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.