Tag Archives: consumerism

Should Cinema be Slow and Boring?

In recent weeks, several prominent film critics have engaged in a lively back-and-forth about the question of “slow and boring” cinema. Hearkening back to the famous Pauline Kael-Andrew Sarris debates of the 60s-70s, this latest debate revives some of the classic, ongoing tensions in cinema, and raises fundamental questions about about the movies are for, and how we should watch them.

It started with Dan Kois’ piece in the New York Times Magazine, in which he basically said that he was sick of suffering through boring, artsy films, even though he knew they were good for him. Even though he still engages in what he calls “aspirational viewing” (giving artsy films a shot, hoping to connect with them in spite of their difficulties), Kois notes that he would rather not pretend to like certain films just to demonstrate refined taste:

Perhaps I’m realizing that enjoyment doesn’t necessarily have to be a performative act, even for someone who writes about movies. Or perhaps I just lack the youthful exuberance that led me to believe I could rewire my brain through repeated exposure to Antonioni. Part of me mourns the sophisticated cineaste I might never become; part of me is grateful for all the time I’ll save now that I am a bit more choosy about the aspirational viewing in which I engage.

This post was then responded to with a one-two punch from the Times’ Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, in a piece entitled “In Defense of Slow and Boring.”

Dargis unleashed her missive with a particularly large heaping of ire aimed at mindless Hollywood blockbusters such as the universally panned Hangover 2. She writes:

“As I get older,” Mr. Kois concludes, “I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables, no matter how good they may be for me.” Happily for him, movie theaters offer a cornucopia of junk food.

For instance: “The Hangover Part II,” which I find boring, raked in $137.4 million over the five-day Memorial Day weekend. It’s the kind of boring that makes money, partly because it’s the boring that many people like, want to like, insist on liking or are just used to, and partly because it’s the sort of aggressively packaged boring you can’t escape, having opened on an estimated 17 percent of American screens. Filled with gags and characters recycled from the first “Hangover,” the sequel is grindingly repetitive and features scene after similar scene of characters staring at one another stupidly, flailing about wildly and asking what happened. This is the boring that Andy Warhol, who liked boring, found, well, boring.

For his part, Scott responded not only to Kois, but also to critics like Time’s Richard Schickel, who hated Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, decrying its “twaddling pretenses,” and calling Malick “an inept filmmaker.”

Scott responded:

In Mr. Schickel’s argument, “pretentious” functions, like “boring” elsewhere, as an accusation that it is almost impossible to refute, since it is a subjective hunch masquerading as a description. Manohla, you had some reservations about “The Tree of Life,” but your dispatch on it from Cannes emphasized its self-evident and disarming sincerity. Sincerity is the opposite of pretentiousness, and while it is certainly possible to be puzzled or annoyed by Mr. Malick’s philosophical tendencies or unmoved by the images he composes or the story he tells, I don’t think there is any pretending involved.

At Salon.com, critic Andrew O’Hehir takes a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach, though he sides with “team boredom” in the end:

Suffice it to say they’re both right and both wrong and that, thankfully, hardly anyone holds those positions in their purest form. Pop culture can be a tremendously liberating collective experience, and can also be a tool and an example of totalitarianism. What remains of aristocratic high culture in the art-house tradition really does embody some of the finest aesthetic values of the post-Renaissance West, but it can also be a masochistic and exclusionary ritual, like Odysseus tied to the mast and listening to the Sirens sing. What is boring? A lot of human life is boring, and we’ve all got to pick our poison. Most people, most of the time, prefer to be distracted from the boredom of everyday life with movies that labor to entertain them — and they may get understandably pissed off at those of us who claim that those things, too, are boring.

What about works of art that are deliberately and intensively boring, in the Tarkovsky mode? They’ll almost certainly be out there somewhere, for the audience of flagellants like me who want to seek them out, but that’s hardly the point. Even if you take the most dystopian possible view, as I often do, and see a culture that has tried to build a massive edifice to keep boredom out, a Maginot Line or Berlin Wall of permanent entertainment — well, then reflect on what happened to the Maginot Line and the Berlin Wall. Boredom is like the ants’ nest underneath your picnic, or the mass of hungry zombies outside the mall. Do what you will, you can’t keep it out.

