Film snobs are a thing of the past, or at least have been relegated to their rightful place, hidden away in the caves, marked off by their unflattering position as know-it-alls and esoteric party poopers, rather limp wristed or overstuffed twits who are not far removed from the Laputans of Gulliver's Travels, too wrapped up in analysis to have fun in the real world. At least that may be the general picture. In their place, as the shovel has dug deep into the ground of the 21st century, is something of a younger cousin, the "Film Geek," a group that has supplanted the snob/scholar with a kind of childlike enthusiasm, as film loving in the name of fun has stamped out the need for the fuddy duddy pendant professor.
This is a gross over-generalization, of course, but there is an element of truth to it, such as can only be too perfect for the generation born and fed on Star Wars and sprung from the video-game strewn ground of the 1980s, a decade that was book-ended by the comic book heroes of Superman and Batman. In complaining about it – which is perhaps not distinct from simply observing it – one runs the risk of being a fun spoiler, who would be simplified in a narrative to that ginger kid in Dead Poets Society, or any number of space cadets in the teen sex romp genre. "Geek" culture has been bountiful in the last 15 years, as the generation following the Un-Greatest Generation has fallen in love with its lost televised nostalgia of images and sounds of a consoling past, in accordance with the proliferation of "Man Children," that is to say omega adult males who repeatedly stave off the dread world of adulthood and its grim responsibilities, Kevin Smith probably being the most vibrant representative of this spirit with films like Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Dogma. I'm not deriding this at all, being that I'm a victim of it, whether it's a glorious slap in the face to bourgeois values or is rather a genuine decadent symptom of the generation that's going to have to put the baby boomers to sleep.
Thinking about movies though, and how the Geek has taken a hold of film, was reflected to me in a conversation I had recently with another movie enthusiast. It started as a friendly, casual talk about the movies of the past summer, but as it continued it became evident to me that my friend and I existed in completely different paradigms in terms of how we approached and consumed motion pictures. Asking me what the movie of the summer was, I shrugged, not really decisive. "Restrepo," I replied, with high regard to the Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington documentary about soldiers in Afghanistan. My friend hadn't heard of it. He responded with his own choice, which I had no problem with, Inception. I hadn't even bothered to think of Inception that night, though I had viewed Christopher Nolan's mind-bending film about dreamscapes three times theatrically, each viewing giving me a different reaction (admired but underwhelmed the first time; loved the second time; a little bit in between the third time), and even if Inception was not in my opinion the best film of the summer, it had the biggest impact. It was an esoteric, strange, original, and possibly disturbing film, alarmingly pessimistic even (from one of its many paradoxical vantages), that audiences in general loved, and even if they didn't love it, it was a film that provoked passionate discussions in the same way that 2001 (Nolan's favorite film) must have in 1968.
The other films that he and I would open into discussion as far as the summer's best put us in two different worlds. He had opinions about the summer blockbuster releases (so did I suppose), but had not even heard about the smaller films. We moved on to the movies we were anticipating later this year and next; for him, the products of expectation were franchise movies, comic book adaptations, television adaptations, etc. Earlier in our conversation I had expressed how unhappy I was with the summer because of such production, a complaint that didn't faze him. This is where things in this essay turn, because I'm too aware of how I might be sounding. The shadow of the "Snob" creeping up behind me is something of which I've always been very conscious, because surprisingly enough, I don't know if I can consider myself one. I also might have contempt for "snobs." To me, Inception was wonderful because it was an expensive studio movie put together by a creative individual who was not working by committee; though I don't see it as the masterpiece that others do, God bless Inception and Christopher Nolan. For me, Hollywood and the American studio system has created most of my favorite movies and creative personalities. When women I'm flirting with, or are flirting with me, tell me upon hearing that I'm a film lover that they love "foreign and independent films," it's a turn-off. Of course, I love several foreign and independent films too. But I still have faith that great things will come out of Hollywood. For me, the analogy is to beer. Foreign and independent films are microbrews; quality mainstream films (e.g. The Ghost Writer) are Guinness; the standard comic book/romantic comedy/franchise movies, are Coors Light. Though the occasional microbrew might be better from time to time, I am ultimately salivating for a Guinness.
The conversation between us underwent sudden entropy when we brought up gangster and action films, and the aesthetics that he thought were good in modern action films versus what were bad. Here was where our contradiction became too evident. That which he loved was what I disliked, and what I admired were the elements he despised. The escapist super suturing explosiveness of Michael Bay was what he loved, in addition to the over the top cartoon violence of movies like Matthew Vaughn's Kick Ass, which features a 12-year-old girl stabbing and shooting gangster goons and thugs in a way that doesn't spare the depiction of bloodshed. Vaughn doesn't shy away from splattering. Before I could come with any retort, my friend called out on me a movie he knew I admired, Michael Mann's Public Enemies, which he believed was shot in a way akin to how most people videotape their weddings. And yet what I was watching and loving in that movie was precisely how it was photo (or video) graphed.
