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Products of mass distraction (or, Hooray for elitism!)

Revisiting Dwight Macdonald's famous essay, "Masscult & Midcult," and other ideas old and new -- continued from "When 'I get it!' means 'I don't get it!' and vice-versa."

"It seems to me that nearly the whole Anglo-Saxon race, especially of course in America have lost the power to be individuals. They have become social insects like bees and ants. They are lost to humanity, and the great question for the future is whether that will spread or will be repulsed by the people who still exist..." -- Roger Fry (1866-1930), from a letter quoted "Roger Fry," a biography written by Virginia Woolf(1940); also quoted by Dwight Macdonald in "Masscult & Midcult"

A while ago I added to the epigraphs in the upper right corner of this page a quotation from writer-actor-director Tom Noonan that echoed something I had long felt to be true, but had never articulated: "I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." I don't feel that way very often anymore; gone are the days, when I was first discovering the richness of the still very young art of film, when I might see several masterpieces in a week, or even a day -- in classes, film series, rep houses, art houses, mainstream cinemas or on TV. But I was inclined to feel that movies,the art form of my time (and literature, music, art of all kinds), brought me closer to my own life by focusing my attention on what it means to be alive. Like millions of others, I found the only religion in which I could whole-heartedly believe in movie theaters, libraries, bookstores, and concert venues.¹

In "Masscult & Midcult" (1962), published when "Citizen Kane" was as old as "GoodFellas" and "Miller's Crossing" are today, Dwight Macdonald contends that art (movies included) no longer seeks engagement with an audience, but is content to serve as another opiate of the masses: "The production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, but merely distraction."

I wonder what people mean when they say they not only can, but want to, "turn off their brains" and "be entertained," when I can't imagine how entertainment is possible without intellectual and/or emotional involvement. If the work doesn't have the power to take you out of yourself, then how "entertaining" can it be? I suppose a bottle of bourbon might make a movie like "Transformers" half-watchable (as long as it was peripheral to whatever else I was doing, like drooling or snoring, and I didn't have to focus my full attention on it), but that's not how I prefer to spend my movie time. I don't find it relaxing to be bored by something just because it's fast and loud and incoherent when, instead, I could observe my garden, or my dogs, or a crack in the sidewalk -- all things that are much more interesting to me than a movie that solicits my gaze by assuming I possess the cerebral and emotive capacity of a tea bag.


As Macdonald sees it:

Masscult is bad in a new way: it doesn't even have the theoretical possibility of being good. Up to the eighteenth century, bad art was of the same nature as good art, produced for the same audience, accepting the same standards. The difference was simply one of individual talent. But Masscult is something else. It is not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is even anti-art.

Why? Because culture is not democratic, and Masscult does not recognize human individuality (see quotation from Roger Fry, above). It mistakes, or substitutes, skill for artistry, and mass appeal for achievement. An artist (say, a painter like Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kincade) may possess considerable skill and still produce kitsch. And popularity is no measure, one way or another, of a work's artistic quality. Above all, Masscult dilutes standards through homogenization:

But a work of High Culture, however inept, is an expression of feelings, ideas, tastes, visions that are idiosyncratic and the audience similarly responds to them as individuals. Furthermore, both creator and audience accept certain standards. These may be more or less traditional; sometimes they are so much less so as to be revolutionary, though Picasso, Joyce and Stravinsky knew and respected past achievements more than did their academic contemporaries [in 1962, Macdonald might well have added Godard, Resnais, Antonioni, whose films he cites elsewhere in the essay...]; their works may be seen as a heroic breakthrough to earlier, sounder foundations that had been obscured by the fashionable gimcrackery of the academies. But Masscult is indifferent to standards. Nor is there any communication between individuals. Those who consume Masscult might as well be eating ice-cream sodas, while those who fabricate it are no more expressing themselves than are the "stylists" who design the latest atrocity from Detroit.

