Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Sparring about Spinach”

Posted on June 10, 2011


Great art need not necessarily result in great enjoyment, and it’s necessary that critics acknowledge both aspects.

A quiet little storm has been brewing in the rarefied field of film criticism – which is rarefied not because it is an exalted endeavour, ensconced in a cloud of holy incense, but because it has increasingly become something that counts only in exclusive circles, while the great masses surge towards theatres mindful only of being entertained, regardless of what critics say – and it all began when Dan Kois wrote an article titled Eating Your Cultural Vegetables in The New York Times Magazine. Wearied by Kelly Reichardt’s recently released Meek’s Cutoff, he sighed, “As a film critic, I find writing about stately, austere films difficult… For long stretches of [this] film, the men and women and oxen simply trudge across the barren plain, their only accompaniment the low rumble of wagon wheels and the sporadic clatterings of pots… By the end, I could sympathize with the settlers’ exhaustion; I felt as if I’d been through a similarly grueling experience.”

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This feels like fair-enough incitement for a critic to turn curmudgeon, and Kois’s piece reads like a light-hearted rant about a condition familiar to most critics: whennothinghappensitis. When the plot is propulsive, which is the case with most mainstream filmmaking, the mind is actively employed in keeping up. We may be besotted, we may be bored, but our responses are never in doubt. But what do we do when nothing happens, when long stretches of the film are essentially longueurs? Kois has clearly had enough of these kinds of cinema, films like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which he terms “the slow-moving, meditative drama.” With a wisp of wistfulness, he confesses, “Those are the kinds of films dearly loved by the writers, thinkers and friends I most respect, so I, too, seek them out; I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved?”

You’d imagine that anyone who’s been writing long enough about films would dismiss this piece as a bristling burst of pique, the result of one slow-moving, meditative drama too many, the way a critic in India could be excused for venting his frustrations after having watched one brainless Aneez Bazmee comedy too many. But a little later, the very newspaper that carried Kois’s piece sent its top critics after him, and like gimlet-eyed prosecution attorneys descending on a dullard witness, they mounted an attack titled In Defense of the Slow and the Boring. AO Scott pouted, “Movies may be the only art form whose core audience is widely believed to be actively hostile to ambition, difficulty or anything that seems to demand too much work on their part.” Manohla Dargis chose to defend the slow and the boring (their words, not mine) by adding that she loved Béla Tarr’s seven-hour Sátántangó. “Your mind may wander, but there’s no need for panic: it will come back. In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.”

As a weekly critic faced with more movies than I know what to do with – and worse, having to distill into words, under a Damoclean deadline, the experience of watching them – my sympathies soar towards Kois even if I understand the loftier arguments from Scott and Dargis. Kois is simply being a critic, the kind of writer writing for audiences who would rather gouge their eyes out and have them with raspberry jelly than sit through seven hours of anything, leave alone a movie that even its defenders, in the title of their retaliatory article, label as “slow and boring,” while Scott and Dargis have embraced the more high-minded role of gatekeeper-guardians of art. Both, in a way, are right, for every critic walks a tightrope along the median. It’s important to recognise the worth and the validity of difficult cinema while also being aware of your reactions to its difficulties, and if a film is deep but also dull, both aspects need to be discussed, divulged. This is nothing new. The annals of cinema are awash with movies that are good and perhaps even great but which we don’t necessarily enjoy or even like. They are, as Kois says, cultural vegetables, and writing about them, sometimes, can be as difficult as composing an ode to spinach.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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