So give Dan Kois credit there, at least. In his New York Times Magazine article “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables”, he does sort of try to hide his smugness behind a façade of guilt and “regular folk” pandering. The gist of that article, which has caused some considerable response, not all of it negative, was that Kois, a paid film critic, is just so tired of having to watch long slow films (except for the fortunate few he says he likes, to demonstrate that he doesn’t think they’re all bad) in which nothing much happens or something, and also he feels guilty about feeling bad about that:
I feel guilty to be still reaching, as an adult, for culture that remains stubbornly above my grasp. My guilt isn’t unique, even if my particular aspirational viewing is my own…And my cultural guilt has only intensified as Twitter reminds me hourly that my colleagues and friends are finding deep satisfaction in reading The Pale King or attending Gatz or watching Le Quattro Volte.
To me, this sounds a little bit like Kois trying to find a way out of doing the hardest part of his job. But no, claims he, it’s all about being yourself:
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 [pause to claw desperately at your own eyeballs. –Ed.], 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?
Well, I mean…figure it out, motherfucker! You seem convinced that you’re a pretty funny dude, and based on the evidence here I have to admit that I, too, have my questions about that whole thing about you and jokes, but otherwise why in the hell are you asking us? Do you not know your job?
The action heats up! Who will survive...Mouchette!
The conversation that has floated up in the wake of Kois’s article reached a sort of something-or-other, something like civilized debate, I suppose, in yesterday’s NYT piece, structured as a conversation on the topic of “aspirational viewing” between Kois on one side, and A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis on the other. What Scott and Dargis have to say in the course is of little interest to me here, partly because what they say is plainly logical, but also part of me questions the sense of possibly legitimizing Kois’s inanities by engaging him. But Kois, I believe, is a dirty rotten stinking liar. To wit:
Most full-time critics naturally consume, as Tony Scott puts it, a varied cinematic diet. But for noncritics the expense (in cash and, often as crucially, in time) forces a set of ruthless calculations whenever a new film is praised by reviewers or friends. In that context aspirational viewing is risky — whether those unfamiliar flavors are the populist blockbusters you often dislike but feel you oughtn’t miss, or the slow-moving art films you’re worried you’ll appreciate without actually enjoying.
Okay, hands up, who thinks any of Kois’s thinking on this has even a little bit to do with his concern over the precious time and money that ordinary men and women – good, hard-working, simple men and women – are laying on the line any time a critic says something positive about, I don’t know, The Werckmeister Harmonies? I count zero hands. In the earlier article, he makes a big point about preferring to watch “Phineas & Ferb” with his kids because he believes that’s a better use of his time, so when did “Well I would rather spend time with my kids” turn into “But what of Old Jed over at the feed mill? Or sweet Martha, who spends her days at the library helping children find a new book to read under the covers at bedtime? Or Timmy, who practices three hours after school every day, getting ready for the big game? Mizoguchi’s 47 Ronin is a long movie!” Bonus points for using “oughtn’t.”
And plus which, you’re not a “noncritic”! If that’s not just rank disingenuousness, then I don’t know what is. And it doesn’t stop there. In both articles, Kois talks about “appreciating” but not “enjoying” the sorts of movies he’s labeled “cultural vegetables”. I think that’s an awfully mealy-mouthed way to avoid putting up while also not shutting up. Dargis goes along with this a little bit when she says “I don’t ‘enjoy’ Shoah, but I do appreciate it…” “Enjoy” and “entertain”, in their many forms, have been horribly misused and abused over the last several years by being applied where they don’t belong. Dargis is quite right that Shoah is not a movie you “enjoy”, and that this fact in no way deadens its impact, but “appreciate” is too vague, and feeds into Kois’s “Well, I appreciate Solaris, but…” formulations. “Engaging”, “compelling”, something along those lines (or something else entirely, if you want) maybe, but the idea that if something cannot be enjoyed, then it can only be coldly appreciated, is one that has to die. Not that Dargis would disagree, of course, but in this argument “appreciate” should be outright murdered, so that the Dan Koises of the world can’t come back with “Oh, I appreciate it, too! It’s just that ‘Phineas & Ferb’ was on.”
But down to brass tacks: the thing that disturbs me most about Kois and his arguments is that I think he believes he’s speaking for people like me. I am not a critic (not only because it’s not my actual job, which, if it seems like I’m bringing up that point a lot, it’s because the fact that Kois somehow gets paid for this is a long way from being irrelevant), and the guilt Kois talks about feeling regarding “cultural vegetables” is a something with which I am not unfamiliar. The plain fact is that I can’t think of a single film writer I read who doesn’t completely smoke me in terms of film knowledge, not to mention viewing habits. I am keenly aware of this (and in a cruel twist of personality, this can sometimes strengthen my laziness). I am also keenly aware that my tastes drift towards genres like crime and horror, and I could find myself watching such films exclusively if my resolve were to crumble even slightly (though there’s not an ounce of guilt to be felt for favoring those genres, a stance I hardly think I would need to explain to any cinephile worth his or her salt). The things I’m incapable of saying about Alain Resnais are simply staggering in their number. In other words, I know my tastes as well as Kois claims to know his, but the difference is that I don’t choose to cut off the development of that taste. The reason is simply that I’m entirely aware of my ability to still be surprised. I can admit to the mildly embarrassing fact that I was actually sort of relieved that I not only liked Fassbinder’s World on a Wire as much as I did, but that I liked it at all. This despite the fact that I already knew I liked Fassbinder’s work, but, you know, that 204 minute running time can seem alarming to some people. But so I watched it anyway (granted, I was sort of obligated to, but I would have, and would have wanted to, all the same) and didn’t instead accept a paycheck for writing an article about how I didn’t want to watch it. Because that’s bullshit.
Save the bandwidth next time, Dan. Just admit you gave up.