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Movies Today

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 23 1998 3:30 AM

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Dear David,

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       Well, our little dialogue has ceased to be tame. To quote James Merrill, it may be time to turn the rheostat down to allegory. If I struck an irritating tone of tart innocence in my last reply, you've surely indulged in the sneaky rhetorical method of reading clearly signposted jokes--my remark about the Fellini legacy living on in beer commercials--as serious points of argument. Another bit of rhetorical housekeeping I'd like to attend to is your statement "You accuse me of negativism, as if I wanted movies to be bad in order to prove my point about decline." I was careful to say, in fact, that although you seem to have a somewhat pessimistic view of the state of movies today, you do not let that (seeming) ideological framework affect your reviews of commercial movies.
       It's true I have no hard evidence to back up my assertion that at least a few college students have heard the name Katharine Hepburn. I'll give up trying to convince you of that and try another argument: Even if the greater mass of youngsters don't know any film history, why should they? The kids who consumed great films of the past didn't know film history either. If you went to see Double Indemnity in 1944, you could savor it on a gut level without having watched 20 films by Lang or Pabst or whatever else might be on the syllabus for a Billy Wilder seminar. A film like Double Indemnity--very ironic, very glib, very self-referential, isn't it?--is still possible. The Coen brothers could do it if they sat down and wrote a real script. Now, look at Titanic. What people are responding to is not just the sucrose script and lovely Leo--and by the way I'd like to take credit for noticing in Slate a year ago that the age of Leo was upon us--but also the bravura filmmaking. The film would not be so huge if James Cameron, public nitwit that he is, had not been able to summon certifiably awe-inspiring images in the last part of his movie--not just big technical effects but brief, piercing shots of the faces of the shipbuilder and the captain and Solomon Guggenheim and others in the face of onrushing water. To the kids in theaters, such images are what they have now in the way of high art. If it's really not high art, you must at least credit the kids for flocking to a film that makes a couple of gestures in that direction.
       You move from the Hepburn anecdote to an anecdote about a Midwestern critic who is fired for dispraising schlock. I don't doubt it's true and it saddens me. Much of what you say about newspapers and media is true. I know what you mean about the inanition of the initiated--the whole James Wolcott thought-style. But aren't you talking about two slightly different things or, in fact, three slightly different things--the audience, the critics, the filmmakers? Are they all in the grip of the same force? What's the force and who's in charge of it? Capitalism? I'm still not convinced that you have differentiated between the capitalism of yesterday and today, and explained why today's capitalism is making things worse. It will be hard to convince me--if not other readers--because I resist these kinds of generalizations in the area of art. Art is an affair of personalities, of solitary people imposing their vision on others, and larger cultural movements should not affect them (although the weak ones succumb). This is the source for my optimism about film, or music, for that matter: I still think personality can make a difference. (Cameron's nonsensical arrogance is actually a good sign, though it could also presage an attack of Coppola's Disease.) This outlook of mine has, I hope, nothing to do with "irony," "media atmosphere," etc. I think it's a pretty old idea that was proclaimed by the German Romantics.
       I'd also like to say something about the word "irony." When you say that I and the other Young Ironists are enjoying movies ironically, you are saying that we are pretending to enjoy them and in fact are not enjoying them at all. (This, at least, is what follows from the strict definition of irony.) How can I convince you that I and Young Ironist No. 2 really did actually and genuinely enjoy ourselves when we went to see a double bill of I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Devil's Advocate a few months ago? I think I know what's going on. A Young Ironist comes up to you and says, "What did you think of The Devil's Advocate? I thought it was, like, 'really great,' " and the Young Ironist has a bit of a smile on his face. What you are witnessing is perhaps a bit of exaggeration but not irony in the dictionary sense. It's enthusiasm mixed with a bit of provocation. It's the inevitable excess of youth. But it is not insincere. What the Young Ironist is saying is that he put down eight dollars and 50 cents for a movie and had a surprisingly good time. By the way, did you notice that much of the plot of The Devil's Advocate was derived from the Ring? Pacino is Wotan, Keanu is Siegfried, and Keanu is expected, like Siegfried, to act out his father's desire of his own free will.
       What made me uneasy in your New Yorker piece was your implication that at least a portion of the audience wasn't being sincere. Isn't this a dangerous critical line to take? It's risky enough to say that Film A was bad or Film B was good and that the audience was wrong to like it or hate it. It's always risky to attack the audience, although it can also be fun, and I've certainly indulged in the sport many times. But to say that Film A was bad and that the audience was wrong to like it and moreover that the audience didn't really like Film A and was only pretending to like it ... All I can say is: How do you know? We can question each other's individual motives for liking or disliking new work; I know I have occasionally been guilty of overpraising the merely interesting as great. But the audience is a different creature--a bigger, dumber creature--and it tends to tell the truth, whether we want to hear the truth or not. The way out of this critic's dilemma, I find, is to zero in on what you almost certainly believe in and rhapsodize about it in as specific and as personal a way as you can manage. On this you and I are probably in total agreement.
       I'll confess to you that I am a silly aesthete. I couldn't care less about Marx or Foucault or "a particular set of power relations." Here's my vision of the world of art: on the one side, a rigid, solitary, egotistical Personality and, on the other, a loud family of Personal Tastes. The great dinner party disputation among these people never ends. And when that conversation really takes off, Society, the dull conspiring of Capitalists, becomes, blessedly, a chimera. You can make fun of this worldview all you want--just please don't ascribe it to the fact that I was born in 1968.

This dialogue grows out of an article in the April 6 issue of The New Yorker deploring the state of movies today. Denby argues that studios prefer cheap irony to real emotion and that young moviegoers don't care about seeing good movies--they prefer mass-market schlock to complex films such as L.A. Confidential. Alex Ross demurs.