Thursday, October 14, 2010

Justified Elitism

*note - any names of real bloggers that appear in this article is simply to provide a practical example and is in no way an attack of or sign of disrespect towards said blogger

Many weeks back Rachel of Rachel's Reel Reviews, who does lists of three every Thursday did one about the three movies that got people up in arms over her not having seen. One was Rocky, one was Citizen Kane and I don't quite remember the third.

Then, a couple weeks later, I got an angry comment on Suite101 for a review of 1900 from an anonymous person who more or less declared that, because I didn't like this movie I was: an idiot, derogatory, illiterate, have an ugly mother, my father was a Nazi and that I'm probably dyslexic, senile, and, more than likely, get the point. Forget the the movie, it was my personal being that needed the criticism.

Then Rachel added a comment to that post about how she reviewed classic movies for another blog once upon a time and would get similar kinds of comments. Throw all those things into a pot and I've been stewing for several weeks now about the nature of film snobbery/elitism.

The main thing that was jiggling about in my head was at what point does elitism stop being justified (which I think it is) and start simply to be condescending snobbery and nose thumbing? I'll admit it, I'm a bit of an elitist. I think I have the right to be. I studied film for four years, presented papers at conferences, read every book worth reading on the industry and then some, have been a paid script reader for going on three years now, worked for a film sales company, have written for many publications, had my blog tweeted by Roger Ebert and so on down the line. On top of that, I know more about film than most people. I may know more about film than a lot of the people who blog about it every day. It's not that I'm better than anyone, I've just built up an expansive wealth of knowledge/understanding/viewpoints/etc.

However, I've never really wanted to hold that above people (although I will be the first to shoot down ignorant or ill-informed statements), but rather I use it in order to try to meet people half way. I think that's the standard everyone who wants to write seriously about film should set for themselves: to have as vast and expansive a knowledge base as possible because, if you're not informed, your readers certainly won't be. And if they are informed, it won't be long before they let you know that you aren't. My saying that I use as a measuring stick to evaluate whether or not someone is worth reading has been "Never trust a critic who doesn't know that Last House on the Left is a remake of an Ingmar Bergman movie."

The statement is admittedly elitist but let's break this down logistically. On one hand my statement is saying that knowing such an obvious tidbit (which can be found easily from a quick Internet search) shows that the person has a vast knowledge of film of all varieties (in this case American horror and that of the Swedish master), but it also digs down into a more personal level. What it is actually saying, in somewhat abstract terms, as maybe most great criticism does (but we won't get into that again), is that I know Last House on the Left is a remake of The Virgin Spring, so if you seriously want me to commit my time to you, than I expect you to at least know that, which is, just as much as me.

Although it sounds condescending (one certainly need not know anything about Bergman to enjoy Last House) when written using me as an example, it's a universal frame of mind: the people who we read should be able to teach us something, strive to want to make ourselves better writers and so on. That's why the statement isn't condescending at all. It's putting a positive spin on a negative outlook. I've put so much time, energy, love and thought into film that why do I want to settle for the opinions/viewpoints of someone who couldn't be bothered to have the drive or determination that the best have, which is the standard I have set for myself? I instead want to surround myself with those who are better than me so I can be pushed to better myself because they told me something I didn't know, made me look at something in a different light, made me jealous of their magnificent prose and so fourth.

In sum I want my critics to know what the heck they are talking about. That's not to say that everyone isn't entitled to an opinion and that those opinions shouldn't be considered and maybe even, in some cases, valued, but what it means is that there's so much garbage in the world, so many people filling it up with meaningless and empty nothingness that benefits no one that why waste time and effort on something that will ultimately provide nothing of worth? I've probably been guilty of this from time to time (I think we are all every now and again) but I always revert back to that magical quote from 8 1/2 about how it is better to destroy than create what is meaningless. It's not snobbery to want/expect someone who writes about film day in and day out to have actively sought out such milestones as Rocky, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, whatever the usual suspects are, and put thought into what makes them so great/seminal. These are the works that defined film. You'd expect someone who truly loves film to have had the desire at some point in life to check them out. Critics should, after all, be writing out of a love of film and not self. And if, of course, you are young and growing, to be seeking those titles and and striving to provide new and interesting commentary on them.

