The “emperor’s new clothes” argument has always been a remarkably unsatisfying one, a smug fable invoked by anyone angry with any given politician or acclaimed film they happen not to like. The beauty of it is that it can be applied to anyone or anything — all you need is some kind of consensus to rail against. Case in point: Jeffrey Wells’ diatribe against Douglas Sirk, which unleashed the angry passions of Glenn Kenny and is sure to keep fur flying on both comments boards all day. I’m with Team Kenny on this one — the movie Wells calls out, “Imitation of Life,” happens to be one of my favorites — but the specifics aren’t my point here.
Sirk, best known for his ’50s melodramas like “All That Heaven Allows,” wasn’t considered particularly important until a retrospective at 1972’s Edinburgh Film Festival brought him into academia. “Far From Heaven” briefly made the wider world care (or not), but he’s always been a loaded gun, and arguments over Sirk’s greatness are periodically resurrected as an anti-snob thing. See Wells, who writes:
The dweebs are playing an old snob game. They’re basically saying that you have to be a serious cineaste to recognize Sirk’s genius, and that if you don’t recognize it then you need to think things through because you’re just not as perceptive as you need to be. There’s no winning against this mindset, which is somewhere between a schoolyard bully move and an intellectual con.
This inspires a vision of the world where Sirk fans are wildly powerful (ha) and where everyone’s nervously burnishing their cinephile bona fides at all times, less concerned with their own reaction than how they should react. It’s the kind of bad-faith arguing that can be applied to virtually any filmmaker you dislike (unless it’s, you know, Michael Bay).
If you’re the kind of person who cares a lot about film, then you’re probably going to end up measuring your reaction to what you see against whatever consensus you’ve gathered is out there. And, inevitably, no matter what kind of critics, journalists, bloggers you find yourself in tune with, there will always come a time when you’re staring at something in disbelief, wondering why in the world anyone takes it seriously. (For me, that’d be Pedro Costa’s “Colossal Youth.” Or most Pedro Almodóvar movies.)
You know what you don’t do then? Decide that everyone’s trying to put one over on you, start frothing at the mouth and repeating “emperor’s new clothes” while feeling very incisive.
[Photos: “Imitation of Life,” Universal, 1959; “Colossal Youth,” Criterion Collection, 2006]