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June 09, 2011


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For me, being able to sit through, and genuinely appreciate, these (putting it politely) deliberately paced films often depends on the inherent dramatic tension in the situations. For some reason, I find Kubrick almost always compelling but I usually struggle through Tarkovsky. I really liked Ivan's Childhood and the bell-making finale of Andrei Rublev, but I found Stalker to be almost fiendishly boring. True, I saw it 25 years ago, but these days I find it even harder to stay awake through a film that doesn't hold my interest than I did in my youth. I did find the candle-across-the-pool scene in Nostalgia to be absolutely gripping.

My love of Harris Savides' cinematography makes those Van Sant films more compelling for me than they might be otherwise. But while I revere There Will Be Blood and The Son, I simply couldn't abide Police, Adjective.

Not that anyone asked.

Sadly, my strongest memory of The Sacrifice is what I hope was only a poorly translated subtitle - when the people in the house learn of the apocalypse, and one of the women says something like "It's all my fault!"

Douglas Moran

Ah, I see, Glenn: it's not that Tartovsky is boring, for he was undoubtedly a towering genius and that is simply not possible. Nope, it's that the viewers who find that endless friggin' sequence boring are, instead, ignorant fools who simply don't appreciate the incredible [insert superlatives here] that Tartovsky is bringing to his films. [slaps forehead] But of course! What a *fool* I've been!

Every artist dances on the spectrum between obscure and pandering; the question each artist has to ask him or herself is, "Where on that spectrum do I want to be?" Michael Bay, as you note, is pandering to the action-without-thinking crowd so fiercely that some--myself included--find his movies actually, physically painful. I had a headache after taking my son to the second "Transformers" movie. On the flip side are Tartovsky and Joyce and, yes, to a certain extent Wallace, who are waaaaay over on t'other side. And I submit that Tartovsky is so far over on the "obscure" side of the spectrum that it topples over into "boredom" for the vast majority of people.

But let's be honest here: just because some people find Tartovsky boring doesn't mean that he isn't; nor does it mean that he's not a towering genius (any more than the fact that 99.9% of humanity find "Ulysses" boring beyond belief means that Joyce is a bad writer). It just means that *some people find Tartovsky boring*. And frankly, I don't think that means a lack within those people; I think it just shows that Tartovsky made a decision to be way out there on the "obscure" end of the art spectrum, and that means you're going to appeal to a lot less people. That's all.

But stating or implying that there's something missing in those folks who do hate that car-driving sequence is silly.

Glenn Kenny

@ Andrew: Thanks for the generous response and clarification. The varying reactions to the "b" word do make one want to stipulate that so much depends on how the word is meant. I've previously cited J. Hoberman's evocation of a boredom that transcends boredom. Andy Warhol's boredom is different from Tarkovsky's slowing down of the pulse rate. And so on. Once we clarify that, we're left with two questions: what is the function of a critic and/or of criticism, and is to what extent should the critic feel put out by being asked to grapple with "difficult" works of art? In other words, why is it significant that Dan Kois feels less and less patient with this sort of thing, and why should the reader care? HE is the one saying things like "as a film critic;" well, as a film critic, aren't there just a few more things on the table than his own fucking holy subjectivity? When I repeat Warshow's phrase concerning the direct experience, that doesn't mean your direct experience is the only goddamn thing you write about, does it?

As for your insistence that there's no sinister agenda involved, let me read into evidence Exhibit A, that is, the very same Slate "Cultural Gabfest" in which Dana Stevens asserts that Dan didn't really mean anything bad, that it was just a confession, not a manifesto. It is then revealed that the discussion of the Kois article is taking place as a substitute for a discussion of Godard's "Film Socialisme," which was on the table, but which podcast participant Stephen "'THE SEARCHERS sucks" Metcalf managed to miss. The film's title is pronounced by other podcaster Julie "Memo From" Turner in an ostensibly comic exaggerated French accent, and from that point on the eyeball-rolling is audible. Metcalf's actually gloating over the fact that not having seen it means he doesn't have to engage it; everyone involved gives off this awful meant-to-be-so-witty-and-cosmopolitan-and-just-us-Park-Slopers sense of "Wow, really dodged a bullet there," as if Godard's very existence constituted some awful imposition that was gonna distract them fatally from whether or not "Super 8" is appropriate for a pre-schooler of some other such burning issue. And then Stevens compares the Godard film's cruise sequence to David Foster Wallace's essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.' The two works bear about as much resemblance to each other as (to quote a favorite old Thurber line) Calvin Coolidge does to the MGM lion; but hell, they're both set on cruise ship. (Is it just me, by the way, or has Wallace become the default reference for people who invest a lot in being considered highbrow even though they don't generally like anything that's highbrow? There's no other reason for Stevens to compare the two except by way of pointing out, "Hey, don't get down on me for not 'getting' or liking Godard, I'VE READ DAVID FOSTER WALLACE." And she's hardly the only person to pull this. I have some idea of how Wallace would react to this mini-trend, which tends to manifest itself very strongly among Slate contributors, but I'll keep it to myself.) And that's pretty much when I had to be restrained from throwing my computer out the window. These are the people who believe they define the terms of the cultural conversation, Andrew. I think there's a very definite agenda at work in their reflexive hostility to the very idea of a Godard film in 2011.