To sum up, what struck me as strange was when Rachel, not to keep picking on her, admitted that she didn't even like classic movies. I understand, in such a case, why people may be willing to pick her apart over such a detail for, if I am reading reviews of classic films, I want them to be from the informed mind of someone who lives and breathes classic film and can shed new and interesting light on it. Essentially, regular criticism has become redundant because the abundance of blogs on the Internet has caused the saturation of valuable critical thought. By the time the week is out and everyone has logged their reviews of the week's big titles, there's next to no variation left to be found: no interesting ideas left to put on the pile. The discussion has died and we have moved on to killing the next one. I want to read the critic who lets the conversation live and breathe and grow on through the power of their mind and their pen (that's not to say they keep publishing on the same movie, but allow it to grow through an informed review).

I once left a comment for Sebastian Gutierrez (whose blog was then known as Detailed Criticisms), who had written a standard review of Ingmar Bergman's the Seventh Seal. Not criticising him as a person or shooting down his review, I pondered if there was really any worth in writing a standard review about performances and whatnot in a film as prolific, timeless and well worked-over as that one. Obviously he did because he wrote it and he achieved his goal but, did it ever seem a little fruitless, I wondered, to be approaching such a film at this intermediate level when whole academic essays have been written about it's themes and concepts in relation to Bergman's career, theology, God, death, etc.? I thought so (not to say what dear Sebastian wrote wasn't worth the read because, obviously, I read it).Why breathe old life into something that's been resurrected and put into perspective so many times in so many interesting ways?

Now I've sort of veered off topic. If it sounds like I'm saying that everyone needs to reinvent the wheel or science or philosophy every time they write a review, I certainly am not. It isn't possible. But why not make them interesting, personal, knowledgeable, etc? Why not bring ideas about art, life, society into the mix, or, at the very least, try to say something clever and engaging. Leave 'em something to chew on. There's no excuse for boring film writing other than simply not having the ambition to gain new knowledge to share at every opportunity. The boring critics think they know it all and are simply taking up space. The valuable ones are striving to learn new things, not just about film but about the world around them. It reminds me of another of my favourite quotes from Conrad who said that "People don't write because they want to say something, they write because they have something to say." Some people don't have anything to say. It's not snobbery to not want to read it.

Alright, weigh in.


  1. Ya know I've had this issue for a while but oddly not with older movies like some of the ones you mentioned but rather indie or newer films that try to throw something in to be controversial. For example Remember Me. Over 15,000 (I wish that was a joke Mike) have read my review of Remember Me. And 9 times out of 10 all the comments were how I didn't "get" the movie and I don't "appreciate" the "beauty" and "insight" of a "modern Citizen Kane like Remember Me."

    It's the same with other mediocre artsy films trying to throw a message. Because I don't like it now I have no taste in films and I'm a horrible person with no life.

    I'm flabbergasted at the snobbery of some people when it comes to films none moreso then with classic films. Jeez in one of my film classes a guy made a Seven Samurai was only okay reference and the teacher asked him to leave. I love Seven Samurai but if people don't like a movie I'm not going to judge their taste in films.

    Part of what makes being a critic and their being so many critics like you and me out there is their is a lot of different tastes and likes/dislikes. If we were all unanimous all the time then what's the point of doing film reviews at all if we are all robots essentially?

    My mom loves rom-coms. But Casablanca is her favorite film. My dad won't see any film made after 2000. I begrudgingly admit that I love the Jackass films (and the series too) and stupid comedies but I also love the classics from all decades. Taste is a brilliant thing and it's what makes us all better.

    So being an elitist snob and saying that because we don't like such and such that we are automatically a horrible and discredited critic and a horrible person to boot? It seems really childish and no matter how many big words they throw at me it seems really juvenile.

  2. Travis - Well put. I think the key is not what someone`s taste is but how they express it. Using your example, if somone said that Seven Samarai sucked because it was in black in white or because they wear funny costumes or because it is too long, well obviously then obviously this is someone who has nothing of worth to say. They don`t like it, fine, that`s their right but their reasons are childish and insubstantial. If however they threw out a compelling, engaging arguement on why they didn`t like it, well hey, I want to read that one because that`s interesting. Unfortuinately, I`m not sure (correct me if I am wrong) that too many people could justify calling Remember Me a modern day Citizen Kane.

