Thursday, January 07, 2010

Cinephiles and Consumers: a meditation on film and the elitist/populist debate

Cinematical posted a reflection on the difference between "informed" and "uninformed" film-goers.

All these discussions about film snobbery and validity of taste... they tend to gravitate around certain points, and totally miss others. This is true of all sensitive topics... just look at gay marriage, which has bizarrely coagulated around the question of whether homosexuality is "natural," rather than considering the basic question of human rights that's implicit in the issue. The "film snobs versus pop culture apologists" debate has its own gravitational centers, and they're a bit distracting from the key topics that underlie the debate.

One of those gravitational centers is "What exactly is a 'good film'?" This leads to clashes between the relativist position of the pop culture apologists versus the aesthetic and technical purism of the film snobs. Another one is, "_____ are biased against _______ films," which each side fills in to their liking. Pop culture apologists say, "Film snobs are biased against popular films," and film snobs say, "Mass consumers are biased against thought-provoking films." These kinds of claims are false... they're really just a way of converting merit-of-taste arguments into populist ad hominem arguments.

Let me try this from a different direction. Maybe I can avoid these ideological pitfalls altogether.

First, I'm going to reframe the two groups we're talking about into cinephiles and consumers. A consumer is any person who sees movies casually, in equal proportion to other amusements and entertainment. Cinephiles, by contrast, are people who identify one of their primary interests as "film" or "movies," and back it up by meeting at least one of two qualifications: they see a disproportionately large number of movies (like, three or four a month at minimum), or they make an appreciable effort to see movies outside the Hollywood mainstream.

I'm obviously taking some fuzzy factors here and turning them into some really artificial distinctions. Still, it's an important starting point for this kind of discussion, because so much of it rides on the distinction between people "in-the-know" and people who aren't. At times, the pop culture apologists advance the idea that taste can't be universalized, so how "educated" you are (whether formally or informally) shouldn't factor into the discussion... effectively treating all audience members as equally-informed. This approach doesn't hold water in our cultural universe.

Pretty much every discussion of the merits of mass culture, high-brow versus low-brow, the abundance of bad movies in major theaters, etc. is actually about the cultural divide between consumers and cinephiles. Consumers rarely, if ever, make public assertions of their opinions on various films – they generally just talk about them in private conversations, or by recommending or scoffing at movies, or by going to see certain films a second time. There are MANY more consumers than cinephiles, and they exert a much more powerful force on Hollywood, because their money speaks for them. Cinephiles carry out a much more explicit, public debate about film, but they aren't a big enough demographic for Hollywood's investment. Hollywood isn't looking for acclaim... it's looking for a return.

Most bloggers and commentators (including Cinematical, above) want to ask whether the opinions of "film snobs" are somehow "more valid" than the opinions of average movie-goers. In fact, confusion over this question has led cinephiles to be called "elitists" and taste-fascists. When you step back to think about it, though, everyone... cinephiles, consumers, fanboys, etc... we all prioritize our own tastes, and hold those who share those tastes in higher esteem. I don't ever remember a cinephile demanding that an opponent relinquish his or her personal "favorite movie" designation. Cinephiles are more enthusiastic about films, so they may be more likely to assert their own preferences and challenge the preferences of those who disagree with them. This isn't a pretense to superiority, though. It's just a higher level of intensity, both of loves and of hates.

We have to give up this question of whether or not cinephiles have a more valid opinion, and instead look to see where that opinion is coming from. By definition, a cinephile is a person with distinctive experience in film-watching. The opinions of cinephiles will therefore be based on comparisons between films, and on an appreciable background of cinema experience, much more than the opinions of consumers. This will tend to result in a wider range of opinions, whether those opinions tend to be enthusiastic and positive (which tends to be true of cinema-lovers like Roger Ebert) or nit-picky and negative (which tends to be true of graduate-student critics and people who bitch on movie forums). Will cinephiles have a greater tendency to complain about certain movies? Yes, because of the wider range and intensity of their opinions. Are they inherently biased toward "blockbusters"? Absolutely not. Virtually every cinephile has a significant knowledge-base of movies, and they will identify most blockbusters as unexciting, but they will hold a few in very high regard. This doesn't represent a bias, so much as a representative cross-section of their taste in movies as a whole: lots of unimpressive stuff (whether among blockbusters or classics), and a few treasured gems.