I understood my friend's distaste, which was shared by many members of the audience, and many schooled film critics. In an era when digital video in high definition is eradicating celluloid as the means of photographing a motion picture, why would a director consciously choose, for a period film no less, a look that would very impressionistically wear its lossless compression of video grain on its sleeve? "You can't do that," he said, referring to the crime genre in Hollywood. It's against the rules, it takes people out of the movie. "Anyone could have shot that. My 14-year-old could have. In 1983." The alternative for quality action moviemaking was Michael Bay, according to him. He acknowledged that many people didn't like Bay, for films like Armageddon, Bad Boys, Pearl Harbor, and the Transformers films. "But he knows how to make an action movie." You can disappear in Bay, the same way you can disappear in Lucas and Spielberg, the pure fantasy of movie escapism waving its magic wand and taking us away from this bitter earth.
And here is the difference, which is both aesthetic and philosophical. My friend, a lover of video games and comic books, along their movie incarnations, is no dummy about movies. He's actually a filmmaker, and is schooled in how to shoot, edit, and write. He's versed in the protocol and in his spare time has made small advertisements for companies. In that sense, being that I have virtually no resume as a film or video maker, though I've observed production and read with much interest of it (and would be very curious to get access to my own equipment to work with), I have no right to criticize him as a moron. But I really discovered where he was coming from when I started to propose my argument for why Public Enemies is shot the way it is – which is ideological every bit as much as it is an impressionistic or visceral aesthetic choice on the part of the director. I mentioned how Michael Mann has stated his most significant influence was the Kino Eye cinema of Vertov, where the mechanical eye of cinema is emphasized, working so as to engage the viewer in a conscious dialectical conversation with the film—.
Before I could continue, the conversation was cut short. "No, it's because he sucks!" Straining to return to my point I was silenced repeatedly. "You're reading too much into it." For all practical purposes, the content of an actual conversation, a "dialectic" about what the film is about and why it is doing what it is doing, has ended. "You're one of those guys," he said. "Plot doesn't matter to you, it's all about the visuals and that shit. That really obscure stuff that doesn't matter to anyone else." And in a way I suppose he was correct. If a point of attack – or basic approach – is rejected by the other party from the outset, it is completely useless to go on with the debate. My friend had never indeed heard of Vertov, never watched the French New Wave with interest, reflected on the differing evolving grammars of movies, or for that matter, carried much interest in the cinema of the 1970s, where movies were not vested in plot so much as character. It's like a kid coming home from college and telling his anti-Semitic uncle about Nietzsche. "He's dead and means nothing to me," the uncle says. And this is where the Movie Snob can come in with his venomous stinger – which doesn't work, because the Movie Snob is just that – a snob. My friend in his filmic education came from the practical school, and in a free market it's only sensical to see things from his point out view. There is a correct way to do things, and you go into this business not to change the world, but to make the most successful product possible, that will enable people to escape and be entertained in masses. He makes a lot more money than me, after all.
The Movie Snob is kind of a construct of the Movie Geek, the professorial party pooper who wants to remind you that Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made, that foreign films are better than American films, that name dropping qualifies the worst-seeming movie as art. It falls back to the familiar scenario: "You can take a piece of shit and dress it up with all the references and decorations you want to. But it's still a piece of shit." Move on to the next plate.
Being derided – or simply dismissed – as a Movie Snob is a disheartening, I suppose akin to a political activist being reminded that their ideas amount to a bunch of pie in the sky notions that cannot be realized on the planet Earth. The hard work that you do, analyzing and reading into a movie, whether you're aware or not, really amounts to nothing. Just float along with history and go with the flow of things.
