Critics proclaiming the end of art cinema are missing out on the way Pulp Fiction inspired a generation to rethink the distinctions between "high" and "low" movies.
"[T]here's no point in pretending that movies play the same dominant role in our culture that they once did or that art-house movies of the sort the [New York Film Festival] so lovingly curates have any impact at all on the American cultural mainstream."
"I've seen two mass-market movies already this weekend that were more thought-provoking than the 'death of film culture' essay I just read."
Spend more than a couple of months reading about film, and you'll come to an inescapable conclusion: The only movie-world standby that's in no danger of extinction is the think piece on the death of cinema. The latest entry in the "time of death" sweepstakes is Andrew O'Hehir's Salon piece "Is Movie Culture Dead?," one of the graver obituaries to date. "Film culture, at least in the sense people once used that phrase, is dead or dying," O'Hehir writes. "Back in what we might call the Susan Sontag era, discussion and debate about movies was often perceived as the icy-cool cutting edge of American intellectual life. Today it's a moribund and desiccated leftover that's been cut off from ordinary life, from the mainstream of pop culture and even from what remains of highbrow or intellectual culture."
O'Hehir is one of our finest film writers, but this kind of bell-ringing and doom-saying has been going on for decades (see David Denby and David Thompson last month in The New Republic by and James Wolcott last spring in Vanity Fair). And the idea that a vibrant film culture is dead was all but neutralized by the immediate tizzy the piece prompted on Twitter and the blogosphere—which was probably the aim to begin with. If there's any revelation here, it's that everyone fell for the taunt one more time.
But there is one very telling, and perhaps instructive, line in the piece, a throwaway claim about halfway through. "Film culture," O'Hehir writes, "in my now-defunct Susan Sontag sense—has a history, and I think it pretty much ended with Pulp Fiction, the brief indie-film boom of the late '90s and the rise of the Internet. It's just taken us a while to realize it." The line caught my eye because it seemed so startlingly false: For many of us who were in our 20s and younger when Tarantino's masterpiece exploded like a dirty bomb in theaters across the country, Pulp Fiction was the moment when film culture began. Fiction was where our awareness of not only film's rich history, but how that history could be reinterpreted, repurposed, and reinvigorated, came to a head. For O'Hehir (and Wolcott, and their ilk), their version of film culture may very well be dead. But film culture is not. It's merely become something else that they don't recognize.
Like O'Hehir, I've come to this conclusion after two weeks of preparation for the 50th New York Film Festival—a time in which I've seen a great many films, from Antonio Mendez Esparza's quietly powerful Here and There to Cristian Mungiu's riveting yet low-key Beyond the Hills to Christian Petzold's modest character drama Barbara. But I have to confess that I've seen nothing at the NYFF that resonated as deeply or engaged me as thoroughly as Looper—yes, a Bruce Willis action movie, but one with an ingeniously worked-out plot, surprisingly deep emotions, and a thing or two to say about the uncertainty of inevitability. Moreover, it's a lot of fun, which is a quality that doesn't have to exist separately from cinematic brilliance. It would be easy to presume otherwise; too many film writers turn up a collective nose at films aimed at reaching and cheering a mass audience, as though truly great cinema must be met (at least) halfway.
I overheard that kind of snobbery in the disdainful tones of critics departing the festival's screening venue before The Bay, a creature feature running in the fest's "Midnight Movies" sidebar that may well have been the most unabashedly fun film I've seen there. Sure, it's pop, a horror thriller in the "found footage" mold, but it's done with wit and precision and genuine craftsmanship. Is it high culture? Probably not, so kudos to NYFF for programming it. The festival's other highlight to date, in terms of pure enjoyment, is Ang Lee's Life of Pi, an exhilarating 3D epic overflowing with adventure, heart, and crackerjack filmmaking. But the rhapsodic notices it received when it premiered last Friday may have had as much to do with the quality of the film as they did with the thrill of discovering a picture that is both first-rate cinema and an indisputable crowd-pleaser.
For me, the "film culture" that O'Hehir is lamenting exists in items like You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, the NYFF Main Slate selection by Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad). Maybe it's blasphemy to give up on a Resnais, but I'll own it: I couldn't find a way into the film, so I looked for a way out of the theater. It's handsomely staged and marvelously cast, but the picture is so frightfully dull that I couldn't lock in on it. He's so busy constructing magical realism and frames within frames that he doesn't accomplish the simpler task of engrossing his audience. Even worse is the Main Slate documentary Leviathan, a fly-on-the-wall portrait of commercial fisherman that almost seems designed to challenge its audience to pay attention—it's more like watching murky home movies than an actual film. At the post-screening Q&A, critics grappled for meaning; one asked, not unreasonably, if there was some buried message about the commercial fishing industry. "One thing we're trying to do is make films that don't say anything," announced co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor with pride. Mission accomplished, I guess.
Any serious filmgoer must wrestle with a pervading sense of guilt and fear. I feel guilty that I can't find solace in the high-minded intellectualism of the Resnais or the experimental rhythms of Leviathan or dozens of other films that I know I should like (or admire, or respect), but don't. And I fear the implications of that resistance: that it makes me some kind of ignoramus, salivating over Transformers movies and Adam Sandler comedies, or worse, an Armond White-style troll. I can tick off my favorite obscure art films in an attempt to deflect that argument (I even liked the Leviathan directors' previous effort Sweetgrass—a leisurely documentary about sheepherding), but it's bound to sound like someone insisting he has plenty of black friends when called on a racist joke.
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Point is, there can be a middle ground. I came of age in the 1980s, as part of the "MTV generation" that's always been such a concern with regards to shortened attention spans and decreased cultural capability. But I would argue that the moviegoers who were born of that era merely have a different set of expectations for mass entertainment—and so do the filmmakers that are our contemporaries. Pulp Fiction crystalized a pop sensibility that had been coursing through a thriving independent cinema since She's Gotta Have It, and furthered the radical notion that art house movies didn't just have to be structurally innovative or narratively experimental. They could also be enjoyable for a mass audience, and could attract that mass audience with traditional mainstream elements (guns, cars, drugs, Bruce Willis) that were as much a part of the filmmaker's toolbox as nuanced characterization and off-kilter storytelling.
This is nothing new; the best directors of the studio system, the Fords and Hawkses and Hitchcocks, did the same. The best mainstream studio films of the years since Fiction—the works of Nolan, Soderbergh, Fincher, Greengrass, Joss Whedon, Duncan Jones, and now Rian Johnson (whose crossover breakthrough also employs guns, cars, drugs, and Bruce Willis)—have synthesized those elements, encompassing and catering to that pop sensibility while delivering sly jokes and brainy sidebars. The best indie filmmakers, meanwhile, fuse those elements into their own idiosyncratic visions. That's why, at risk of making it a generational thing, so many film lovers of a certain Gen-X/Y age range respond to those films as passionately as they do. And that passion carries weight. The year's top three films to date (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hunger Games) were genre exercises, yes, and capitalized on pre-existing properties, but were also good films (all scoring above 85 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).
In her deservedly immortal Harper's essay "Trash, Art, and the Movies," Pauline Kael wrote, "We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art." What's more, Kael insisted that "if we don't go to movies for excitement, if, even as children, we accept the cultural standards of refined adults, if we have so little drive that we accept 'good taste,' then we will probably never begin to care about movies at all." Kael was no anti-intellectual; she wasn't just looking for empty thrills. But she also wasn't interested in emotion-free "cinema art," which is what we often end up discussing when tossing around phrases like "film culture." If that kind of thing is on the way out, then good riddance.