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June 09, 2011

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Robert

It seems to me that the quality of Solaris is only tangential to this conversation. The real issue is why we're unable to accept that intelligent people may disagree with us and how we can no longer express our opinion on a film (or any bit of art/culture) without it including our opinion on those who may disagree with us.

So if Mr. Kois is lamenting that a boring and opaque (to him) film like Solaris has been elevated to the level of high art by a phony cultural elite that "doesn't really get it" wasn't he simply contributing to this charade by disingenuously stating that he liked the film. Wasn't it his duty to go back to his friend and tear down his entire pro-Solaris case (which doesn't sound like it was that strong to begin with).

Disliking a film that's considered among the greats is an interesting experience that everyone has. And how we deal with that is worth investigating (I usually react with initial befuddlement, followed by self loathing, and finally joy at putting together a good argument for myself. Genuine non-conformity is its own reward). But rationalizing that all those who disagree with you must simply be fooling themselves seems like a bizzarely adolescent reaction.

While I consider myself a fan of Tarkovsky, I don't think Kois was wrong for disliking Solaris. I think he was wrong for thinking he was wrong for disliking Solaris.

edo

For me, the point is not that Kois dislikes, finds boring, or thinks generally unappetizing any of the films he mentions in his article. The point is that he's promoting an idea of film, and, more broadly, art reader/viewer-ship that, to my mind, actually does violence to what appreciating art is, or should be, about.

So long as you hold onto this idea that you have simply been born with the quantity of proclivities, propensities, and idiosyncrasies, which you collectively refer to you as your personal "taste", and view this quantity as completely arbitrary, having nothing whatsoever to do with the shaping matrices of history, culture, and personal experience, then the appreciation of art can only ever be about - I hate to say it - consumer satisfaction for you. I find this sad, because, for me, it should really be about what new experiences, and, especially, new ways of experiencing, perceiving, and thereby understanding the world the work opens up for you. But this guy Kois just asks himself whether he "gets anything out of it" as if a work of art were just a dietary supplement...

Scott Nye

Robert - Well, he's also wrong for sort of pridefully not understanding Solaris and using that as a reason it's not very good. I mentioned previously that I am not at all on the same wavelength as that film, but I'm not going to take to the New York Times to declare it, or, frankly, that I've reached a point, "as a film critic," where I'd be fine with casting out to sea an entire aesthetic approach to the genre to which I am theoretically professionally committed. Even if I did have the ability. Professional critics who dismiss blockbusters outright aren't going to cut it as week-in, week-out, see-'em-all film critics in the current cinematic climate, but I don't see how anyone benefits by having someone who openly states that engagement with the form just isn't worth his time anymore.

Going back to an earlier point, I'm 25, and I too went to film school, mostly surrounded people who wouldn't know Tarkovsky from a hole in the ground and never saw a foreign film unless it was assigned for class (and God forbid they go to one in new release). I roomed with a fellow film major who didn't understand why I put on Citizen Kane one day for pleasure. Another film major roommate, at my urging, watched Gerry, and didn't care for it. When I asked him later, he admitted he was on the computer during most of it, but didn't see any reason why that should affect his experience.

Film school, to say the least, was not the academic paradise Scorsese and company had promised.

Kent - I am definitely taking your advice and writing to the Times. I guess I could have figured it out for myself, but I didn't know the younger demographic's voice mattered so much.

NickHangsOutOn Sunset

I'm sympathetic to Kois. I too have lost much of my adventurousness in seeking out challenging or "boring" movies as the decades have worn on, and my tolerance for them has declined. This bothers me a great deal. I fear that I feel this way because I am not a true cinephile, that I don't truly love film. If I did, a film's content would mean nothing to me. I would be content- no, thrilled - to watch, not anything, but whatever a film artist had assembled for me and to follow it where it led. I couldn't be bored because, if I really loved movies, a film could never be boring.

