Boredom on the battlefield, a.k.a. Both sides have run out of ammunition in the culture war

Diane,

I apologize for the overly verbose title of this entry, but I wanted to waste all my ideas early on so as to be able to babble through the actual content here rather quickly, and allow disinterested readers to just skim it.  Hopefully though, Diane, you have better taste than that, and will follow me through to the bitter end.

The “culture war” I am referring to in that bold-faced behemoth above is the decrepit Methuselah “High Art vs. Low Art.”  It goes by other names, but that one should be sufficient for you to recall its filthy details and general lack of character.  This argument has whiskers growing on its whiskers; it has wrinkles where its eyes should be and earlobes that rest on its shoulders.  Yet still people keep trotting it out for tedious and meaningless dog-and-pony shows.  Just today I was beschmegma’d with two more insufferable examples. 

Here’s Stephanie Zacherek of Salon.com, standing up for the virtues of Mr. Bean:

“It seems that many moviegoers and critics have relegated the Mr. Bean character and the Mr. Bean movies (this one included) to the kid-stuff pile, that sad category of third-tier entertainment that’s good enough for little tykes but not intelligent enough for adults. Where people get these ideas, I have no clue. I’ve already spotted some yawning, hipper-than-thou reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, claiming that Atkinson is just ripping off Jacques Tati…

“‘Mr. Bean’s Holiday’ does pay obeisance to Tati, but perhaps even more so to Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd: This is silent-movie comedy stripped of art-house pretensions, not steeped in them. Atkinson shows a clear admiration for Tati’s way with a sight gag, but he has none of Tati’s measured, test-tube preciousness. If your idea of a fun night out is tittering ‘Oho!’ behind a gloved hand, then ‘Mr. Bean’s Holiday’ probably isn’t for you.”

Now Diane – I am as prone to tittering “Oho!” (and other exclamations of surprise and delight) as the next man; perhaps more so, when the next man is Bob Saget or LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers.  And on other, somewhat infrequent occasions, my hands are gloved.  I can’t accurately count the total number of occurrences of me tittering “Oho!” behind my hand, when it was gloved, but I’d guess the number is higher than zero and lower than four.  And does this constitute a fun night out for me?  Well, “constitute” is a strong word… let me get back to you on that.

My point, really, is that I’ve been known to enjoy some movies with art house pretensions and/or performances laced with test-tube preciousness.*  I don’t seek these things out but at the same time, they don’t grate on me.  Not like they appear to grate on Zacharek, anyway, judging by this quote – or these previous ones in a review of Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic”: “self-congratulatory and precociously bratty”… “feels too overworked, too ‘designed'”… “seems far too taken with its own cleverness.” 

At the very least in the case of “The Life Aquatic” Zacharek uses some modifiers (too much of this, a whole lotta that) that imply to the reader why she dislikes the quality she’s griping about in the movie.  I suppose one can have too much of anything, except cheese and chunky tomato sauce on a Giordano’s pizza, and cool breezes on a hot day.  But more often Zacharek and other anti-cleverness reviewers are guilty of stating facts about the movie they are reviewing as if they are value judgements, when in fact they’re just descriptions.  A movie can be clever, precious, designed, self-aware, precocious, and overworked without actually being BAD.  These are not negative descriptors – unless you are predisposed to agree with her that these qualities are bothersome, and then they are so.  All she’s telling us is that like-minded opponents of intellectualism and art house tropes will hate this movie the way she does.  She’s not really explaining why, or opening up her thought processes to people who don’t already agree with her.  In short, she’s failing at criticism.

On the other side of the coin, The Onion’s immensely readable AV Club has a weekly feature called “Ask the AV Club.”  One disgusting little puke asks away:

“As a developing cineaste, I am often bothered by Hollywood’s output and how easily it influences the masses. ‘The movies have been so rank the last couple of years that when I see people lining up to buy tickets I sometimes think that the movies aren’t drawing an audience — they’re inheriting an audience.’ That’s the familiar first line to Pauline Kael’s 1980 essay/rant ‘Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers,’ and it still seems to hold true today, over two decades later. But working at a wage-slave job, I am repeatedly subjected to the vox populi as espoused by my co-workers. Where I might see the trailers for the recent Adam-Sandler-attempts-cultural-relevancy comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry or the $8-Babysitter Underdog, I see nothing but creative bankruptcy and low-common-denominator pandering. But then I hear a co-worker talk about how the movie looks funny or interesting, and I suddenly realize how Shrek The Third can do so well at the box office.