And yet that's what I do, and snobbery has nothing to do with it, I hope. When I see something in a movie that strikes me because it doesn't fit into my mental schemata for how I think things should go, or how I'm familiar with things moving along, I have to ask myself, "Why did they do that?" I give the benefit of the doubt, wonder about it, and think about things, trying to understand. It's a cliché about Americans that they're not curious about things, and maybe approaches to film (or any art) are something of an indicator. In Anton Corbjn’s new film, The American, a priest tells George Clooney's secretive arms-making assassin, "You Americans aren't interested in history. You're trying to escape from history." Interestingly, The American could be taken as a film that's a metaphor for how the audience is watching a movie. Clooney goes to a brothel to be pleasured the same way the audience goes to theater to be entertained. And yet, he unorthodoxly breaks the rules, slowing down and giving the prostitute oral sex, interacting with the object instead of just being a passive subject. Maybe it's kind of a heavy handed – and graphic – metaphor, comparing film viewing to oral sex, but I'm certain the filmmakers had this in mind with The American, a deliberately slow film with its own rhythm that demands the orgasm-ready audience to slow down and savor the moment with its beauty and its danger. Being that, in regards to the most detrimental thing that happened to America in the last decade (the 9/11 attacks), most Americans focused on the "what" and the "response" to the "what" instead of the myriad of complexities related to the "why," The American's point about history is well taken. In our time, when we have more access to free information and history than ever before, whether real or distorted, a lot of people are comfortable with not being curious and opening up the labyrinth of nuances and complexities that makes life so wondrous – if frustrating. The abstractions of thought give way to the concrete linearity of basic judgment: yes/no, good/bad, positive/negative, thumbs up/thumbs down. Indeed, much of the negative reviews regarding The American never fail to bring up its marketing, and how the movie was dishonestly sold as an action thriller, where there is very little action in it (I would argue that there is a lot of tension, precisely because the movie is so restrained from being explosive – or, to put it coarsely again, coming to orgasm too quickly).
But apparently the critics are right, and the audiences have felt cheated. The American got a CinemaScore rating from its audiences of a D-. Interesting because another esoteric George Clooney film, Steven Soderbergh's Solaris from 2002, got a similar rating from audiences, which may communicate to us something about Clooney and how he consciously chooses not to pander, and in fact invites difficulty and derision, while somehow maintaining his Movie Star status. For my part, The American is, like The Ghost Writer, precisely the same kind of movie that Hollywood should be making more of. I loved its languid rhythm, its careful compositions, its steady beats, and how its restraint in form mirrored the main character's restraint in communicating anything to us (again, an aspect that many people despised).
The retorts of my movie Geek friend, and how I actively work out my own problems towards understanding a movie, makes me recall my own education approaching interpreting films, which comes from how I first approached serious literature, particularly James Joyce's Ulysses. My first guidebook to Joyce was the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell, and whatever one's feelings on Campbell are (many academics can't stand him, for qualified reasons), his take on Joyce has always delighted me. He stresses how the reader has to work with Joyce's novel, and when that is undertaken, the result is bountifully rich and beyond measure. When Campbell first came across the book, as a graduate student in 1920s Paris, he was dumbstruck by the first few pages. He quit out of frustration and went directly to the publisher and demanded to know, "How do you read a thing like this?" The publisher helped him out, giving him access to Joyce's other works, his motivations, his influences, etc, and with that, a novel that might as well have been written in a foreign language to Campbell became remarkable, opening a new world to him to such an extent that he became one of the first scholars on Joyce's next book, the nearly impenetrable Finnegans Wake. Campbell's anecdote involving Ulysses has subsequently become one of the main frameworks for how I approach films.
Whatever the fate of The American, I move onto a movie that the Geeks are loving, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a videogame/comic book inspired comedy/fantasy about the title character (Michael Cera) who wants to date a candy-color haired beauty with seven evil ex-boyfriends. In order to get her, he has to beat, videogame style, the evil exes. Then the girl is his. Scott Pilgrim was directed by Edgar Wright, the maker of two of my favorite comedies of the last ten years, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both which consciously spoofed beloved movie genres, lovingly reveling in their ridiculousness. Wright holds nothing back in Scott Pilgrim; his screen is like a videogame monitor as his characters get points, garner coins from slain evil exes, and titles ironically compel us to chuckle as they make humorous commentary on the action. Scott Pilgrim is so garsh-darned likeable, much like its loser/slacker hero, the nervously sensitive youth who just wants the unattainable alternative chick that no other man can please, including a rich record executive (Jason Schwartzman). Wright is poised on delivering, moment after moment, an “oomph” of delight to his audience, another cute post-modern reference after another, to make us guiltily giggle at how good the slacker life is.
And that's fine. But there was something that I found so aggravating, so annoying about what Wright was doing. The cutesiness might have been a part of it, in addition to the blatant Mel Gibson-proportioned male fantasy of the romance plot (I admit, that if the girl of Scott's dreams ended up cheating on him after the end credits, Last American Virgin-style, I might have reversed my total sense of the movie and loved it as a kind of twisted joke). My motivations may have been, um, snobby, I don't know. But the presentation of videogame reality onto the film, with additional lives, wish fulfillment, and an addiction to constant visual sensation – the film is relentless with its endless visual tricks and cheeky maneuvers – kind of robbed me of hope for movies. Scott Pilgrim was Natural Born Killers without the critique of an image-saturated world, fawning over this amazing world of videogame wonders and non-stop stimulation without the slightest skepticism; and that worries me, because it tells me where movies are going and will continue to go. The filmmakers of the subsequent generations will not be schooled in literature (how snobby is it to say that?), but videogames and graphic design. Roger Ebert held a poll on his blog asking would his readers rather have the works of Shakespeare in existence or videogames; over 60% said videogames.