@ Douglas Moran: I've tried to be as upfront as possible about my own prejudices and tendencies to be unreasonable. I'll thank you not to put words (such as "towering genius") in my mouth. All you're saying in your comment is "No, YOU'RE wrong," and you're welcome to that opinion. Hell, you're even welcome to just steamroll over all the textual evidence I've picked apart, it makes you so happy. You're not, however, welcome to misrepresent my own opinion.

Fabian W.

Anyone for tarte au chocolat?

Douglas Moran

I am reminded of two things from the "Lord of the Rings" movies, actually:

In the first film, during Our Heroes sojourn in Lorien, Cate Blanchett was saying something to Frodo and . . . speaking . . . very . . . deliberately. I leaned over to my friend. "I wish she'd get on with it!"
"Elves are immortal; they can take their time."
"Yeah, well *I'm not*!"

The second item is from the second film, during the Entmoot. Merry and Pippin are growing--yes!--quite bored, and Merry complains about it. Treebeard explains, "It takes a loooooong time to say anything in Old Entish, and we never say anything unless it's worth taking a loooong time to say."

Glenn, if you enjoy learning the cinematic equivalent of Old Entish, and enjoy watching movies in that language (Tartovsky, e.g.), that's fine. But don't dump on other folks who don't, is all I'm saying.

Glenn Kenny

Um, Douglas, Kois started it. Go yell at him.

Adam K

Yeah, that Tartovsky is pretty dull. But Tarkovsky is awesome.


"I am reminded of two things from the 'Lord of the Rings' movies, actually..."

Yeah, I bet.

See also re "byline picture:" http://www.ultraculture.co.uk/6996-calling-all-young-mums-from-leeds.htm

Douglas Moran

Glenn: naw; I commented here on your thoughts, and I commented on Salon on Andrew's thoughts. That's enough for me, I'm thinking.

Spressatura: And your point is . . . what, exactly?

Reini Urban

This is not Tokyo, this is Moscow!

Ryan Kelly

I'm confused: is Moran calling Tarkovsky "Tartovsky" supposed to be a joke or does he really not know the man's name? These are the sort of things I wonder about.

Andrew O'Hehir

Glenn -- Thanks for the response. I just have to question your judgment in listening to one of those Slate podcasts in the first place! I actually like Dana, but I wouldn't have expected that group of people, or much of anybody else, to have much that was interesting to say about Film Socialisme. I'd listen to you and Richard talk about it (I think).

What you bring up, though, is interesting: The way people act embarrassed, or put upon, by the persistence of difficult works of art in an age that has done its best to purge them. It's the flip side of the thing I complain about, when readers go apoplectic on a critic who trashes a much-loved pop film (Avatar, Inception, et al.) and ruins its all-important RT rating. This is what makes me reach for my Adorno/Debord quotations, thereby boring everyone. I can only conclude that many people, perhaps most, find the totalizing Catholic Church of pop very comforting, and do not wish to be reminded that there are heretical eddies and crosscurrents to be found here and there.

Part of it, I'm sorry to say, is the Internet -- or at least the corporate Internet, like Salon and Slate and MSN, where we've all become so reactionary and the numbers get smushed in our faces as never before. Everyone understands that talking about Godard or whatever is a buzzkill, clicks-wise, and the path of least resistance is always to steer away, in big ways and small, from stuff that doesn't attract a large audience. (Salon didn't run a release review of Film Socialisme, so I've got no leg to stand on here.) That may help explain the nervous laughter: We're going to talk about this scary-serious-puzzling thing for just a second, ha ha ha! Don't get bored! We'll move back to something you already know what to think about!

In fairness there are occasional "Dogtooth" moments, where some way off-the-radar phenomenon briefly becomes acceptable fodder for the media conversation. (Didn't love the movie, but also would never have imagined it as a potential "hit.") Critics help identify something, and a modest public responds. Whaddya know, just like in olden times.

