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From Brooklyn With Love: Notes on Unsophistication

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by Matt Zoller Seitz
September 20, 2012 11:23 AM
13 Comments
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When I dashed off a little rant about snarky commenters who annoyed me during a revival screening of From Russia With Love, I didn't expect it to strike a nerve. Apparently it did. I wouldn't take back any of it—I said what I said, and meant all of it. But I would like to clarify a few points in this follow-up post.

Pretty much every assertion I'm going to make here comes back to a core conviction: Not all responses to art are equal.

There is a hierarchy of response. Pretending you're in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000—which enshrined the open mic night approach to moviegoing in the 80s—ranks near the bottom.

No, not every movie begs for rapt contemplation. Duh!

Nevertheless, if you go into an old movie, any movie, stuck in the headspace of whatever year you happen to be living in, the movie doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of really making an impression on you.

In a Metafilter thread, a commenter summed up my rant with one of his own: "Christ, what an asshole. Someone should tell this uptight disapprover-of-other-people's-joy that James Bond is camp. It was made that way. Knowingly. That it is now, in addition to being camp, also kitsch, well, so fucking what? It's not exactly Shakespeare."

I got many comments like this on the original piece and in blog posts people wrote in response, and I don't respect them. They're forms of self-justifying phony populism. "It's only a movie, dude." "Relax!" "Don't tell me how to watch something, you snob."

Just because a film has campy qualities doesn't mean the whole thing is silly and trivial. And even if a film is partly or wholly campy doesn't mean the viewer is therefore entitled to snicker and comment all the way through it in a public space.

Why not?

Well, for starters, it's mildly asshole-ish behavior. It presumes that if you're enjoying your own free-form sophomoric commentary, everyone around you must find it delightful, too, and if they don't, they should shut up and deal anyway, otherwise they're killjoys. This is, of course, bullshit.

As another Metafilter commenter put it, "The fundamental problem of this behavior is that these people are saying, 'This is stupid, and anyone who enjoys it for its own sake is stupid.' It's a form of bullying. The point of cinema is that it's immersive, and anyone who deliberately spoils that immersion for other people is doing it wrong—it's no different from smoking a cigar or farting odoriferously in a restaurant."

Plus, as my friend Stephen Neave likes to say, if you act like a snot during an old movie, or while encountering any creative work in a mode you're unfamiliar with, you're not getting everything you can out of it; you're cheating yourself.

Maybe you don't believe that, or don't care, but that's the real point of the column. If you are unable to get out of your own narcissistic 2012 bubble while watching an old movie ("Hah, hah! Can you believe people once found that sexy?") then yes indeed, you are watching it wrong. Even if it's an old James Bond flick.

Yes, Bond films are mainly escapism, and they rarely take themselves seriously. And yes, like a lot of genre pictures, Bond movies have camp elements.

But they also have purely cinematic qualities that you can't see unless you take off your Cool Kid spectacles: playful eroticism that turns Me Tarzan, You Jane sexism into teasing comedy; stunning travelogue footage; chases and fights laid out with a choreographer's precision; even moments of borderline horror (that shark pool from The Spy Who Loved Me has shown up in my dreams). Some Bond films even sneak in stray moments (in the Connery and post-Moore flicks, anyway) where you're supposed to feel something for Bond, or for the men and women who die helping him. It's possible to feel a wide range of emotions during light entertainment, but if you're doing the Open Mic Night thing with your buddies, you'll never feel them.

And that's sad. It means you're closing yourself off from a wider spectrum of response, on purpose, apparently. If your default mode is fashionable contemporary snark, you're looking at a rainbow and only seeing one color. 

No, contrary to what you might have thought, this was not an Abe Simpson "These kids today" piece. That's why it ended with an anecdote from a film class I took in 1988, wherein a bunch of fellow undergrads hooted at Singin' in the Rain.

The Cool Kid mentality has always been with us.

It's not just the province of the young; it's a more generalized form of ignorance, or more charitably, narcissism: the narcissism of the present tense. It says to art, entertainment and the world at large: "This moment in time is the most morally and intellectual advanced in all human history, and I am a lucky part of that era, a fully evolved person who cannot change or learn any further. Therefore this old movie with its corny language and corny situations can't make me feel anything, or have any thoughts that I haven't had before, so I'm going to sit here, arms folded, and laugh at it. And if you don't like it, you're just a old person, or somebody with a nostalgia fetish, or a jerk who thinks his enjoyment is superior to mine."