So is the reverse true? Are consumers biased against thought-provoking movies? I don't think so... I frankly don't think we have any particular evidence to that conclusion, because thought-provoking film hasn't been promoted on a large public scale for a while now. There are certain cultural forces that dictate what movies get the most funding, the most publicity, etc., and these forces generally favor the most eye-catching, sense-overwhelming movies possible. The opinions of consumers, also more or less by-definition, will be dictated by the general habits and preferences built up from the individual's exposure to all media. Consumers will factor in certain characteristics that cinephiles weigh less heavily: franchise loyalty, ideological agreement with the movie's message, and sensory and sentimental reaction.

To be fair, a certain subset of cinephiles can elevate some things that consumers don't appreciate as much... ambiguity of form, for instance, which I blogged about a month or so ago, and formal experimentation and technical achievement, whether within the scene or in terms of the crafts of editing and cinematography. These criteria are especially important to film students and professors, because in studying the history of film, they become acutely aware of each technical method: its invention sometime in the golden age of cinema, its increased use in a certain country or a certain era, its resurgence in a certain genre or a certain director's work. The fact that consumers tend not to notice these things does indeed demonstrate difference between these ways of looking at the film, but it proves neither the superiority, nor the aloofness, of the cinephile approach.

This editorial piece has turned into an attempt to defend cinephiles without resorting to elitism, so I'll continue in that vein for at least one more paragraph. Before you go and accuse your local film buff of being "snobby" because they throw around harsh criticism, note that there is another type of film person who does this: the genre afficianado. This is the guy who has seen every samurai movie, or the girl who knows the detailed history of the Brat Pack and has seen every romance movie with any of the original members. For my money, these people fall squarely into the "cinephile" category, rather than the "consumer" category, and I think they're an important group to consider... they have strong opinions, based on a comprehensive background, but they're not snobby -- in fact, they often appreciate the lowest of the lowest-brow with intense enthusiasm. If you're a pop culture apologist, and you have the urge to equate strong, unapologetic tastes with elitism, make sure you consider these fanboy types. They are the strongest argument against that corroboration.

It seems to me that within this context, we get a new picture of the role of movie critics, as well. Movie critics are basically socially-empowered cinephiles... the outreach program for people who consider movie-watching a primary interest. Their opinions aren't necessarily privileged, or accurate, and you may find that you consistently disagree with critics (a sign that you may be a subversive cinephile, bravely swimming upstream against your own group's tendencies). Nonetheless, a good critic is a public representative of cinephilia -- (s)he evaluates movies based on what other movies are doing, and what other movies have done before, and (s)he forms strong opinions in accordance with her/his role as an enthusiast.

Should consumers be more like cinephiles? Should cinephiles just relax? Honestly, these questions are unnecessary. This is a social difference that we can discuss without making some sort of moral or prescriptive claim. I think this can potentially bring some clarity to the elitist-versus-populist flame wars... although admittedly, clarity may make those shouting matches a lot less amusing.

1 comment:

Dan Schneider said...

The major problem is not the divide between any 2 groups, but between the recognition of intellectual quality vs. emotional response.

Film snobbery has nothing to do with quality, but emotional biases every bit as obvious as those of the 'consumers' you name. Auteurists and film theory buffs can be just as dense in missing poor quality- see the apologists for Stan Brakhage or Luis Bunuel or Jean Cocteau.

The fact is that there are, in any art form, objective qualities that can be evaluated. When comparing like qualities- two films that are bad or good, say Plan 9 from Outer Space or Blacula, or Crash and Brokeback Mountain, there is subjective room for debate, as there is when comparing great films like 2001 and Solaris, or La Dolce Vita and Citizen Kane.

But it is objectively ridiculous to compare Crash to La Dolce Vita, qualitatively.

Recently, my website became the center of a debate on Roger Ebert's blog:

Note the near pathological inability for most of the commenters to get away from using subjective, emotional terms such as like and dislike, rather than the objective good and bad.

This is the result of decades of PoMo and PC Elitism, an elitism not based on quality of dialectic, but of position.