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Tue September 18, 2012
The Sophistication Problem: James Bond, Gene Kelly, And The Limbs We Live On
In an excellent piece at the Press Play blog at Indiewire, Matt Zoller Seitz writes of a screening of From Russia With Love, where he found that much of the audience was too busy guffawing at the elements it found dated to engage the film on its own terms. While he writes eloquently and angrily about the phenomenon of ironic distance, the killer line is this one: "It's up to the individual viewer to decide to connect or not connect with a creative work. By 'connect,' I mean connect emotionally and imaginatively — giving yourself to the movie for as long as you can, and trying to see the world through its eyes and feel things on its wavelength."
As someone who prizes the opportunity to attend screenings of old movies myself from time to time, I've certainly felt this frustration acutely. The universe of work that can only be enjoyed ironically seems to be growing, past what was always camp to what was never good to what was never great, and has now swallowed what is of its time and what is simply unfamiliar. There is, to be sure, a brand of filmgoer whose internal programming says, "If you don't recognize it, it's weird, and if it's weird, it's funny, and if it's funny, your reactions should be at it and not to it."
Seitz goes on to tell a story from a film class he took in college in which the professor showed Singin' In The Rain, which a good part of the class chuckled at, finding it corny and unbelievable. After delivering a lecture on the importance of deciding to engage with a film as it is, the professor in the story delivered the admonition that offered Seitz his headline: "This movie is not unsophisticated. You are."
It should alarm no one if beginning film students were unsophisticated in their approach; after all, they were beginning film students. If we truly believe that film is art that can be studied like anything else, then we can't be surprised that everyone doesn't waltz into an introductory class with a sophisticated understanding of the material; they're there to be educated. They're there to develop a nuanced approach.
But a nuanced approach is a tricky thing. Ironic distancing from the unfamiliar is certainly fatal to any effort to learn anything at all; if you considered every equation you'd never seen before to be strange-funny rather than strange-new, you wouldn't learn any math, either.
On the other hand, just as a nuanced approach to film might require you to engage the film, perhaps it also requires us to engage the disengagement and wonder why it's there. Perhaps it's just laziness, but what if it's not? Why are some old movies that bear the stamps of their eras chuckled at and others aren't? I suspect that if you showed many of those James Bond chucklers and Gene Kelly snorters Bonnie And Clyde or The French Connection, they would probably know they weren't supposed to laugh at what was dated or melodramatic.
James Bond pictures have something in common with Singin' In The Rain, after all: their pleasures are sensual and accessible, rather than intellectual. When Seitz talks about From Russia With Love, he acknowledges its appeal is not as a piece of art, but as a "cheeky erotic daydream." Similarly — and ironically, really — it requires no particular sophistication at all to enjoy Singin' In The Rain other than avoiding a specifically unsophisticated mindset that makes you reject it. (I fell in love with it as a 15-year-old high school girl whose other favorite movie was The Sure Thing. Sophistication had nothing to do with it.)
We tend to associate sophistication with the ability to think in an advanced, critical, analytical way, but in fact, in both of these cases, what seems to be missing from the ironically detached is the sophistication to allow themselves sensory pleasure, not cerebral enrichment, from film. Singin' In The Rain is a glorious accomplishment, brilliant and beautiful and perfect in my big beating heart, but it is nothing as much as it is distilled joy.
Similarly, a James Bond film — and not being a James Bond person, I might perhaps substitute something like Die Hard on a similar principle, admittedly with less eroticism and less indelible iconography — may be artfully done (the Die Hard DVD commentary is one of my favorites ever, revealing as it does the amount of creative care that went into such a populist piece), but mostly wants to be a pleasure delivery vehicle.
What is actually unsophisticated in the approach of the perpetually distanced viewer is precisely the effort to be theoretically sophisticated: to appreciate only what is serious and important and canonical, to favor anything dark over anything light because that's what makes you smart. These are often the mental workings of people who mistake reflexive skepticism for discernment, which it isn't — it is definitionally no more discerning than reflexive boosterism.
What is also problematic is the influence of the crowd. I suspect that few of those chucklers are in it alone; most are very conscious of the people around them. Particularly in a film class, I suspect they're very conscious of how their reactions will be perceived in terms of defining their scholarship and placing them on an emerging map of who is serious and who is not. What's crippling them isn't just a shortage of sophistication but an abundance of cultural orthodoxy.