John Perich of Overthinking It accuses me of, well, overthinking it. He's not the only writer to take issue with my statement that, "It’s up to the individual viewer to decide to connect or not connect with a creative work. By 'connect,' I mean connect emotionally and imaginatively—giving yourself to the movie for as long as you can, and trying to see the world through its eyes and feel things on its wavelength."

Perich replies:

"The experiences on which a film should be judged have to take place between the first and last frame. To expect anything else shifts the burden of storytelling from the director, the actors, the editors, the set designers, etc., onto the professors, film critics and pundits who discuss the piece. Knowing that From Russia with Love was Pedro Armendariz’s last film gives his performance a touching bit of poignance, particularly certain lines: “I’ve had a particularly fascinating life. Would you like to hear about it?” But Armendariz’s performance, as the gregarious Kerim Bey, has to rise or fall on its merits. (How many other actors have gone out on a real turkey?)

"Anything beyond the level of mere experience activates the critical mindset, or the desire to overthink.

"This isn’t to say that the critical mindset has no place in the experience of pop culture. But the consumption of pop culture and the subjecting of that culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve are two distinct acts. One is observational; one is infiltrational. The former is passive; the latter, active. Overthinking a work of pop culture enhances the viewing experience, but it can never be a requirement. If it is required, it’s not truly 'pop.'"

Yes, of course, movies date. Entertainment dates. Art dates. Everything dates. 

And so what?

If a work is in some way compelling—well-made, sincere, revealing of a particular mindset or aesthetic school—it is still possible to get something out of it if you're willing to meet it halfway, or a quarter of the way, or a tenth of the way. 

But snark doesn't get you there.

Fake populism deployed in defense of snark doesn't get you there, either.

My colleague Linda Holmes of the NPR blog Monkey See worries that "the great risk" of chastising people for watching a movie the "wrong" way is:

"...that if you grasp a person by the shoulders and tell him he's unsophisticated for his response—as the film teacher did at the closing of the Singin' In The Rain showing—he won't learn the lesson you mean to teach. He won't learn that he needs to think in a nuanced way about the pleasure and the art and the cultural commentary of film. What he will learn is, 'Don't react incorrectly, or people will ridicule you.'

"That's the mindset I actually fear more than ironic distancing: the refusal to react at all until you know how your reaction will be received. That goes hand in hand with the insidious practice of using what you like and dislike to define not just your taste but your place. It's a quieter, less conspicuous, but just as destructive failure to engage. It's how people learn to substitute what they should think for what they actually think, to the point where they don't trust their own reactions."

Fair enough. I admit I'm engaging in hyperbole, both here and in the original piece, and being a bit of an asshole in the process.

Is my hectoring tone alienating people who might be enticed if I were nicer?

Very possibly, but I don't care. I'm an absolutist in believing that some forms of engagement are richer and more rewarding than others.

Snark is not a form of engagement. It is the opposite of engagement.

Can you laugh at old movies and really engage with them?

Sort of, but it's a glancing sort of engagement.

You can engage with your friends while snarking on an old movie, but if you do that, you're not really engaging with the movie, you're goofing around with your friends. 

The best way to engage is to shut up for five or ten minutes at a stretch, watch the movie, and be alone with your thoughts.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.

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13 Comments

  • Ormsby | November 14, 2012 10:16 AMReply

    I went to see the TCM presentations of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein at theater near me in late October. I have a deep love for these films and was excited to see them on the "big screen". During Frankenstein, two older couples sat behind us and one of the men talked through most of the movie. This wasn't some young hipster, this was a man in his 60s cracking jokes. I finally told him to shut it, and he was quiet for the rest of the film and Bride of Frankenstein. The same sort of thing happened when I went to see Dracula (1931) at the Community Arts Theater of Huntington a few years ago. The "cultured" crowd of adults made fun of the film as it played on the screen. I can go on and cite more examples from just the last ten films I've seen. It makes me not want to see films in theaters anymore. At home I can enjoy a film in quiet, without people riffing on the film and the glare of cellphone screens ruining the experience.