  3. I don't think there's a single point in this post that I don't agree with. This whole blogger/critic thing is something I've been pondering waaay too much lately but I think it's like you say - it's about what makes that opinion credible and for me it's someone who knows film inside and out. To be fair, they don't necessarily need to have studied film; just actively pursued a greater knowledge than the average cinemagoer. Someone who wants to know about film history and world cinema, how to analyse a film in terms of film language etc.

  4. Not liking a movie is one thing, not respecting a movie is another thing entirely. I'm not a huge lover of Citizen Kane as a viewing experience but it's an undeniably great and highly valuable film that's helped inform cinematic language for almost a century. Sorry if I'd rather watch a Fellini movie or a Bergman movie than Kane, that's just me.

    My theory about the Criterion generation (young people who only see classic movies through Criterion DVD releases) is that a number of them assume that in order to be taken seriously as movie lovers they have to like every single one of the classics. That's just not possible. I'd wager that a lot of the most adamant admirers of films like, say, Rashomon have never seen it more than twice (and if they have, it's been because they were forced to view it in a film class). You're not required to devour and love every single iconic film of decades past in order to be a certified film enthusiast.

    What I value more is real, solid, objective knowledge about film theory and criticism and how films are made, and an understanding of what makes those classics so important. I think people assume that because film is art, and art is subjective, anyone can have a valid opinion about any film they see. While everyone's entitled to an opinion, I'm sorry, the opinions of Joe Average do not match those of Roger Ebert, Ty Burr, James Berardinelli, Drew McWeeny, Devin Faraci, or Manohla Dargis. They're educated about film in general, random man off the street is not. I don't go to get my hair cut to talk politics, I go to get my hair cut. Critics have jobs in the first place for the exact same reason. If I act like I know more about film than someone, then it's probably because I do. That's not snobbery, that's just a matter of what I choose to inform myself about.

  5. Ha! I too find Remember Me a funny example, and am trying to even figure out what themes in that film could relate to Citizen Kane.

    Mike, the one practical problem I run into is the balance between seeking out old films, staying up on current releases, and trying to have a life. Part of the reason I'm doing the series called Decades on my blog, where I watch three movies each month from a particular decade between the 1920s and the 1970s to broaden my horizons, is because I do care about the origins of the movies releasing today, which I see more regularly. I agree that you are not a serious film fan if you don't know your history, or at least try to know your history. However, there are always going to be gaps in anyone's knowledge, particular great films that have slipped through our fingers for one reason or another. I myself just learned the other day -- coincidentally -- that The Virgin Spring inspired Last House on the Left. Maybe you wrote about it because you read the same post I did? (I don't remember where I read it.)

    And part of that comes down to what I think we all struggle with as people who watch lots of movies -- is this necessarily the best way to live our lives? Even though I have committed myself to watching as many movies as I can, from all eras, I sometimes wonder if I will one day, on my death bed, look back and think about all the things I could have done with the hours and hours and hours I spent watching movies, a lot of them bad movies. I'm not there yet so I'm currently happy with what I'm doing. But in the same way that a life-long smoker looks back on his death bed and wonders if smoking all those cigarettes was really worth the two decades of his life it cost him, I wonder if I will one day ask myself if I could have learned an instrument, or taken up basket-weaving, or learned a new language, or one of any number of dozens of other useful life activities in the time I spent watching movies.

    So for this reason, I say that it's okay if there are gaps in your knowledge because you were trying to find that balance between living life and watching others' interpretations of life on screen. I know that I write about things on my blog that were later on proven to be slightly inaccurate or simply wrong, because I did not devote the time to learning as much history as I should have, and simply wanted to write my piece in the available time allotted to write it. I'm okay with that if it also means I got to learn how to weave baskets.

  6. Oh man, I fear I'm the former most of the time. I mean, sometimes I watch a movie, and I can't think of one valuable thing to say about it, so I just don't write about it at all. But then, there'll be some foreign film I saw, didn't really like, nothing much to add, but I'll write about it anyway just because I'll never remember the title otherwise, and it'll, like, haunt my dreams.

