I’m so rarely puzzled or let down by the great Andrew O’Hehir that it depresses me to say that his recent rumination on the question of “Is movie culture dead?” is probably the worst thing of his that I’ve read. In it, he bemoans the death of “film culture in the Susan Sontag sense.” Though he avers that movies are still relevant and talked about, he means film culture in that special way that the rest of us simply call “coastal elitism.” How else do you explain paragraphs like this? (And pay special attention to the last one. Emphasis mine.)
As I see it, film culture made a couple of last stands with the indie-film waves of the ’80s and ’90s, which brought us first Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh, and then Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson.
It’s definitely not a coincidence that the biggest critic of those years and an important advocate for most of those filmmakers was Roger Ebert, who has turned the Internet to his advantage like almost no one else and has prospered both as a populist movie critic and all-purpose cultural commentator. It’s also no coincidence that the mid-to-late ’90s zone of movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Fargo” and “Fight Club” overlaps with the explosion of Internet culture and the venture into original drama by the cable network formerly known as Home Box Office. I almost don’t need to add that it preceded the birth of YouTube and the spread of mobile devices, developments that undercut the traditional hegemony of movies even more.
How many movies made since 1999 have captured the center of cultural discourse and made grownups feel like they needed to see them and needed to have an opinion about them the way that Chase’s TV series or “The Wire” or “Six Feet Under” did? The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Dark Knight” and “Avatar”? I’ll give you those, although I know plenty of people who never bothered to catch the latter two. “Black Swan” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “The Social Network”? Maybe, or almost. “Brokeback Mountain” or the “Harry Potter” movies? I don’t think so.
I could quibble about whether Fincher is really “indie” (his first feature film was the third in a hugely successful franchise, and his background was directing TV commercials and music videos), but I get where O’Hehir is coming from with those filmmakers, most of whom started with a big splash in the festival circuit, then went on to make a name as contemporary masters of American cinema. Yet it is not my recollection that Fargo and Fight Club “captured the center of cultural discourse.” Fargo was a certainly a hit film, given its modest budget, relatively limited release (in the spring doldrums, no less), and the marginal status of the Coens in the public consciousness of 1996. Its stature grew over time, especially after it hit the video market and received several Oscar nominations. Critics loved it, for sure. Most people were barely cognizant of it at the time, though.
Fight Club was promoted much more heavily, had the benefit of at least two recognizable, bankable stars, and Fincher had the cachet of Se7en to his credit. But the film flopped domestically, was barely remembered during awards season, and while the reviews were mostly positive, the overblown controversy over its violence and nihilism was mostly contained — again — to critic circles. As did Fargo, Fight Club found its legs on video and DVD, growing from a cult favorite to the cornerstone of David Fincher’s now-near-universal acclaim, which was cemented with Zodiac (another box office flop that stole critics’ hearts). Pulp Fiction was about as big of a crossover hit as you could imagine, and it certainly secured a spot in the pop consciousness, but even Tarantino, with his devoted legions of boosters and detractors, peaked in prominence with that film in 1994 until his resurgence a decade later with Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. (Besides, do innumerable parodies of the dance sequence or confusion over the film’s chronology — by far the most abundant signs of the film in my experience of the popular sphere — really count as “discourse”?)
I’d also argue that Jarmusch, Anderson (P.T. and Wes), and Lee have maintained, at best, a marginal status in the culture-at-large. To cineastes, they’re practically canonical. To Flyover America, they are nobody. Lee may be the exception, but I’d say that he’s more famous than his actual films, most of which few outside of film circles have seen or heard of. (Miracle at St. Whatnow?)
On the other hand, as O’Hehir magnanimously concedes, some films do continue to capture the public imagination. He cites three of the last decade’s touchstones, then bizarrely adds that he knows “plenty of people who never bothered to catch” Avatar or The Dark Knight. Yeah, well, Pauline Kael only knew one person who voted for Nixon. At least she had the self-awareness (which, in her line of work, amounts to grace) to acknowledge that she lived in “a special world.” In contrast to O’Hehir, practically everyone I know or have met who cares about movies has seen Avatar and The Dark Knight. Multiple times. Perhaps that’s because I don’t live in a “special world.” I live in the real one, where the movies that make the most money are likely the ones that most people have seen and about which have formed an opinion.