  • drewcipher | October 11, 2012 1:37 AMReply

    I have dedicated my blog to expose this very infection. Ignorance. The underlined root cause I have determined through my research points to content. Or lack there of to be more accurate. We demand less content with our entertainment and it is eroding the base of our culture.
    I have a example because it is playing right now. Starsky and Hutch. Gritty 7o's cop drama transformed into the snark 1 beat tripe. The movie Somewhere in the great scheme of things audiences forgot what it was like to enjoy a wider palate of cinematic flavor. We are loosing integral parts of culture and apparently no one seems to care. Sad. But true.
    Beware those who wield their ignorance as a weapon.

  • Nick | October 8, 2012 7:56 PMReply

    Thank you. I really loved your two articles Matt. Here's what I posted on Facebook with a link to your first article (the Bond article).

    "People often ask me "What have you got against FAMILY GUY?" Several things, but one of its most annoying traits is that it mocks, derides and lampoons almost everything it touches. Pop culture is, and should be, parodied, but Family Guy bathes in this technique - saturates to the point where everything is a joke to be poked at---takes culture to a disposable level that is sad without much satirical commentary. This attitude has slowly snuck into my classroom over the years where I find it inappropriate in a class, say like, History of Film where the very point is to contextualize history. This article points out this problem. At any rate, my job is to cut through the layers of ironic fat that smother intellectual curiosity - but in the face of endless snickering - it's getting harder."

    So yes, I find this de-facto stance of some of my students worrisome, but I do my best to challenge their assumptions and reading protocols - it's my job to do just that. To your larger point - as my friend Brett said, if you paid money to go see the film, shut the f*#k up! Keep your comments (whether brilliant observations or snarky remarks) to yourself, that's simply common courtesy. In the classroom, I do my best to disarm the potential for the comments beforehand by contextualizing a film before screening it (like Citizen Kane, Casablanca or Singin' in the Rain) via a short briefing. Also, they know to check their 'film reviewer" hats at the door and look at these films as cultural artifacts - important and valid ---- because culture created them and----they exist.

  • B Bridges | September 28, 2012 12:02 AMReply

    Oh, and just one more thing. This phenomenon doesn't only happen with old movies. When it was first released I saw the Todd Solondz movie "Happiness". It was a dark comedy so laughs were to be expected but there is a sequence (Spoiler!) in which a man drugs and rapes a young boy and the howls of laughter from the audience were infuriating. To me the audience seemed to think that "dark comedy" means everything is supposed to be funny and so they reacted accordingly. I didn't think Solondz meant for that sequence to be funny but I walked out hating the movie because of the audience.

    So maybe I just contradicted my previous comment but some people are stupid jerks.

  • B Bridges | September 27, 2012 11:54 PMReply

    Enjoyed the articles but by the middle of the second, you were overthinking it.

    It seems to me that this is a very simple issue. Well actually it is two issues. The first is common courtesy. You can be a complete moron and still understand how to behave properly in a public screening. It doesn't take a drop of film education or historical understanding of the period or culture in which the film was made. That's it. Full stop. Act like a civilized human being.

    The second is a bit more complicated because as many believe, a film is really experienced differently by different people depending on their own life experiences etc. People can disagree about the quality of a movie but that doesn't mean anybody is truly right or wrong. It's all opinion.

    In any case, I've had very similar experiences myself in film school as well as revival houses and the only real solution is to simply watch those kinds of movies mostly at home where I can control the environment. Sure, there's the occasional opportunity to see Citizen Kane or Laurence of Arabia etc. where you're pretty certain that the audience is going to be filled with lovers of the movie but most of the time it's a crapshoot and you're just fighting windmills if you keep putting yourself in those situations.

  • Ras Trent | September 21, 2012 9:06 AMReply

    umadbro?

  • Nick Zegarac | September 20, 2012 4:06 PMReply

    Dear Matt:

    It's not you. It's them. Sad but true, today's movie goer has been systematically dumbed down to expect so little from his/her viewing experience that they think anything pre-Star Wars is outdated and therefore unworthy of their respect. Having written about movies for the last 20 years, and having loved movies for longer than that, and ones much older than my meager 41 years on this planet, I can honestly say that the people who love movies as art - as I know you, just as I do - are in an ever shrinking minority.

