The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

If brevity is the soul of wit then long drawn-out stories are the soul of arthouse pretension

Dan Kois in the New York Times complains of experiencing a certain high culture fatigue. He's a movie reviewer and culture critic and he notes that whereas he's long succeeded in force feeding himself slow-moving boring films and television, he's finally reached a point where's he's tired of it and is constantly nagged, while watching this fare, by thoughts that he's got better things to do. Though I can definitely sympathize with him (I went through a many-year period of cultural elitism, watching primarily arthouse films and listening to decidedly modern classical and avant-garde jazz, and I, like him, eventually got tired of digesting this type of art), unlike him, I don't feel guilty about failing to appreciate this type of slow boring film because I don't retain the same high opinion of it as he. In fact, part of what inspired my change in cultural diet is a well-founded skepticism of the supposed highness of this "high art."

It's interesting that Kois starts off his article by comparing his experience to his six-year old daughter watching a fast-paced, densely-packed kids show, Phineas and Ferb. His daughter struggles with the show because it moves too quickly, contains references she doesn't get and has plots that (at least for a six year old) are dizzyingly complex. The problem, though, is that Kois tries to say the experience of his six-year old watching this show is like him watching a slow-paced and meditative film like Solaris and Meek's Cutoff. But the comparison makes no sense. The way he describes Meek's Cutoff (I haven't personally seen it), it sounds like a movie that in no way approaches the type of challenges that Phineas and Ferb presents his daughter. The plot is simplistic; the characters are sparse; one doesn't have to pay close attention to every moment to make sure one doesn't miss something because there's not a lot going on. In fact, it's sounds like his daughter would probably have a lot less trouble following the plot of Meek's Cutoff than Phineas and Ferb (ignoring the fact that the daughter wouldn't get many of the adult themes and relationships and would have no tolerance for the ponderous pace). Solaris (which I have seen) is similar: not a lot happens, there aren't many characters, there's not much to digest. In short, one other way of describing slow-paced and meditative movies is: simplistic.

I would never want to say that the only measure of a movie is complexity, since certainly there can be quality movies that are very simple and slow0paced (I, for one, really like Days of Heaven), but I think it's fair to say complexity and sophistication are virtues of movies and storytelling in general. If we compare these slow-paced arthouse movies to something much more widely praised and fast-paced like the recent The Dark Knight, we see a profound difference in sophistication. The Dark Knight occupies a complex and detailed world, filled with a large cast of characters connected in a dense web of interrelations, and involves a plot which is intricate and complex. In short, it demands a lot of the viewer to take it all in. On an intellectual level this movie is much more engaging and challenging; it requires close attention; it rewards multiple viewings; it has a lot going on. The blunt fact is that The Dark Knight is a much more intellectual movie than Solaris or Meek's Cutoff. Many people may view it as just passive mindless popcorn fare, but this is a mistake. Many of us, including many movie critics really mistake the feeling of mental effort for actual mental effort. Because it's so much more effort to sit through a dull movie people think that it's genuine intellectual effort. But actually the effort that is going on is our brain trying to prevent itself from wandering off because it's so little engaged and seeks to occupy itself with something more engaging. The Dark Knight in contrast seems easy to digest only because the exciting fast-paced nature keeps us glued to the screen such that we more effortlessly absorb all the relevant intricacies. In fact, these deep intellectual engagement is one of the pleasures of complex movies like The Dark Knight, City of God, The Big Sleep, Memento, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential ...

This explains why the vast majority of high art works don't really tend to fare well in the long run. Most people have a really distorted perception of art in the past. Because we now consider classic works to be high art, it's assumed they were always high art. This is definitely not the case. To start with the most obvious example, Shakespeare was not considered high art by his contemporaries. The intellectual elite, the royal courtiers, were primarily engaged in what was considered the more dignified literary pursuit, writing poetry. Theater was considered more entertainment for the masses, and, admittedly, as far as we can tell, most of what was written for the stage in those days (the vast majority of which doesn't survive) was probably pretty horrible and worthy of turning up one's nose. But because only the best of it survives and that theater is mostly viewed culturally prestitigious, we read that perception back into history, forgetting that Shakespeare and contemporaries like Marlowe, Johnson, Webster and Kyd, to people in those days were more like Hitchcock, Spielberg and Nolan in our own day. The elite literature of the Elizabethan era has by no means fallen into obscurity, and the poetry of the likes of Sydney and Spencer is still appreciated, but at the end of the day these high brow artists are left in the shadow of the great low brow Shakespeare. And it's not like Shakespeare is some weird abberation. It's primarily the norm (let's just start listing: Dickens, Twain, Chaucer, Homer, Balzac, Gullivers Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Boccaccio, Ovid, Aristophanes, and on and on).

The trend is reflected in television, with rather sophisticated and complex television shows doing fabulously well. No one would describe Twin Peaks, 24, The Wire, Lost, Mad Men or many other shows as slow or meditative. Their large casts of characters and intricate plots remind one more of the complex worlds of those grand serial novels of the likes of Dickens and Tolstoy. They ask much more of the viewer but don't feel difficult because the give the reader more and are very engaging.

It's also under-appreciated what labors these big budget fast-paced films are. Those big budgets are going towards pizza and doughnuts; they're going towards large masses of skilled professionals in everything from cinematography, to casting, to special effects. Not to mention that the pace of a scene tends to be inversely proportional to the effort expended in making it. Fast paced action scenes, because of the superabundance of cuts and special effects, tend to be ponderous to produce, whereas nice, quiet talking scenes tend to be much easier and quicker.

Kois makes the comparison of these slow art house films to eating vegetable, which I think is an unintentionally apt metaphor. Vegetables as a food, we must admit are of limited nutritive value and caloric content; they serve a useful dietary purpose, but you certainly couldn't live off of vegetables alone. The real meat and potatoes of a film-goers diet, though, are the truly, largely mainstream, big budget films, the movies that tend to endure and remain popular for decades to come.

What this is not to say is that popular mainstream movies are necessarily better or that complex movies are necessarily better. Truth be told, most popular film is entirely forgettable. I picked The Dark Knight for a very good reason – because it stands out among popular films. Truth is that, for example, of the hundreds of movies made in the 40s, only a handful of these movies are still watched and the same will happen to the vast majority of films made these days – they will be lost to obscurity. What I am saying is that the high-art/low-art decision is overly simplistic. Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott responded to Kois "In Defense of the Slow and the Boring," but their response is overly simplistic, criticizing summer movies of being boring since they're frequently very conventional and cliche. But this hardly vindicates the slow and boring, which just manages to be boring in a different way. In the long run, the art work that persists as great is generally those works that can combine a certain popular appeal with genuine originality and sophistication.

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