Down Into the Roots of Cultural Vegetables

Down Into the Roots of Cultural Vegetables (photo)

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I finally got a chance to read Dan Kois’ controversial New York Times Magazine article “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables,” which has garnered all sorts of interesting-slash-outraged responses and reactions from all around the web. And, hey, I’m on the web! I have responses and reactions to things too! So now it’s my turn.

You should read Kois’ entire piece, but here is an excerpt that gets right to the meat — or rather the vegetables — of his argument:

“As I get older, I find I’m suffering from a kind of culture fatigue and have less interest in eating my cultural vegetables, no matter how good they may be for me… Yes, there are films, like the 2000 Taiwanese drama ‘Yi Yi,’ that enrapture me with deliberate pacing, spare screenplays and static shooting styles… but while I’m grateful to have watched ‘Solaris’ and ‘Blue’ and ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ and ‘The Son’ and ‘Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)’ and ‘Three Times’ and on and on, my taste stubbornly remains my taste.

Kois makes a lot of “Meek’s Cutoff,” his most current example of what he alternately describes as cultural vegetables and “aspirational viewing,” i.e. languidly paced art films, which he describes as a “quiet, arduous” viewing experience that he found difficult to sit through. Kois says he’s drawn to films like “Meek’s Cutoff” because they’re enjoyed by people whose opinions he respects and whose company he enjoys but, as he puts it, “I usually doze lightly through them; and I often feel moved, if sleepy, afterward. But am I actually moved? Or am I responding to the rhythms of emotionally affecting cinema? Am I laughing because I get the jokes or because I know what jokes sound like?”

As a general rule, my favorite critical essays are the most honest ones; if there are flaws in Kois’ piece, they don’t include a lack of honesty. Essentially Kois is outing himself in the most public forum possible so that he can’t pretend to love these sorts of movies anymore. From here on out he’s got no choice to lay his cards out on the table, and that is kind of brave.

I do agree with Kois that there are folks out there who hop on the bandwagon for quote-unquote art films because they have a great reputation and they want to appear cultured to their friends and loved ones. People often don’t want to admit what they really think about an “important” movie — that it’s boring or pretentious or dated — because they don’t want to look like philistines. And readers should be skeptical of any critic who believes they hold the one true and correct view about a film. Personal taste matters, and the best critics filter cinema through personal taste to give us their unique perspective on culture.

Still, I wish Kois wasn’t painting with so broad a brush when he talked about these movies. Not all quiet viewing experiences are created equal. I’ve seen movies that I had trouble finishing. But maybe the problem wasn’t that they were slow; maybe the problem was that they were just plain bad.

Look, there are days when I’d rather watch “America’s Next Top Model” than a film by Chantal Akerman (those days, by the way, are called Wednesdays). But plenty of movies that look like “cultural vegetables” are so much richer than they might initially appear to be. Two films on my top ten list from last year, “Sweetgrass” and “Alamar,” might look like cultural vegetables; they’re both micro-indies, one a doc the other a quasi-fictional narrative, with very little in the way of action. The most memorable moment in each film involves a real but genuine interaction between human and wild animal. But those moments are more transcendant and memorable than anything in “America’s Next Top Model” (except the one episode where Tyra told all the finalists they’d been kicked off the show just so she could watch them cry. Epic!).

To me, the success or failure of one of Kois’ cultural vegetables always comes down to a matter of form following function. Anyone can make a slow, contemplative art film, but if you’re not contemplating anything in particular, you’re wasting everyone’s time. “Alamar” needs to be a deliberate film because it is about savoring this deliberate way of life that the main character wants to pass down to his son, who he may never see again. I haven’t seen “Meek’s Cutoff” yet — unfortunately, since I’m a big fan of its director, Kelly Reichardt — but I would suggest that Kois discovered the function of its form when he wrote that by the end he “could sympathize with the settlers’ exhaustion” because he felt “as if I’d been through a similarly grueling experience.” Again, I haven’t seen the film, but couldn’t that have been the whole point?

What I want out of a critic is not someone who will blindly praise a film simply because Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s name is on it, but rather a writer who understands their work and is interested in engaging with it. On the flip side, I’m not interested in someone who blindly dismisses Hollywood blockbusters, either. The best critics are worth reading whether they’re writing about something that cost $100 million or $100. Critics shouldn’t aspire to importance or respectability. They should just try to show us things about the movies we don’t see in them on our own.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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