Friday, January 20, 2012


Howdy, Treeps,

So many weekday distractions plague an effort like this conversation,but I'm happy that The New York Times stole my attention for a few minutes today. The paper's lead critics, Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott, interviewed Village Voice legend J.Hoberman. They had a pleasant chat about Hoberman's history and legacyas the most influential Voice film critic since Andrew Sarris. and,earlier, Jonas Mekas. When the conversation got around to the state ofcinephilia today, they had the following exchange after Hoberman mentioned two obscure titles he championed in his final Voice review:

DARGIS I love both those movies. Yet when I write about that kindof work, I can feel as if I’m whispering into the wind, drowned out bythe whirring of the mainstream cinema hype machine, which of course iskept nicely oiled by the entertainment media. I try to resist whiningabout the good old days — though here I do need to point out that film as film is on the verge of extinction even if cinema is not — but the mainstream media pay even less mind to serious cinema than it did. It’s hard to imagine the kind of passionate debate about films like Last Year at Marienbad and even Blue Velvet going on for movies like (Once Upon A Time In) Anatolia except in the more rarefied reaches of the blogosphere, which is good (sometimes) if also an index of the marginalization of serious cinema and the discussion about it.

HOBERMAN What you call “whispering in the wind,” I’d say is speaking through a powerful megaphone. Anyway, there’s still room for novelty and potential for debate. Look at the fracas over The Tree of Life and Melancholia. It just goes to show that, although a great filmmaker like the Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky was a minority taste at best among the critics of the ’80s (check out his reviews), his epigones have succeeded in creating significant cine-scandals.

SCOTT I’m glad to hear you say that. I’ve been frustrated by the emergence of a conventional wisdom — not limited to critics — according to which movies have diminished in importance and the arguments about them have diminished in intensity since whenever the good old days are supposed to have been.

As much I'm loving our confab here in the tree, I wish I could have crashed that Hoberman conversation, just to ask him, "Well, what fracas over The Tree of Life and Melancholia? What cine-scandal?" Very few people outside of cineaste circles have ever heard of Lars von Trier, and the alternate title for The Tree of Life, as far as the average American moviegoer is concerned, is That Weird, Horrible Brad Pitt Movie. For most folks, the major seismic events in the Sundance-Toronto-Cannes-Berlin-Venice galaxy are like tribal clashes on the other side of the earth. You can't detect them even if you cup one ear while pressing the other against the ground. So, how is all this great writing about film not tantamount whispering in the wind?

I have a dream. I want to go a multiplex full of people like Dennis, Sheila, Simon, Jason and Jim. I want the treehouse experience everywhere. Simon's amazing appetite for films and his staggering range--comparable to a gourmet whose palate can encompass foie gras and Snickers bars-- simply lights up the room. So does Sheila's appreciation of stellar performances (and how they can hoist a film into the stratosphere), and Jim's genius for revealing formal beauty, and Jason's and Dennis' charismatic ability to lead a wildly ranging cinema discussion gently by the hand rather than dragging it by the hair.

I want the mass audience to be the treehouse. I cannot accept the uncivil future, where those of us in "the rarefied reaches of the blogosphere" retreat to our arthouses and rooftop screenings and home Blu-ray collections, occasionally joining with the unwashed for some thoughtless (or even sometimes pretty great) tentpole flick. It's not enough.

There is so much passion for movies down in places that the smarter film bloggers wouldn't dare visit--with good reason. The ghettos can be dangerous places. But people live there, too. Film culture there thrives on Netflix, cable and bootleg DVD's, and the discussions can become as intense as the fight Hoberman recalls having with Pauline Kael over the documentary Shoah. Except that the range of movies under discussion doesn't reach even a fraction as far "up" as our treehouse talks range "down." An intrepid film blogger like Dennis can dig Brett Ratner's Tower Heist, an Eddie Murphy comedy that a great many in the lower classes are likely to have seen, and Certified Copy, a film just as accessible and relevant to their lives but from which they are discouraged from even peeking at, like Bronx teenagers shooed out of Bronxville. There are spiritual riches in all kinds of movies, but only a certain class of people gets a gander at the whole menu.

In other words, I don't care what Armond White is after. That's his business. I had no intention of making his attitude a major topic here. It's just that, in my own ignorance, I can't think of another professional critic who laments that the entire framework of our culture is built to lift certain people up while writing others off as lost causes. I know plenty of raving street corner prophets (myself, for one), who share this understanding, but few who are employed in media. So I'm not celebrating Mr. White; I'm emphasizing the importance of resistance in a culture that the ministers of powerful institutions use to make life more comfortable and comprehensible for themselves while discouraging a sense of possibility and true communication for the mass of us. In this sense, I'm less concerned with what individual filmmakers manage to push through the system than in what the system wants.

I'm glad that Margaret touched a lot of my colleagues with its observations on the messy entanglements and disconnects of city living, but marketing such a film strictly to the arthouse crowd is like holding a marriage counseling session with just one spouse.

That's it for now. Next time at bat, I promise to speak more on all your specific loves, and--hallelujah-- the movie moments I actually love from last year.=


Steven Boone is a freelance writer whose work can be found at Capital New York, The Demanders (, Press Play and Hentai Lab.


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1 comment:

Joel Bocko said...

Another excellent piece. Out of curiosity - you touched on a bit in the previous essay - what do you think is the solution to the cultural blockades, or do you think it's insurmountable? Are there practical answers to the problem of ghettoized taste (whether in physical or mental ghettos)? This ties into a point I just made on another thread (I'm having fun playing hopscotch here) - movies in general are becoming a minority taste, out of the mainstream. People seem to watch movies the same way they watch plays - go to a big spectacle (usually a re-staging of familiar material) and ignore all the smaller stuff on the margins, which are feasted upon by a tiny, irrelevant minority.

I hate to think movies, THE popular art form of the 20th century, are going the way of the theater. I don't want cinema to be a niche art form. I realize this fate tends to befall all forms at some point (and indeed, in some previous eras they were niche art forms which nobody cared or knew were niches - because the masses didn't matter to the conversation) but so much of the energy that went INTO movies stemmed from knowing what public reach they had. This was true even of films which didn't, or couldn't, reach a wider audience - they were still part of that wider popular experience in spirit, because there was a wider popular experience to be a part of.