As the saying goes: Ouch. This is the heart of Macdonald's objection to Masscult -- that it is an outgrowth of the "tendency in modern industrial society, whether in the USA or the USSR,... to transform the individual into the mass man." And there is no such thing as "the mass man," for to actually become one "would mean to have no private life, no personal desires, hobbies, aspirations, or aversions that are not shared by everybody else."

For the masses are not people, they are not The Man in the Street or The Average Man, they are not even that figment of liberal condescension, The Common Man. [See "Barton Fink."] The masses are, rather, man as non-man, that is man in a special relationship to other men that makes it impossible for him to function as a man (one of the human functions being the creation and enjoyment of works of art).

Macdonald finds Masscult responsible for the sad state of movies and criticism in 1962, as well:

Hollywood movies aren't as terrible as they once were, but they aren't as good either; the general level of taste and craftsmanship has risen but there are no more great exceptions like Griffith, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Keaton; Orson Welles was the last, and "Citizen Kane" is twenty years old. [...]

Meanwhile, criticism was shifting...

away from objective standards and toward a new subjective approach in which the question was not how good the work is but how popular it will be. Not that the creator is ever independent of his time and place; the demands of the audience have always largely determined his work. But before 1750, these demands were themselves disciplined by certain standards of excellence which were accepted by both the limited public of informed amateurs and the artists who performed them. Today, in the United States, the demands of the audience, which has changed from a small body of connoisseurs into a large body of ignoramuses, have become the chief criteria of success.... The newspaper movie columns are extreme examples. There, the humble effort of the "critic" -- and indeed one would even have to put "reviewer" in quotes -- is merely to tell his readers which films they will probably like. His own tastes are suppressed as irrelevant.

Any of that sound familiar? (The opposite extreme today is just as commonplace: the "reviewer" who asserts his opinion, his whole opinion and nothing but his opinion, as if it carried any weight without the perceptive or communicative skills to give shape and substance to it.) Not that there's anything wrong with ice cream sodas, or with someone pointing readers in the direction of the best ones for the money. But Macdonald is arguing for the resurgence of an elite class (intellectual, not socio-economic) capable of responding to, and encouraging the creation of, works of art. Its mission: to rescue culture from the lowest-common-denominator mundanity of Masscult:

Whenever a Lord of Masscult is reproached for the low quality of his products, he automatically ripostes, "But that's what the public wants, what can I do?" A simple and conclusive defense, at first glance. But a second look reveals that (1) to the extent the public "wants" it, the public has been conditioned to some extent by his products, and (2) his efforts have taken this direction because (a) he himself also "wants" it -- never underestimate the ignorance and vulgarity of publishers, movie producers, network executives and other architects of Masscult -- and (b) the technology of producing mass "entertainment" (again, the quotes are advised) imposes a simplistic, repetitious pattern so that it is easier to say the public wants this than to say the truth which is that the public gets this and so wants it. The March Hare explained to Alice that "I like what I get" is not the same thing as "I get what I like," but March Hares have never been welcome on Madison Avenue.

I wonder what Macdonald would make of Chris Fujiwara's n+1 essay, "To Have Done with the Contemporary Cinema." Fujiwara writes that the "real crisis of cinema, its contemporary crisis... is that cinema no longer circulates within a common space and time but has withdrawn into that state of inaccessibility" in which all art is entombed in some kind of museum: locked up, sterilized, placed on a pedestal but removed from any living context.²

Fujiwara quotes contributors to Richard Porton's recent anthology, "On Film Festivals," citing the estimates of various journalists, critics and programmers that there may be anywhere from ten to, as contributor Mark Peranson calculates, "fifty outstanding films per year, films that any programmer or critic, personal taste aside, would agree are films that any self-respecting international film festival should show -- works that will stand the test of time, or take the pulse of the time." But no single festival can show all of them, for obvious reasons, though "after a year or two most of them will be available on DVD for anyone who wants them." For Fujiwara, this presents a problem:

If the outstanding films are never all visible at the same time until the window of their contemporaneity has closed, it means they are truly contemporary only for a small group of people--critics, programmers, and distributors. (The rest of us are like people looking at stars that appear bright but, in their own real time, may have already gone dim.) [...]