Kois is asking a reasonable question: "Life is short and why should I seek out experiences I know I'm not going to like?" He's run the experiment. He's seen the Tarkovsky's and the Bela Tarr's and the whoever else's. He knows how he's going to react. So he says, sincerely, "Thank you for your well-meant efforts to expand my life, but I have no more time for your directors." Kois is asking, "How far to I have to go to meet this art, exactly, before I decide the work has put itself out of reach and I give up?"

Kois described his experience of a certain type of artwork honestly and he has been unjustly smacked around for it because it wasn't the right experience. Lots of post-modern work stakes its claim as art based only on the experience it provokes or the intellectual ruminations it stimulates (I don't mean the filmmakers mentioned in the comments). If you're only allowed to admit your positive responses to a work, if you're written off as hostile or insulting by the people who matter most when you confess your failure to have the experience a film or a piece of art desires to bring you then all our discussion of these things really is just pretension.

md'a

Nick: The issue isn't Kois' experience. It's that he (or the New York Times Magazine) felt that his experience as described would be of value or interest to anyone else. What's the intention? To make you feel less guilty? Mission accomplished, I guess.

I freely admit that I have terrible taste in food. No gourmet meal I've ever eaten makes me remotely as happy as almost any greasy taqueria or burger joint. (Hence my need to drop 60 pounds last year, which I nonetheless did merely by consuming smaller quantities of crap, plus exercise.) If the world's ten greatest chefs prepared their respective pièces de résistance for me, odds are I'd have to force at least half of 'em down. But I'm not gonna write a lengthy thinkpiece about how I've grown weary of eating my literal vegetables. Because who the hell freakin' cares, you know?

Glenn Kenny

@ md'a: Thanks. Your input is genuinely appreciated.

And to expand a bit, NHOOS, I don't want to confuse the issue here. I wrote about Tarkovsky because his name seemed to attach itself to a larger discussion of "boredom" in art cinema, but I don't really care that Kois doesn't like "Solaris." The point is that Kois wants to be taken seriously "as a film critic" (his words) and makes this demand at the same time as he blithely announces his intention to abrogate a good deal of his responsibility as such, AND while strongly implying that life and discourse would be a whole lot more fun for everyone if we just went along with his "nothing to see here in the art-film section" ethos. That's it.

I'm insulting HIM? No. Okay, yes. But he insulted me (and quite a few other people) first.

Scott

I don't know why it's so difficult for some people to simply shrug and walk away when confronted with something that's just not for them (without resorting to the suspicious, affronted, vaguely petulant tone Mr. Kois employs in his article). I've noticed this tendency in people I know. I can understand that (particularly for people who consider themselves modern, educated, etc) there's an implicit feeling of being left out of the cultural conversation when you see something of great acclaim and it leaves you cold. But I think it's a mistake to confront any major work with the expectation of accessibility or even "entertainment". And I don't believe it undermines the egalitarian nature of art to suggest that art is for *anyone*, but not necessarily for *everyone*, which seems to me an important distinction.

Also, if one doesn't understand something they've seen (and there's no shame in that), I think it behooves one, especially if one is a professional reviewer, to occasionally consult with secondary critical materials before damning something of considerable reputation. Someone brought up "Ulysses" earlier. I was baffled and more than a little stupefied when I read that book for the first time, as many people would be. But I sought out a bunch of critical writings, re-read "The Odyssey", read "The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", and then finally returned to it. I still think there's something about Joyce's style that I'm just sort of allergic to, but I was at least able to have a firmer grasp on its structure, allusions, technique and overall intent. I don't LOVE that book, but I DID engage with it, which is what a work like that deserves (not to mention, it's the least I would do if I were about to make bold claims in a major publication).