Cultural orthodoxy for a mainstream audience might mean embracing superhero movies or feel-good dramas, but when you're a beginning film student and your peers are your point of reference, it might well consist of aggressive disdain itself, of thinking everything is crap except maybe the French New Wave, Quentin Tarantino, and a few obscure horror movies everybody else probably hasn't heard of. Disdain is easier than enthusiasm because you can do it with a hand wave, and quite unfairly, it has a better intellectual reputation.
The great risk, though, is that if you grasp a person by the shoulders and tell him he's unsophisticated for his response — as the film teacher did at the closing of the Singin' In The Rain showing — he won't learn the lesson you mean to teach. He won't learn that he needs to think in a nuanced way about the pleasure and the art and the cultural commentary of film. What he will learn is, "Don't react incorrectly, or people will ridicule you."
That's the mindset I actually fear more than ironic distancing: the refusal to react at all until you know how your reaction will be received. That goes hand in hand with the insidious practice of using what you like and dislike to define not just your taste but your place. It's a quieter, less conspicuous, but just as destructive failure to engage. It's how people learn to substitute what they should think for what they actually think, to the point where they don't trust their own reactions. (Thus the exploding popularity of the term "guilty pleasure," which is designed to allow you to acknowledge what you actually like without making it appear that you don't know what it's correct to like.)
When I was at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, one of the things that struck me was the hesitation to react that I heard over and over in overheard conversations. I heard so much "Weeeeell, it was okay," and so much "Weeeeell, I didn't like it and I didn't hate it," and so much "Weeeeeell, I thought, you know, it was fine," that I began to realize that while some of those reactions grew out of legitimate ambivalence, some of them came from a desire to figure out which way the wind was blowing before they bent in any direction. It's a cautious reaction, but not a particularly nuanced one. In its way, it works: they may not have learned to be unsophisticated, but they have learned how not to be called unsophisticated.
That's why critics, I think, have to be mindful of the role we play in creating not just the notion of sophistication that says only the sad and serious can be good and meaningful and can deserve your buy-in, but also the notion of sophistication that says there is only one right answer, and your sophistication depends on your ability to reach that single answer. The film-student orthodoxy of James Bond Is Silly And Old Stuff Isn't Cool is one problem, but so are the self-sealing orthodoxies of If You Didn't Like It, You Didn't Get It and I Guess It's Okay If You Have Low Standards. We are sometimes careful to couch these things in different terms — the review that diplomatically starts out, "This film isn't for everyone," only to later slip in a comment suggesting that those the film is not "for" are those whose powers of perception are lacking, or the review that explains a film's potential appeal by explaining away its audience.
What has to be preserved in film aficionados and film students and film critics is not just the ability to appreciate James Bond or Singin' In The Rain. What has to be preserved is the ability to show a kind of open-minded assertiveness, where what you learn and what you hear informs your reaction but doesn't define it.
I'm happy to smack the back of the head of anyone who — as Seitz's friend puts it — comes to a movie just to "feel superior to it." But it's possible that someone might sit through Singin' In The Rain with an open mind and still find it corny, or that the eroticism that so entices Seitz in the title sequence of From Russia With Love might play to someone else as an unpleasant reduction of women to disembodied parts. (And I don't think he'd disagree that that reaction would be valid.) What matters is that a reaction to a piece of art — or even just entertainment — be considered, not that it reach a final conclusion that is correct. It really is the journey, not the destination. It really is about how much you can show your work.
No one owes it to anyone else, or to the abstract art of film, to like The Master or Citizen Kane just because of the lists they appear on or the awards they win. But we do perhaps owe it to a film to, as Seitz says, try to "connect emotionally and imaginatively."
Sometimes, make no mistake, you'll do that and someone will take you by the shoulders and tell you you're unsophisticated anyway. The challenge isn't to avoid that admonition, because even if you revert to strict obedience to what everybody supposedly knows, you can't. The challenge is to rigorously interrogate your own responses again and again, whether you're reacting to James Bond or Terrence Malick, and live comfortably in whatever critical space that leaves for you.