Though complex and multifaceted, I think what this debate boils down to is a question of the merits of “escapism” and the proper posture one should have towards consuming cultural items like films. If a film demands more than intellectual passivity from its audience, should we rise to the occasion and “aspire” (as Kois puts it) to get the film? Or is it our right and prerogative, as an audience, to demand that films speak to us on our level, give us what we want for a few hours (escapism), and then send us on our merry way?

Of course, beneath these questions is the complicated history and nature of the cinematic medium. Historically it’s been a popular form of diversion, more “mass entertainment” than other artistic forms. But in spite of its populist roots, there is no question that cinema has proven, from even its earliest days, that it is indeed an art form–capable of exploring, exposing, moving, and challenging audiences as effectively (or , sometimes, even more) than novels, paintings, or plays. Thus, I think we can excuse from the outset the notion that film is somehow destined, or properly meant, to solely be diversion. Film has proven itself adept at artistic achievement, and we should thus proceed in this conversation as if film is on the same level as the “high arts,” because it is–or can be.

The issue here is bigger than just film. It’s about how we consume anything, and how we look at the world. Do we really believe in the power of art to edify our lives? Are there things left to discover or learn about the world through art? Or is it merely something pleasing from which we can partake as means of reprieve or escape?

It would be easy to accuse Kois and Schickel of being lazy–just not looking hard enough or caring to exert energy in “getting” a difficult, slow or boring film. But I think it has more to do with cynicism than laziness. Sadly, our world is ever more cynical and skeptical, doubtful that anything mediated is truly true, or good, or new. We’re understandably reluctant to trust in anything mediated to us, because we’ve seen everything, we think. What could a movie possibly add that we haven’t learned from first-hand experience? It’s almost as if, in a world of over-mediated, what-can-we-trust incredulity, our physical and first-hand experience is all we can believe in.

We are also skeptical about meaning. Is it even there? Grand, ambitious attempts at meaning making are foolishness in a postmodern world (this is evident in Schickel’s insinuation that great film directors only touch on the “big questions” as an aside to the more important narrative entertainment). We’re dubious that pondering, probing, or discovering meaning in life is possible, or even desirable. Thus, why exert energy trying to figure out the nuances of what some other dude (especially some annoyingly esoteric, obtuse artist like Terrence Malick) thinks about the mysteries of existence? Just give me something I can laugh out, immerse myself in, or be amused by.

This sort of cynicism understandably makes any sort of sincere, complex or difficult art terribly arduous to endure. When we are closed off to the possibility that art can actually teach us things, or make our lives better, or reveal truth to us, then of course it becomes a chore and a bore to sit through. Kois’s “aspirational viewing” is admirable, but it seems like what he’s “aspiring” to is more a sort of in-the-know literacy than an actual discovery of beauty and truth. In the end, Kois seems to resent films that set their own terms, confront or challenge us, or suggest that we have things to learn about ourselves and our world. Escapist films are just so much more palatable.

The thing is, “escapism” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s all in how we understand what escapism means. Yes, film and other arts are great at escapism in the sense that they show us exotic worlds, take us out of our comfort zones and allow us to see and experience wonders we might otherwise never behold. But when escapism is sought after merely because it temporarily nulls the boredom, void, denial, or fear we have in confronting the world right in front of us, escapism becomes an abuse (in the same way we might abuse alcohol or some other drug). In the latter case, escapism is a selfish, lazy, quick-fix thing we use to soothe ourselves. We don’t care what the cultural text in question has to say; only what it does for us. The better approach to escapism is when we cede our control, letting the film take us where it wants to go and opening ourselves up to what it has to show us. In this, we see new scenery, new places, new perspectives. We “escape” the mundane. But we also see the mundane anew, recognizing–if we are willing to actively search–mysteries and curiosities about ourselves and our world that film and other arts are uncannily skilled at revealing.

Introducing the Poorgeoisie

Devendra

When I was in New York City earlier this year, I took some pictures of a person lying on a couch on a sidewalk in the East Village. I wasn’t sure if he was a hipster or a homeless person. This question has come up numerous times in my hipster field research over the last couple years, and it’s definitely becoming harder to tell the difference. Apparently the homeless look is hotter than ever. Actually, I first noticed the trend a few years ago in L.A. and wrote a post on my blog entitled “Derelict Chic” back in 2007.