Anyway, speaking of secondary sources, and speaking of Tarkovsky, I though I would mention that Geoff Dyer is coming out with a book-length appraisal of "Stalker" next year called "Zona". Dyer is one of the best, most versatile essayists out there, so it should be interesting. Here's a taste, from The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/feb/06/andrei-tarkovsky-stalker-russia-gulags-chernobyl

Andy

This whole issue of the driving sequence just recently came up over at the AV Club, and I was surprised to learn that anyone would have a problem with it or find it boring. A lot of people debated intentionality, as if that mattered as to whether you should enjoy it or not (according to some, Tarkovsky didn't like it and it's only long to justify the expense of getting the footage in Tokyo--and therefore anyone who digs it is therefore somehow mistaken in doing so). I was mezmerized and delighted by it in high school, and seeing it again for the first time recently, 20+ years later, felt just the same. As one commenter aptly put it, it's the visual equivalent of "Hallo Gallo."
On another note, a certain programmer for a certain prestigious institution--who and which shall remain nameless--was once talking about Gerry with me. I referred to the driving shot in the beginning of that as a Tarkovsky homage, and he immediately scoffed, sneering "Gus van Sant was influenced by Bela Tarr for Gerry, not Tarkovsky. You can read it in his interviews!" I was so dumbfounded by his lack of ability to step outside of that that I don't think I even said anything back. Not that it would have mattered.

Robert

The other unfortunate result of conversations like this is that the lines get drawn incorrectly. It becomes a battle between those who do like slow and contemplative cinema and those who don't. When in fact, the difference seems to be between those who see criticism as an ongoing conversation and those who see it as a declaration of taste. This view, the Kois view, seems to simplify the entire conversation to "Snobs" vs "Morons". It's a pointlessly reductive thing to assign motivation to others' opinions instead of fully defining ours. Put it another way: I'd rather have a 3 hour conversation with someone who hates Solaris (a position I disagree with) but challenges my reading of the film with intelligence, than with someone who agrees with me, but bases their love of the film on the fact that they don't get it so it must be deep. Kois seems to have never come to terms with the fact that he's allowed to both dislike films that are regarded as art and possess thoughtfullness. And his reaction seems to have been to eschew both.

Yann

Don't know if it was discussed here, but there was a similar debate (although with a slightly different bent) about two months ago, kicked off by Nick James in the April issue of Sight and Sound (his article is not online), see here for an interesting take:

http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=891


James Keepnews

Scott, thanks for the heads-up on Dyer's book, and the link to his STALKER essay. As usual, Andrei Arsenovich is his own most eloquent defender of his methodology, in re: boredom and much else besides, as quoted by Dyer in this essay: "If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention."

"Special intensity of attention," "cultural vegetables," must we split hairs?

Victor Morton

Mike:

Then I guess I'm confused ... at what point does one earn the (moral-critical) right to say "Auteur X is wearing the Emperor's Clothes" and/or to have such thoughts published for outsiders' consumption?

md'a

The piece in question wasn't about "Auteur X," Victor. That would entail actual criticism. It was essentially a declaration of a lifestyle choice pertaining to an entire subcategory of cinema. Very different animal.

Another personal example. I don't watch much avant-garde/experimental/short-form stuff, and I genuinely do feel guilty about that. Every so often I see something mindblowing, like Peter Tscherkassky's "Outer Space" or Martin Arnold's "Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy" (or, arguably, huge sections of THE TREE OF LIFE), but for the most part aggressively non-narrative cinema just doesn't do much for me. I consider that my failing. But even if I didn't, I see no point in writing 2000 words justifying my decision to ignore the Wavelengths program at the Toronto Film Festival. That just seems inane, not to mention pathetically self-serving. And it wouldn't be even remotely the same thing as mounting a knowledgeable, well-considered argument that, say, Ernie Gehr is a fraud. (NOTE: I've never seen any of Gehr's films, sadly. I'm sure he's awesome. "Side/Walk/Shuttle" has always sounded like something I might dig.)

Likewise, if I were into opera, I might state a passionate case against Verdi's RIGOLETTO or whatever. But does the world need an ostensibly sorrowful thinkpiece about how, after years spent fruitlessly trying to get into opera, I've finally decided to give up and just play MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY on repeat? I'm thinking maybe not.

Brian Dauth

First: I want to thank Glenn for highlighting the homo- and AIDS-phobic aspect of Kois' piece. His queer/AIDS slurs are what should be inspiring letters to The New York Times. Glenn: reading what you wrote made this queer cinephile feel less alone.

