On cinematic vegetables and the eating thereof

Over the past several weeks, a debate has unfolded in the pages of the Sunday New York Times concerning “aspirational” film and TV viewing. The latest installment in this debate (which includes links to previous articles) has David Kois, the author of the magazine article that started the whole thing, in discussion with Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott.

As someone who has intentionally cultivated a taste for more “challenging” films (as well as television shows, novels, etc.), I am struck by how often the critics of “difficult” works are engaged in wholesale projection. You will often hear self-appointed populists railing against a marginal art film so furiously that you begin to suspect the writer believes studios are considering ditching fun movies forever and exclusively focusing on films like The Tree of Life. Another common type of projection: the populist critic doesn’t like a movie that’s slow or difficult to follow, and so he assumes that people who like it like it solely because it’s slow or difficult, i.e., because most others don’t like it. Projecting his own (completely delusional and unnecessary) sense of inferiority, the aspirational-viewer-turned-populist begins to suspect that tyrannical critics are foisting impossible movies on the unsuspecting critic just to set the general public up for failure and retain their own elitist position.

The very image of “eating your vegetables” is obviously childish and misleading. First off, vegetables are really good if done right. I have sauteed greens with my lunch every day, not just out of some grim nutritional duty, but because I actually like sauteed greens. I also like to try new kinds of vegetables, though I don’t wind up liking them — and there are some kinds of vegetables I still haven’t developed a taste for (raw tomatoes and cucumbers, both for texture reasons primarily). I don’t stare down all those assholes eating tomatoes on their sandwiches to make themselves feel superior to me, however. Different people like different things.

Generally, I would say it’s better to like better things. In terms of meals, that would include well-prepared food made out of high-quality ingredients. There is nothing inherently snobbish or elitist about this. We just watched the episode of The Wire where Bunny Colvin takes the students to a fancy restaurant and they are completely overwhelmed — and one of the students even asks if they can stop at McDonald’s on the way home so he can get some more familiar food. Is it somehow more “authentic” for these kids to find food other than McDonald’s foreign, or would it be better if they were given the opportunity to develop a taste for something else?

Similarly, I’d say that people who can’t follow a complex or non-linear plot or who don’t have any patience for long shots or slow character development are not expressing a more authentic populist position that should be praised — just like the kids on The Wire don’t really know how to handle good food, these people don’t know how to handle good movies.

But this is where the parallel breaks down: one does not actually become a better person by developing a taste for better movies, or better TV shows, or better novels, or whatever. One simply becomes better at watching movies. As I watch more and more of the great classics of cinema, I become more and more adept at identifying the quasi-“objective” quality level of the movie (i.e., the likely judgment of a hypothetical well-informed film viewer), or at least arguing intelligently about it in a way that goes beyond idiosyncratic enjoyment. I may be picking up some valuable ethical skills or engaging with “difficult issues” or whatever, but that’s a side issue: becoming better at watching movies, better at identifying movies that genuinely push into new territories of what film can do, etc., is an end in itself. (One thing I admire about the Times critics’ response to this debate is that they refuse the framing of “eating your vegetables,” instead arguing that the films being dismissed really are good — or else admitting that they’ve never been able to get into a particular one, etc. In other words, they keep everything on the aesthetic level.)

And it’s not for everyone. There really is no film disciplinarian looking down on you. There are snobs in every area of life, but there’s no need to take them seriously — and that includes rejecting what they like out of hand, simply because they like it and therefore it must be pretensious bullshit. Most film critics that I’m familiar with really love film and are invested in it and are more than happy to help people along the path of self-education needed to really enjoy more ambitious movies. I’d say that the same is true of people who like experimental fiction or craft beer or whatever else.

Not everyone can be invested in everything. You are under no obligation to enjoy anything, and there is no one trying to steal away your enjoyment of Avatar or Bud Light or AC/DC or whatever else. High-powered movie critics still watch and enjoy blockbusters. Craft beer nuts still sometimes slum with a good old Miller High Life. There’s nothing wrong with “immediate” enjoyment (assuming for the moment that that exists), but the kind of enjoyment that comes from taking something frivolous seriously is a very real enjoyment as well. If you’re experiencing it as some kind of grim duty, you’re doing it wrong — and you have no one to blame for yourself.

