As long as art cinema exists, people will get pissed off about it. The vast majority of movies may be cozy and predictable, but even if a small handful are slightly challenging, audience members will take personal offense to them. This phenomenon manifests itself in annoying new ways each year—remember the Tree of Life walk-outs and Drive lawsuit of 2011?—and now, thanks to McSweeney’s writer Rodney Uhler and Variety film editor Josh Dickey, I have another pair of examples to pore over.
The first is Uhler’s “A Filmgoer Tries to Feign Interest in Art House Cinema.” It’s typical McSweeney’s: an internal/external monologue, mildly funny, kinda reminiscent of early Woody Allen. My favorite part is toward the end, as the speaker remarks of a cineaste friend, “He’s still going. Unbelievable. He’s quoting the New Yorker review.” As someone who might quote New Yorker reviews myself on occasion, I admit that I’ve been skewered. It’s dead-on. But whenever the piece touches on this hypothetical art film itself, it descends into the realm of stereotype. It’s as if Uhler has only heard of art cinema via broad, SNL-style parodies.
Hell, this thing could double as a catalog of popular misconceptions. Behold:
- “Wait, where are they now?” Right from the start, we have this suggestion of victimhood—of the incomprehensible art film out to get its unsuspecting viewer. As if disorientation was a blunt instrument filmmakers wield to cow their viewers.
- “[A]ll the reviews said it was amazing but half the time I have no idea what’s going on.” Of course critics are in on it too. One big conspiracy to make the in-crowd feel smart! And don’t forget the fuck-you-David-Lynch implication that “amazing” is incompatible with “I have no idea what’s going on.”
- “Sometimes I just want to see someone blow something up and then hug a puppy.” Movies, it seems, fall into two big categories: “smart” and “dumb.” No overlap, no in-between, just a bunch of hostile art films vs. explosion-and-puppy blockbusters that people actually go to see.
- “Hopefully I can just agree with everything he says until the topic changes.” I guess you can watch art films, but they’re just too willfully opaque for you to apply your critical thinking skills. They’re like giant, hours-long Magic Eye pictures, and only self-anointed cinephiles can make heads or tails of them.
Obviously Uhler’s exaggerating for comic effect, but I see the underlying sentiments all over the Internet. It’s this vision of art films as homogeneous, inaccessible, intended to either alienate audience members or validate their egos. Instead of, say, similar to “mainstream” movies in their use of character, narrative, and spectacle, but (to varying degrees) more elliptical and formally distinctive.
In the McSweeney’s piece, those false notions are wrapped in satire and delivered by a fictional speaker. Dickey, however, chose to trumpet his ignorance as overtly as possible on Twitter:
This was written specifically in response to the financial failure of Cloud Atlas. But Dickey didn’t say “Cloud Atlas shouldn’t have been three hours.” He said “A 3-hr movie is NOT ACCEPTABLE.” And later reaffirmed that he meant it as an absolute. “Filmmakers need to deliver tighter movies,” he explained. “They can and they should and they won’t b/c they’re precious.” Someone pointed out that masterpieces like Jeanne Dielman and Sátántangó would lose impact at <3 hours; Dickey curtly replied, “It loses ALL of its impact on me as I simply will not sit through it at that length.”
I don’t really give a fuck what run time is too long for this guy or any other individual viewer. Again, it’s the underlying sentiment of Dickey’s dogma, which is shared by Uhler’s “filmgoer,” that draws my ire: “Hey, movies, would you mind all being the same? Would you mind shifting a little toward to the middle, so you can better suit my idea of what a movie should be?” Have these people never seen a theater marquee? Do they not understand that most new releases fall into a narrow spectrum (formulaic, digestible, disposable) and that the exceptions are easy to avoid?
I watch movies so I can experience the world through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes that experience frustrates me. But often enough, it’s sublime. Maybe it takes three hours. (Or four, or more.) Maybe I have no idea what’s going on. That’s the risk I take; the investment I’m making. Often enough, the time and confusion pay off. I just can’t imagine imposing these aesthetic and intellectual limitations on myself. I’d never get the privilege of seeing anything truly new. If movies are going to show me the same thing every time, why bother watching them in the first place?