What O’Hehir senses the disappearance of is a world that, for most people, never existed. In the broadest sense, he’s just suffering from the same affliction as most of the liberal commentariat: sixties nostalgia. Even if he didn’t grow up during the counter-culture heyday, he has been (along with his peers) its most direct beneficiary. It would be unthinkable to his ilk that people could get through a month or a year without discussing the latest Susan Sontag piece over cocktails (or espresso, or whatever other stereotypical hoity-toity drink you think “those people” lap up on a daily basis). I’m sure most educated people know Sontag’s name, but I’m also sure that most people have never read her regularly. Despite the fact that she was a phenomenal writer and cultural critic, Sontag has never really been at the forefront of popular culture; not even in 1963. (That would have been Johnny Carson.)
The fact that O’Hehir refers to the people who spend their time discussing The Wire and Six Feet Under as “grown ups” betrays everything you need to know about what kind of people he’s talking about — on both sides of the equation. On the “right” side are people like him: elites and intellectuals, specifically those who are within the metropolitan network. On the “wrong” side are the masses: all those people who flocked to Avatar and ignored The Social Network, and who probably never bothered to watch The Wire, which did not have the viewership of The Sopranos. To put it more bluntly, he’s the smart one with the good taste, and everyone who doesn’t care about what he cares about is a tasteless rube. (Reductionism is cheap, tacky, and slightly inaccurate, but boy, does it cut to the heart of the problem.)
Full disclosure: I’m a snob, too. I empathize with O’Hehir. I think Avatar was a failure. I love The Wire. I disdain people who are steadfastly thoughtless about the culture they consume. I would love for the kind of discussion O’Hehir yearns for to be central to the public, popular consciousness. So when O’Hehir refers to his cadre as the grown ups, I think of myself as one of the adults in the room, with all the arrogance that entails. (Sorry, children!) I’d like to move cultural discourse in a “grown up” direction; it’s one of the goals of this blog. At the same time, I don’t believe I suffer from the form of blindness peculiar to cultural elites, in which the elite sphere of consciousness is conflated with the popular sphere out of an apparent delusion that the elite consciousness is synonymous with the popular. It’s not. They overlap; there may influence that flows both ways. But they don’t occupy the same plane of existence. Not really. Those planes may be contiguous, but not coterminous.
That’s why it bedevils me to read sentences like this:
More than anything else, I’m looking in the mirror and thinking about the purpose of what I do, which is supposed to be communicating with people, sharing ideas and generating discussion.
Film culture in that old-fashioned, top-down genteel-chat sense inherited from Susan Sontag and 1963 doesn’t provide a way to do that anymore, and hasn’t for quite a while.
Film culture never did that. Not even in the vaunted 70s, when films like The Godfather and The French Connection gobbled up awards, critical plaudits, and box office receipts all in the same gulp. Even if critics, industry insiders, and the mass audience appreciated the same films, they probably did not appreciate them the same way, or appreciate the same things about them. Film culture isn’t dead; it was simply never alive in the way O’Hehir thinks it was. When he talks about communicating and sharing ideas, he must realize that he has never been communicating or sharing ideas with people in “that old-fashioned, top-down genteel-chat sense inherited from Susan Sontag.” People within his profession and intellectual tradition, sure. (And, perhaps, his generation.) Not the general audience, though. O’Hehir isn’t really talking about “the traditional hegemony of movies.” He’s talking about the traditional hegemony of coast-dwelling metropolitan intellectuals. Middle America hasn’t inherited anything from Susan Sontag apart from the condescension bestowed upon it by the elites who think that The New Yorker is the pulse of the nation, as opposed to their rarified nation-state of mind.☕