As defined by Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman, the cinema of the period [Susan] Sontag eulogized [in her 1996 essay, "The Decay of Cinema"] was truly contemporary: its key works, made by artists who were nothing if not interested in defining their own time, were screened in theaters around the world and generally acknowledged as significant. Now cinema is pulverized, privatized, and personalized, and if this situation has resulted in much euphoria, it also results in much cynicism and despair.


All of this derives from the increasing "nichification" of popular culture and High Culture -- something Macdonald might well applaud, as he seems to when he is encouraged by "the recent discovery -- since 1945 -- that there is not One Big Audience but rather a number of smaller, more specialized audiences that may still be commercially profitable." But I would question whether the lag of "a year or two" from a film's festival premiere to theatrical release to DVD, really prevents it from being considered "contemporary." After all, even in the heyday of 1960s and 1970s art cinema it might take a year or two for films by the likes of Antonioni, Godard or Bergman to be screened outside of Western Europe, or anywhere in the United States outside New York, except at the occasional festival.

Macdonald cites once-encouraging numbers indicating that, in 1945, the US had 12 "art house" movie theaters, and more than 600 by 1962. But in those days a hit "art film" could play on a single screen for weeks, months or more than a year -- a rare phenomenon in the 21st century when only massive commercial blockbusters can hang on in theaters for as long as a month. So, what we saw as "the latest" Godard wasn't always this year's model in Paris; even his (relatively) big-budget CinemaScope Bardot picture, "Contempt," which opened in France in December 1963, didn't make its US premiere until December 1964. By that time "Band of Outsiders" and "Une femme mariée" had already opened in France. The former was shown at the New York Film Festival in September 1964, but would not receive a theatrical release -- again, in New York only -- until March, 1966, by which time "Alphaville" and "Pierrot le Fou" had debuted in France -- and the latter wouldn't reach US shores until 1969.³ Did such delays alone make Godard's work any less "contemporary" in the U.S.? Heck, until "Sgt. Pepper" in 1967 we didn't even get Beatles records at the same time they were released overseas -- and when we did, they were chopped up and re-sequenced!

Fujiwara's real argument, however, is that perhaps the very idea of "contemporary cinema" is outmoded, or at least misnamed:

At some level contemporary cinema comes down to a willed untimeliness, to a hunch, which any of us, no matter how far displaced from the institutional centers and paradises of cinema, might have, that whatever film we're seeing, there are probably enough other people around the world seeing it for us to call ourselves a culture. A film must be untimely to be worth talking about. Certainly there's no point (apart from purposes of cultural commentary) talking about films that need massive publicity campaigns to generate the illusion of a timeliness they will quickly lose (because it's only the time-less-ness of an imaginary requirement to be seen). Were any of Robert Bresson's films, from "Les anges du pacha" in 1943 to "L'argent" in 1983, "contemporary"? And yet, they are (and not just because so much "Bressonian" audiovisual media has appeared in the nearly thirty years since he made his last film that Bressonianism can feel like a cliché of modernity). The contemporary is a hunch, a surprise, the pleasure of lighting on something that feels like it came from some place where the world still moves, something that has its own idea, surpassing our conceptions (which are necessarily old ones), of what the contemporary is.

I'm not quite sure if this is what he's getting at, but I have long questioned the need (or the demand) for consumer-guide, journalistic film reviewing of new films with mega-budget advertising campaigns aimed at consumers who don't even read reviews. It's not that the movies themselves aren't worth analyzing and criticizing; it's that only a small percentage of people who go to movies also read reviews. Those who want only to be distracted (or, as Macdonald says, "narcotized") don't consult a review to find out which movie some critic recommends for the job. They look at the ads and they talk to their friends. Critics have no part in the equation. There has never been a consistent correlation between positive reviews and box-office grosses. Sometimes movies that become popular also get a preponderance of good reviews; more often, well-reviewed movies don't turn out to be terribly popular; most often, lousy reviews have no effect on a movie's popularity because either the movie finds its audience, and they like it, or it doesn't, or they don't. Critics neither determine, nor predict, popular opinion. So it was and ever shall be.

