Posted in: by David Coursen, Contributors, Essays

Missing the Point: A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis and the Pleasures of “Difficult” Cinema

"Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles"

The June 19 New York Times Entertainment Section ran a dialogue following up on a previous article in the May 1 Times Magazine by Dan Kois whose flavor, I suspect, is captured by the introduction the June 19 story suggesting that the article equated watching Solaris with eating “cultural vegetables;” something Krois has been told must be good for him but that he doesn’t find much fun. There is also a digression into the pros and cons of “slow cinema,” aka Ozu, Kelly Reichardt, Antonioni, Tarr, and Akerman. Leaving aside that Ozu is the greatest artist the medium has produced, and the others occupy less exalted status, the digression ignores the point that the “slow” approach has won the day. While “fast cinema” may rule the roost in Hollywood and its orbit, “slow cinema” has totally encompassed nearly all the most interesting work done outside the Hollywood axis for at least the last quarter of a century; its primacy if not quite running from A to Z at least extends from Angelopoulos through Hou Hsiao-hsien and Kiarostami all the way to, well, Wenders. Although the films, with their slow pacing and commitment to contemplation, may tax Krois’ attention span, the trend is unmistakable and the works speak for themselves.

But the larger colloquy in the article almost completely misses two key points. First, if someone who styles himself a reasonably dedicated cineaste has been working to educate his palate, not to achieve initiation into the realm of “high culture” but to optimize the ability to appreciate the varied rewards cinema has to offer, there shouldn’t be a wide gap, much less a chasm, between what he enjoys and appreciates. No one with a brain would suggest that the fact that a self-styled jazz enthusiast doesn’t “enjoy” Charlie Parker (or most of John Coltrane) says something about their art being too rarefied; the “enthusiast” is at best a boor, more likely a cretin, and not someone with whom I would want to have a serious—or any—discussion.

While Kois needn’t apologize for “appreciating” Tulpan or Blue—the dialogue doesn’t bother to explain whether it is the Jarman, or the relatively accessible (if not particularly compelling) Kieslowski—more than he “enjoyed” them, the status of these as masterworks is still very much a matter of debate. Krois is apparently too intimidated by critical praise for those films to admit that, while he sees that they have some merit—can be “appreciated”—he evidently doesn’t much like—”enjoy”—them. Manohla Dargis ups the stakes in this discussion by saying she “didn’t enjoy watching Shoah.” Of course, I didn’t have fun watching Shoah either, and had no desire to re-view it during its recent re-release. But it expanded my understanding of the cinema as a medium, and of the nature of the Holocaust and both the definitions of and human capacity for evil in ways that immeasurably enriched my life and ability to understand life, film, and history. Maybe it was no “fun,” but what higher form of aesthetic pleasure and enjoyment can there be than experiencing something so rich, and enriching, and resonant. I suspect—and hope—that at bottom my only disagreement with Dargis is semantic: she takes a narrower view of “enjoy” and a larger view of “appreciate” than I do.

"Werckmeister Harmonies"

As for my own experience with difficult films, I don’t see any way to distinguish between “enjoying” them and “appreciating” them. Although it wasn’t exactly “fun,” Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies knocked my socks off with some of the most evocative images I have ever seen, and that appreciation was so exciting intellectually and aesthetically and emotionally, that I can’t possibly deny having “enjoyed” it, even if it didn’t exactly show me a good time. I can’t really say the same for the sour fatalism of Damnation, or the endless struggle to come into focus of Satantantgo. I wanted to appreciate them, but never got over the hump, even though, having seen Werckmeister, I felt like I had “gotten” Tarr. But I’m not so ashamed of my taste, my emotional responses, or my critical faculties that I feel compelled to hedge my bets by saying I “appreciated” them—proving my bona fides as a cineaste—more than I enjoyed them, proving my attachment to the pleasure principle or some such highfalutin notion. And when A.O. Scott confesses that he doesn’t really “get” Costa, or Last Year At Marienbad, I’m more or less with him, and suspect that our supposed lack of discernment is really the product of—however one may ultimately assess the oeuvres or the works—genuine aesthetic limitations, which we find quite weighty, and describe as deficiencies, while others, seeing them as less serious, might call difficulties with the film. But this is not an argument we would be having about The Earrings Of Madame De … or Once Upon A Time In The West, or Late Spring. And, with all due respect to Kois, it is also not one we should be having about Solaris; if you can’t get aesthetic pleasure from it, you’re not paying attention.

Another key point he implicitly recognizes, but can’t quite bring forward and examine clearly, is that one reason cineastes champion a film like Colossal Youth or Jeanne Dielman is to highlight the virtues they see in those films, and to urge others to look with close attention to those virtues. But simply writing the whole thing off to some innate cleavage between “enjoyment” and “appreciation” seems curious and wrong-headed. One reason this is so is the inevitably blurred line defining any such distinction. Watching Eric Rohmer’s A Tale Of Springtime or Le Rayon Vert through to the end illustrates the point. After considerable confusion about how to respond to the characters and, by extension, to the films, the sublimely revelatory way the respective films’ earrings and green ray appear and, in doing so, put the films and characters in a new and glorious, not to say sublime, focus provides an object and irrefutable lesson in the need for caution in insisting on a clear line—or any line at all—between “enjoying” and “appreciating.” In the end, with these films, and perhaps with all films, we cannot truly do either without doing both.

I doubt that Kois is boorish or philistinish, or insufficiently schooled in/engaged by film, but his approach strongly suggests that he is intellectually lazy and doesn’t want to feel he should have to acknowledge, much less apologize for that. Surely, he should be willing to defend the merits of films he “enjoys”—with more than the “guilty pleasure” condescension that is one of Pauline Kael’s more shameful legacies—but shouldn’t he also be prepared to think through the basis for his “appreciation” of other films, and account for how the appreciation is genuine and yet somehow doesn’t add up to “enjoyment”? It seems symptomatic of critical self-loathing—or indifference—to posit some significant universe of films that can be “appreciated” but not “enjoyed” by someone who purports to care about, and think about, and be engaged by cinema. Kois, as a puzzled enthusiast, has at least laid the groundwork for posing this question. Scott and Dargis, by shrinking from, ignoring, or overlooking the question seem to me to have done something more serious, shirking their responsibilities as professional critics for the New York Times—people given a bully pulpit to explicate film and paid at least a living wage for doing so.

The problem here isn’t just one of harmonizing critical sense and sensibility, but of recognizing and paying proper respect to those who champion “difficult” films—the kind Kois can do no more than appreciate—and the invaluable function they perform in identifying films that are worth a careful and/or second look, and offering the hope that such a look may be rewarded. And as a long-time film viewer and, I daresay, whole-hearted if often negligent enthusiast, I use critical recommendations as a signpost to identify films and directors who may reward further attention. And when I finally “get” a director or film for the first time, elevating directors I had “appreciated” into cherished and revered icons: Pickpocket, The Mirror, The Leopard, Ordet. It works similarly with directors or films I had found myself drawn to without quite knowing why: Ulysses’ Gaze, La Rupture, Petulia, The Parallax View, Kings Of The Road, While The City Sleeps, Millenium Mambo, 24 City.

I can’t help thinking that Kois’ article and the Kois/Scott/Dargis colloquy, in collaborating on the construction of a critical rationale for intellectual and aesthetic laziness, have done an enormous disservice to cinema. Or maybe it’s just, as I suggested earlier, a matter of semantics, and just means that the Times Triad isn’t as exhilarated, or doesn’t think their readers would be as exhilarated and stimulated, by the challenge of watching a film closely and thinking about it deeply as I am.