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From Brooklyn With Love: Notes on Unsophistication

From Brooklyn With Love: Notes on Unsophistication

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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