“But to my problem: How does one politely inform people that their taste is dreadful? I don’t like to think of myself as a elitist snob (although sometimes I am), nor do I want to be seen as a sore, bitter crank, so I normally just bite my tongue in these situations. Perhaps the critics at The A.V. Club are only surrounded by smart, well-informed cinephiles (or at least people that can defend their bad taste), but this is a regular occurrence since Hollywood keeps green-lighting bad movies. Any feedback would be useful or entertaining.”

Sincerely, One Effete Moron.  Dear Moron: allow me to step in and brush aside the AV Club’s rather-too-polite response to you in favor of one with larger, brassier balls attached.  Take it from someone who has recently admitting to tittering behind gloved and ungloved hand: you really need to spend some time watching “Porky’s” while eating a McRib sandwich and getting a blowjob from a chubby chick.  Because life’s little pleasures have so far been avoiding you like the plague. 

Maybe we share a taste for the mannered preciousness of Wes Anderson, Effete Moron, but I also like to dip my toes in the stupid end once in a while.  Yes, those pedestrian hacks of cable TV and blockbuster movie season can occasionally put something in front of you that is – gasp – worth your time and money.  Or at least entertaining enough to warrant queueing it up in Netflix and then bumping it repeatedly for that French movie about modern alienation.**

The fact is, Steph and Effete, that your high and low art aren’t as separate as you think they are; your judgements and continued self-image issues pertaining to this aren’t very interesting (certainly not interesting enough for publication on the web or any other venue); and many of the rest of us are sick and fucking tired of reading the salvos fired in your ongoing war for controlling the depths of tedium.  I would love to read more letters to the editor and movie reviews that do not state in bold italics which side of this fence the writer is sitting on.  More of us need to be riding that fence, in fact.  Maybe enough of us to flatten the bastard. 

And then off we’ll go into the sunset, scarfing a filet o’ fish and tittering behind a greasy, gloved hand.

* Whatever the fucking fuck that is; I mean, honestly, Ms. Zacharek, couldn’t you spend five extra seconds grasping for metaphors and come up with one that resonates a little more than that?  This test tube metaphor is all meat and no bone – all hat and no cattle.  (And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is a real metaphor… courtesy of our good friends in Texas.)

** All of them.

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4 Responses to Boredom on the battlefield, a.k.a. Both sides have run out of ammunition in the culture war

  1. JimPanzee says:

    A little late getting into the fray (I am) so I just read this today and then I read this:

    http://www.futilitycloset.com/2007/08/26/critic-fatigue/

    And it seemed pertinent. Enjoy.

  2. gin rickey says:

    this is not unrelated to some things we talked about previously.
    why are you so against the idea of a value judgement in art?
    you seem to be for one in criticism?
    (i just skimmed your article, so i may not be understanding what you were trying to get across)

  3. I think the skimming is definitely interfering with your understanding. I’m certainly not opposed to people having opinions about things, even adamant or irrational ones. What bugs me is people who have it as a critical part of their self-image that they stake out some territory on one side or the other of the High Art vs. Low Art debate, and can’t participate in criticism without bringing that debate into it. It’s not enough for Stephanie Zacharek to write about the new Mr. Bean movie; she also has to comment on other criticisms of same, and explain how the reviewers in question are snobby High Art disciples who need to be taken down a peg. This vein of criticism is exceedingly boring to me. I don’t want to read Arty McSnoot’s take on Mr. Bean, but I really, really don’t want to read Stephanie Zacharek’s article that is allegedly a review of Mr. Bean, but is actually a response to the people she perceives as Arty McSnoot-types. Fuck ’em all, I says. Give me the reviews that just explain whether this Mr. Bean fellow is worth my time.

  4. […] Zacharek is the most active movie reviewer for Salon.com, and has long been one of my least favorite reviewers working for any publication.  Recently she took a lot of flak over her review of “The Dark […]

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