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Cultural Vegetables vs. Cultural Vegetables: Audience-Proof vs. Critic-Proof Movies

Posted by Charles Reece, September 26, 2011 01:21am | Post a Comment
bela tarr   michael bay
Béla Tarr                                                                         Michael Bay

A few months ago, when reading about Meek's Cutoff, I ran across an essay by Dan Kois titled "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables." It's one of those confessional pieces by a professional critic where he boldly claims to not like some unpopular art to his audience, most of whom probably share his distaste (otherwise they'd be reading someone else). Novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote something similar back in 2002 regarding difficult literature (that is, all of this has gone on before). In response, there predictably came the defenders of the boring aesthetic and experimental writing. Of course, an argument between Franzen and someone like Ben Marcus isn't exactly an entrenched battle line drawn between low and high culture (albeit some critics do dismiss the former as middlebrow because of his focus on the bourgeoisie). And, similarly, how far off is Kois' general aesthetic from Manohla Dargis or A.O. Scott?From what I've read of them, I suspect not much. At least Marcus does write truly experimental fiction that's not as immediately forthcoming to his reader as Franzen's own stories, but Andrei Tarkovsky's narratives aren't particularly difficult to understand, just slow (e.g., Stanislaw Lem's Solaris was, if anything, conventionalized by the filmmaker, removing the invented scientific and philosophical papers through which the story unfolded). The same can be said of Kelly Reichhardt (who also directed Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy). Contrary to Kois, I didn't find her Meek's Cutoff boring; it's slow, yes, but undergirded with a tension, a potential threat of death, that never lets up. I'd call it slow burn dread, an affect not unlike what's felt in Claude Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes or Takashi Miike's Audition.

Kois' essay doesn't amount to much, because he never really says Reichardt or Tarkovsky are boring, only that he finds them so. And as examples of other supposedly mentally nutritious "cultural vegetables" he cites Todd Haynes' Mildred Pierce (a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel by James M. Cain), Hou Hsiao-hsien and Derek Jarman's experimental film Blue. (Is hardboiled fiction now considered too recondite for the hoi polloi?) On the other hand, Kois loves the slow-moving YiYi, having watched it five times without falling asleep once (keeping count is very important for cultural capital). In other words, Kois finds some things boring, but doesn't know exactly why, so he won't begrudge someone else for enjoying them -- a pretty forgettable essay of subjectivist mush. But the editors of Film Comment felt it important enough to feature two rebuttals in the latest issue (Sept./Oct. 2011), one from Kent Jones, the other from Jonathan Rosenbaum, both of whom can be counted on to play their roles in the game of genre politics.

Jones refuses to even call it an essay, putting questioning quote marks around the word itself, comparing what Krois wrote to an "editorial in a mimeographed middle-school newspaper" with a "creepy," puerile "undertone," an example of "passive-agressive baby talk." Rosenbaum draws a more insidious inference from the essay, that it goes "beyond the usual middlebrow philistinism," suggesting "that audiences supporting art movies [...] must be masochists wanting to impose their self-inflicted punishments on others" implicating it as "[p]art of America's eccentric mistrust of art and poetry [....]" As a stalwart high-minded critic, his idea of a cultural vegetable isn't Tarr, but stuff like Star Wars, Inglourious Basterds and Avatar. Of course, what he's implying is that those aren't "cultural vegetables," but are made for cultural vegetables. For example, he's previously proposed that Tarantino's film is "morally akin to Holocaust denial." Nothing mealy-mouthed about his condemnation, Rosenbaum's for morally good films, Krois and the philistines prefer evil. Then, sounding like a cocksure undergrad cinephile who just sat through all eight hours of Warhol's Empire to prove his bona fides, Rosenbaum tells us how many times he watched Tarr's latest (see, labor value) and loved it:

Why, then, did I wind up at all three screenings of The Turin Horse in Wroclaw, three afternoons in a row? Largely because of my fascination with how a film in which practically nothing happens can remain so gripping and powerful, so pleasurable and beautiful. [E]ven though his diverse techniques are completely different from those of Erich von Stroheim, there's something about the sheer intensity of both filmmakers as they navigate from one moment to the next that makes the usual rules and logic of film narrative and even the usual practice of following a plot seem almost beside the point -- a kind of distraction. The world of The Turin Horse isn't unveiled or imparted or recounted or examined or told; it's simply there, at every instant, as much as possible and to an extent that seems more than we can think to cope with, daring us simply to take note of it. -- p. 50