Second: Kois' desire to be taken seriously as a film critic is completely undermined by his cavalier/phobic dismissal of cinema from the margins which does not cater to his "be-my-type-of-movie-or-else" sense of entitlement. Devoting oneself to an art form and desiring to be an intelligent explicator of its examples means a) frequently treading into difficult territory and b) demonstrating an instinctive willingness to question one's opinion, especially when one has a negative experience. Kois is a perfect example of what Samuel Beckett warns about the at the outset of "Waiting for Godot" (a boring play if there ever was one. Didi and Gogo never leave and Godot never shows up!! What a waste of an evening). Dan Kois is a person who blames on his boots the faults of his feet.

Kent Jones

"I see no point in writing 2000 words justifying my decision to ignore the Wavelengths program at the Toronto Film Festival. That just seems inane, not to mention pathetically self-serving."

That's really well put, Mike.

You should see SIDE/WALK/SHUTTLE. An amazing experience.

Jeff McMahon

Re: Andy's comment earlier, "I was surprised to learn that anyone would have a problem with it or find it boring."

Really? I find this extremely hard to believe. Unless your attitude was that anyone who had gotten that far into the movie had already passed the boredom test.

Andy

Yes, I guess that's kind of it. I guess it would be better to say I was surprised to find that what I thought of as a highlight was getting attacked. It would seem if you weren't into that, you probably wouldn't like the whole movie, and why would you single that scene out for approbation? Like saying you don't like dogs particularly, and singling out a cute puppy to prove your point.

Nick Ramsey

Hi Kent, for the record I'm 28. I'll take your advice and send the NYTimes a letter expressing my disappointment with the article and its editors' choice to run it in the first place.

The more I re-read and think over the article (an effort which seems severely lacking in Kois' supposed aspirational film viewing), the more it bothers me that Kois justifies his current perspective by citing a past conversations with a dumb college friend. “’[SOLARIS]’s so boring,’ he said with evident awe. ‘You have to watch it, but you won’t get it.’ [. . .] When he asked me what part I liked the best, I picked the five-minute sequence of a car driving down a highway, because it seemed the most boring. He nodded his approval.”

Anyone who has attended college or gone to certain types of parties has probably encountered people similar to this friend. They try to lord their cultural experiences over others as a means to show superiority. Kois has made the first step in understanding that he doesn’t need to feel insecure around these people. He still fails to understand though—by now using his friend’s old views as cudgel to bludgeon anyone who claims to like SOLARIS—that he still only understands appreciators of such films as either sophists (Kois' friend) or wannabes (Kois). Are there not other options? Kois is still not free of letting his friend’s callow views affect him.

MTH

I am by no means an all-knowing genius of aesthetic authority, nor is any of us, so there's plenty in the Kois piece that I can sympathize with; I don't think he's a monster for putting the notion of "aspirational viewing" on the table, because I've been in many situations where I've gone to see a particular film that I suspect probably won't be in my aesthetic wheelhouse, but that I am sufficiently intrigued by the attendant conversation to roll the dice on. I would argue that aspirational viewing is a GOOD thing, and something maybe even potentially worth writing a NY Times mag piece about, as long as it comes from open-mindedness rather than the closed-minded conclusion reached by Kois (sing to the tune of the Lumberjack Song: "I'm a philistine and I'm OK...")

Kois is a dilettante at best, and the limitations of his taste are such that I don't think he has any business making a living writing about movies. (I mean, if Todd Haynes' fluid, smoothly marvelous MILDRED PIERCE is too abstruse for you, it's probably time to rethink why you're even watching any of this stuff.) Kois' epiphany -- that he should embrace his inability to digest art films -- might make most of us want to hurl, but if he'd written it on a personal blog, would anyone care? I guess what I mean is: this is just a dude learning something true about himself and changing his mindset accordingly. Just because that mindset is antithetical to ours doesn't mean he should be burned at the stake. The fact that the NY Times mag published such a bloggy, inconsequential piece is a bit weird, but it doesn't indicate an "agenda" other than that of a philistine's guilty introspection.