Glenn Kenny

@ Reini Urban: Sorry, it's not Moscow. See Tarkovsky's diary (reprinted in "Time Within Time," Verso/Seagull Books, 1993), the entry for 14 October 1971: "We came back from Japan on the 10th. Utterly exhausted. And with my nerves shattered. [...] We filmed a certain amount for Berton's drive through the 'town.'" Also see the prior entry, for 19 September, prior to embarking for Japan. (Incidentally, while the diary stipulates the spelling "Berton," as do the credits in the booklet of the new Criterion edition of the film, the extant subtitles still spell the name "Burton.")


Also I think we can go ahead and exercise our collective intentional fallacies here, whether or not Kois intended his piece to be a manifesto, to my eyes, doesn't much matter. I don't know the guy personally but it comes off with a very definite agenda (this isn't just a personal blog post, it was published as a "think piece" in the New York freaking Times) to me whether or not it was specifically intended as such. In any case, I hope this next paragraph doesn't come off as hopeless "tooting my own horn" for the sake of what it's worth.

I started getting interested in "cultural vegetables" when I was around 16 or 17 (I'm 25 now). Due to my interest in film, my lack of interest in doing homework, and my public libraries dutifully stocked collection of Criterion and other/foreign/art/cultural vegetable DVDs, it was how I discovered Fellini, Kurosawa, Tarkovksy, Antonioni, hell even Stan Brakhage. This was stuff I discovered on my own time, through reading online, looking at lists, and just being generally interested in this sort of thing. It opened up a whole new world for me and was something I did entirely on my own, outside of school, and for (wait for it) entirely my own pleasure. It wasn't intentional, it just kind of happened accidentally (and wonderfully)

When I got to film school, not only was I exposed to academic film studies, but also a ton of other groundbreaking work (I took a class devoted entirely to the New German Cinema, American Experimental Film, Postmodernism in Film and Media, Documentary history. It was to my surprise that after sitting through something like say, Un Chien Andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon, some Herzog or Fassbinder, that the general response from my classmates (most of whom, it should be pointed out were Film Studies majors like myself) was "boy, total Yawnz0rz" followed by some snickering and/or "geez that was depressing". Not for one or two films, but for most of the stuff I can remember watching in a class.

Some people ended up actually thinking about the films and turning around to them, a lot didn't. What it did illustrate to my eyes was a lack of engagement by a lot of my fellow students as to any basic understanding of "why might I be watching a film like this for class" or (god forbid) "why is _____ (insert filmmaker here)using this particular aesthetic strategy which is not what I'm used to, is it effective or ineffective, if I think it's ineffective (or effective), can I back that up with any specific reasoning?" (other than I was bored). At a certain point I wanted to say to some of these people "if you are going to school to study film, wouldn't you like to be challenged a little bit?"

So I can assure that (at least from personal experience) that the attitude Kois expresses is very much alive and well. Which is again, what bothers me about the piece. Plenty of people (including people who commented on this post) have had plenty of well argued reasons for liking or disliking films. But Kois's piece just demonstrates a complete lack of engagement with these films couched in "aw shucks, guess I'm just an average Joe like the rest of us" language, coupled of course, with a healthy dose of snark (which it seems, no cultural think piece can be without these days). Just to add one last note, I can remember watching Marker's Sans Soleil in a class and thinking it was absolutely beautiful and haunting but had no real idea what it was "about" or "trying to express" (at least not until I watched it a few more times). So, there's that kind of engagement too.

Douglas Moran

Ryan: "Moran" just has trouble with Russian names in general, is all; my apologies. Tarkovsky Tarkovsky Tarkovsky, okay? My step-sister is married to a man named Dherin, and I get that wrong all the time, too. It happens; cut me some slack.

Glenn Kenny

Thanks, B, and no, I don't take that for horn-tooting.

The funny thing is, my own interest in "cultural vegetables" (GOOD CHRIST HOW I HATE THAT TERM) began VERY early indeed...as a result of my parents encouraging me to look at things such as The New York Times and Life magazine, where Richard Schickel was a critic! I'm from a pretty hardcore working class background—my dad was a route man for National Foods, which distributed Wise Potato Chips and other like yummy snacks in Jersey—and both my folks were very determined that their kids would have the opportunities that they didn't, for instance, the means to go to college. I liked reading, and I remember very early on being hooked on the NYT Arts and Leisure section and getting VERY EXCITED every year when the full-page ad announcing the lineup of the New York Film Festival was announced. I also remember reading Schickel's Life review of "Tristana" and his description of Buñuel as "the old athiest" and marveling that atheists got to be old. Forgive me—I was pretty doctrinaire Irish/Italian-American Catholic, and 11 years old to boot. From there is was a short jaunt for me to be begging my Aunt Peggy of the Brooklyn Kennys to take me to see "Discreet Charm" in its initial NY run at...I don't remember which theater. The Beekman? The weird thing was, I turned into SUCH a cinephile/bookworm that my parents worried that I was disturbed (they were right) AND I never managed to graduate college either, which I'm sure the thrifty brave clean and reverent Dan Kois did. And here I am talking to you, as that guy on "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel" said.

