Saturday, June 18, 2011

How Come I Never Do What I'm S'posed to Do?

Many years ago, I read an article by Jonathan Yardley, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic for The Washington Post in which he made a point of saying – not apropos of the article’s subject, or so I remember – that he’d never been able to get through Ulysses by James Joyce. Most of what Yardley was going on about is lost to me, but I do remember (and this recollection is borne out by his objection to Ulysses taking top place in the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels in English list) that this wasn’t mentioned with an air of regret, or an assurance that he’d get there one day, don’t you worry, you can count on him, but rather it was as if he was saying “Of course I never finished it! Have you ever looked at that thing???” My own history with Joyce’s masterpiece is irrelevant (other than that I finished it, Yardley, you asshole); the important part is how appalled I was to be reading Yardley’s boast in the first place. You’re a literary critic, I thought. The chief literary critic, in fact, of The Washington Post. Is it too much to expect that you’ve managed to plow through one of the two or three most revered novels of the 20th century? And by the way, if it turns out that Yardley has since managed this Herculean task, one I accomplished in college, it won’t matter one ounce. The strictest, and frankly most unrealistic, part of me thinks he should have done it before he took the Post job. With that legitimately off the table, my take is, if you haven’t read Ulysses, it’s awfully perverse to present that fact as proof of your credentials.

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 fa├žade 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.


John said...

the idea that if something cannot be enjoyed, then it can only be coldly appreciated, is one that has to die.

And a lingering and painful death, if possible. And throw that "aspirational viewing" bullshit into the bonfire after it. Jesus, just what the world needs now, an inverse paean to that rarest and most undervalued of cinematic qualities, instant gratification.

True, slow, meandering. superficially unrewarding works many times don't merit the time or consideration they ruthlessly demand of consumers. (Like psychic vampires, sucking out their very souls!) In fact, one need look no further than Kois's own article for proof of that.

And what of those poor hardy souls troubled, nay, tormented by those ruthless calculations when faced with the prospect of a new Kois piece in the Times, its myriad delights to be measured against the consumption of their precious time? Oh, what shall they do, torn betwixt that eternal triumvirate of Bergman, Sandler, and a spot of Tetris? Lord spare us the pains and perils of this modern world!

Ed Howard said...

This whole debate is my first exposure to Kois, and frankly he seems like an idiot. That part's no surprise; there's no shortage of idiots in film criticism, as in anything. What I'm more surprised by is how seriously so many people are taking his argument: like why are Dargis and Scott even wasting their time talking to someone whose main point is "I have trouble watching difficult films, and I'd rather watch less difficult ones." Jesus Christ, "cultural vegetables"?

As someone who gets a lot of enjoyment - not just "appreciation" - out of stuff like Resnais and Tarkovsky and Bergman and all those vegetable-type directors, of course his argument especially seems like nonsense to me. But even if he doesn't like those films, that's fine, and as a critic his job (literally, his JOB, that he gets paid for) would be to engage with those films, to analyze why he doesn't like them, maybe to make some intelligent points about why he doesn't think they work. That's an article that, if done right, I'd read and maybe want to respond to, even if just to disagree and explain why. But Kois doesn't do that, he just makes excuses about why he doesn't even want to engage with these films, why it's too difficult. He makes it a point of a pride to not get these movies.

Worse, the implicit, unspoken assumption of his viewpoint is the idea that anyone who claims to actually like these "cultural vegetables" is just pretending to like them because that's what one is supposed to do. He seems to assume that no one actually enjoys Tarr or Godard or Costa or whoever, that critics and film fans just watch these movies because they're "good for you." This positions him as the plain-speaking guy who dares to speak the truth. Really, as you say, he's just the guy who's given up.

Whatever. I'm off to watch some Rohmer. Should be fun!

bill r. said...

John, your comment reminds me of a point I thought about, but didn't end up including, which is: what does this mean for the readers of Kois's future reviews? Will they even bother? If he's reviewing something positively Tarkovsky-an, how could they trust him? He's restricted the kinds of films he should be allowed to write about, although I'm sure he will continue on as ever before.

Ed - It's my first exposure to him, too (Google his name, and check out some of the articles he's written in the past). It's plenty. The fact of the matter is, is that when you boil all this down, he's just bitching that part of his job is hard and he doesn't want to do it anymore. There is literally nothing else worth taking away from it.

Now go watch your Rohmer movies, you loser!

Patricia Perry said...

Wow - why would anyone be a film critic if they aren't actively curious about all the things that film can be? I can appreciate the reluctance to take on some of those "vegetables" (God know I've been there), but whenever I've made the leap, I've felt better for it. For years, I was totally intimidated by just the idea of wathcing an Antonioni film - then I finally broke down and watched "L'Aventura." Sure it was slow and baffling at times, but at other moments it was downright beautiful, and it lead to me seeking out more of his films. (The next "vegetable" director I plan to take on is Godard.)

I can certainly appreciate the argument that people with busy lives don't always have time to seek out and sit through longer or more demanding works; that's certainly been a factor for me at times. But as you say, Kois does this for a living.

Greg said...

What Ed said. Also, you misspelled "supposed."

bill r. said...

Pat - I can absolutely find myself unwilling to watch the sorts of films Kois is talking about. But that tends to be a mood-based thing. And I certainly don't look at the Godard films on my shelf -- and I genuinely don't like Godard, by and large -- and think "I'm done with you! FOREVER!" And I don't do that because I don't want to do that. Kois is cool with it, though, and still, I'm sure, expects his paycheck to arrive like clockwork.

Greg - No, Randy Newman missang it.

Ed Howard said...

FYI, I really did go watch some Rohmer after responding here, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, and it was funny and weird and delightful and really the opposite of "vegetables." I think we really need to get away from this utterly stupid idea that there are two kinds of movies: those you enjoy watching and those that are good art. Everyone has different taste and gets pleasure out of different things, of course, but the whole "appreciate" vs. "enjoy" thing is a false choice.

bill r. said...

That's what I've been saying! More or less!

Ed Howard said...

I know! I'm agreeing with you.

Patricia Perry said...

@ Ed: "I think we really need to get away from this utterly stupid idea that there are two kinds of movies: those you enjoy watching and those that are good art."

I agree, but I also believe that some films are just less accessible than others,and it's OK to acknowlegde that. "Less accessible" does not necessarily equal less enjoyable, but your enjoyment may depend on how actively you're willing to engage with it, whether you're willing to endure a little inital bafflement or frustration or have your expectations challenged.

bill r. said...

Ed - I know, I just felt like yelling.

Pat - Yes, but as Glenn Kenny has pointed out, some of these inaccessible movies might wind up just being bad. What you have to do, though, and what Kois is refusing to do, is figure that out for yourself.

otherbill said...

Two things

1) Amen to everything in the post.

2) The tag under that photo made me laugh til I cried. I now want a whole series of Bresson posters with breathless noir taglines.

bill r. said...

Thank you, otherbill. And long time no see.