the next-to-last audio testament of a dying British filmmaker

c) a revisionist American western featuring actual Hollywood actors

d) a decidedly "European" film from Belgian Marxists [featuring an excellent chase no less EDIT: it does have a lumberyard chase, but the real motorcycle festivities take place in L'Enfant)

e) an Inuit film shot on video

f) a three-part portmanteau from a Taiwanese filmmaker

have in common aside from marginalization on the commercial level. Their financing/intention/motivation are all different — which isn't even getting into the fact that formally, none of these films have anything in common. And "formally" isn't automatically a sterilility-inducing word.

I've only seen Solaris once, and it almost drove me to desperate measures; it remains the only film I've seen that forced me to pause, then prepare and consume an omelette simply to re-focus my attention. But that's my problem, and I wouldn't question the sincerity of its many admirers. Sadly, I haven't seen Blue or Three Times yet. Plus as far as I remember, many people use phrases like "my taste stubbornly remains my taste" to implicitly congratulate themselves in their resolve to Not Be Moved: obdurateness is a quintessentially American virtue, a reminder that no force of elitist anti-Americans can force you to contradict your basic desires.

Enjoying something isn't a moral issue; nor do I know anyone who wants to spend a lifetime exclusively only the most daunting, endurance-testing works. We all become tired workers at some point: I've spent many hours watching Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris enact their strange ideas of justice, a pretty universal experience. (Goes without saying that not all "low" culture is actually low in artfulness, nor is all high culture high in results, etc.) But there's no threshold for visceral pleasure. Few people seem to actually feel the need to apologize for the comforts of easy-watching mainstream viewing; non-dogmatic highbrow buffs shouldn't have their sincerity questioned, regardless of what anyone acted like in college.