Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Church of the Cultured Mind: The Cinematheque's The Best of the Decade List

“I have had enough serious interest in the products of the ‘higher’ arts to be very sharply aware that the impulse which leads me to a Humphrey Bogart movie has little in common with the impulse which leads me to the novels of Henry James or the poetry of T.S. Eliot…To define that connection seems to me one of the tasks of film criticism, and the definition must be first of all a personal one. A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he’s that man.”

--Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience, 1955.

We seemed to have come a slippery distance from the time when critic Robert Warshow eagerly expressed curiosity about an impulse, or a justification to make a connection between what is often deemed “high culture” and “low culture.” One look at the TIFF Cinematheque Best of the Decade list tells you that there is no desire, or curiosity, to connect with anything but their own church of refined taste. This is why it is really immaterial to discuss what’s on their list of the best films of the past decade. In examining their choices, I’m sure that we can all find things we love (The Gleaners and I, Yi Yi), things we dislike (Syndromes and a Century, Caché), even things we didn’t see – and perhaps might want to (Songs from the Second Floor). What is more important, as the previous writers on this site attested, is to discuss what isn’t on it – and why.

That question seemed to elude many of the critics who wrote about the series. It’s often been said that the political media has become self-serving and fawning rather than skeptical when it comes to covering politics. But I’d have to extend that view also to our coverage of the arts. The write-ups on the Best of the Decade list revealed a true dearth of critical thinking. What we got instead was friendly consumer reports with enough celebratory bunting and balloons to fill a convention hall. To be critical doesn’t mean necessarily panning the event. I’m speaking actually of pieces that ask thoughtful questions about just what this series represents and maybe why. But I’m afraid that as the gulf between “high culture” and “low culture” has grown wider over the years, the line between criticism and consumer reporting has also narrowed dramatically. But I sense something else going on here as well. The list, which calls itself an ‘alternative,’ is out to make a statement. But it’s not one that sets out to create bridges between the best of “high art” and the best of “low art.” It’s instead about drawing lines in the sand and guarding the gates against the commercial philistines who dare drag dirt into their living room. The Best of the Decade list is not an open and expansive invitation to film lovers; it’s a calling to a hermitage, a hushed seminary for film theorists to worship in.

Robert Warshow
Over the past few decades, theory began to dominate campuses where many liberal arts scholars and writers have studied. Instead of the more expansive criticism once extolled by cultural critics like Leslie Fiedler, Pauline Kael, Norman O. Brown or Herbert Marcuse, they were replaced by the chilly, detached and cerebral musings of post-structuralists like Derrida, Foucault and Lecan.Theory began sounding the death knoll of criticism. Where criticism teaches you how to think, theory tells you what to think. To be critical means to be in flux, where you’re often forced to struggle with intuition and knowledge, in order to seek some understanding of the truth. “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he’s that man,” as Warshow wrote. Criticism leaves you open to experience – wherever it comes from – to expand your base of knowledge, so that you’re always questioning assumptions. Theory offers you a secure, ready-made solution where you merely gather data to support it (and ignore inconvenient little realities that might refute it).

Many of the movies on the Best of the Decade list are a theorist’s paradise. For instance, if you closely look at their few concessions to American “commercial” fare (A History of Violence, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Far From Heaven) they’re not included because of their dramatic content. Dramatically speaking, A History of Violence is barely a coherent story. But theoretically, I suppose, you could sum it up as “the return of the repressed.” Far From Heaven is not really a dramatic rendering of ‘50s suburban America. It’s more the movie equivalent of a University position paper on ‘50s Hollywood melodramas. But I think that’s what the film curators love it for, the picture’s overtly self-conscious and cerebral tone. Some argue that this list is deliberately exclusive so audiences can experience and discover rare films that never get the attention commercial fare does. But if that’s true, why then isn’t a great director like Jan Troell (As White as in Snow, Everlasting Moments), whose films audiences rarely ever see, represented by even a single one of his movies from this past decade? It’s a simple answer. As a lyrical, poetic dramatist, he doesn’t show the formal rigor necessary to earn a seat on their pantheon of major artists. When critic Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag died this past decade, guess who was given a tribute at the Cinematheque? Sontag, with her disdain of popular culture, was by far the favoured choice, unlike Kael who could love Renoir as equally as she did The Ritz Brothers. Isn’t it possible that perhaps both were worthy of the honour? Not if your lines of demarcation separate the artiste from the populist.

There’s no question that what constitutes mass culture today is troubling. When The Dark Knight is considered cutting-edge and Up in the Air is being discussed as if it’s a thoughtful tome on our times, it’s maybe tempting to seek shelter with those guardians of high culture. But, for me, despite the mindless product of mass culture, movies have always been the most democratic art form. Everybody goes to the movies. (It’s a claim that you unfortunately can’t make for opera, art galleries, or poetry readings.) Part of the reason for the huge of appeal of films is that they combine and draw upon the essence of all of the arts. Movies can be equally enjoyable as trashy fun, or they can be sublime works that stir you for decades. The Cinematheque curators, on the other hand, treat film as if it were an art specimen. They evade trash, distrust conventional, popular narrative, and break out in hives at the mere mention of Steven Spielberg (unless it’s Godard putting him down). “[H]igh art can be just as fraudulent, evasive, and pandering towards its own constituencies as the lowest, most shameless Hollywood blockbuster,” wrote Howard Hampton in Born in Flames, his lively book of essays on popular culture. Instead of providing audiences with an alternative to the worst in mass culture, the Cinematheque’s film curators have with this list made themselves an island onto themselves.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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