After reading Noel Mellor’s discussion-arousing piece How I Learned to Stop Moaning and Enjoy Movies, I have to stand with him in both condemning, and admitting to engaging in whiny haterism as opposed to critical argument from time to time. This knee-jerk culture of attacking anything that we instinctively do not approve of is nothing new to the human condition, but has clearly been exacerbated by the anonymity of humanity-sapping bile-pits such as Youtube’s ‘comments’ pages and (gulp) IMDB Message boards. This unarticulated hate goes beyond the product itself of course, into the world of the critic, both journalistic and academic. It is the point of crossover that I find particularly interesting.
First though, let me bring up an imaginative and fun little movie from a few years back called Idiocracy. With this film, director Mike Judge had to do the near impossible by following up the sleeper cult-favourite (and admitted influence to Ricky Gervais’ work-based comedy) Office Space. He arguably failed in this capacity but what he did do was create an interesting dystopia; a cautionary tale of a world where ignorant meatheads are out-breeding intellectuals (hard to imagine right?), virtually the entire female gender is named Britney and leading political figures are wrestlers, sass-talking each other in a grotesquely believable parody of political debates. It is a world where anyone who expresses imagination, appreciation of beauty, reason or critical thinking is accused of sounding ‘gay’ or ‘retarded’.
Mistrust, fear and primal rage aimed at the intellectual, or those perceived to be, is nothing new of course. Nobody likes feeling like an idiot, and British culture in particular does not like a smart-arse. I would like to look at a specific example of this phenomenon that in equal parts angered and saddened me. The Story of Film: an Odyssey is a fifteen-plus hour series of relatively self-explanatory content written and presented by Mark Cousins, the Irish writer, presenter and film-maker, probably best know for his rather excellent Scene by Scene series from the late nineties, as well as his delicate, often prosaic style of writing and delivery.
What I am not trying to do here is defend or attack Mr Cousins’ work; but I am a fan. In fact, when I was writing my dissertation over a decade ago I heard Cousins’ drawl in my minds-ear and it instantly made me think that what I was writing was much more insightful than it must have been. I understand that the aforementioned stylistic elements of his work can be divisive, and that is just fine. What I find interesting is the reactionary vehemence, and mal-formed critical self awareness of many of its detractors, in relation to this wider subject of what I feel is a palpable wave of anti-intellectualism.
After seeing the first episode of this ambitious series on More4, I excitedly ran to Twitter to share the collective excitement that here was the history of cinema we film fanatics had been waiting for. Fifteen episodes for goodness sake! Okay, so it is clearly a personal view of world cinema’s history (he might have taken a leaf out of Simon Schama’s book and titled it ‘A Story of Film) but look at what we got: coverage of some seriously obscure silent cinema, a break-down of the development of film grammar, the relationship between art and commerce as well as the psychological implications of artificial dreams being projected outwards for our consumption and collective experience. And that was just the first episode. Oh, and did I mention there are fifteen episodes?!
But Twitter, and my peers, would disappoint:
‘He is so up his own arse’.
‘God he’s got an annoying voice’
‘I would like this way more if he was less pretentious’
And so it ran…
I was waiting for … ‘He sounds so gay’..
Okay, so this is a little unfair for a number of reasons. Twitter has a character limit, so in-depth analysis and discussion is somewhat stifled. Those voicing the opinions (all real by the way) have the right to them, but the kicker for me was that for the most part they came from open-minded cinephiles. Have we got so used to Jonathan Ross’s ‘shamelessly plug the film then deliver a perfunctory one sentence review’ style that we have lost touch with true critical/analytical approaches to film? Have we grown to become repulsed, mistrustful and offended by this? Must we tear it down when we get what we want? Even Mark Kermode, viewed as an elitist by many, seems (in broadcast terms at least) to have descended in to back-slapping in-jokery, as noted by Mr Mellor.
My point is this; when an argument is inarticulate it is usually for a reason. Often it comes from a prejudice or from a lack of familiarity with the concepts and style that they are communicated. A lot of people (a lot more than I expected) do not seem to like what Mr Cousins is doing. Fine. But next time: really, really think about why that might be.