    If you love a movie as art then you don't merely overlook something that seems out of place or quaint simply because it doesn't fit in to today's contemporary compost. You embrace it as a different means of expression. Do people go to the national gallery and regard the Mona Lisa as out of touch with contemporary tastes in the female form divine? Undoubtedly some do and that's just sad - not for you or I but for them. Because that inability to admire a great work of art - be it on canvas or celluloid - has deprived that person of a truly life-worthy jab of pleasure.

    The people who told you to get over it (in more colorful terms than that) should think about getting over themselves first. They could start by going beyond their own navel-gazing and do some reading into the art of movie making. It wasn't always about crass commercialism and getting kicked in the crotch and head respectively by flashy SFX and CGI to anesthetize the mind without stimulating the heart. If that's all you've been weaned on in your movie going experiences thus far then I truly feel sorry for you.

    What often gets lumped in as rank sentimentalism shouldn't be considered merely as such. And it's saying something even more telling about the person who regards sentiment as just something to sh#@#$ kick around as though it were a quality unworthy of either their time or consideration.

    Recalling a line from 1939's The Women (a personal favorite) "I'm glad you understand at least the strength of sentiment. Because it's beauty is something you'll never know!" My thoughts exactly!

    Best regards,
    NZ

  • Nomi | September 20, 2012 2:35 PMReply

    "I'm an absolutist in believing that some forms of engagement are richer and more rewarding than others."

    Thank god.

  • Jordan | September 20, 2012 2:01 PMReply

    As stated on facebook, and probably not for the first time: One of the worst offenders is your typical audience at Film Forum. I had once considered a membership there, as one look at their calendar of upcoming screenings convinced me I should be going there every week rather than film school. But the audiences are just awful, cackling at everything that happens on screen and seeming to only watch films ironically. (The screening rooms themselves are also small, uncomfortable, and actually have columns blocking your view of the screen in a few seats.)

    One such incident at some old black and white film, the audience kept laughing whenever exchanges of money were talked about in the movie, because the numbers were so much lower than they would be today. Finally an older big guy yells "CAN YOU STOP LAUGHING ABOUT INFLATION AND WATCH THE MOVIE?" The woman in front of him then told him to "shut up" and a small argument broke out. This is your typical Film Forum experience.

    The Shining was demolished by the laughter of the audience there, they laughed at every single moment! I know there's some dark humor, but they seemed to genuinely NOT enjoy the movie on it's own terms and only found it ironically hilarious. The old film Rififi was also destroyed, as the audience laughed at the child endangerment that happens towards the end, during a kidnapping. My friend whispered to me, "they're LAUGHING", with confusion. I don't know what I replied, but it may as well have been "forget it Dan, it's Film Forum."

  • John Keefer | September 20, 2012 1:01 PMReply

    Possibly the worst feeling is hearing a bad joke over a great incisive line of dialogue or moment or sequence that was one of the things that helped you fall in love with the work in the first place. And you know the unsuccessful amateur stand-up missed it, maybe a moment that would've made him shut up and pay attention, but its gone. Much like my patience.

  • Alex Bledsoe | September 20, 2012 12:14 PMReply

    I'm as sick of snark as I am meta. Both allow the observer to feel smugly superior to what is being observed. And smug superiority should never be encouraged: it's the emotion the creators want to induce in viewers of things like "Honey Boo Boo Child" and anything with "Kardashian" in the title. Ultimately, it leaves a coat of moral slime over those who embrace it.

  • Corey Atad | September 20, 2012 12:00 PMReply

    I love everything you're saying, but I do have a question. What about films like Troll 2 or The Room? I've seen those in an audience where the natural state is snark, but there's also a genuine appreciation mixed in. It's sort of a paradox. Do so-bad-it's-good films fit into your view, or are they a separate thing?

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | September 20, 2012 12:05 PM

    Oh, totally. As I said in this follow-up piece, not every movie demands rapt, church-like contemplation, not even in bits and pieces. I'm talking specifically about older/foreign/tonally unfamiliar films that don't immediately fit into the modern sensibility, and are often rejected or nervously made fun of for that reason. I do think that even when you're watching a bad (or "bad") film it helps to try to meet it on its own terms at least part of the time, to get something more out of it than superficial enjoyment. Ed Wood's films, for example, are awful from a structural/tonal/basic competence standpoint, but if you see them as independent films made by a very sincere person, you stop just laughing at them, and start to actually feel something -- something like affection, or at least pity. The Room, too. It's a bad movie, but there's something touchingly naive and unironic about it.

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