Glenn's exhortation to "just leave it alone" seems to be what Kois is, by the end of the piece, ready to do. Should he have been given such a high platform for this mundane self-discovery? No. But I don't see why that makes him a suitable target for attack.

And boredom? Boredom is subjective. Many acclaimed art films have bored me, and many have excited me. Ditto for commercial films. I'm not sure that anything more insightful can be said on the topic of boredom. It is what it is. If you're bored, you can't engage with what a filmmaker is trying to do, even if you'd like to. I don't know. This is a terribly unprofound comment but the emotional pitch of this discussion is a bit mystifying to me.

md'a

"I would argue that aspirational viewing is a GOOD thing, and something maybe even potentially worth writing a NY Times mag piece about, as long as it comes from open-mindedness rather than the closed-minded conclusion reached by Kois (sing to the tune of the Lumberjack Song: "I'm a philistine and I'm OK...")"

This.

I've been an aspirational viewer my whole life. To this day, I rush out to see any film that gets raves from critics I respect, even if I feel almost certain that it isn't my thing. (I'm looking/screeching at you, TRASH HUMPERS.) Seems to me that's the only way one's taste will ever expand beyond the instantly accessible. Sometimes it doesn't work—I've been trying to like Manoel de Oliveira since THE CONVENT played NYFF '95, and have never succeeded (except for his lovely doc OPORTO OF MY CHILDHOOD). But sometimes it does. SOLARIS did nothing for me 20-odd years ago, when I was first devouring the canon; I rewatched it recently and found it utterly hypnotic (and not even a bit boring). That reversal didn't happen by magic—I clearly *learned* how to watch SOLARIS, over a period of many years in which I kept struggling with works that challenged me. (That process is ongoing, and never won't be.)

So, yeah, I can easily imagine a terrific piece on the subject of aspirational viewing (a term I quite like). But it wouldn't be one that draws the conclusion: Nah, screw it. Not because that's the wrong conclusion (though I think it is), but because it's ultimately destructive rather than constructive.

Kent Jones

An apt passage from Ruskin's "Of Kings' Treasuries" - "Very ready we are to say of a book, 'How good this is - that's exactly what I think!' But the right feeling is, 'How strange that is! I never thought of that before, and yet I see it is true; or if I do not now, I hope I shall, some day.' But whether thus submissively or not, at least be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours. Judge it afterwards if you think yourself qualified to do so; but ascertain it first."

Tom Block

Everybody's probably given up on this thread by now but this column

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/18/movies/the-pack-mentality-in-spring-films.html?_r=1&hp=&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1308334121-oc4U8yIpwGCVVAq8hkaDjg

seems to me at least as insidious as Kois' thingie. The bar-lowering "film criticism" isn't helped at all when the basic thesis is supported only by a lot of cherry-picking.

Glenn Kenny

@Tom: No matter where Cieply lays his hat, the rule is, whenever he attempts anything besides straight reporting, it's run-for-the-hills time.

Kent Jones

I'm not sure what gave me the heartiest chuckle, the Kracauer reference, the quote from Stephen Ujlaki, "dean of the Loyola Marymount School of Film and Television" ("A number of scholars, he noted, have been examining the notion that the human evolutionary advantage, particularly in tough times, is the collaborative impulse"), or the penetrating observation that in "most studio films this season, the value system mimics peer loyalty in a small military unit: When push comes to shove, it’s the few of us against all of them."

Is everyone really that desperate for a group thumbsuck?

Glenn Kenny

Yeah, I don't get what it is about Cieply. He seems to have some kinda Lamont Cranston thing going. I remember back in the day at Premiere when a colleague commissioned him (Cieply) to do something about the semiology of summer movies or some such and he (the colleague) was super-stoked about how great and ground-breaking the piece was gonna be, and it came in and I read it and I was like "Are you fucking kidding me?" but apparently I was in the minority. When he (Cieply) ducked over to the New York Times I honestly felt Premiere had dodged a bullet. Shows how much I know!

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