The whole "death of film criticism" meme is a false scenario created by people (many of them newspaper publishers and editors) who make no distinction between criticism and personality writing -- by which I mean the kinds of reviews designed to provide entertainment chiefly by showcasing the reviewer's personality, as if the critic were the celebrity and the movie was just a late-night talk-show topic that provided an excuse for the riff. That's a form of (self-)promotion, keyed into the movie's publicity and release campaign, but it's not criticism. (See Ben Lyons, Michael Medved, et al.)

Under the traditional business model, movie stars helped sell newspapers, magazines and TV gab fests like "The Sammy Maudlin Show," which in turn helped sell whatever new product the star was hawking. That makes a certain amount of economic sense: you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Today, it's not uncommon for publicists to solicit interviews with their clients, without allowing the interviewer to see the movie first. (I know one journalist who was recently offered an interview with an interesting actor -- but only a brief clip of the movie the actor was starring in. He sensibly declined the opportunity.)

But what place do critics have in this promotional cycle? I would argue none. So, who cares if studios won't pre-screen Adam Sandler comedies or the latest action movie based on a children's toy? Those movies may well be worth analyzing and evaluating down the line, but what's the rush? The first-line consumers aren't likely to find what critics have to say about these movies useful for their purposes; they may not care to wrap their heads around a critical interpretation of something they consider to be tool for killing time. So, let Twitter, CinemaScore, Box Office Mojo, word-of-text, online inference algorithms (everybody has a recommendation feature based on "crowdsourcing") and the old-school deadline-driven shopping reporter cover 'em when they're in their initial commodity phase. There's always time for criticism after the commercial review cycle is over.

If a studio or a filmmaker wants to make a new release available for opening-day reviews, that's surely their prerogative. And if not, that's fine, too. Making and distributing and exhibiting movies is risky business, and those who get into it can't be blamed for playing the odds as they see fit. But once a movie's out there, it's out there, and all illusions of control evaporate. The people who see it are going to say what they want about it.


The Catch-22 here is that journalists and critics at film festivals are working under circumstances that prevent them from writing in-depth pieces -- or even full-length reviews -- until the movies open for commercial engagements, even when the films themselves don't have distributors. It's often a condition of obtaining press credentials. That means most of them will not be given thorough consideration until... when? As Fujiwara writes:

Journalists define contemporary cinema at either of two levels: by the films that are shown at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, and Rotterdam (and maybe a few other festivals) or by the films that get some kind of regular commercial release. Aesthetically, the first level is by far the more significant one, "by common agreement," if I can be allowed to use the phrase in a context where who gets to agree on anything, and in what forum this agreement would be reached, are seemingly less and less matters of common agreement. The really significant, moment-defining films emerge from the festival circuit, whether they get a wide release or not (and they almost never do).

But, again, this has always been the case. It may well be true that the market (remember that word) for foreign language and independent films is not what it once was, and that the specialized distribution scene of the pre-Miramax era (Island-Alive, October Films, Circle Films, New Yorker Films, Vestron, New Line Cinema [when it was an indie], Cinecom, Orion Classics [now Sony Classics] -- along with a few survivors like Samuel Goldwyn, Strand Releasing and First Run Features) was livelier 20 or 30 years ago than it is today. But the opportunities to see the films these companies released were also much more limited than they are now.

Times change, tastes change, technologies change, attitudes change. Perhapst, as Sontag has asserted and some of the contributors to "On Film Festivals" suggest, that there really are fewer good and great films being made, distributed, seen and discussed, than in the heady days of the mid-to-late 20th Century. I don't know if anybody can conclusively prove that. What's significant, I think, is that the topic of conversation these days is so often about how disappointing movies in general have become rather than how exciting some (particular) new release is.