Ryan Kelly

It's really too bad that his name wasn't... in the title of the post... or something... so you could have checked.

Ryan Kelly

Also, I'll cut you all the slack you like. All the slack I have to give is yours for the keeping. But, for future consideration, when making arguments against a highly respected artist in a given medium it might lend your arguments some credence if you spelled his name correctly.

Douglas Moran

[rolls eyes] I apologized and corrected my error. What more do you want; me to bow down like a courtier in "The King and I" or something? Good lord, Kelly.

Glenn Kenny

Man, Kelly is going all Honey-Badger-Versus-Cobra on poor Mr. Moran. Which, I have to admit (albeit not without some shame at my own pettiness and venality) is kind of entertaining, but does distract from the more important issues here, e.g., why aren't you all writhing in hilarity at my "Memo From Turner" joke, etc.

Fabian W.

And I basically made the same point Ryan Kelly is making way earlier when I asked if anyone was interested in tarte au chocolate. TARTe, get it? Where's my medal?

Douglas Moran

I obviously offended him. Maybe he just really loves Kartovsky--or whatever the hell the guy's name is--and goes ballistic on anyone who expresses less-than-full admiration? I dunno.

But Gleeeeeen! He's pickin' on me! If you don't help, I'm tellin' Moooooom!

Nick Ramsey

@Fabian: The rest of the commenters must have deemed your artfulness too esoteric, foreign-sounding, and abstract, I suppose.

F Cobalt

Separating the wheat (Tarkovsky films) from the chaff (intellectual dishonesty), is that without much self-awareness, Kois shows that there's a difference between not understanding a movie and choosing not to want to understand it. Kois could have opened up a dialogue with his college friend when he first watched (and half slept through) Solaris, and he might have potentially learned something. Instead he shut down any further involvement with the film, wrote it off, and years later maintains this anti-intellectual stance as if it's a source of pride. He agrees to watch movies to this day that have glacial pacing, and convinces himself and others that he has sophisticated tastes in doing so. Is using the argument "I may not know much about art but I know what I like" a valid starting point for any cultural critique? Though I, and many others, love "boring" Tarkovsky films, there's isn't really a need to defend his works. Essays, books, and documentaries, by Tarkovsky himself and many others, are plentiful on the subject of said films, some of which Kois could have picked up at any given time to expand his understanding or lack thereof. He chose not to.

Nick Ramsey

On a more serious note, I don't understand how to combat things like this article. Even an open-minded reader of the NYTimes, who only read the initial article and has never heard of Tarkovsky, will now forever link Tarkovsky's name and work with the article's label of "agonizingly boring but fake intellectuals will claim it's good". It’s obnoxious to meet otherwise reasonable people, profess enthusiasm for a work, and then see eye rolls and vague, secondhand dismissals. There’s nothing one can really say without coming off like a boring-for-boring’s-sake faker. There is already a definitive take on the work. To me this really in the maddening issue with this kind of “informed” philistinism.

I dunno. After the opening section where Kois compares his aspirational viewing to that of his six-year-old daughter's, there really isn’t anything left to say to that either, is there?

Glenn Kenny

@ Nick: Yes, exactly. And that's why what Kois and his friends--"smart" people, "kind" people, "good" people all--are engaging in is ultimately pernicious. "No agenda" my ass. Kois won't retweet any of this, nor will Stevens bring it up on any "cultural" "gabfest."

Claire K.

Is no one willing to speak out on behalf of poor "Phineas and Ferb"???


I actually laughed at the Memo From Turner joke, if that helps.

Stephen Winer

Nick, I think you have nothing to fear. Articles like Kois' come around periodically, create a tempest and then vanish.The Times readers you worry about weren't going to invest the time in these filmmakers' work anyway. Ultimately, the artists survive. They always do.

Kent Jones

"On a more serious note, I don't understand how to combat things like this article."

Nick, how old are you? Because if you're in your 20s or 30s, you might want to write the Times, as a representative of the demographic they have been so obsessively targeting with such bilge, and let them know how disgusted you are. If you're too old, tell your younger friends to chime in.

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