20 thoughts on “On cinematic vegetables and the eating thereof

  1. I misread “staring down assholes” and suddenly had an arresting image of an object-oriented proctology. But I agree about film.

  2. Great post Adam.

    “Not everyone can be invested in everything. You are under no obligation to enjoy anything, and there is no one trying to steal away your enjoyment of Avatar or Bud Light or AC/DC or whatever else.” I just love these lines (even though I don’t like any of these things, I do like many “low culture” commodities and activities–or at least things not considered high culture).

  3. “But this is where the parallel breaks down: one does not actually become a better person by developing a taste for better movies, or better TV shows, or better novels, or whatever. One simply becomes better at watching movies.”

    This is a very big step. I won’t say watching Sorrow and the Pity or meditating on a mandala or reading feminist novels or learning to appreciate be-bop will make everyone a better person but I am not willing to say it can’t make anyone a better person.

    I am also careful about assuming lasting or temporary cognitive or emotional effects from various kinds of aesthetic experiences without evidence or science but neither am I willing to dismiss the possibility out of hand. “Music hath charms,,,”

  4. I love this post. I’ve been guilty of the “wholesale projection” you describe, saw art films as a “grim duty” (partly because of inexperience with the form, partly because the person who introduced me to them was so grim). I’ve slowly retrained my brain–or aesthetic pleasure center, or whatever it is–to take the same pleasure in those forms as I do in novels, which for some reason never really posed the same problem, no matter how “difficult”.

    Because it took me so long to get there (and so long to overcome the kneejerk affective resistance you’re diagnosing here), I’ve been thinking a lot about how you *teach* this skill of “better watching” or “better reading” or “better eating” in a way that isn’t joyless or stultifying or the equivalent of bland broccoli. It seems like the ultimate pedagogical problem–how to get students not just to eat their vitamins but to find a way to bring pleasure and taste into the equation so that they’ll continue later?

    My diss is on theories of reading and eating, so I’ve been experimenting with ways of providing students opportunities to develop their taste (though in the 17th century, but I think the same difficulties apply, since not many people think of reading Milton as fun). I started my students off with all kinds of literary junk food–seventeenth-century broadside ballads, fart jokes, advice columns, strange spectacles, etc.) as preparation for their encounter with Paradise Lost. I even bring in junk food for them to eat. I think it worked; the popular stuff gives them a good baseline for a linguistic culture that’s otherwise totally unfamiliar (and for which they have an undeveloped ear, since ALL the language of the period is so foreign). It also gets them “stuffed” with the junk food of the century and longing for something more nourishing. After trying to close-read a broadside ballad (sort of like squeezing juice out of a stone), Paradise Lost is a playground. They loved it, and—in a twist I think you might like—for our final class, they begged for a party, specifically requested vegetables, and left all the cookies and chips people brought, which I took home and ate. (The class is called Manducation: Reading and Eating in the 17th century, ha.)

    This was an enormous comment, and not really about film, but I’m starving for this sort of discussion. Heh. Sorry.

  5. There has to be an element, I think, of taking the director/writer and appreciators of her work at their word. I.e., enough with the knee-jerk accusations of pretension. Even where it proves true, it is difficult to turn it into a productive criticism. It is, I think, a toss-off critique in the absence of much else to say.

    We are not a trusting people anymore – often for good reason, of course, so I’m not saying we should just accept every piece of cultural trash thrown our way. But when viewing a work, I think one’s visceral reaction (boring; too long; sentimental; etc.) has been far too often privileged over the viewer’s self-criticism of this reaction, and how the latter impacts one’s subsequent thinking about a work of art. Sometimes one’s visceral reaction is confirmed – and fair enough. Far more interesting though, and lucrative for the media, when not.

  6. Bob, I don’t dey that watching films (and enjoying other artworks) can have moral effects, etc. I’m just saying that’s not primary.

    Millicent, That sounds like a great class. The question of exactly how to cultivate those habits is a difficult one, but I kind of like the idea of force-feeding “junk food” movies. Who wouldn’t tremble at the thought of a marathon of comic book movies, for example? I think that there are cross-over skills as well — skills in following plots, etc., might ideally be cultivated with novels…. though now that I think about it, it might work better to take things in the opposite direction. I would probably also credit my comic book reading as a kid for my ability to pick up on convoluted plots with no real problem (they assume a lot of background, or at least it felt like they did at the time).

