Cultural vegetables: Steamed and fried

July 5, 2011

I was bemused when Dan Kois wrote his “aw shucks” piece in the New York Times in April about how, sometimes, he just can’t get with the program when it comes to boring movies that get a tidal wave of critical acclaim.

And I was amused when, a month or so later, the Times’ critics, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, responded with their own fervent defense of their duty to champion movies like “Tree of Life” and its ilk – that, while Kois found movies like Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff” boring, they found movies like “Hangover 2” equally uninteresting. (Talk about straw men.) This led to a discussion about “eating your cultural vegetables” that still seems to be ping-ponging around the Internet.

I refer to that kind of movie as oat-bran cinema: dull movies that are supposed to be good for you. I think of them – movies like “Goodbye Solo” and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and “Wendy and Lucy” – as the kind of movies that make people hate film critics (who praise these snore-fests so lavishly that people are suckered into paying money to see them).

Amid all this high-minded discussion of the role and duty of the critic, one key piece of information seemed to get lost in the shuffle. It’s something that seems self-evident and yet people act surprised when I actually say it out loud. And it’s this:

Every critic believes that his or her opinion is the right one. And that everybody else is wrong. Except the critics who share his opinion.

Even then, critics don’t believe that other critics who share their opinion are their equals. Rather, they just happen to have the good taste to agree.

It’s not just that critics believe they’re right. They also believe that theirs is the only opinion that truly matters. To most critics, it’s a sad fact of life that other critics – with other opinions and points of view – even exist.

That’s what this discussion comes down to: Gee, I think you’re wrong – wrong to think the way you think, wrong to even be allowed to state an opinion that runs counter to mine. Don’t you realize that I’m the only one who can be right?

Keep in mind that it takes a huge ego to be a critic. To offer honest opinions – often negative opinions, sometimes even corrosive and mean-spirited ones – for the rest of the public to consume, well, that’s a lot of ego, right there. You have to have the courage of your convictions because, on a regular basis, your readers will tell you what a tool you are for expressing that very opinion.

Sure, we critics may act as though humility is our watchword when you meet us in person. But, at heart, when we’re sitting at our computers crafting the reviews you read, we’re demanding and ruthless and convinced of our utter rightness.

And we all have our own unique taste. When you mix personal taste with rampaging ego, you’ve got a heady, volatile little cocktail.

And that’s what this whole thing is about, really – different critics saying to each other that, in essence, your taste sucks. Except in a high-toned way that makes it seem as though the discussion is about something else: about the pretentiousness or philistinism that we think others bring to their reviews of work we deem worthy or unworthy.

Hey, everyone has slow periods. We all need a phony controversy to write about sometimes. This is just another one of those. Except this one was propagated by the New York Times, so obviously it must mean something.

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