    Sometimes, classic film reviewers are unbearable. I'd rather stick with my redundant system then be like them.

    I am a foreign film asshole, though. I won't hate a person for not having heard of it, but I'll suggest/demand they watch it before I let their children go.

    Right. Sorry this comment was shockingly self-centered.

  7. I'm coming at this from a different angle because I've more or less recused myself from the contemporary film scene. Every now and then there are flurries of interest (I tried to cover the Oscar nominees this spring) but 99% of the time I'm not watching new movies at all, only old ones. So I don't really feel the despair that so many here seem to experience, confronted by the hordes who don't know or care about film history - it's just not really the waters I swim in at this point. Also, I only found out that Last House-Virgin Spring anecdote a few years ago, but I knew about Bergman's film long before I knew about Craven's (which, incidentally, I still haven't seen though I'd like to at some point) so I don't think I needed it to be a movie buff. That's the problem with litmus tests - there's always somebody who'll fail it even though by any other standard they're completely "qualified."

    As for saying something worthwhile, I've struggled with that like every other blogger. I find that if you try to reflect your own personal experience in your writing - the things you noticed, the feelings you experienced - you'll come up with original observations and a fresh perspective. Reading criticism is, though some people don't like to hear it, as much about the critic as the movie - so there can be a million interesting reviews of The Seventh Seal, as long as there are a million unique individuals who can artfully or at least passably relate their own experiences with the work.

    As for the academic background, I'm wary. I studied film production myself, but on balance I've seen more people who were well-versed and passionate about cinema outside the university scene than inside. In the end, I don't care either way - I only want to know what they bring to the table and don't care how they got it. Indeed, I think most of the great film writing preceded the entrance of film studies into the academy, but that's another discussion.

    In the end, elitism, or rather expressed elitism is counter-productive; it alienates those who should instead be converted (if possible). I don't think this necessarily disagrees with your point, just a statement I wanted to make.

  8. I agree with agcrump about liking/respecting movies. I'm not particularly keen on the likes of Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin and Metropolis but I can understand their significance in terms of film history

  9. I can't wait to see the length of Mike's response after teasing us by steadily meting out these comments without responding. :-)

  10. The thing about writing a post like this is that, when writing it from the first person perspective you risk coming off as holier-than-thou, but there is alas no way to write it in the third-person but regardless, look at the insight that has been generated here!

    Geek- Yes, you really want your critics to be experts but, agreed, they don't need to study film (Ebert didn't) but that they have no only immersed themselves in film and film history and style and maybe even the business side of things as well, but also, like I said a couple weeks ago, just in life in general. They have a hunger for knowledge and know how to manipulate that into insightful criticism. It's much funner to read then "oh yup, good performance," although, one must accept, sometimes some movies can't generate much more insight from anyone than that.

    Andrew- Spot on as always. Love the hair cut line. I think the problem with bloggers (and let's also face it though, there are some pretty bad paid critics, Ben Lyons say), is that anyone can now take their daily watercooler talk and put it in writing, dress it up as if it's something professional and all of a sudden it's perceieved as instantly worth something. Honestly though, even if someone doesn't know everything about film, if their heart is it in, that's worth more. Some people just write because they think that whatever it is they have to say is important (and this goes for some film theorists too) and really, it's not, it's just writing.

    Vance - I did not read this recent post you speak of, I found out many years ago watching an interview with Craven.

    You are right about gaps in knowledge and that shouldn't be held against anyone. I'll admit I've never seen a single Claude Chabrol film and in fact couldn't even bring to mind the title of one off the top of my head. Here's the thing though, I want remedy this the first chance I get because right now all I know is that he was part of the French New Wave and co-wrote a book on Hitchcock with Rohmer. Better than nothing, but I will one day see his films. No rush, I don't think. I however don't have your problem about regretting live. My worry is about all the great new films and young filmmakers I'll be missing out on when I'm dead.