Recently I read an article from Details that summarized and analyzed the trend quite nicely. The piece, “How Looking Poor Became the New Status Symbol,” puts the emerging class of wanna-look-poor hipsters under the microscope and coins them “the poorgeoisie.” In the article, author Steven Kandell suggests that while the poorgeoisie is largely in rebellion against the Wall Street, Reaganite yuppie set, they’re ultimately just as consumer minded. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some excerpts from the article:

While Wall Street’s hedge-funders have become whipping boys, those who have mastered the art of inconspicuous consumption are living as large as ever. But they’re not easy to spot, resembling, as they do, Trotskyite grad students—a look that doesn’t come cheap: $300 Acne jeans, $175 hand-stitched guayabera shirt, $150 mussed haircut with beard trim (not too short, please). This brand of consumerism escapes condemnation—it’s okay to be a capitalist pig as long as you’re the sort who roots around in your organic garden for truffles.

… Just because the cultural moment is dominated by bloodlust for the heads of AIG executives doesn’t mean public sentiment has turned against the accumulation of material possessions—it’s just that the material in question is likely to be double-brushed flannel. And that’s the advantage guys who look like Devendra Banhart have over guys who look like Patrick Bateman: The poorgeois are in cultural camouflage, blending in perfectly with a landscape full of genuine privation. The fact that their accoutrements may cost more than many suits is their secret pride.

Kandell goes on in the article to elaborate on the notion of “inconspicuous consumption” and “under the radar rich,” which is the form of materialism these hipsters prefer (i.e. materialism that buys only local produce, handmade clothes, hybrid cars, and anything that offsets a consumerist carbon footprint). But this is nothing particularly new. We all know that while hipsters may be a “special sort” of capitalist, they are capitalists nonetheless.

Kandell’s most insightful stuff comes at the end of the article when he describes the philosophy that underpins the poorgeois lifestyle in Brooklyn, Silver Lake, and Portland as being “almost indistinguishable from the justifications of an I-banker who drives a Maserati and wears a bespoke suit: that quality, craftsmanship, and rareness are worth paying top dollar for.”

Kandell is right on in saying that the current hipster consumer sensibility privileges anything that is “a throwback to pre-industrial times, when regular folks actually knew how to make things with their hands.” Hipsters love things that are homemade or handmade. Things like hand-carved wooden jewelry, self-cured meats, and home-grown vegetables. They also love things that are old and vintage: antique tables, grandmother’s dresses, 60s sunglasses. And Kandell also picks up on the current 20s-era speakeasy rage, which fits nicely into the new big-spending-and-yet-inconspicuous-hipster trend: “Good-bye, $300 worth of bottle-service vodka in the back corner of a velvet-rope warehouse; hello, $300 worth of single-malt-and-Chartreuse Depression-era cocktails mixed by a mustachioed dude wearing an arm garter.” It’s SO true. I’ve seen this in person and its exactly as Kandell describes—down to the arm garter.

Of course, on one level none of this is really new. Thorstein Veblen wrote all about this stuff back in 1899 with his book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Even back then in the Victorian era, Veblen picked up on the fact that the fashionable classes found authentic or hand-made things desirable while mass-produced, machine-made products were deemed unsightly and pedestrian.

“The ground of the superiority of hand-wrought good, therefore, is a certain margin of crudeness. This margin must never be so wide as to show bunging workmanship, since that would be evidence of low cost, nor so narrow as to suggest the ideal precision attained only by the machine, for that would be evidence of low cost… The objection to machine products is often formulated as an objection to the commonness of such goods. What is common is within the (pecuniary) reach of many people. Its consumption is therefore not honorific, since it does not serve the purpose of a favourable invidious comparison with other consumers. Hence the consumption, or even the sight of such goods, is inseparable from an odious suggestion of the lower levels of human life, and one comes away from their contemplation with a pervading sense of meanness that is extremely distasteful and depressing to a person of sensibility.”

How true Veblen’s words are even today! Though the Victorian aristocrats he was writing about likely would faint at the prospect of dressing like a destitute vagrant, they share many other attributes with the contemporary poorgeoisie hipsters. Both seek things that are rare and hard-to-find (and thus inaccessible to the mainstream masses); both avoid the “common” things that are mass produced and mass consumed by people with negligible taste (things like McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and pleated slacks). And though the Victorian aristocrat was a lot more conspicuous than the more socially conscious “I can only spend $30 on a cocktail in the secret speakeasy darkness where no homeless person or starving child will see me” hipster, both are in the business of finding and accumulating (or imbibing) high quality things.

So before hipsters start decrying the audacious, materialistic lives of their suburban hedge fund foes, they should probably take a look at themselves and audit their own consumptive habits.