    Brad, One of my favorite parts of this exchange was when AO Scott said, “If any recent film is pretensious, surely it’s Thor!” It seems that in American culture, there is no real use for the term “pretensious” anymore — it just serves to identify the speaker as an authentic “populist” (i.e., anti-intellectual). Just like with the term “pseudo-intellectual,” there’s no reality to which the term “pretensious” corresponds (i.e., what am I “pretending” to be if I’m pretensious?).

  7. Re: the food stuff Millicent brings up, I was struck by the addictive & comfort quality of “junk” food, as well. Not only does it affect one’s sense of taste, it actively brings you back to it. That’s very interesting, indeed.

  8. I still eat junk food periodically, and I find that my instinct when eating it is to absolutely inhale it. Part of that is a way to deal with the pressing need to eat McDonald’s fries before they get cold, but there’s something in the formula that makes you want more, right this instant: more salt, more “flavor dust,” etc., etc. You could say that about movies, too — you want more explosions, more physical feats, more boobs, etc.

    I remember being disappointed in Ocean’s Eleven, for instance, because I had this vague premonition that it would somehow be “cooler.” The same for the Bourne movies. In fact, I’d say that the only action movie that has ever fully satisfied me was Salt, which is literally non-stop insanity.

  9. Something that strikes me, and it is literally just now striking me and I reserve the right repudiate it the moment I click the “Post Comment” button, is that “junk food” is decidedly more difficult to review “on its own terms.” Meaning, rarely do you watch a standard Adam Sandler or Kevin James comedy and assess it like, say, the good old fashioned New Criticism might’ve. Such films scream instead for assessment by way of comparison — either to other Sandler/James movies or films vaguely similar. The same for, say, McDonald’s fries — hence the ubiquitous rankings of fast food fries, etc. Or how in days not so long ago people identified as a “Coke” person or a “Pepsi” person, and might even actively avoid restaurants they knew served one rather than the other. “Veggies,” as it were, seem to work differently, in terms of our assessment, in that comparison is not so much impossible as a little unhelpful.

  10. Taco Bell is the classic example for me — you can’t evaluate it as Mexican food; it’s its own thing.

    I think that some cultural critics fall into a moralizing trap where it’s fun/enjoyment (fast food) vs. grim adult duty (broccolli). What’s really perverse about fast food (in all its iterations), however, is that it’s fake enjoyment — it’s designed from the ground up not to satisfy. In reality, the division isn’t between enjoyment and eating your vegetables, it’s between fake and real enjoyment.

  11. I know this is probably a stupid question to ask but is there a way to separate “elitist” from “snobbish” and “pretentious”? Certainly if you dedicate enough time and effort to watching what some people whose opinion you respect regard as excellent films, you will become a sort of elitist in your choices, opinions, judgments, tastes etc etc. I guess as long as one isn’t an asshole about it, hanging around “elitists” is so much more educational and therefore fun.

    I think the same projection works in more or less complex music (classical or otherwise, if this distinction even makes sense anymore). Play some Luigi Nono to an inexperienced friend and you immediately get “Do you like it? There’s no way anyone can like it!” While it is true to some extend (Nono’s not about being liked/enjoyed), it’s still fucking irritating because the assumption is that you are a show-off etc etc.

  12. I think we need to distinguish between being “elite” (which can be more of less objective, at least in the socially-recognized sense) and being “elitist” (which is an attitude). For instance, most of us discussing here are “elite” in terms of educational attainment, but we don’t think we’re inherently superior to others and should be in charge for that reason (in fact, we probably feel stupid sometimes for bothering with so much education). In terms of art, I think that elitism is the view that the “best” art will speak to the inherently “best” people and everyone else should be left behind — obviously not what I’m saying here.

    If saying that some people are more informed on a given issue is elitist, then we’re doomed.

  13. And another issue to consider in this debate: it’s not as though there’s some vibrant grass-roots folk culture that people are preferring over “high quality” stuff. In both movies and food, we’re talking about highly mediated products that enrich corporate elites, who artificially cultivate a taste for their type of product. It’s arguably much more elitist to say “we should just stick with what our corporate overlords provide and not bother with other types of stuff” than to say “maybe better films are better.”

  14. Thanks for this post. This entire debate has really annoyed me since the ‘defenders’ of slow movies defend them with the argument that forcing yourself to watch boring movies is good for you. Do they not realize that those of us who love these films don’t actually find them boring? If you find these sorts of movies that hard to watch, then you really should skip them and find something else to do.