    Movieman- I think we are on the same page because I agree with everything you say. To say again, I don't believe one needs to study film accademically (a lot of film theory is crap anyway), but just to have a desire to immerse themselves in it and know it from all angels. The Last House example is fairly broad and sets pretty strict parameters and certainly it's not something I live by but I think it holds a more universal idea and gets across the point. Again, it's the trouble with writing from the first person: one needs to be specific. I also agree about criticism being personal and have written on the topic in great length. I think my overall point here was that, one, instead of focusing on how your so much better than some, should focus on how you can strive to be as good as the best. If you do the first, you stall and never get better, but if you do the second you are always improving, that's why I want to immerse myself in those people who drive me to be better.

    Simon- Ya, I find that sometimes I won't write a review simply because I have nothing to add and writing indifferenct criticism is about as boring as reading it. Being a foreign film snob is tough because, ya know, there are a lot of bad ones in that category too.

  11. Claude Chabrol? I don't know Claude Chabrol from Claude Nuridsany.

    (By that one comment, I hope to prove two points: 1) Even though I have gaps in my knowledge, I still 2) am able to do instant recall on the name of the co-director of the 1996 bug documentary Microcosmos. Though I admit, I did have to look up the spelling of Nuridsany.)

  12. Oh, and by the way, I'd be forever in your debt if you would add The Audient to your blog roll in place of The Movie Case, whose last post was five months ago and was entitled "Blog Closing." I understand there is finite real estate. ;-)

  13. Oh, and one more thing, though I definitely should have been organized enough to get all my thoughts in one comment (up with a fussy baby) -- Mike, I think you are more of a film completist than a film elitist. Elitism suggests the dismissal of inferior versions of a particular art form, and you're the guy who admitted to me that you (like me) have seen both Garfield movies. At least I didn't see either of the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies -- don't know where you stand on those. :-)

  14. If anything (and I know it's been a while since my last comment) The Social Network is a modern Citizen Kane.

    That aside, what I mean by the "Remember Me" thing is that on my review of it in the comments (and I've deleted some of the more vile ones)they were saying that it was a modern day Citizen Kane (I didn't get it either) and that I was stupid for not realizing that.

    But yeah I do think that if people could have more intelligent conversations about movies, whether or not they like a movie, we'd all be better off.

    One that I've gotten into a lot lately is Kubrick and his works. I love Kubrick the man but I don't like all of his movies. Most of the time I get shot down saying I'm not a credible critic anymore and that I'm an idiot. But do they stay to hear the reasons why? I mean it's never "I hate the costumes" or "They all look funny" or "I don't get it" it's usually like "I don't appreciate the theme of...and the way Kubrick...and specifically in the scene where..." It's rational reasoning.

    But because it's Kubrick or Kurasawa (sorry if I misspelled it) or Scorsese or Coppola or Welles we are supposed to love everything they do otherwise we're not worthy of rating films?

    I think not.

  15. Travis - Yes, it doesn't make sense. One of the greatest critical minds of America (David Bordwell) doesn't like Kubrick and even though I do love some Kubrick (and hate others) I agree completly with Bordwell's assessment that Kubrick knew everything about film and nothing about people. Like when I wrote about how people attacked David Edlestein for not liking Inception, I'd rather read David Bordwell speak against Stanley Kubrick because he's a brillant and engaging personality than any hip kid who thinks A Clockwork Orange is a masterpiece because it's, ya know, A Clockwork Orange.

  16. I agree with you and TJMAC510. There are some Scorsese films I don't particularly like, although I love the director, and I'm not a fan of the likes of Kubrick or Lynch but I think they are technically brilliant directors. It's always interesting to find someone who writes against a classic

  17. What Scorsese films don't you like Filmgeek? I only ask because the only one I personally would consider "bad" would be Color of Money.

  18. I'm not particularly keen on Gangs of New York, although it has been a while since I saw it

  19. The most important thing I have learned is that anyone who uses the word 'elitist' or 'pretentious' is probably being hypocritical (they're better than elitists? they somehow have the authority to declare someone pretentious on the basis of something other than their own pretense of self-importance?) or at the very least judgmental and dismissive and thus, to recontextualize a bit from Camus, we should choose between being forgetting, mocking, or making use of them. As for listening to them - never!