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.
The works of Nolan, Soderbergh, Fincher, Greengrass, Joss Whedon, Duncan Jones, and now Rian Johnson boast a pop sensibility while delivering sly jokes and brainy sidebars.
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.