A recent New York Times article, by two critics whom I respect and mostly trust, gave me pause. The article, entitled In Defense of the Slow and Boring, is a response from A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis to another article in The New York Times Magazine by Dave Kois (available here) that purports to describe certain films (I believe we call them ‘art house’) as slow, boring and, above all, not entertaining. Scott, Dargis and Kois raise some interesting questions (although I do hope that they realize the questions are not exactly new): are films meant to be entertainment or art? Can they be both? SHOULD they be both? And so forth. What troubled me about the Dargis/Scott article, however, was not that they asked the questions. It was rather the way they asked them.
Being a film student and proud cinephile, I am not exactly new to the arena of film snobbery. Ever sat through Michael Snow’s Wavelength? Ever had, by my count, 12 whole minutes of your life stolen by Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight? Ever stared blankly at Alain Resnais’s Muriel? Ever prayed for death during Diary of a Country Priest? No? Then don’t talk to me about boredom, confusion or general malaise. Now those are all movies that I find dull. But I have friends, cinephiles, who enjoy them. Who find them fascinating, moving, educational. And that’s just fine. We can argue about it, debate the merits of Brakhage, of Warhol, of Resnais and Bresson. We might not ever agree, but we can find some common ground for discussion.
As I’ve said before in this blog, I also like my fast movies, my stupid comedies, my entertainment. And I baulk when someone accuses me of snobbery simply because I enjoy Resnais and think Michael Bay should not be called a ‘director’. That’s not snobbery; that’s taste. And if your taste is for Bay’s massive explosions, more power to you. Those films will never go away, and really, we shouldn’t want them to. Because the people those films entertain are not the idiot masses, as some film critics would have you believe. Thor does not belong in the same class of films as Solaris, but (and here’s a shocker to Scott and Dargis): it’s not supposed to. It’s a big, dumb action movie and it’s a pretty good big, dumb action movie. It aspires to be nothing more; it should not aspire to be more.
There is an incipient disrespect for films at the bottom of the Scott/Dargis argument, not to mention a disrespect for audiences. Modern audiences don’t want to think, apparently. I think they do, just not every minute of every film. Compare to the difference between eating a hamburger and a milk shake with eating a filet mignon and red wine. You’ll always recognize that the filet is, technically speaking, BETTER than the hamburger. That doesn’t mean you want to eat filet all the time.
The films that I find most pretentious are ones like Inception, the ones that purport to be full of depth and intellect and are actually nothing more than meaningless amalgams of better films blended with pop-psychology and a healthy dose of Sartre for Dummies. Films like that insult the intelligence of the audience because they masquerade as something better, deeper. But that’s just my opinion. At base, movies (like books and theatre and television) have the capacity to provoke, to challenge, to educate, and to entertain. Lest we forget that Alfred Hitchcock, the darling of the French New Wave and a massive influence on everyone from Truffaut to Tarantino to Scorsese to (I suspect) Malick, was one hell of an entertainer.