In 1996, Sontag concluded:

Predictably, the love of cinema has waned. People still like going to the movies, and some people still care about and expect something special, necessary from a film. And wonderful films are still being made: Mike Leigh's "Naked," Gianni Amelio's "Lamerica," Fred Kelemen's "Fate." But you hardly find anymore, at least among the young, the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema's glorious past).⁴ Cinephilia itself has come under attack, as something quaint, outmoded, snobbish. For cinephilia implies that films are unique, unrepeatable, magic experiences. Cinephilia tells us that the Hollywood remake of Godard's "Breathless" cannot be as good as the original. Cinephilia has no role in the era of hyperindustrial films. For cinephilia cannot help, by the very range and eclecticism of its passions, from sponsoring the idea of the film as, first of all, a poetic object; and cannot help from inciting those outside the movie industry, like painters and writers, to want to make films, too. It is precisely this notion that has been defeated.

If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too . . . no matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being made. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love.

But maybe that's exactly what's happening, and the real problem has to do with unrealistic expectations. In the age of Starbuck's would a filmmaker of Godard's status galvanize coffee-shop conversation? Would a new picture by the likes of Antonioni (assuming there is such a filmmaker at the moment) send Tesla-coil jolts through popular and high culture? Probably not. Those galvanized by the latest celebutante intoxication scandal are not likely to be among those thrilled by the victory of Apichatpong Weerasethakul -- the "It" boy of international cinema -- at Cannes. Well, OK, there's some overlap. But not much.

In response to Fujiwara, Richard Brody wrote in his New Yorker film blog, "The Front Row." that Fujiwara was making two different arguments, in which he "dismisses all the movies that are widely distributed, and complains that all the movies he loves aren't distributed widely enough to get the attention he thinks they deserve--or to influence culture at large":

Fujiwara invents criteria that justify the rejection of the recent without regard to the recent works themselves; he resembles a literary critic who decided to stop reviewing new books because none of them reminded him of Tolstoy. The rectitude of a critic who rejects the new is hardly different from the vanity of those who are utterly dismissive or ignorant of the past. The big difference between the past and the present is that the past arrives with a map, whether that of personal memory or legend; the critic who pays attention to the present helps to extend the map. The library is a great thing, but many of its greatest wares began in the bookstore, and its ongoing greatness depends to a significant extent on its continued growth thanks to new arrivals via the bookstore. The same is true of the cinema and its mailbox Alexandria of the DVD.

To which Paul Brunick replied in the comments:

In our historical hindsight, we define cinephilia of the Sixties and Seventies by way of its end products -- its films and critical texts -- and contemporary critics align themselves with that tradition through their exultation of these works. But what if we attempted to define the era in terms of process instead of product, in regards to creative attitudes and critical predispositions of which canons are only a byproduct. Auteur "theory" was always a misnomer. Auteurism was, if anything, an anti-theory, a radical form of empiricism. "The notion of quality is difficult to grasp apart from the context of quantity," Sarris wrote in "The American Cinema." "Comprehension becomes a function of comprehensiveness." From a few axiomatic principles--that (popular) cinema could be Art, that the Art of cinema is specifically cinematic (i.e. not literary)--auteurists like Sarris and the Cahiers kids approached the movies like prospectors, mining uncharted cultural territory for veins of artistic riches, knowing full well that they'd only occasionally strike gold. They not only discovered that Anthony Mann was a genius; they also discovered that Delbert Mann, Daniel Mann and many other "forgotten mans" of Old Hollywood were not. Making few demands on the medium, these critics were not blinded by its statistical tendency towards banality and crudity. Their approach was curious, open-minded, tentative -- in short, process oriented....

I've always been a process guy, so I appreciate this. As I repeat endlessly, I'm rarely interested in a critic's conclusions; I just want to know, specifically, what observations and insights brought him/her there. People do seem to forget that the principal principle (to use a Sarris-esque alliterative phrase -- and a homophone!) of the "auteur theory" was simply that the director is usually the "primary author" (not the sole author) of a motion picture. As it applied to Hollywood movies, it allowed the Cahiers du cinema critics and others of auteurist bent to discover signature patterns and themes that ran through the work of certain individual filmmakers throughout their careers, no matter which studios had them under contract or who their other collaborators might have been.

