Ten years ago Armond White surveyed the state of “the movies” and film criticism in his “First of the Month” piece, “Things Done Changed: The McDonald’s Theory of Moviegoing.” White began with a quote from Pauline Kael’s classic 1968 essay, “Trash, Art and the Movies” – “Can one demonstrate that trash desensitizes us, that it prevents people from enjoying something better, that it limits our range of aesthetic response?” – and he came back to Kael’s essay in the body of his article, explaining how her premises had been “undermined.”
Kael memorably ended her piece with the line. “Trash has given us an appetite for art.” She stood on a solid foundation of traditional Liberal Arts education while rebelling against stodginess. But in the 30 years since – in the wake of “Star Wars,” “Flashdance,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Titanic” – it’s apparent that trash increasingly gives movie audiences a taste for more trash. And film producers as well as film critics and their editors have responded accordingly – praising top grossers, steadily tallying weekend box office results, championing hits, not artists; gimmicks not vision. “Is it a blockbuster or a dog?” asked a late-night NBC movie maven.
“Arts and Letters Daily,” the popular internet cache of contemporary cultural criticism, recently linked to a piece that re-upped on White’s line on Kael’s legacy [http://www.nationalpost.com/story-printer.html?id=5f09359a-f961-4c63-86aa-da0d2741a100]. A decade after “Things Done Changed” it was striking to read Robert Fulford’s “sad and rueful” (and otherwise unremarkable) attempt to connect Kael to “the spirit of the Age” – “the dynamic that turned most of the slick magazines into abject publicity sheets…the same mysterious impulse that drove university professors to write books about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
“Arts and Letters Daily’s” link to Fulford’s take on the Zietgeist serves as a reminder that Armond White is often years ahead of his peers. The following excerpt from “Things Done Changed” remains right on time.
Cinephilia has been replaced by hysteria: the quiet hysteria of those who defend personal passions against the loud, inexorable drive of the marketplace. Hysteria that is the result of the triumph of capitalism and the changes it has wrought in the ways people use film to ease their anxieties. The dialectic between the idea of cinema and commercial convention (what Pauline Kael prefers to call “the movies”) is inoperative. That’s the reason, in the 80’s, Jean-Luc Godard resorted to making video auto-critiques to explain his own features Sauve Qui Peut/La Vie and Passion. Since there was no longer a community he could address by making new films, he wound up talking to himself, as serious critics must.
But most criticism these days simply does the bidding of the film industry. It’s advertisement. Not the work of the thinker, the scholar or even the discriminating fan. “Liking” movies (a diminishing of cinephilia) is now the approved pop impulse and the adolescent McDonald’s response – unconnected to adult intelligence – rules. Contemporary audiences don’t have a vision of art or a high ideal to which they can aspire. The “entertainment” rubric has superseded the expression of concepts and feelings that past generations of filmgoers – weaned on Griffith as well as Renoir and Welles and Godard and Truffaut – once appreciated. Critics have forsaken films’ humanist tradition in the service of a new sensation-hungry audience – generations who only know thrill rides and big grosses at the object of film-making.
The old idea of film as a great democratizing art is a bludgeoned faith. La Scala once honored Visconti for “the cultural maturity he encouraged in audiences.” But after years of seeing “popular” decline into “gross” – years when pop art devolved into inept formula – we can only despair for the movies (and for the prospect of Jim Carrey’s audience) rising above the mythicizing lies of The Truman Show to commune at the best as at a fountain of paradise. Now the best is no longer popular but seems beyond people’s reach, beyond their ken. We who see disjuncture between movies and audiences long for the connection between art and people, the bond of understanding that once transformed kitsch into art. It made Boyz N the Hood credible but not Menace II Society, Bulworth pertinent but not Rosewood. Audiences that only want their own reflections – or Hollywood’s funhouse distortions – have lost the link to others taught by the Humanities. We once learned that Moby Dick and The Sound and the Fury matter because of the richness and guidance to be found there. And it was the blessings of cinema to bring such richness and guidance out of the Academy and into the air. Movies used to be American Studies 101. THINGS DONE CHANGED.
It all comes down to the prevailing aesthetic of triviality. The rejection of Amistad and Bulworth may indeed demonstrate that trash desensitizes us to something better, limiting our range of moral and aesthetic response. So how does a critic address that popular audience that matters most initially – the youthful one that must fuse tradition and taste with currency? I think the first priority is for critics to stand up for the idea that movies are not simply entertainment – better yet, that entertainment need not be simplistic. The 60’s pop notion that trivial/disposable culture ought to be celebrated is indefensible now. Critics should train their readers to expect complexity and daring in art; to disengage from Hollywood and tv equations of film-watching with escapism. Right now, intellectuals seem committed to diversion – especially those disingenuous film critics who celebrated last year’s film release of Star Wars but not The Godfather, who recently cheered the trailer for the next Star Wars installment rather than confound the market by explicating the subtleties of Saving Private Ryan and Beloved.
Above all, practicing film critics, as well as scholars, should recall the movies’ cultural heritage, underlining film’s relation to other arts. In doing so, though, it will be necessary to insist on – and celebrate – the transformations in cultural tone reflected in Amistad, Bulworth, and [Ira] Sach’s The Delta. These culturally radical movies make conventional films like L.A. Confidential or The Truman Show unacceptable. Truffaut famously lamented: “Once you are able to make movies, you can no longer make the movies that made you want to make them.” Something similar has occurred along the way as film culture has sped up from buffdom to cinephilia to our current hip-savvy. It’s tragic that all our sophistication about movies and genre and popular culture has alienated filmgoers from the values of humanist cinema and the importance of human continuity. It could be related to the growth of home viewing via video cassettes and dvds – which encourages isolation while reducing the medium’s visual and spatial dimension. As movies shrink, so does their popular effect.