  15. And on the subject of elitism, if we refuse any sense of better or worse in art, then that means that any random doodling I produce is the height of human achievement. How much human possibility that shuts off! Is there nothing to aim for? It’s so depressing when you look at it in this way. A sense of judgement actually opens up vistas. Of course this can lead immediately into a discussion of how judgement and grace are intertwined.

  16. Not to push the question of ‘elitism’ into some uncomfortable realm, but are people who can, say, read, write, do math, understand complex abstract concepts, make independent political and societal choices better at just those things or better at being humans? If human nature isn’t some metaphysical substance that informs, say, ‘human rights’ discourse, then being human seems to be quite a measurable (however imprecise) quality, is it not? If we can talk about becoming better human beings, then certainly there are degrees. I take it that you (Adam) state quite clearly that “one does not actually become a better person by developing a taste for better movies, or better TV shows, or better novels, or whatever.” That however makes me wonder if the whole liberal model of education (universal literacy, core curriculum, languages) is then premised on a mistaken belief that developing good taste for, say, literature or history is important (though I accept that perhaps not necessary) for becoming a better person, not just a better reader of books. In other words, if I’m reading books only to become a more expert reader, then why am I becoming a more expert reader if not for some other higher goal of becoming a better person?

  17. I really enjoyed this post and it has given me a lot to think about. Overall, I agree with what you’re saying here. I would, however, say that I think that some who fancy themselves “art people” do find a certain appeal in films that are otherwise pretty crummy. I think this stems from their desire to see something new, something which breaks the mold, an innovation in the traditional plot. When some film with absurdist elements or “anticlosure” comes along it immediately gains the name of “art.” You know, in opposition to all of those films that have beginnings, middles, and ends that are in any way satisfying. I agree with Ricoeur when he says (citing Barbara Smith) that if this is the real core of a story “we must either exclude the work from the domain of art or give up the most basic presupposition of poetry, that it is an imitation of the nonliterary uses of language, which include the ordinary uses of narrative as a means to arrange systematically what happens in life” (Time and Narrative 2, 22).

    There is, as Ricoeur continues, a constructive use of the dissolution of a plot wherein the story-teller makes a sort of contract with the reader in which the author will distort the work but provide the reader (in our case, the viewer) with the conditions for a successful and imaginative reconstruction. “[T]he author, far from abolishing every law of composition, has to introduce new conventions that are more complex, more subtle, more concealed, and more cunning than those of the traditional novel; in short, conventions derived from these forms by means of irony, parody, or derision.” This allows for rule-governed deformations of expectations but, as Ricoeur says, “A leap beyond every paradigmatic expectation is possible” (25).

    So I agree with you to the extent that there are people who cannot handle the “vegetables” of the second type of text/film mentioned and that they should grow up and get on with challenging films. However, I do think, based on my experience with others and a candid admission of my own thought-life, that there are quite a few people with a pathological desire to find something that is inaccessible to the general public. Once they’ve found a film like this, it’s easy to talk about how great it is and to be arrogantly dismissive–“you just don’t understand art films.”

    Anyways, sorry for the long rant. I really enjoy your blog–it’s excellent and provocative!

  18. “…since the ‘defenders’ of slow movies defend them with the argument that forcing yourself to watch boring movies is good for you. ”

    Sorry. I must take the side that the “boredom” is inside you and me, is not determined by factors like intelligence or education, and that it is “good for me” and I believe everybody else to overcome it to the extent possible. Any peasant or CEO should learn to “stop and smell the roses.” I might grant that the more intellectual artistic creations, Joyce, Schoenberg, Godard may not be worth the effort to everyone, but contemplation and meditation AFAIK has been recommended by every culture, back as far as hunter-gatherer cultures.

    The Kyoto rock garden and Ghent altarpiece were created with a purpose, they were supposed to be good for anyone who spent time with them.

  19. “we must either exclude the work from the domain of art”

    It is my position that only a Zen Master can truly create a work of art without narrative or structure, and that these are the greatest works, because they more closely approximate “real life.” RL is one thing after everything else, one thing with everything else, and any boundaries are illusions.

    Kiarostomi’s “Five” is a radical attempt at minimalism, but each section and the whole still contain narrative.

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