One of the benefits of seeing films from an auteurist point of view was that it could make even Masscult movies more interesting. You became attuned to detecting the hand (and eye and ear) of the artist within the factory product, the idiosyncratic "expression of feelings, ideas, tastes, visions," communicated from the individual artist to the individual viewer, that Macdonald celebrates.


Brunick addresses the topic of topical coverage in the second part of his Film Comment overview of film criticism in the online era:

Compared to the most serious bloggers, professional critics can seem dilettantish and superficial: glossing whatever films happen to be opening that weekend, however trivial; discussing the script one second, performance the next, with an anecdote about the production here, an observation on direction there. Internet criticism is at once more comprehensive (as online critics collectively fill in the gaps in mainstream review coverage) and more specific (as one-line descriptions tossed off in a newspaper review are expanded into a whole series of topically driven blog posts). Professional critics like to complain that the quintessential Internet critic is a hack, but no: the quintessential Internet critic is a wonk.

That's it exactly. When Sontag calls for a new kind of cinema-love, when Fujiwara describes feeling that "whatever film we're seeing, there are probably enough other people around the world seeing it for us to call ourselves a culture," when Macdonald characterizes the need for art (and the critical environment that sustains and nourishes it) among "the informed, interested minority" -- it exists, right now, on the Internet.

It's also part of what Jonathan Rosenbaum writes about in his new book, "Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition," and in his recent Cineaste article, "DVDs: A New Form of Collective Cinephilia," where the assumption is that individuals will not all gather in a theater to watch a movie (as Macdonald envisions a crowd gathering for any spectacle, whether "a football game, a bargain sale, a lynching"), but will see it in a variety of different formats and settings.

Likewise, Brunick concludes:

Cinephilia generally and film criticism specifically are being profoundly transformed by the technologies of the Web. Where this process will end is hard to say; after all, today's cutting edge is tomorrow's primitivist phase. But what's clear is that film commentary, far from being exhausted, has barely begun to tap its evolutionary potential. And that's inherently exciting, undeniably fascinating. So please, stop waxing nostalgic about the past. We need another essay on the Death of Film Criticism about as much as we need another 800-word review of "Shrek 4." I'm sure the Sixties and Seventies were great. But frankly, if you're longing for a transformative decade, then look around. You're living in one. Try to enjoy it while it lasts.

Yes, in order to tap into the good stuff you have to get past the Masscult noise (the fan ravings, the exhibitionistic ignoramuses) and hook into the right networks of blogs and web sites to discover the cinephiliac web auteurs with whom you can share your passion. But they're out there, watching and writing and waiting.

"Let the majority eavesdrop if they like," Macdonald concluded, "but their tastes should be firmly ignored." Their tastes, not their minds or their voices. Too many movies are already ignoring most of us by indifferently feeding us a steady diet of crap. Let's not learn to like it.

- - - - -

¹ Susan Sontag wrote:

Perhaps it is not cinema that has ended but only cinephilia -- the name of the very specific kind of love that cinema inspired. Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral -- all at the same time. Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.

² Museums, much like mausoleums, give me the creeps. They are where art goes to die (something memorably portrayed in Oliver Assayas's "Summer Hours"). It's exciting to see the original works, but they remind me of the wax-preserved bodies of saints-under-glass, built into the altars of Spanish, Portugese and Italian cathedrals. More and more, museums remind me of zoos in which the animals must be killed so that they may be more sanitarily exhibited. Something tells me the art would be better served if it were displayed in the lobbies of public buildings, or even in people's private homes. Don't commit it to an institution!

³ Release dates from IMDb.

⁴ "... the distinctive cinephilic love of movies that is not simply love of but a certain taste in films (grounded in a vast appetite for seeing and reseeing as much as possible of cinema's glorious past)." I love that phrase. When some people say they "love movies," they mean they simply like to plunk themselves down in front of one. That is not cinephilia any more than church attendance can be called religion. Cinephilia is an appetite, a passion, but it's also a matter of discrimination, aesthetics, philosophical values...

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