My friends, many of whom are Geeks, loved Scott Pilgrim, and proposed group screenings. I voiced the bad taste the film left in my mouth for the aforementioned reasons. The responses were understandable, if predicted. "People who don't like this film don't like fun," "you need a diet of the good in your movie diet, but also the fun," "it's just a sweet love story of escape," "maybe you should get drunk before you go," etc. And I admit, sure, I love escape, I love the occasional dose of stupid, the hearty bad meal in my diet, the guilty pleasure. After all, I had (partially) enjoyed, around the same time, such trash as The Expendables and Piranha 3-D. Why couldn't I give myself over the escape of Scott Pilgrim? And looking at the people close to me who loved the film, I understood why. Whereas The Expendables is just dumb, Scott Pilgrim is a film made for smart people. It's a sharp movie made by precocious minds, meant for other hungry minds. That it's an escapist film for smart people worries me. Regardless of the proposed balanced movie diet, most of these friends went out of their way to avoid other mainstream (not art) films like Green Zone, The American, and The Ghost Writer, which all did have something to say about where we are today in the world as consumers and incessant film/TV viewers.
I have to quote the legendary late critic Robin Wood on his thoughts concerning the post-1970s cinema, where Star Wars and Spielberg permanently altered the infrastructure of creativity in Hollywood, where the despair of everyday living coupled with the distractions of the wish-fulfillment supplied by the time’s blockbuster releases, further enabled peoples' willingness to be duped and flee the depressing realities of the news (or what was beyond the lens of the nightly news). Wood called it "a cinema of distraction, of unreality, designed not to encourage thinking but to dull it into extinction. It is the era above all of the 'teen pic,' the wooing of the 'youth market,' it being especially important that those just growing into full man – or womanhood be indoctrinated with the generalized sense that 'life is fun and nothing else matters.'" Star Wars made Hollywood's focus on the young, and the young continued to grow up with it, to the point that movies for adults gradually became endangered. B-movie mogul Roger Corman reflected on the world that Star Wars (the pinnacle of the Geek movement) ushered in as a loss for him; the material that he was creating for low budget films in the 1950s and 1960s was now the same material used by the major studios. Corman lamented that his audience was taken from him by an entertainment apparatus that had a lot more funding. The cheap thrills of the sci-fi B-movie universe became more realistic with developing special effects, blurring the line between what was real and what was fantastic.
Again, it's too snobby to say that the world simply became willfully stupider, but when we compare the summer film releases of 2010 to the New Hollywood of the 1970s, it is cause to be a little down. My admittedly snobby grief here, simply, is that most of those Geek friends of mine have never even seen The Godfather, Nashville, MASH, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, Five Easy Pieces, and what more, the curiosity to see those films is absent. The historical context of cinema, where all works are interrelated by structures of influence, tying their present context to history the same way a human life does as a microcosm of an entire civilization, is negated (this is why the artistic technique of allusion is so important to Martin Scorsese, who refers to countless other films in his work not simply as a means of empty homage, but as a means of informing the dimensions of his own film and how that relates to the history of cinema, and cinema's representations of the human condition over long periods of time). Our cinema is now more than ever meant to excite frenzied audiences on the basis of fashion, of what's "cool," not what's puzzling, offbeat, or capable of inducing awe. The need for an audience to be constantly stimulated nowadays to a plethora of "coooool" things is like a smoker's addiction for a hit of nicotine. The movie must deliver the fix – bam – and then be finished. The cinema of "cooool" is to me distinct from what I like, the cinema of "awe." Scott Pilgrim is full of "cooool," deliberately (whatever my criticism of Scott Pilgrim, it's my problem; I know that Edgar Wright succeeded in making the movie he wanted to make.) Inception too is full of "coooool," but if anything makes it a great film, it's the sense of wonder and awe that an audience carries outside of the theater afterwards, replaying in their head throughout the following night and subsequent weeks. The cinema of "awe" is not about the nicotine fix of a drug. It's akin to meditative wonder, religiosity, sometimes disturbing and frightful, but nevertheless instilling a fuller sense afterwards of what it means to be alive. That's what this movie snob is looking for.