Note that Rosenbaum essentially defends what Krois was reacting against, that enjoying high-minded cinema doesn't come easy, but it's good for you, edifying. It might not be Tarr's intent (or even true), but what's suggested here is that his new film resists understanding, which requires a good deal of effort to enjoy (maybe the Lacanian 'jouissance' would be appropriate). That is, it doesn't unveil, impart, recount, examine or tell of what it contains; it dares an audience to "take note of [its world]." Tarr's "sheer intensity" comes as pure pleasure for Rosenbaum (really, intense ... Tarr?), but if you're not so culturally or genetically predisposed, you'd best learn to be if you don't want to live your life as some cud-chewing Tarantino-loving dolt prone to the fascistic urges inculcated by revenge films. In other words, there's something suspicious about pleasure that comes too easily, a position that's satirically taken to its logical conclusion in Brendan Connell's short story "The Putrimaniac" (from his book Unpleasant Tales):

"You say 'good taste,' ... 'genius,' ... but what are these? ... Pablo Picasso's Guernica is atrocious, crude, and yet at the same time so truly noble, inspiring .... Vincent van Gough, in his Night Café, used the most appalling colours, a hallucinatory blend of pond-scum green, butcher-shop red, and puke brown, but it is a masterpiece of the highest order. Because, when ugliness is taken to the limits, it turns into beauty. This is something uncultivated minds do not realise. Vulgar people delight in the smell of roses, the sight of tawdry watercolours, the unambiguous taste of fresh strawberries or breast of chicken. A truly sophisticated person however turns away from all such things with disdain." -- p. 56, the character of Alfonso on the true aesthetic 

That Rosenbaum isn't, in fact, defending anything more than his own ability and desire to enjoy what Krois would most likely find insufferably tedious is made abundantly clear in Jones' takedown of Transformers 3:

[T]he long-held dream of a critic-proof movie industry has at last become a reality. What has yet to be understood is the effect on moviemaking itself. Transformers 3 is indeed stupid, sloppy, bombastic, sexist, militarist, and carelessly made, as debased a movie as I've ever seen. But it is plagued by a new development that has gone all but unnoticed.

[...] What is new in movies pitched for mass consumption is a short-circuited non-aesthetic that starts the film anew with every scene, rendering a flow of disconnected attractions that becomes all but indistinguishable from the commercials for Sprite, the Navy, and the fall lineup from AMC.

[I]t is the abandonment of any aspirations to sustained buildup or momentum that is the film's most disconcerting characteristic. [...] In Transformers 3, all that is trusted is the gut reaction to the moment at hand, which is pushed and twisted, hacked apart and splayed, polished or beefed up in such a way that is has no tonal, stylistic, or narrative carryover with anything before or after. [...] 

[T]hey [the target/mass audience for films like Transformers 3] trudge in and out of the eternally distracting world they supposedly asked for, perhaps afraid that they're going to miss something, perhaps following the paths laid out for them because they're too exhausted to do anything else. Or maybe they're waiting, even praying that somewhere along the way, they'll be lulled or even jolted into a state of enlightenment. -- p. 58-61

First, note how Jones does exactly what Krois is being accused of: Transformers' fans aren't really enjoying the film, but are actually bored, watching it because "they're too exhausted to do anything else" (like watch a Tarr film three times). Perhaps one man's "stupid, sloppy, bombastic, sexist, militarist" is another's "sheer intensity." It might be a shit aesthetic, but they come by it honestly. Second, what Jones calls director Michael Bay's non-aesthetic is really an aesthetic, which, in a recent video essay, Matthias Stork deems "chaos cinema." Though critical, he gives it a poetic spin:

Trying to orient yourself in the work of chaos cinema is like trying to find your way out of a maze, only to discover that your map has been replaced by a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting, except the only art here is the art of confusion.

Furthermore, it's ironic that the most prominent features of this "non-aesthetic" are shared by Rosenbaum's true aesthetic: difficult to comprehend due to its lack of concern for plot ("a flow of disconnected attractions" versus Tarr's treatment of plot as "a kind of distraction") and its general thereness -- what a non-fan would call boring --  daring the audience or trusting their "gut instinct" (depending on predisposition) to simply take note of it as experience (the "abandonment of any aspirations to sustained buildup or momentum" and the way "each moment at hand [...] is pushed and twisted, hacked apart and splayed, polished or beefed up" versus Turin Horse's being "simply there, at every instant, as much as possible and to an extent that seems more than we can think to cope with"). And, if I were feeling more rascally, I might even suggest that "being indistinguishable from a commercial" isn't much of a distinguishing feature, either. Where Bay's style is more accommodating to mass commodities, it's not difficult to imagine what a commercial from Tarr might look like, say, shilling for Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Relevant Tags

Transformers 3 (1), Brendan Connell (1), Dan Kois (1), Kent Jones (1), Jonathan Rosenbaum (4), The Turin Horse (1)